May. 3, 2023
Alice Cooper chats about his life in rock and the song he wishes he’d written
Imagine for a moment the king of shock rock in sitting in church every Sunday with Sheryl, his wife of 47 years. “She’s been performing in the shows almost as long as I have,” Cooper said in a recent interview. “Even when we’re on tour, we’ll find a Christian church to attend.”
It’s hard to believe that Alice’s first masterpiece, “Billion Dollar Babies,” is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The 1973 album and tour generated songs that have remained staples in concert, one of which is “Elected.” It’s a hilarious poke in the eye to self-serving politicians, and Cooper’s presidential campaign slogan – “A Troubled Man for Troubled Times” – still resonates today.
“I’m the least political guy on the planet,” Cooper said. “I tell the audience, ‘Hey, I’m here to take you away from all that for a while.'”
Rather than simply repeat everything he’s done in the past, Cooper is constantly reinventing his shows to accommodate new songs and the spectacular props that make them so much fun. His 2023 tour, “Too Close for Comfort,” features a version of the iconic Frankenstein monster that’s 12-feet tall.
“We hired a company in Denver to build our set pieces because they can literally do anything,” Cooper said. “I wanted a giant figure with my face instead of Boris Karloff.”
As a preteen, Cooper loved watching the local horror movie hosts on TV.
“They’d show the worst movies and perform little sketches during the breaks,” he said. “We had Zacherle and Freddie the Ghoul. Those guys were great.”
The current tour, in all its fiendish glory, arrives in Milwaukee’s Miller High Life Theatre on Wednesday, May 3, and before then, Cooper served up a platter of stories that document some of his experiences over the last five decades.
OnMilwaukee: How can a guy that’s so nasty onstage be so nice in person?
Alice Cooper: Early on I realized there were no villains in rock and roll, only heroes. Lots of Peter Pans but no Captain Hooks. Alice is horrible and condescending, but he has a lot more fun onstage than any Peter Pan. I’m an actor, and I get to play someone I’m not. But without a great band, it doesn’t work.
What was your first after-school job?
I never had one. I’ve been singing in rock and roll bands since I was 15. That’s all I ever did. We made money playing at parties and bars.
You became friends with the legendary Groucho Marx. Strictly speaking, that was an unlikely pairing.
When I first came to Hollywood, I was a hard rock singer. I hung out with the Beatles and Stones, and they were the nicest people. But I wanted to meet Groucho and all the classic comedians who made me laugh as a kid. I invited Groucho to one of the shows, and he wasn’t the least bit shocked by anything we did onstage. He saw the whole performance as a vaudeville act. The next night he brought Jack Benny and George Burns, and the night after that, Mae West! That was the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten, you know? I loved being around them. I was the only rock singer invited to join the Friars Club. (Laughs)
Like many of your peers, you gained a reputation for drinking too much.
I was an alcoholic for many years. I wasn’t a what you’d call a drunk drunk. I was more like Dean Martin, enjoying a golden buzz all the time. I was never angry; I didn’t get into fights. I was that guy who was fun to be around, like Dudley Moore in “Arthur.” I never missed a show, so the drinking didn’t get in the way of that. But even the golden buzz comes back to haunt you. There’s a lot of damage that’s done to your internal organs. When I woke up one morning vomiting blood, Sheryl said, “OK, the party’s over.” And she was right.
Your guest spot about Milwaukee in “Wayne’s World” is one of the best parts in the film.
Mike Myers wanted a rock star in the movie so he and Dana (Carvey) could do the “I’m not worthy” bit. When I got there, Mike handed me eight pages of script and said to be ready in a half-hour! No way I could memorize all that, so I just started riffing as I went along. (Laughs) Mike and Dana were doing everything they could to make me laugh.
Alice Cooper opened the door for bands like KISS that wanted to incorporate theater into their shows.
They saw that we were a great live band who made hit records. The Amazing Randi, a world-famous magician and illusionist, decapitated me nightly with a trick guillotine. We loved working with him because he was such a perfectionist. Randi refined that part of the show until it looked unbelievably real. When KISS first emerged, we knew who they were. I recommended a place to buy their makeup. Their theory was that if one Alice Cooper worked, then four of them could too. My advice to them was don’t steal my makeup. I was the Phantom of the Opera onstage. Bowie was playing Ziggy Stardust then and Elton John was Liberace. KISS eventually created variations of Japanese kabuki theater faces and became comic book characters.
What did your parents think of your shows?
(Laughs) They really enjoyed them. My father was a pastor, and when he preached, it was powerful because he believed in what he was saying. At the time, I got as far away from it as I could. When I became sober in 1983, I returned to the church like the prodigal son. My dad said, “I know you’re not satanic. I get what you do, the humor and the music. The only thing I can’t stand is the lifestyle … the drinking, the drugs and the sleeping around. I know about peace and love and all that. Theatrically I have no problem with Alice.”
A critic once wrote that the album “Pretty Things” was a tragic waste of vinyl.
(Laughs) And after that, members of The 700 Club started burning my records. It stemmed from parents who hated Alice Cooper.
You can’t buy that kind of publicity.
The funny thing is that these people never saw us live or listened to the records. They read the song titles and made their judgment from that. They talked about the song “Dead Babies” like I was promoting killing kids. If they’d listened to it, they would have realized it’s an anti-child abuse song. The album “Alice Goes to Hell” was about a small-time con artist who tries to best Satan, the greatest con man of all time. It was like “Damn Yankees.”
Is there a song you wish you’d written?
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. I was like, “How did I miss that one?” It was a generational anthem for its time. “School’s Out” and “I’m Eighteen” were anthems for my time. Before that, of course, was “My Generation” by The Who. Years from now, kids will be listening to those songs, saying “I can relate to this.” That’s what an anthem is. Ageless.
Did you imagine you’d be doing this 60 years later?
Nobody ever thought past age 30 in those days. Thirty was the expiration date for a rock star. If you made it that far, you might say, “Well, I’m too old for this.” Friends of mine, like Jimi Hendix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, they all died at 27. But we followed the Stones. They’re still doing what they do to this day because they make great records and never do bad shows. I thought, “I can do that too, and keep going as long as I want.”
How will people remember you?
From my gravestone. It’s going to say: “Alice Cooper. I’m standing right behind you.”