The darker sides of Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper

Without Alice Cooper, there may never have been bands such as KISS, Marilyn Manson, Motley Crue, Slipknot, or Rob Zombie. Alice Cooper is the god of shock rock, having played the theatrically macabre character of ‘Alice Cooper’ on stage for almost forty years. The iconic hard rocker, who pioneered the concept of the rock concert as theatre, is back to his best with Along Came a Spider (SPV Records), his 25th studio album.

In many ways, Along Came a Spider is both a return to Alice’s theatrical best and a legacy of his first (and legendary) solo album released in 1975, Welcome to my Nightmare. In fact, a thread could almost be drawn to Alice’s first band name in the late 60s, The Spiders, but he denies the web stretches back that far.

“No, there’s no connection there at all. In fact, I didn’t even really think about that until after we were half way through the album. The funny thing is that when the do the Along Came a Spider stage show next year, I’m sure there will be a giant spider web behind us that will do a lot of different things. When we were The Spiders, we used to have a glow in the dark spider web behind us, but that was as theatrical as we used to get—that was all we could afford!” Alice said.

Although stopping short of calling this album his magnum opus, Alice said “it was time” for an album like Along Came a Spider and its eponymous serial killer anti-hero main character.

“I wrote the story a long time ago, and when I went back and reviewed the story, I thought the character was really complex. Spider has a lot of complicated personality problems. He’s not just a Hannibal Lecter, thinking he’s smarter than everyone. He’s also got problems—he can’t kill when he falls in love with one of his victims and he has a religious epiphany right in the middle of his spree. And then at the end, you hear him go ‘we couldn’t have done any of this, we have been in this cell for 28 years’. So the audience is left with ‘well, was this whole thing just in his diary?’

In other words, did all of this never really happen?”

Ambiguity is Alice’s playground. Unlike many storytellers of today, Alice trusts in his audience’s intelligence and allows them to fill in the imaginative blanks, which could go some way to explain his enduring appeal.

“What you really want to do in any piece of art is to attack the audience’s imagination—literally make them use their imaginations. Don’t spell it out for them. Give them all the situations and let them figure out what happened because everyone will have a different story, and that’s good. That means I made them think a little bit. I would rather give them a story and let them mull it over.”

Playing the role of Spider did not give Alice any empathy for serial killers, but it did give him a newfound appreciation of the dark side of human nature—and the need for the good to triumph over evil.

“We all have a love affair with fictitious villains. We like our Hannibal Lecters, our Jokers, our Darth Vaders. None of those pieces of literature would be anything without those great anti-heroes. At the same time, we absolutely hate the Charlie Mansons, the Jeffrey Dahmers—the guys that really did it. There is no way of supporting them but for some reason we like supporting our fictitious villains, probably because we know they don’t exist. So we can make them as dastardly, dark, and insane as we want to. When I was creating Spider, I wanted to invent a really interesting guy. I think you will feel guilty liking him. Here he is, picking out people at random and killing them, wrapping them in silk, and stealing their leg. How insane is that? Yet you sit there and think ‘for some reason, I like this guy’.”

Alice has been used to playing dastardly on-stage ‘other halves’ for nearly four decades, and he says good must always win, even when the bad guy’s name is Alice Cooper.

“It’s a morality play. Alice is the villain and he does all these bad things but what happens in the end? They go ‘ok, we need to cut your head off now’. They do a public execution of Alice—they either hang him or electrocute him, and what is the very next thing that happens? He comes back in white top hat and tails, sings ‘School’s Out’, and everything is okay. He comes back almost like salvation. You sort of forget that he was such as bad guy.”

Alice believes the staged death of his evil twin needs to be “really, really graphically good” to get that true sense of justice for the audience.

“When I do the hanging or the guillotine, I go with the best guys that build the guillotine, the best guys that know how to do the hangings, and know that this has to be so real that the audience will actually gasp. Once in a while, I get people who are actually crying. I see people bawling in the audience saying ‘no, don’t do that’ and I laugh because, c’mon, I’ll be back.”

He calls himself a “stone cold professional” when he sees the audience in distress, keeping his amusement to himself.
“I kind of enjoy it—the fact that somebody cares about Alice so much that they are taking it so seriously. Half of the audience, I want them to be laughing their heads off. The other half are really involved in the story. I keep forgetting there are actually people who believe in wrestling.”

Playing himself on stage wasn’t always so easy, Alice admits, particularly back in the late 60s when he was just starting out.

“There was that real grey area when I was an alcoholic. Who were the first people I meet in LA? The Doors. So I had Jim Morrison as a big brother. And then Jimi Hendrix, and then Keith Moon, and then Janis Joplin. All of my big brothers and sisters were alcoholics, drug addicts—and extreme. They all died at 27 years old. My image is more extreme than Jim Morrison’s, and I kept thinking, in order to be Alice Cooper, how am I gonna be this guy all the time? It’s going to kill me. When they all died, I finally realised there has to be a separation. There has to be a point where Alice lives on stage, I live off stage.

“I am the total antithesis of Alice Cooper. I’ve been married 32 years. I’ve never cheated on my wife. I go to church on Sunday with my family. I teach Bible study on Wednesday mornings, sometimes. But when I go on stage, I get to be Alice Cooper, and I get to play this character who is the exact opposite of me. He is arrogant and vicious. It is kind of refreshing.”

With such a flamboyant on-stage persona through which to express his dark side, Alice says he is “extremely stress free” in his down time.

“All of my ducks are pretty much in a row—with my wife, my kids, my family—everybody is in great shape and doing fine. Maybe that is what gives me the freedom to play Alice and really go for it. I think Anthony Hopkins is like that, too. He is basically a beach bum that can do Shakespeare. When he puts on the Hannibal Lecter thing, he becomes the scariest human being on the planet. He finds something in there that is part him, part Lecter, but I guarantee you, that night when he goes home, he leaves Hannibal Lecter on the set. You have to learn to do that.”

Alice has been the inspiration for a generation of shock rockers like Marilyn Manson and Wednesday 13, but he insists there is no competitive rivalry between him and these younger performers.

“They’re all friends of mine. I have gotten to know them, and Rob Zombie, and people like that. If they were to come to me and ask how to get that longevity, I would say look at Ozzy [Osbourne], look at Iggy [Pop], look at [Aerosmith’s] Steven Tyler. The one thing we all have in common is that we all have a lot of great songs. Songs are the gasoline that runs us. If you don’t have those songs, you are going to be a puppet show and over very quickly. If you can get ten hit songs that are going to live for 20 or 30 years, you’ll be a legend.”

By Shane Jiraiya Cummings

First published in Black: Australian Dark Culture #3, 2008

Support the author by buying one of these books and writing a review: