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Alice Cooper At 60: Scenes From An Impending Conquest

We celebrate the Godfather of Horror Rock's 60th birthday with Ben Edmonds' 1973 Creem mapping of the former Vince Furnier's ascent to the top of the charts. Barney Hoskyns, RBP Editorial Director

Scene: February, 1965 An upper middle-class dwelling in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. As with most American homes during that period of time, all Sunday evening activity stopped dead for The Ed Sullivan Show, a TV variety hour that did its damnedest to see that everybody walked away satisfied. Nothing but family entertainment: actors reading passages of inspirational verse, amazing Italian families who could fly through the air with the greatest of ease, standup comedians who appeared once and were never heard from again, and maybe even on occasional taste of unobjectionable acne-rock.

The rock & roll band on this particular evening, however, could never have been confused with Bobby Vinton or the Chad Mitchell Trio. Each one of them seemed possessed of his own distinctive ugliness, with the lead singer being the most aggressively unpleasant of the lot. "Ah wont chew backe agin" he droned through swollen lips, presenting himself to the families of America in a grubby t-shirt and tight corduroy pants, his hair falling in aimless semi-curls over his ears and down the back of his neck. "You can look like the Beatles," one Phoenix housewife told her impressionable teenage son that night, "but if you ever look like that..."

"That was it," said an amused Alice Cooper as he recalled that historic incident. "I knew right then and there that we had to make the Rolling Stones look like kindergarten."

Scene: March 1969 The Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, where the hip and would-be hip put up with watered-down drinks served by sullen waitresses just to get to shot at some name-brand rock & roll bands. One of the would-be hipsters has just stormed out of the club, hustling his slightly dazed girlfriend through the door in a flurry of buckskin. "I've never seen anything like it," he fumed to nobody in particular. "The very thought of it is enough to make me vomit. Alice Cooper... I thought it was gonna be like Judy Collins or something. It was the most revolting thing I've ever seen. You shoulda been there..."

Scene: August 1969 The house of renowned avant-garde orchestra leader and manipulator of destiny, Frank Zappa, which was originally built for silent-screen supercowboy Tom Mix. Mick Jagger can be observed departing the premises in an embarrassed huff, having been rudely evicted moments earlier by an indignant Mr. Zappa. Jagger's crime: possession of a hashpipe with intent to get high. "It was then," remembers Alice, "that I knew our association with Frank would be short-lived. It was like a high school training film; it was like a high school training film; it was bad theatre."

Scene: December, 1969 Capitalizing on their reputation for repulsing more people in a shorter period of time then any other rock & roll band in history, Alice Cooper was contracted for a commercial by Excedrin. They were Excedrin Headache No. 48, and the script called for them to surround a typical mid-American in a big overstuffed chair, screaming and banging on their instruments like the rudest rock & roll stereotype your imagination could produce. Apparently the Coopers proved even too repulsive to simulate a headache, however, because Excedrin never permitted the commercial to be aired.

Scene: September 1970 The office of a small-time club manager in the bowels of the great Midwest. The man behind the desk looks like any other dumpy middle-aged merchant, with the only concession to those crazy teenagers that pay his bills being sideburns that strain to reach mid-earlobe. And he's pissed off. "Look, I think this Alice Cooper stuff is disgusting. Something like that shouldn't be allowed in public, as far as I'm concerned. But they've been the only band that's made me any money this year. Nobody seems to like them, but the house is always full whenever they play. What am I supposed to do?"

Scene: October 1970 The Agora, a 3.2% beer'n'boogie ballroom in Columbus, Ohio, a few months prior to the release of "Eighteen." "I'm so excited," Alice bubbled after a particularly energetic (and well received) show. "We've been offered use of a theatre off-Broadway for a month. We hope to put together a total-environment presentation, with shocks installed in the seats, a wind and rain machine, and lighting effects like you're never seen. I'm having a hard time getting to sleep at night with all the ideas that this thing is giving me. Real theatre. I can't wait."

