“Alice Is Kind of Eternal”: A Conversation With Alice Cooper

The affable hard-rock pioneer talks about his Detroit-inspired new album, the band’s early Motor City breakthroughs, and how it’s possible that “somebody else could play Alice” after he’s gone. 

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Photo credit: Jenny Risher.

Alice Cooper’s new album, called Detroit Stories and out Feb. 26, brings the shock-rock icon full circle. Just over 50 years ago, the original Alice Cooper band — the eponymous singer, guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith — arrived in the Motor City to record their third album, Love It to Death.

It was the first of many homecomings for Cooper, who was born in the city in 1948 as Vincent Furnier, the son of a preacher. By his teenage years the family had moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where the Alice Cooper band came together as high schoolers — first as the Earwigs, which became the Spiders and later the Nazz. After relocating to Los Angeles, their bizarre theatrics and outrageous outfits caught the attention of Frank Zappa, who released the band’s first two albums, 1969’s Pretties for You and ’70’s Easy Action, on his Straight Records label.

The band ultimately found its spiritual home in Detroit. With producer Bob Ezrin at the helm, Love It to Death pared down the eccentric, off-kilter psychedelia of the band’s first two releases, streamlining their sound under the influence of gritty contemporaries like the Stooges, the MC5 and Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. That third album, followed later the same year by Killer, not only redefined the band but gave birth to the larger-than-life character of Alice Cooper, a horror-movie villain with a snarling, sly sense of humor who inevitably received his fatal comeuppance at the end of every performance — whether by electric chair, gallows or, most famously, guillotine.

Detroit Stories is a celebration of the city and its raucous sound. Reteaming with Ezrin once again, Cooper enlisted a host of local luminaries including MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, Grand Funk Railroad frontman Mark Farner, the Detroit Wheels drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and the Bob Seger-associated Motor City Horns. The surviving members of the original Alice Cooper band — Buxton died in 1997 — reconvene on two tracks. A day after his 73rd birthday in early February, Cooper reminisced about his history with the city over the phone from his home in Phoenix.

Cooper performs in New Zealand in February 2020. Credit: Dave Simpson/WireImage.

What led you back to Detroit at this point in time?

Everybody seems to think it’s nostalgia, but it really isn’t at all. We didn’t even think about the fact that Love It to Death is 50 years old. You would think that would be the coordination, but that was just a coincidence. The idea really was that Bob [Ezrin] and I wanted to do just a really good hard-rock album. That turned into “Well, why don’t we go to where hard rock is king?” And that was Detroit.

Detroit Stories is a lot of fun, and a real celebration of the city, from cover songs like the MC5’s “Sister Anne” to the all-star band you’ve pulled together.

We didn’t really have a concept for this album, and we usually do. So I said, “Why not take it even further and go to Detroit, write and record the album there and use all Detroit players?” So now we have a concept. If we’re going to do a hard-rock album, do it from the capital of hard rock. But we wanted to represent all of Detroit. Maybe Alice could do a little Motown, like on “$1000 High Heel Shoes.” That would throw people off a bit. That’s where it all came from. There really was no nostalgia involved.

Still, the timing is impeccable, with both Love It to Death and Killer celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year.

It really is. The funny thing is, I always considered the original band [as hailing] from Detroit because that’s where we broke. We were from Phoenix and went to L.A., but L.A. didn’t get us at all. Detroit did. In L.A. we opened for the Doors, who were really good friends of ours, but we still did not fit into L.A. We were “bad vibes” because we didn’t mind a little violence onstage. We just freaked them out. And then San Francisco had this sort of country thing going on with their rock and roll, so we didn’t belong there. We were totally not a New York band. So we said, “The first place that gives us a standing ovation, that’s where we’re going to move.” We were that much a gypsy band at that point in our career. And it ended up being Detroit.

The sound was a perfect fit, but so was the attitude. Alice Cooper is known for bringing theatrical elements to the fore, but watching Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch’s documentary on the Stooges, it really hits home that the Stooges and the MC5 were extremely theatrical bands as well.

Oh yeah, in totally different ways. We played a big pop festival there. I’d never heard of Iggy and the Stooges or the MC5 or Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. I saw the MC5 and I went, “Wow, a show band. That’s something you don’t see.” I mean, it was like a revue. And then the next thing I see, this guy comes up onstage with no shirt on, no shoes and the band was so basic. Then [Iggy] did his whole thing, and I had never seen anything like that. I thought we were the only theatrical band. Nobody called it punk because there was no definition of that, but you couldn’t get more punk than Iggy. It was way before the Ramones or the Sex Pistols or any of that, so we were looking at the beginnings of punk right there.

At that point we went on and did what we did. Detroit loves in-your-face-attitude hard rock. They do not like soft rock. They do not like anything that’s kind of “Gee, I hope you’ll like us tonight. Here’s a song I wrote about my girlfriend.” They want the music in their face, and they want you to take them by the throat and shake ’em. And that’s what we did — and that’s what Iggy did and that’s what the MC5 did. So we fit right in.

You’ve reunited with the members of the original band a few times in recent years, which has been great to see. You must have come to a good place if you can vent all your old grievances with each other, as you do on Detroit Stories with “I Hate You.”

First of all, when we broke up, we didn’t divorce, we separated. We had done pretty much everything and wore each other out, and everybody was ready to do something else. So we just kind of drifted apart. But for all those years I would call up Dennis and ask him to play on something, or he’d ask me to sing on something with his other band, Blue Coupe. Or “Hey, Neil, I really need your drumming on this thing. Only you could play this.” We always stayed in touch with each other. We never hated each other.

