October 23, 2010
By David Huff
Alice Cooper - Interview
A Personal Conversation with Alice Cooper
When it comes to the alter ego world of Vince Furnier (aka Alice Cooper), imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Often duplicated but never replicated, the King of Shock Rock literally transformed the face of rock and roll by introducing pioneering touring methods that have become standard issues today. Alice Cooper's legendary stage shows in the early '70s opened the doors for the likes of KISS and Genesis whose onstage theatrical performances became as much a part of the show as the music itself. Others would follow over the years, most notably Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne, W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, Marilyn Manson, Gwar, Slipknot and others. But there will never be anything quite like the Godfather of Shock himself.
This year, Alice Cooper is marking its 40th year in the business with yet another in-your-face stage show and album project. He has reunited with old friend Bob Ezrin to produce his next album, Welcome to My Nightmare II. In fact, Alice has even extended his relationship one step further with Ezrin by partnering with his Nashville based company, Bigger Picture, for promotion, production and distribution of his next record due out in Spring 2011.
To say Alice has been busy as of late would be an understatement. He is still raising rock theatrics to new heights as evidenced by his current tour with fellow acolyte Rob Zombie. A tour of the States, followed by a month-long jaunt overseas in Europe, will keep the ever elusive Cooper on the run for the rest of the year.
Some music superstars have managed to overcome their addiction to alcohol by entering alcoholism rehab. However, there are many more who have failed to do so and have paid the ultimate price.
JAM: A generation of artists and bands owe their careers in part to the numerous ground breaking moments you achieved in your illustrious career. Your trailblazing glam and stage theatrics shook the very ground rock and roll stood on.
Alice Cooper – A lot of bands picked up on me over the years – the image and attitude – so yes, it has been quite flattering to watch the development of rock over the years I helped create. On the other hand, there have been many versions of a sort of watered down Alice Cooper out there as well. That's why I like to tour and give people a shot of the real thing. This show I am on right now is devastating.
JAM: In the first half of the '70s, you could do no wrong musically. You literally ruled American rock and roll with an iron fist. Your kingdom, however, crumbled in the second half of that decade? What happened?
JAM: Come on, you're not serious?
Disco totally destroyed a lot of people. I had to step back and see what was going on. At that time, the only way to keep your hand in the game was to conform. That period of time in the late '70s with disco was the dark ages of rock and roll. There was no true rock radio and it seemed as though stations were only broadcasting music geared to the 25-40 set. Radio refused to play anything that had a guitar in it, and I would not give in to the trend.
JAM: You mean, like Rod Stewart did?
You answered that question yourself.
JAM: So basically, you really did retire?
I didn't really retire from the business back then I took a sabbatical. You have to remember that had constantly toured, with my original band and as a solo artist, for almost a decade. I just needed to take some time away from Alice. It was good for me because I really needed to step away and assess the situation. I also sought help for my drinking. That was important for me both mentally, physically and my career. I had become too much like my character in real life.
JAM: Did you have something to prove to yourself, and your peers, when you returned to the business after battling your personal demons?
Yes! I figure that you have to go out there with the attitude every night you are out to prove something, prove you have earned the right to be there. The challenge proved to be a good catalyst for me. If you go out on stage every evening like it's your first night of the tour, it throws doubters off track. I know there were some people out there thinking, "Well, Alice is old, fat and going to do all of his old material." First off, I am not going to depend on any nostalgia to prove that Alice Cooper is for real. We perform hits, but we do it as though the songs were written last week. Our audiences appreciate our show as something new – not old.
JAM: There's no doubt you pioneered many of the onstage innovations that have become standard practice today, including the marketing of concept videos to creatively package your own albums. And then there were your legendary road shows. Really, what's left for you to say or do?
I want to make Alice a total immortal. That challenge right there is what's fun about music to me. If I sat back and thought to myself, "I have done everything. I have showed them what I can do. I have nothing left to prove", then I would quit trying. I go out there every night with the attitude I have to take this crowd, make them mine. I have got to shake them and I have to impress myself. The only way that I can have fun is to create a specific crowd reaction, like a gasp. That's the kind of feedback I am constantly going for. I want people walking away from my show that night shaking their heads going, "I don't believe what I just saw!"
JAM: At what point in your extraordinary career did the fun go out of the music for you?
It happened when I started basing my whole career on drinking. There was a period of time, 1978-79, where it was really ridiculous.
JAM: Alice Cooper had consumed Vince Furnier?
It did. I found myself drinking two bottles of whiskey a day and having no fun playing music. It wasn't because of who I was on stage, but who I was off – an alcoholic. I was addicted to alcohol. The disease had grabbed a hold of me and wouldn't let go. I had to completely quit or it was going to kill me. I finally realized it and got help. I exercise now, or play a little golf, instead of drink.
