Every era has its own cultural pinatas. Of course, achieving archvillain status has always been an ideal strategy for rock 'n' rollers.; From Elvis' swaggering hips to the eventual excesses of Marilyn Manson and even GG Allin, rockers have continually upped the ante on outrageous behaviors, reaping criticism, big bucks, and oftentimes early graves in the process. This rock star/villain dichotomy probably reached its apex in the halcyon daze of the 1970s when Alice Cooper found notoriety as a weirdly androgynous creep singing paeans to dead babies, corpses, and juvenile delinquents.
Retrospectively, it's amazing that Cooper was regarded as such a threat. That an entertainer could find such infamy for creating B-movie horror schlock in a musical context seems naive and oddly sweet. In the 30-something years since his peak stardom, Cooper's public image has evolved from evil incarnate to more of a kindly, if supremely weird, geezer down the block. Nothing is shocking.
"I don't think there is shock anymore," says Cooper. "I mean, really, what's more shocking than anything I do is the violence of the real world. You can't shock an audience this day and age. We've all seen too much already. Anything that happens in Iraq or North Korea or anyplace, we immediately see it. And we see it instantly, in all of its wonderful goriness."
Cooper's unforgettable shows are the stuff of nightmares. But let's not forget that he delivered piles of great rock albums, accented by umpteen hit songs like "School's Out," "I'm Eighteen," and "Billion Dollar Babies," among others. More than just a visual entertainer, Cooper's gritty, Detroit glitter rock influenced scads of performers, like Johnny Rotten, Rob Zombie, Jello Biafra, and, yes, Marilyn Manson. Cooper's latest opus, Dirty Diamonds (New West), has jettisoned the high-gloss production style of his '80s oeuvre in favor of his original, street-tough sound.
"Musically, I'm going back to what I did when I was 16 years old," says Cooper. "I really loved that British Invasion music. I was a big fan of the Yardbirds, and the Who, the Hollies, and Them, all those bands. I'm a garage-rock singer. We play Detroit garage rock, just good, rockin' songs."
So just who is this Alice Cooper? In conversation, Mr. Cooper, nee Vincent Furnier, switches perspective instantly, often referring to himself, or his character, in the third person. The entertainer is or is not Alice Cooper, depending on which millisecond you're talking to him.
"The character I have on stage has nothing to do with me," says Cooper. "I play him two hours at night. I'm a different person when I'm not on stage; I go shopping, I play golf, I've got three kids, I've been married for 30 years, I've got a restaurant, I've got a charity that I take care of—but when it's time to play Alice Cooper, I get to be this ultravillain and become this character that is just the scourge of rock 'n' roll. It's fun to be Alice Cooper, believe me."
Nevertheless, there is indeed just a hint of the arch villain's hubris in the entertainer. Sticking it out for the long-term is a form of sweet revenge for Cooper, who has always claimed to be a part of the vaudeville tradition.
"Back in the 1970s, what I did was very shocking," enthuses Cooper. "I mean, there was a guillotine and I had a woman's name—everything that a parent could be terrified of. I was so demonized. I was pretty much responsible for Vietnam, for Kennedy's assassination, for everything. But in all honesty, my show was just pure entertainment. Alice was rock's premier villain, and that's all I was. The fact that I was theatrical and had hit records, great kid anthems, made it hard to ignore me.
"But now all of the people that were into my music in the '70s are grown up, and they're fine. They survived. All of the kids that I was supposedly going to destroy their minds are doctors and lawyers now. And they bring their kids to the show. There's no nudity in the show, nothing satanic, no bad language, and there never was. I was the product of a lot of great urban legends.
Never one to shirk on the theatrics, Cooper promises that his show will include all of the favorite laughs and thrills, plus a couple of delicious new tortures. "Let's just say if you're gonna be in the first three or four rows, don't wear your best clothes," warns Cooper. "I feel it's my duty to sacrifice at least one pop diva per show, which can get messy. And, for this show, Paris Hilton is going down. All divas must be destroyed.
"I'm an escape artist," Cooper continues. "I want people to come and have fun and escape their normal lives. It's like a vacation from your normal life: That's exactly what the Alice Cooper show does. I have no political motivation. It's just an invitation to come to Alice Land for two hours."