Alice Cooper, veteran rock star and all-around showbiz maven, is on the phone from Melbourne, Australia, where he plays two concerts before continuing on to New Zealand and then Japan. The singer promises that his Psycho Drama tour contains “all the hits,” as well as the stage theatrics he’s notorious for. That, in fact, seems to be the reason he hasn’t played Japan in 20 years. Hauling that gallows around is pretty expensive.
“My show has always been a sort of psycho vaudeville,” Cooper explains in a chipper voice. “It’s not exactly a horror show because there’s comedy in it, and it’s sort of slapstick in places, but at the same time it’s psychotic.”
It is disappointing to learn that there will be no guillotine. Apparently, you get either the gallows or the guillotine, but not both.
“We did the guillotine for five years and decided we’d do the gallows on this tour,” he says. “I think it’s a harder trick. It’s certainly a lot more dangerous than the guillotine (magic tricks in which Cooper is either hanged or beheaded have been a feature of his stage shows since the early 1970s).” This thought leads to another. “It’s funny. You know, I’m in better shape at 60 than I was when I was 30. When I was 30 I was a mess. A lot of us got to that point where we either had to stop doing what we were doing or we were going to check off the planet early.” By “we” Cooper means “guys like me and Ozzy (Osbourne) and Steven Tyler (of Aerosmith), who finally found some space in our careers to cool it.”
All three of these rock icons were born in 1948 and all were famous drug and/or booze addicts at their peak.
Cooper points out that all three still perform. “It’s amazing when you look around and see who’s still touring and who’s still doing great shows,” he says. “Aerosmith is still doing great shows. So is Iggy (Pop). I think our show is better now than it was in 1990.”
Cooper’s self-promotion has the unmistakable ring of the survivor’s exultation at his own endurance. He’s glad to be alive and, more significantly, able to keep pulling in fans.
Nostalgia is certainly the fuel for his popularity, but Cooper’s particular brand of entertainment pizzazz transcends his narrower but by no means trivial reputation as the inventor of shock rock. If you were an American high-school student in the early ’70s, Cooper was the most problematic superstar on Top 40 radio, and if you were a parent of one of those students, he was the devil incarnate. Prefiguring the androgynous image gambits of David Bowie and Lou Reed and The New York Dolls by at least two years, Cooper not only assumed a woman’s name but sported torn and stressed feminine attire and smeared mascara. His infamous stage show incorporated live boa constrictors, mutilated dolls and Grand Guignol effects, like the guillotine. His most famous songs, like “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out,” celebrated stock adolescent rebellion and disaffection in no uncertain terms. Even if his fans knew he was devoutly religious or that his politics were unfashionable (he supported the Vietnam War), they didn’t care. The outrageous persona was everything, and that scared their parents to death.
“You can’t do that anymore,” he says with a laugh. “Honestly, you can’t shock an audience, not when there’s CNN. That’s the one thing that Marilyn Manson and I agree on: All you can do is give them a great show.” In any event, Cooper’s transgressive cachet didn’t survive the breakup of the original Alice Cooper band in 1975. He became a Hollywood fixture, appearing on game shows, hobnobbing with older celebrities (Groucho Marx, Mae West, George Burns), and, most famously, taking up golf.
“But I can see why parents would have been worried,” he adds. “For one thing, urban legends in those days were more powerful than the Internet is now. In 1970, if some kid went to my concert and saw me get my head cut off. There was no way for that story to get around except by word-of-mouth. The story would get so big that by the time it got to school the next day the boa constrictor would be 30 feet long.”
Then there’s the legend of Cooper biting the head off a chicken on stage and drinking its blood. What really happened was that the band was playing in Toronto and a live chicken somehow ran on the stage and Cooper simply tossed the bird into the audience.
“People loved that,” he says. “Now when I give them a show, the next day it’s already on YouTube. When I cut my head off on stage back then it was a great trick, but now you turn on the news and there’s a guy who’s really getting his head cut off by terrorists. It sort of dilutes what I do.”
Nevertheless, Cooper agrees that rock lost something elemental when it lost its ability to shock, and he blames MTV. “What we did was start giving the kids our version of what the song was visually,” he says. “When I used to listen to a song as a kid, I’d have a vision of what that song was. But if there was a video, then you’re stuck with that visualization. We just took everybody’s imagination away.”
There are different styles of theater, just as there are different styles of popular music, and as a parent Cooper admits he isn’t entirely unsusceptible to certain pop-culture provocations. “I listen to certain rap music and I go, ‘What are they telling my 14-year-old daughter?’ ” he says. But he’s quick to make a distinction between aesthetic judgments and value judgments. “When Outkast came along, I thought, ‘that’s a creative band.’ And if there was one NWA, great. They had an edge to them. But when there’s 25 NWAs, then you say: Enough. And you can say the same thing for metal. There was one Metallica, one Black Sabbath, but now we have to deal with 600 of those bands.”
Maybe that’s why he sticks to classic rock on his syndicated radio show, “Nights With Alice Cooper,” which mixes star interviews, reminiscences of the rock life and records he likes, almost all of which come from the ’60s and ’70s.
“Oh, there’s some good young bands out there,” he says without actually naming any. “I’m not one of those guys who sits around and goes, ‘Oh, there’s nothing good anymore.’ But I feel sorry for them because of the way the music business is set up now. It’s no longer about what’s good. We’ve turned rock ‘n’ roll into fast food: Eat it fast and then see what’s next.”
“People ask me, Where do you get your inspiration?” he says. “Don’t you run out of things to say? As long as there are human beings there will be a billion things to write about, because we’re such a great source of both comedy and horror. Of course, I create characters who aren’t real, but they’re based on real people, people who are basically psychotic.”
Alice Cooper performs March 25 at Shin-Kiba Studio Coast, Tokyo (03) 3462-6969; and 27 at IMP Hall, Osaka (06) 7732-8888. Both shows start at 7 p.m. Tickets: ¥8,400 in advance.