He’s dangerous, unpredictable, ‘would slit your throat in a second’ and is an avowed Christian. Mark Shenton meets the master of bloodthirsty rock theatre Alice Cooper, and discovers there’s more to the man than meets the eye
In 1987 David Blunkett called for Alice Cooper’s live show, inspired by the Friday the 13th series and Nightmare on Elm Street, to be banned, stating: “I’m horrified by his behaviour – it goes beyond the bounds of entertainment.” And 15 years earlier, Mary Whitehouse had the BBC ban the video to his chart hit School’s Out, and MP Leo Abse had petitioned the Home Secretary to have him banned from performing in the UK.
Cooper has always deliberately courted controversy, but the quietly courteous and thoughtful man sitting opposite me in a suite in a discreet London hotel seems positively benign. There are, however, welcome signs of the mischief-maker when he reflects on Whitehouse: “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. I sent her flowers – she couldn’t understand why I was being so nice, but she was the ultimate help for me.”
Besides, Cooper – who is an avowed Christian – takes a distinctly moral position regarding his creation. “There’s a certain moral high road to Alice – Alice will slit your throat in a second, but he would never swear at you. He’s too much of a gentleman. He would never allow anybody to swear onstage, or allow any nudity onstage – he’s quite a gentleman, but he’s dangerous and very unpredictable about when he might get you. But the moral standard is that in the end I knew Alice was always going to get executed. As great as the bad guy is, there’s something satisfying about him getting it in the end – no matter what he does, he’s not going to get away with it. Alice is ceremoniously and publicly executed for what he does, but then he comes back in white top hat and tails and says, ‘I’m not done yet’.”
It is clear from the way that Cooper discusses Alice that he’s very much a distinct creation to himself. “I always speak of Alice in the third person,” he agrees. “Even my kids, when Alice was on TV on The Muppet Show, said, ‘Look, there’s Alice Cooper’, they’d never say, ‘Look, there’s dad’. They know that I just play Alice.”
The theatricality of Alice is all, as is the theatricality of the shows he appears in – Cooper is widely credited for raising the bar on rock theatrics to new heights. “But anyone can go and buy a show,” he says. “Any rock band can go out and buy pyrotechnics, anybody can buy lasers, anybody can buy lights, anybody can buy fog. But if you put that on stage, is it theatrical? It may be pretty, and it kind of works, but does it connect to the songs?” It has to, he says, otherwise why do it?
“There has to be a reason to have fire – if we have it, it’s because we burn Alice at the stake. Don’t just put it on because it’s fire. I used to kid Kiss like that – I’d say, ‘When you guys can’t think of what to do, you just blow something up.’ But everything we do on the stage is thought out, everything happens for a reason.
“If you say, ‘Welcome to my nightmare’, how do you not give the audience a nightmare? You have to give them something to make it come alive. If you’re going to write a story like that, you let the lyrics to the song create the show.”
Cooper’s current touring show, Theatre of Death, which has also just been issued as a DVD and was seen live at London’s Roundhouse last weekend, is directed by Robert Jess Roth, who directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Broadway and in the West End. Cooper continues: “I said I would back out of directing the show, because my formula was becoming too much of a formula and the audience knew what was coming. I said to Rob to turn everything upside down and backwards. So instead of ending the show with balloons and School’s Out, we start the show with that. I want the audience to not know what is coming next.”
Theatre of Death isn’t just theatrical in its title, but in its presentation: “It’s in four acts,” says Cooper. “Why kill Alice once when you can kill him four times? We always used to make building up to Alice’s execution the apex of the show. But I said what happens if on the fifth song the guillotine comes out? My usual audience is going to think that’s the end of the show. But that only kills the punk Alice. He then wakes up in hell and the next five or six songs are hell songs. When we get done with that, he gets killed by lethal injection and then he wakes up in a mental hospital. We go from act to act with Alice’s executions, which means we have four of them and four different aspects of Alice.”
This kind of theatrical narrative has always been central to his work. “It’s in my blood,” he says. “I couldn’t ever imagine just being in a band. Even at the very first performance I ever did on stage, when I was 15 and doing covers of the Beatles, there was a guillotine on stage. For some reason I thought it needed to be there. For me, there’s a world of Peter Pans, and I thought I would gladly be Captain Hook. Where are the villains? You’ve got all the rock heroes – the Paul McCartneys and Rod Stewarts – but you’ve got to have a concentrated villain, too. Where’s Darth Vader? There wasn’t one for rock and roll, so I said Alice will be that.”
So he’s created a unique persona, but, he stresses, the music still has to come first: “You can’t put the icing on the cake without the cake. The cake is the music, and, if you don’t have those hit songs, you’re a puppet up there.”
Cooper has always been a fan of musicals and says: “There’s no great musical if it doesn’t have the tunes. With Guys and Dolls and West Side Story, every song works. When you’ve got those songs, that gives you the release of doing anything you want theatrically.”
Creating Alice, however, provides a framing device for those songs. How did he come up with the character in the first place? “I was thinking if I were to invent a rock star, what would he look like? The first thing I saw was Emma Peel in The Avengers – or the Black Queen in Barbarella, with switchblades coming out of a leather suit. Then I saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and there was something terrifying about the fact that she was 80 years old but trying to be a little girl, with the pancake make-up that was cracked and smeared on. I thought that was Alice, too – he wears make-up, but he doesn’t necessarily try to look beautiful. There is something glamorous and yet not glamorous about Alice.”
Those kind of contradictions also stretch to where he has appeared. There was, as already mentioned, The Muppet Show – Alice has also been in Wayne’s World, where he says: “Alice’s band was intellectual and smarter than anybody, which was so opposite of what you would think. I got the joke and Mike Myers was great at casting us like that.”
But Cooper has also, from time to time, appeared in other guises. “I got to play an Italian waiter in Sextette, a Mae West film from a play she’d written in 1925,” he says. “Ringo Starr was in it, so was Keith Moon, Dom DeLuise, Timothy Dalton and George Raft. I did a song with Mae West, and I swear that after we did it, she said, ‘Why don’t you come back to my trailer?’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘No, because you’re 86 and I’m not sure you’re a woman.’ But then I found that Keith and Ringo also came to me bragging that she’d asked them – she came on to everybody. She tried to get everybody back to her trailer – she was the real deal, and would have done everybody there.”
West had obviously come to believe that the character she projected was now herself, but Cooper never makes the mistake himself. “As much as I like what happened in the past, I don’t live in the past,” he says. “I appreciate it and I’ll never deny what Alice did – it was terrific and fun – but I always want to think about what the next show is going to be. I think we surprise people when they come to see us. Alice does all the old songs, but he does them now with such venom and vehemence. Alice is a dominatrix and the audience are his slaves. That’s how Alice looks at all of them.”
Alice Cooper’s Theatre of Death is out now on DVD and Blu-ray