When Alice Cooper and his band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago, the compere Rob Zombie jokingly reminded the star-studded audience that when the group first burst onto the scene in 1969, they were “a murderous gang of drag queens”. He added: “Their mission was to destroy the hippy dream of peace, love and understanding. All they wanted were Ferraris, switch blades and blondes.”
Small wonder, then, that a few of the diehard fans of Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, a festival with its roots deep in the folk revival and flower power culture of the Sixties, were left crying into their real ale tankards when they heard that the boa constrictor-wrestling, chicken murdering, blood-spattered circus master of shock rock was to top the bill on the first night of the event next month.
“There will be a few arun sweater’d (sic) beardies muttering darkly into their cider,” predicted one gloomily on Fairport Convention’s website. So how does Alice feel about it?
“I can only think that putting Alice Cooper on at a folk festival is someone’s idea of revenge,” he laughs, adding rather diplomatically for a monster of rock: “I’d say my musical taste is pretty far away from folk music, but as a lyricist and songwriter I appreciate it. I don’t really dislike any music as long as it’s cleverly written.”
Which tells us a lot about the modern Alice Cooper, or Coopers, because of course there are two Alices. He told broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos on Canadian TV show The Hour four years ago, “You have Alice, this character that loves to be on stage, loves to be this arrogant villain. Then there’s me, who is nothing like him. I’m nothing like him at all.”
Both Alices have mellowed considerably, as you would expect of a man who celebrated his 65th birthday last February. Nowadays, stage Alice is more the king of mock shock rock, a panda-faced Captain Hook of pop pantomime. And in real life he has become a bit of a transatlantic treasure whose disarming sense of humour no longer has to hide when the sun comes up.
He has duetted with a transmogrified Miss Piggy on The Muppets, promoted the reasonably priced car on BBC’s Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson and in November 2010 appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Asked by Kirsty Young what book he would choose as well as the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, he quipped, “Something that is going to explain Shakespeare to me.”
All of which is a far cry from the days when Detroit-born Vincent Furnier, a 16-year-old gangly, athletic, rebellious joker at school in Arizona set out with obsessive zeal (he admits to having an “addictive personality”) to become a star in the mould of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles (his first band was called The Earwigs) and to live the American Dream by creating a nightmare stage show.
Enter, with the possible exception of the Funky Chicken, the most famous fowl in the history of popular music. Everyone now knows that Alice didn’t really butcher a chicken on stage at the 1969 Toronto Rock n’ Roll Revival Show, and that it was the band’s record producer Frank Zappa who told Alice not to deny the stories running in the local press. In his autobiography, Alice Cooper Golf Monster, Alice says that he only found out as he was writing the book nearly 40 years later that it was Shep Gordon, his manager, who had thrown the chicken on the stage. Is it possible, I ask Alice, that it was also Shep or Frank who span up the exaggerated version to the press? “Very possibly,” says Alice. “I can rule nothing out when it comes to those guys.”
Having recorded songs which were to survive the test of 40 years – School’s Out, Elected, I’m Eighteen – Cooper’s career took off. In August 1972, Mary Whitehouse tried to get him banned from Top of the Pops. Cooper sent her flowers in gratitude. He tells me: “I loved Mary Whitehouse. She accidentally helped our career more than she would ever know. She was probably a sweet lady who made lovely cookies and tea.”
Nowadays Cooper likes to defend the excesses of his early stage shows, which included some pretty bleak stuff – simulated sex and infanticide – as a morality play in which the bad guy got his comeuppance. But isn’t that just a way of the older Alice defending his younger self?
“There is no defending the younger Alice,” he says. “I had to digest and psychoanalyse the early Alice character like anyone else did. It was pretty bizarre stuff we were doing.
“There were no boundaries, and I was just being spontaneous. We were just trying to clear the room. At the time, there was no separation between myself and Alice. But it was fun, wasn’t it? The show today is just as much fun, though I learned the hard way that you have to separate your character from yourself. I guess when you think about it a lot of artists are closet psychopaths.”