Scene: early 1971 Detroit's most powerful AM radio station, CKLW, seems to be playing "Eighteen" whenever you turn it on. Broadcasting from Canadian soil, the station is subject to a curious regulation known as Canadian Content, which means that all Canuck stations must program 30% Canadian product. Under the assumption that "Eighteen" qualified because it was produced by a Canadian (Bob Ezrin), CKLW went to the single immediately. When a later investigation revealed that Ezrin's presence wasn't enough to meet requirements, the record was getting too many phone requests to be dropped. A fluke hit. "A fluke is all it is," confided a Warner Bros. employee. "I mean, how long can a group like that last, right?"

Scene: mid-1971 The backroom of Max's Kansas City, a New York late-nitery where the 60's were lived and the 70's born. "Wait'll you hear the new stuff we've just recorded," Mike Bruce is enthusing to Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys following the Cooper's triumphant conquest of Carnegie Hall. "It's gonna make 'Eighteen' look like maltshop stuff. Now that we've got a foot in the door, we're gonna blast it wide open."

Scene: September 1971 The Cooper farm, a sprawling tract of largely unused acreage not far from Pontiac, Michigan. "Sometimes half the audience would be up and out before we finished our first number." Alice is letting his thoughts drift back to the band's experiences in LA two years previous. "A lot of them, though, were afraid to walk out. They were afraid to move. Do you realize what a feeling of power that can give you? I think things are starting to really open up; people seem to be getting more and more receptive to what we're trying to do. Which is great, because it gives us the leverage to fulfill our fantasies."

Scene: September 1972 A small college in the nothingness of northern Michigan where, somehow, Alice Cooper has been contracted for a show. The band has completed their set and is returning for the encore, accompanied by a familiar face under a shock of curly hair. They break into a note-perfect rendition of the Monkees theme ("Here we come, walkin' down the street...") and that familiar face mouthing the words becomes instantly recognizable as Mickey Dolenz! "We're just good friends," Alice later remarked of the former bozo wetdream, who maintains a complete videotape library of Amos 'n' Andy programs at his Los Angeles residence.

Scene: October 1972 A Detroit dressing room prior to an Alice Cooper concert which had sold out as quickly as the Rolling Stones' two appearances earlier in the year. The banquet table overflowed with food and drink of all descriptions and even the most furious onslaught of starving artists and hangers-on doesn't appear to have diminished it by much. Security police officers are huddled in the corner inspecting the band's boa constrictor and casting suspicious glances in the direction of Alice. "I really didn't know what to expect when I first took this assignment," the girl from the teen magazine is saying, "but these guys really surprised me. No whips or medieval torture stuff... nothing that their stage show would lead you to expect. As a matter of fact, they're more normal than I am!"

Scene: October 1972 Backstage at a Commander Cody concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A persistent solicitor for the revolution is attempting to run her number on an unenlightened member of the youth culture. "Alice Cooper," she asserts with total and unswerving conviction, "is using his freedom to help deal with the repression in the gay community." When informed that Alice is not gay — just a good actor — her propaganda express is momentarily derailed. "I know an awful lot of gay brothers who look up to brother Alice," she sputters, but then immediately shifts her guns toward a more convenient target. "It's like I been tryin' ta tell ya, the dinosaur structure of the music biz wont allow Alice to do what he feels is righteous. He's a prisoner, man..."

Scene: October 1972 A downtown Holiday Inn, following the aforementioned Detroit concert. Kids are hanging out in the lobby and cruising every corridor, hoping to stumble on their heroes and some of that rock'n'roll decadence they've heard so much about. "To be perfectly honest," Alice says as settles back with the first of many cold Budweisers, "I don't care what kind of an effect I have on my audiences. I'm up there as an entertainer, and it's like 'ok, whatever you want from me.' I'll suggest certain things; maybe that I'm gay or super-macho. Those are all lies. But that's Alice; Alice is a liar."

Scene: November 1972 The Circus Krone Theatre in Munich, Germany. Local constabularies have detained the band at the stage door, refusing entry to their pet snake Yvonne. "We'll not have our children exposed to such a thing," they bark, their bloated bodies blocking the entrance. "I thought this was a circus hall," Neal Smith shoots back, but their sense of civic responsibility will not be swayed. Manager Shep Gordon quietly takes charge, placing $150 in new bills into their suddenly receptive palms. Their civic conscience thus eased, the show went on with no further problems. Money talks, and 1972 was the year that Alice Cooper found their voices.

