Alice Cooper made his first stage appearance in 1964 inside the Cortez High School "cafetorium," where a small group of friends from the track team shook the wigs they'd bought at Woolworth's while spoofing the Beatles as part of a talent show.
His name was still Vince Furnier, and he and future bandmates Dennis Dunaway and Glen Buxton were among the lettermen who'd changed the words to several Beatles hits to suit their status as varsity stars. The opening line in "Please Please Me," for instance, became "Last night, I ran four laps for my coach."
As Dunaway recalls, their classmates ate it up.
"There were tears in their eyes from laughing so hard," he says. "But little did they know, we got the bug right then and there."
That bug would lead Dunaway, Buxton and Furnier to California, where with fellow Phoenix transplants Michael Bruce and Neal Smith, they became their generation's most notorious hit machine - a band called Alice Cooper fronted by a singer also known as Alice Cooper. In 1973, their U.S. tour in support of the chart-topping "Billion Dollar Babies" broke box-office records then held by the Rolling Stones. Two years later, Cooper struck out on his own with "Welcome to My Nightmare."
But their story didn't end there.
After decades on the sidelines, Cooper, Dunaway, Smith, Bruce and Buxton (who died in 1997) are set to be inducted Monday, March 14, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The only original member now living in Phoenix is Cooper, but the other three were in town rehearsing for their former frontman's annual Christmas Pudding concert with another ghost from Cooper's past, Steve Hunter, sitting in for Buxton, when the news came down that they'd been voted in - together.
And Cooper is thrilled to be sharing the honor with the friends he once left behind.
"I was always afraid," he says, "that they would nominate just me. And to me, the guys in the band were the ones that did all the cutting-edge stuff.
"We were the guys that were blazing the trail for theater in rock and getting all the criticism at the same time. So it was really good that everybody was included."
It took some work to get from that first talent show to "Billion Dollar Babies." Long before they'd hit the mainstream with their breakthrough single, "I'm Eighteen," Cooper, Buxton and Dunaway honed their chops in the cafetorium, rocking the sounds of the British Invasion as the Earwigs. The ghoulish theatrics that became their calling card had already taken root at their first proper gig - a Cortez Halloween dance.
"In our journalism class, we had a guillotine," Cooper recalls, with a laugh, "and anybody that was late with an assignment got put in the guillotine for five minutes as sort of a laughable punishment. So when we went on stage that day, I said, 'Let's bring the guillotine.' "
They also made some giant spider webs from clothesline and coffins from cardboard.
"We were just trying to be who we were, but it was in our DNA to be theatrical. So when we did get the chance to be more and more theatrical, we just kept inventing stuff.
"I said, 'As long as we keep doing things nobody's ever done and we're a great band? I think that's gonna work in our favor.' " Retaining the web as a backdrop and changing their name to the Spiders, they recruited Bruce, a North High football player, and scored a big regional hit with a single called "Don't Blow Your Mind."
After changing their name yet again, to the Nazz, they relocated to Los Angeles in 1967, where Smith, a Camelback High grad who'd been in art classes with Dunaway, Cooper and Buxton at Glendale Community College, joined on drums.
"There were thousands of bands that had migrated there, and the competition was tough," Dunaway says. "The only way to stand out, as we saw it, was to come up with something different. So we started pushing the limits."
That made them a natural signing for Straight, a label run by limit-pushing rock iconoclast Frank Zappa.
"The guys in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band told us Frank Zappa was starting a label," Bruce says. "They said, 'Frank likes weird stuff. Maybe he'll like you guys.' "
By the time they auditioned for Zappa, they'd been through one final name change, finding inspiration in a Ouija Board.
"We were over at our friends," Smith says, "this all-girl band from Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. Vince sat down and asked the Ouija Board his name in a previous life, and it spelled out Alice Cooper. I thought that was kind of funny."
Their first two stabs at putting Alice Cooper on the map, 1969's "Pretties for You" and the following year's "Easy Action," failed to set the world on fire. But after relocating to Detroit and finding an ideal producer in Bob Ezrin, the Alice Cooper sound fell into place on the 1971 album, "Love It to Death," which spawned the single, "I'm Eighteen" and was reissued by their new home, Warner Bros.