By “learning the hard way” he means the intensive years of touring in the 70s and early 80s, which started with two years on the road to promote his first solo album Nightmare, and ended with Cooper becoming an alcoholic.
He told George Stroumboulopoulos: “There are three records in particular where I don’t remember writing them, recording them, or touring with them. And if you ask my real true fans, ‘What are your favourite albums?’ it’s those three albums, Dada, Special Forces and Zipper Catches Skin, and I don’t even know one song on those albums.”
He had two spells in rehab, in 1977, and again in 1983 when he dried out for good and hasn’t touched a drop since. He also became a born-again Christian and took up golf with the same zeal with which he had pursued his early career, attaining nearly a professional standard.
Alice has sold 50 million records and recorded 26 albums, admittedly not all of them memorable, and he still enjoys a substantial fan base in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Finland and Canada.
“We live on the road,” says Alice. “Typically we’re away from home about 160 days a year, sometimes more.
“This year we started rehearsals in late May and we’ll be working until December, and we’ll be working all over the world. Our crowds get bigger every year in every country we play.”
This year to date they are touring in America, Canada, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Belgium and the UK. Alice’s wife Sheryl once told Phoenix Home and Garden magazine: “You travel with eight semis, 20 tons of equipment and an entourage of 30 people.
‘‘What you see is the inside of a bus, an airport terminal or a sports arena. After a while, it all kind of looks alike. I can’t tell you how many times Alice has come backstage during the encore and asked, ‘Sheryl, where are we?!’ Then, ten minutes later I hear him yell, ‘Thank you Kansas City!’ to the audience.”
His stage is no place for wimps. Once, the boa constrictor got diarrhoea. Johnny Rotten, who was in the audience, told him afterwards it was the best live show he’d ever seen.
During a show at Wembley Arena in 1988 a mock hanging went wrong when the cable meant to support him snapped, and he chinned himself on the edge of the trap door, knocking himself out. He recovered and finished the show.
As for the guillotine: “The guillotine is not to be trifled with,” acknowledges Alice. “It’s a 40 pound blade that only misses me by a few inches. If there were an accident and it didn’t cut my head off it would definitely break my neck. There’s never been a time in the thousands of times I’ve put my head in it when I’ve felt comfortable. You only have to have one mishap and it’s all over. Thankfully, there’s never been a mishap with the guillotine.
“But my stage is a dangerous place, so yes, we have to account for that. There are swords, knives, snakes, whips, sparks and all sorts of other things that could hurt you.”
Offstage, Alice Cooper reminds me of the hero of Joe Walsh’s song Life’s Been Good – “They say I’m crazy but I have a good time.”
He lives in a tastefully-renovated desert ranch house complex in Paradise Valley near Phoenix, Arizona, where the night sky blazes with stars.
He also has, unless he has sold it recently, a house on the beach on Manui, an island off Hawaii known for its stunning sunsets.
He has been married for 37 years to wife Sheryl, 57, a classically-trained ballerina and award-winning choreographer. Their three children are grown up. He plays golf nearly every day. But they also head up the Solid Rock Foundation, a programme for at-risk inner city teenagers.
A year or two back Alice promised rashly that he wouldn’t retire until at least the age that Mick Jagger was when he called it a day. This year the Stones headlined Glastonbury, and Sir Mick is 70. So, I say to Alice, you’re shackled to Alice until you are at least 70.
“If I’m 65,” says Alice, “no part of my body has realised it. I am more active on every level than I have ever been.
“The show is faster, harder and longer. I’m in better shape at 65 than I was at 35.
“Maybe it’s the fact that I have never smoked cigarettes, that I haven’t had a drink in 30 years, and that I’ve been happily married for 37 years.
“I also have a sense of humour about everything. Happiness and being satisfied with what you have and not worried about what you don’t have can do a lot for your health.
Finally, I ask him what he would like his epitaph to be. Rock music’s one-man answer to The Munsters doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Here lies Alice,” he says. “From since when he was teething he never stopped rocking until he stopped breathing.” To which this Cropredy convert can only say, “Amen”.
* Fairport’s Cropredy Convention runs from August 8 to August 10. Tickets from 0900 637 1644 or email email@example.com.