So we decided to write a song called “I Hate You.” We were laughing our heads off. And the punch line was going to be about Glen, who passed away: “We hate you most for the empty space you left onstage.” Everybody really does feel like that about Glen. I didn’t really think the band could ever be Alice Cooper anymore without him. Glen played like nobody else. He was our Keith Richards. The only person that he would jam with was Syd Barrett — let’s put it that way.

Love It to Death also inaugurated what’s now been a five-decade relationship with Bob Ezrin. How important was he to shaping Alice Cooper’s sound and image?

Bob was our George Martin. He came in and really turned us into Alice Cooper. I look at Pretties for You and Easy Action as songs left over from when we were the Nazz. We wrote a lot of that stuff when we were still in high school. Frank Zappa wasn’t really interested in us being a commercial hit. He thought we were just another freak band.

It seemed like he saw the band as another exhibit in this menagerie he was collecting, alongside the GTOs and Wild Man Fischer.

And that was great. To even be mentioned with Frank Zappa was a big break for us, but it didn’t sell any records. So when Bob got ahold of us, he said, “I know how to make what you guys do into hit records.” And we went, “OK, well, try it.” And he did. He took “I’m Eighteen” and kept saying, “Dumb it down.” He said, “The simpler it is, the more powerful it is.” We always wanted to be the Yardbirds, so dumbing it down didn’t make any sense to us. But when we heard it dumbed down to its most basic thing, then I heard how powerful the song was.

“I’m Eighteen” works so well because of the turn in the lyrics at the end, which became another Alice Cooper trademark. Later songs like “King of the Silver Screen” and “No Man’s Land” would have surprising and funny twist endings, but “I’m Eighteen” just has that perfect sting in the tail.

That was the whole hook of that song. You know, complaining about being 18 and then going, “I’m 18 and I like it.” That was every kid: I like the chaos. I love the fact that I’m messed up.

I’ve got to give all the credit where credit’s due. Nobody wrote better lyrics than Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry could tell a story in three minutes, and he did it every single song. The stuff he did was so clever. I would listen to him and just wait for the punch line. “Marie is only [six] years old, information please.” You think he’s talking about his girlfriend, but he’s talking about his daughter. You’re going, “Ah, he totally got me.”

Alice Cooper onstage during the Love It to Death tour, November 1971. Credit: Peter Stone/Mirrorpix/Getty Images.

Love It to Death is also where the Alice Cooper character came into focus. Was there a moment when you realized that you were actually playing a character onstage and when you discovered who that was?

Yeah, it really defined it. When you got to songs like “[Ballad of] Dwight Fry,” we realized that song has to be done in a straitjacket [under] a cold, blue light, so the audience felt claustrophobic. And we could afford that because we could just turn a white shirt into a straitjacket. We had no money at the time at all, so we couldn’t afford guillotines and gallows and all that stuff. So we had to kind of invent our theatrics. It was guerrilla theater at that time. … That’s really where it started. You’re right. Before that, I was a lead singer that did a lot of crazy things. With Love It to Death, I was Alice Cooper.

The character was so defined by the time you recorded Killer that you could take him and put him into all these different genres: Alice is a gunslinger on “Desperado”; he’s James Bond on “Halo of Flies”; he’s Jimmy Cagney going to the electric chair on “Killer.”

Exactly. I always thought of Alice as being totally cinematic. He was all these characters — a little bit of West Side Story, a little bit of Dracula, a little bit of Danny Kaye. I loved the idea of a very arrogant, elegant sort of villain. He might cut your throat, but he would never swear at you. He was that kind of guy. And for him to be so arrogant onstage, there had to be that [Inspector] Clouseau moment where he would slip on a banana peel. He had to look like an idiot at some point and then kind of get his composure back and become the villain again. I always thought that was the funniest thing to do.

There’s always been a real vein of offbeat humor along with the shock and horror in your work. It’s here on the new album with a song like “Independence Dave,” which would fit into some of those early ’80s solo albums that have such strange, quirky song ideas on them — Flush the Fashion or Zipper Catches Skin.

On one of the albums, I think it was Zipper Catches Skin, I just went through the [National] Enquirer and almost every headline was a title. That’s where I got “[I’m Alive] That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life.” It was a little Broadway-ish, but it was still a great title.

Speaking of Broadway, references to musical theater or movie musicals recur a lot. West Side Story pops up a few times. “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music, creeps into “Halo of Flies.”

And Guys and Dolls. We always really liked the wise guys. When I saw Guys and Dolls, the lingo was so cool. In fact, “School’s Out” was based on a Bowery Boys thing. Muggsy’s telling Sach to wise up, and he goes, “School’s out!” and hits him with his hat. And I went, “What? Oh, wait a minute, that’s really good. School’s out — wise up. That’s a good song right there.”

So how does Alice reemerge after the pandemic?

Alice is kind of eternal. When I’m gone 30 years from now — I’m going to give myself 30 years — somebody else could play Alice. He’s a character. In fact, if I was gone right now, the best person to play this character would be my daughter, Calico. She’s an actress and a dancer and a singer, and she understands who Alice is. So I think somebody else could absolutely play Alice after I’m gone.

I’m not so sure about that.

Well, they wouldn’t do it as well, that’s for sure.

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