JAM: If I could shake your hand through the phone I would, simply for the fact you remain relevant today – and your career started in 1970. I really am in awe.
Thank you. I started my first band in high school when I was 16. Alice Cooper didn't happen until 1970. But yes, it is still amazing to me all these years later I'm still here. That's the great thing about it. The image, and the fun behind the images, is still exciting. I mean, people still hide their children in the airports when we walk in. I love it!
JAM: The way you speak about the character Alice Cooper, it's almost like he's an entirely other person you are talking about?
He is, and that's the point I've been trying to get across. I have always thought of Alice in the third person. I play Alice, the character of Alice, the same way the guy who plays Jason in the slasher movies, or the actor that plays Dracula on the screen. I talk about Alice outside the character. I can watch videos of Alice Cooper on stage and say, "Okay, you should have done this there, that there. Let's see, that was a good move, but you should have done this." I can be very objective about it.
JAM: There's a huge segment in this country caught up in the unknown, things they can't understand. This relentless zeal to discover the strange or the bizarre is evidenced by Hollywood's constant production of horror movies and the constant stream of sequels they produce. You tapped into this fascination way before Hollywood ever understood it even existed.
Alice Cooper has always been a safe medium between reality and fantasy. I have never had any kind of heavy reaction to myself except from parents that haven't seen my show. They have only heard about it. There is a great amount of fantasy that people invent. I have always taken a sort of National Enquirer approach to rock and roll. I'm drawn to headlines that say Boy Born with Dogs Head. I totally believe in sensationalism. That's what rock and roll is all about. I am not there to give people any life long insight into anything. When you have been to an Alice Cooper show, it is part surrealism, part fantasy. I let the audience invent their own images up there. I'm not here to preach anything. I am there to totally give people their money's worth so they walk away going "Ahhh!!!!"
JAM: From the outside looking in, you have done it all. You have influenced an entire generation of musicians as well as shaped the look of rock and roll itself. What is so powerful about music it becomes such a force in people's lives to the point they can't live without it?
That is a very good question because I don't understand it myself. Music is much more powerful than TV. It's much more powerful than film. Rock and roll is a powerful medium because you're witnessing it live. You feel that attitude about rock – its lust for life that it has gotten so much flak for over the years. If you ever saw the Alice Cooper stage show on film, it wouldn't have nearly the effect it does when you see it live. I always tell people who give me problems, especially in the South – where I get a lot of religious problems – I tell them this. If Edgar Allan Poe were alive today, he would be doing this exact show using the medium of music to explain his art. You know what's strange? People don't mind if unusual things are written in books, made into TV specials or acted out on the silver screen. However, when it comes to rock and roll, it's en entirely different matter. That's because rock and roll is visual and you can actually feel it. Now, if you add blood to it, suddenly the music takes on a dark persona and the image becomes 100 times more powerful. So, you have asked a very good question that's probably best left up to individuals to answer. As you very well know, all kinds of music affect people in totally different ways.
JAM: As you just alluded to, rock and roll has blamed for a multitude of society's ills over the years. Some of the tired old clichés used have been it promotes drug and alcohol abuse or it's the work of the devil. Practically every illogical human behavior is somehow linked to rock and roll being the common denominator for its cause.
Society's problems are all around us. Music, especially rock and roll, has nothing to do with the cause and effect of these ills. For instance, I was flying to Miami one time on business and ended up sitting next to a woman who was a nurse at a rest home for elderly people. She referred to them as prescription junkies. She said many of them were worse than the kids on the street. And who is doing all the cocaine? It certainly isn't the rock and roll musicians – it's the lawyers. Those people don't' go out for cocktails anymore, they go out and do half a gram.
JAM: All musicians are well aware of the edge when it comes to rock and roll excess. You actually experienced life on that edge and did something about it.
Musicians do know where the edge is, but that hasn't stopped some of them from pushing it too far to where it injures them, and in some cases, takes their life. Honestly, it is okay for people to blame drugs on rock and roll, and here's why. I would hate to see this genre of music lose its outlaw image. As far as I'm concerned, it's important that Alice Cooper be perceived as an outlaw. What would Elvis have been if he hadn't been an outlaw? What would Mick Jagger been without it?
JAM: There's a difference between living out a fantasy on stage then reentering the real world once the fantasy has played it self out on tour.
Here's one thing you have to understand about this business. Once you have attained a degree of success as a musician, it's very easy for your own perception on reality to get distorted. As Vince Furnier, I don't live on that border line, but there was a time I used to and it almost killed me. Now the character Alice Cooper depicts is a different story. He enjoys living on that edge and relishes the chance to take it as far as he can. Musicians that can't separate that reality from fantasy are the one's that end up leaving this earth before their time. It killed Jim Morrison. It killed Keith Moon. It killed Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix because they all thought they could live their stage image in real life. You can't take a highly charged stage character, that's adored by tens of thousands of people, off the stage thinking you can plug it into every day life. You are destined to fail every single time.
