Alice Cooper's Theatre Of Death
Written by Lloyd Bradford (Brad) Syke
How many times can you die on-stage? Almost countless, if Alice Cooper's Theatre Of Death tour is anything to go by. Yet, in kicking the bucket so often, Alice proves he lives, breathes and is as vital and vampish as ever. Vincent Damon Furnier is now 60 and has been rockin' hard for over 40 of those years. And, like the strolling bones, he still gives as good, or better, than he ever has. So much so, he's characteristically tongue-in-cheeky declamation, 'we're carnivores, not dinosaurs; we eat whatever bands are in our path'. The 'we're' is his identification with the likes of Ozzy, Iggy and Steve Tyler. After seeing his new show, at Wollongong's acoustically & otherwise dire & loathsome entcent, I can't demur from his boastfulness: it's as tight and thoroughly entertaining a night of theatre as I can ever recall seeing. Musically, too, it's as well screwed-together as a Benz, but as raunchy as a Pagani Zonda.
Melbourne-based support Electric Mary set the scene with some filthy, rip-it-up rock, shamelessly reminiscent of early Ackadacka. The 5-piece nailed it to the floor, while idiosyncratic frontman, Rusty Brown, gave a convincing impression of having had one too many beforehand; but in a good way.
Their slogan, 'it's rock 'n' roll, like it used to taste' sums up their explosive, electromechanical appeal. It's back-to-basics: garage rock, yet played with machine-like precision. Lead guitarist, Irwin Thomas (remember Southern Sons?), deserves a lot of credit for this.
They're a little older than some of the current crop, and the experience shows; not as tired cynicism, but in self-assurance. I gather they've still got day or, at least, other jobs they must do, to support their habit, so have only played a couple of dozen gigs over the last few years, but you'd swear they were joined at the hip. With a smokey, charcoalled voice not a million miles from his idol, David Coverdale (they've supported Whitesnake, too) Brown formed the group after an inspiring meeting with Mary Campbell, longtime studio manager of Electric Lady studios, in New York.
Alice incandescently took to the stage at exactly 9pm, backed by a stunning band, blasting out the inimitable power chords that constitute one of rock's most recognisable riffs. School was out, once again: for summer; for winter; forever. In a blinding moment, all of us were transported, from creeping decrepitude, to the liberation of this early-70s anthem, which must surely have helped millions of jaded, reluctant students shake loose the shackles of oppressive education. Who hasn't wanted to blow up, or burn down, a school, or other restrictive, depersonalising, life-sucking institution? But we're reminded that in tackling a subject, such as rampant, raucous, uncontainable teenage angst, so empathically, Alice also satirises blind, hormonal indignation, alluding to illiteracy, born of stupidity. He's got a grip on the department of youth. This is his art, or part thereof.
School's Out has an iconic place in the Cooper canon, being his first-ever hit single; no wonder it bookended his pseudo-cabaret. In case you have listmania, it rates in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time and is, supposedly, the 35th best hard rock song of all time. Who am I to argue? As a sidebar, incredibly, big Al once claimed the riff was inspired by a Miles Davis piece, but later admitted it was a tease; ever the court jester.
Unlike other, more precious and pretentious artists, who whinge and whine and moan and groan about audience expectations to play the greatest, rather than the latest, AC just knuckles down, preferring to show mastery of his reinvented classics. The theatre, involving guillotines, nursy striptease, an impossibly supersized syringe, a real sword, big-bastard balloons, mysoginistics, ghoulishness and other delightful foolishness, is really a kooky condom to constrain the potency of the songs.
Songs like Billion Dollar Babies, with its monstrous, if moreish, taste of dark, discreet perversions, during which Alice threw pearls, or diamonds, before grasping swine (we, the greedy, groping audience). It was a scene perhaps only parallelled by post-Christmas department-store sales.
The Coopster took us to the depths of hell. As a tourist destination, it's enjoyed a comparable status to downtown Kabul, but Alice takes a broad sweep, or swipe, at those who'd villianise a minority: 'for criminal acts and violence on the stage, for being a brat, refusing to act your age, for all the decent citizens you've enraged, you can go to hell'. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's a more-or-less direct quote from a retrocon critic. With taunts like that, no wonder this woebegone misfit spends part of the show straitjacketed. But Alice also holds a self-effacing mirror close and there is a genuinely pervasive sense of social criticism that penetrates the veneer of sheer entertainment.
And for all his affectations of violence against women, one is still surprised by the sharp-shooting, under-the-skin interiority of Only Women Bleed; the ultimate antidote and mud-in-your-eye for any finger-wagging, humourless zealots who might otherwise mount a case for political correctness. They'd really get under Al's wheels (yes, we had that, too), I imagine, and mine, also.
In answer to the question, 'Is It My Body?', I'd have to say, ah, no, Al, it's your depraved mind, but clearly the corporeal component is in good nick, the way he leaps and bounds and struts. On the pretext of gimmicky, attention-getting 'I Kissed A Girl' marketing savvy, Alice slips in another introspective, rhetorical soliloquy: 'what have I got, that makes you want to love me?' Not that he'd want you to mistake him for Mr Nice Guy, I shouldn't think! That's another song he acts out like some kind of rock thespian (just as well for any at all unfamiliar with the material, as so many lyrics are lost in this reverberant barn). And it's a tune I can hum along with, tracking, as it does, my own gradual evolution, from 'sweet, sweet guy' to cranky, old bastard.
The band, and Al, proved edgy from the first, owing more to punk and heavy metal than ever before. Doppelganger kickdrums built a backbone of constant pulsation; the bass was right there, underpinning two soaring, searing guitars. The sound was phat as, in the grimiest, grittiest sense.
Once again Alice welcomes us to his novel nightmare, a dream-come-true for those who like to rock. And laugh. Before the irredeemable appallingness of your Marilyn Mansons, there was Alice, who gave licence to 'em all. There still is.
Well, we got no choice, all the girls and boys, makin' all that noise (even the ones with mops of grey hair, or long white beards): we ain't found new toys; or, if we have, it's dubious how well they stack-up against ol' faves, like Aunty Alice.
Any man, with or without a woman's name, wearing too much mascara, who can have a hand in a line like 'and we've never heard of Eisenhower, missile power, justice or truth', as a critique of a generation, or generations, has got to amount to more than a clever-dick, self-aggrandising costume model. He's a populist prophet, soothsayer and observant genius. Or genie. But you don't have to think about that, if you don't want to. You can just grin fiendishly, like a blind delegate, as the blood spurts from Alice's multiply-impaled body, in one of his many dramatic death scenes.
I think you're gonna like the Theatre Of Death. I think you're gonna feel like you belong. We all do, sooner or later.
[Photos by: Piggy D.]