Alice Cooper's mainstream infiltration was complete when they kicked off the following summer with a Top 10 smash called "School's Out," a summertime anthem that still resonates with anybody waiting for that final bell to ring each school year. For as shocking as their onstage antics had become - with Cooper strapped to an electric chair or hanging from the gallows after mutilating baby dolls - the bigger shock may be that he could spend his nights like that and still have pop hits in the morning.
"There's always an interest in that guy that doesn't fit in," Cooper says. "There were tons of Peter Pans in rock and roll and no Captain Hook. And we would gladly be that. But that made our job a little harder, because we had offended everybody who could be offended."
The wedge of fame
Making Cooper's baby-killing Captain Hook the focus of the show had been a group decision, but with every passing execution, the spotlight seemed to linger less and less on his supporting cast.
And not just metaphorically.
"We used to take all these old theater lights on the road, these heavy iron lights," Dunaway says. "So when we hit the last note of a song, everything went pitch dark and you didn't see anything until the first note of the next song. It was a major part of our show.
"Then, all of the sudden, the lights aren't on us. They're only on Alice."
At the same time, Cooper's bodyguards were erecting a wall between the singer and his longtime friends.
"Alice didn't know," Dunaway says. "He was deep into the bottle, and they hired bodyguards that wouldn't let us in to see him. They would tell us that he wasn't there when I would call his room.
"And then I would go walking down the hall, the door would be open and I'd see Alice sitting there.
"But I still didn't believe the band was breaking up. I didn't think it was possible."
Then, Cooper cut a solo album, "Welcome to My Nightmare," in part because Bruce had decided to do a solo album. And when "Nightmare" proved to be a hit, as Cooper says, "I was off in a different direction."
As often happens in these situations, who did what and why can depend on who's talking.
Cooper says, "We'd been working together side by side since we were sophomores in high school in 1965. So this was nine years of never being separated.
"And finally, it got to that point where it just felt like I was going in one direction and everybody else was going in a different direction. We got to the next project and I said, 'Well, I have an idea for something.' I was going to do 'Welcome to My Nightmare' and it was going to be 'If they thought "Billion Dollar Babies" was outrageous, wait until they see this.' And I kind of got the feeling of 'Why don't we just split the money up?' "
Smith and Dunaway say "Nightmare" was a solo album from the word go, with the understanding that they'd all get back together and record another album after Cooper had a chance to do his thing. But that's not how it all played out, with the singer enjoying continued success through such Top 40 smashes as "Only Women Bleed," "I Never Cry" and "You and Me."
What made the breakup even tougher on his former bandmates is that Cooper's solo albums could be credited to Alice Cooper, whereas Paul McCartney records didn't say the Beatles on the cover. When Bruce, Smith and Dunaway tried to form their own connection to the Alice Cooper brand, releasing an album they'd written in anticipation of their singer coming back as Billion Dollar Babies, their efforts went largely unnoticed and the album disappeared without a trace.
Bonds of friendship
Whatever feelings of resentment or betrayal there were at the time, they haven't let those emotions undermine the bonds of friendship they formed in their teens.
Howard Kramer, curatorial director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, says that kind of friendship is rare among bands.
"The fact that they've stayed friends," he says, "is a real testimony to the respect they have for one another."
In 1999, the four surviving members played a six-song set at Alice Cooperstown, the singer's restaurant in downtown Phoenix, their first performance since Cooper went solo in '75.
Last December marked their second Christmas Pudding set. And Cooper brought them in last year to do some work with Ezrin on a sequel to his solo breakthrough, titled "Welcome 2 My Nightmare."
For Dunaway, that session felt just like the old days - as much as it could without Buxton.
"I was extremely pleased," he says. "It really jumped back to the original way the band functioned. We were missing Glen, but we set up a little shrine for him. I brought in one of his vintage Fender amplifiers, and we set it on a stool with a little bottle of Seagram's 7&7 in front of it and a vase of red roses. So Glen was there in spirit.
"We would throw out ideas and try them, and then we would decide whether everybody liked them or not. It really picked up as if nothing had happened.
"And that's how our friendships have always been. I enjoy being around Alice and he seems to enjoy being around us. We joke around just like we used to. And that's because we were all friends before we were a band."
Cooper says he'd like to do more shows together after the induction - not a 50-city tour, just a handful of dates for the fun of it.
And that's exactly what they're having.
"To me, it's a lot of fun playing with Neal, Mike and Dennis again," Cooper says. "We're like lifelong friends."
by Ed Masley