JAM: Is that why you speak in third person about your alter ego?
I have to separate my personal life from my professional one. Yes, I have to live with Alice, but I don't have to be like Alice if you know what I mean. Seriously, I really like Alice Cooper as a character, but he is only allowed to live for 90 minutes every night. When he leaves the stage after the final song, the curtain is closed on him. Alice is put back in his casket and the coffin lid is closed until the sun goes down for the next evening's performance and Alice rises again.
JAM: That wasn't always the case, obviously.
When I first invented Alice's character, I tried to be HIM all the time. In the '60s when the band relocated to Los Angeles, I got to know Jim Morrison and his band really well. In fact, I used to try and keep up with them by drinking my self into hospitals so I could be like them. I realized when Jim died I didn't have to kill myself to be a rock star.
JAM: With that said, is that why you created a character, per se, to protect Vince Furnier from himself?
Yes. I think that if everybody had an Alice Cooper, there would be very, very few psychiatrists?
JAM: But it didn't work on you?
Sure it did.
JAM: You started drinking heavily, almost killed yourself, and your marriage collapsed under the weight of your addictions. That doesn't sound like success to me.
I almost destroyed my self physically creating Alice Cooper as an alter ego. Fortunately, I was able to pull out before it cost me everything. All these many years later, I can play Alice, I can be Alice, but I don't have to live like Alice. There was a point in the '70s where I totally believed I had to leave the stage and still wear black leather all the time. I also thought I had to wear black eye make-up and be thrown in jail at least once a week, or at least be in two fights. I thought that Alice Cooper image was the only thing the audience ever wanted to see me as. It almost cost me everything to figure out how wrong I was.
JAM: You certainly put yourself through hell to reach your final conclusion.
People have a certain image of Alice Cooper onstage. The crowd would wonder what in the world was going on if they ever heard Alice say, "Gosh, I hope you like this song tonight. Here is one I wrote in 1970." Alice doesn't talk to an audience; he goes up there with the attitude of raping their five senses. That's his idea of a love affair with a crowd. It's not a 'let me romance you into liking me' type of thing. Alice goes up on that stage, grabs his audience by the throat and tells them, "I have you for 90 minutes, so pay attention!" The audience wants to hear him say that. They would not, could not, like Alice if he were nice. They want him to be an arrogant, conceited bastard.
JAM: Alice is your escape from reality as well, isn't it?
Alice is a form of therapy for me, but really, I find the world around me a form of escapism. I can go from watching a Droopy cartoon festival to three or four splatter films. To me, that's healthier than doing drugs or drinking. I replaced the alcohol with splatter movies, and now I am trying to figure out what other positive things I can do.
JAM: Everyone needs a hero, someone to live a part of their lives through. Has Alice in any way become that, and if he has, does that kind of affect bother you?
I would say that. I get about ten people per concert that come up to me and say, "You don't know it, but you save my life" Now I'm sitting there thinking to myself, "I've just done a 90-minute show portraying a character that is really villainous." Some people will relate to that and it makes them happy. I don't get a lot of negative feedback from my shows. We don't even get fights in the audience because we don't give them a chance to start trouble. If you look away from the stage, you'll miss something. We have a very low percentage of violence at our shows. I don't know. There is something about Alice's character that is mesmerizing.
JAM: Why have musicians fallen by the wayside around you all these years?
It's hard for me to put a finger on it. I think it's the fact that we really spend a lot of imagination and a lot of time and money making sure these shows are very 'Cooperesque'. I feel as though I have a lot to defend – well not defend, but to live up to. Alice is this legendary character. I would hate for people to ever think he did a show that didn't live up to the name.
JAM: Rock music is enjoying a comeback and its momentum is as strong as ever. You have been flirting in and out of the public eye for years now. Did you ever worry rock and roll was on the verge of permanently taking a place on the back burner?
No, and here's why. Everything always comes back to rock and roll. That's why disco didn't bother me. I knew there was going to be a total backlash against it sooner or later. When it was happening, I stepped back. There are a million kids turning 16 every day that I knew wouldn't put up with it. I mean, when their parents were listening to 'their' radio stations, there's something wrong. Finally, when your Motley Crue's, Ratt's and Quiet Riot's broke loose, I was totally into it, like a cheerleader saying to them, "Go get 'em!" As far as I was concerned, that was the point I was waiting for in order to come back out. Then I waited until I had something that was totally mind blowing – a stage show and music. Now look at me today.