Scene: February 1973 The Cooper Mansion (formerly occupied by Ann-Margret and Roger Smith) in Greenwich, Connecticut. The band is in a cavernous rehearsal room (which could probably fill in if Madison Square Garden didn't show for a concert some night) spit-polishing the music which will accompany their new show. The sound is big and bracing, strengthened and textured by additional sidemen Mick Mishbir on guitar and keyboard-mellotron ace Bob Dolan. Both are old friends from Phoenix.

Alice is draped casually over the mikestand, the ever-present can of Bud dangling from one jewel studded wrist. Suddenly Glen Buxton, who has spent the previous two months in Phoenix recuperating from a pancreas operation, breezes into the room to announce his return from the dead. (According to the annals of Cooper legend, Glen's operation was performed a scant two hours before he was due to be kicked upstairs.) He looks tan and healthy, dressed in natty three-piece suit and brandishing an elegantly sculptured cane. "Howdy fellers," he drawls to the smiling members of the band, "ya wanna see my scar?"

Scene: February 1973 Alice's limo, in the midnight blackness somewhere between Connecticut and New York City. "Alice is two different people, but they do occasionally overlap," the man himself is saying. "I can remember this one night in Las Palmas; I was very drunk. Everything was kinda fuzzy, but all of a sudden bodies started flying through the air. I jumped up and — whap! — found myself lying on my back. But I came up off the floor looking for blood; it was like suddenly I was Alice on stage. I thought I was a tough guy; I'd have taken on anybody. It's a good thing they hustled me out of there; I probably would've gotten myself killed!"

Scene: February 1973 The body of Kachina, the pet boa constrictor which preceded Yvonne as a part of the Alice Cooper family, was recovered by Nashville motel manager Joe Ewing. At the time of recovery, Ewing was looking for the cause of a drainage problem. "The bartender was cleaning the bar and found it all stopped up," he reported. "He looked at the floor, and the boa constrictor came easing out of the drain. It wasn't alive but it was still a snake. I haven't been able to eat all day." The Coopers played Nashville last August, and it was at that time that Kachina was lost.

Scene: February 1973 Having scored unusually high ratings on ABC's In Concert, Alice is making tentative plans for a Cooper TV special, ideally to be broadcast on Halloween. "We'll probably concentrate on our more gruesome numbers," Alice explained, "things like 'Dwight Frye', 'Dead Babies' and 'I Love the Dead'. We'd like to make it so that you could turn off the lights and be totally frightened, just like you used to be frightened when you went to see horror movies as a kid." Alice's In Concert performance was sufficiently frightening to a station manager in Cincinnati, however. He blacked it out and replaced it with a horror movie.

Scene: March 1973 Philadelphia, the place where America was invented nearly 200 years ago. If it's a nice day, everybody in Philadelphia is still into cruising with the top down and the radio way up. All the young kids look like Todd Rundgren (which is perhaps why Todd had his hair streaked in multi-colors; so that you could tell which one was him). When you decide to leave Philadelphia (a decision that usually doesn't take very long) you'll be confronted by something called an "airport tax," which is just another municipal excuse to soak transients and tourists for three more dollars. America all the way. It was perfectly appropriate that the new Alice Cooper tour, designed to rape and plunder America with a cold calculation unseen since the days when we were pushovers for King George, should kick off in Philadelphia.

Scene: March 1973 A press conference in the banquet room of Philly's monument to the ultimate Holiday Inn dream: the Penn-Center hotel, on the morning following the unveiling of Alice's most spectacularly self-indulgent piece of theatre-of-the-affluent to date. "What I want to say to the kids of America," Alice mock-philosophizes to the assembled journalists, "is that we'll get just as sick as you do." Which is fine, but really doesn't address the question of where they can go physically from here. Will Alice Cooper become the Elvis of the 70's, grinding out a new presentation, each more self-consciously magnificent than the last, every two weeks? It's hard to say. Alice Cooper is currently on top, but by nature a peak must mark the beginning of a decline as well. There's only one way to go from the top, so the ultimate goal becomes to go nowhere at all. It's a question of balance.

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