Before Alice Cooper the shock-rocker of the 1970s, there was Alice Cooper the band. And before Alice Cooper the band, there was Vincent Furnier. The son and grandson of Christian ministers, Furnier was an aspiring artist who idolized Salvador Dalí. But once the Beatles showed him that rock and roll was an even greater canvas, he embarked on a long, strange trip of a career that would make him loved and loathed, but impossible to ignore. “We were all art majors, and the Beatles came along and gave us a vehicle, and the vehicle was rock and roll,” says Cooper, who officially adopted that stage name for himself in the mid 1970s. “All of a sudden, we went, ‘Wow, look at this. What if we did this live? What if the theatrics was actually a living thing, with rock and roll behind it?’”
Preceding Kiss and Motley Crue, and eons before Marilyn Manson, Cooper cultivated a hellion stage persona that would seduce young audiences, while shocking their conservative parents. Macabre face-paint, giant serpents, and live chickens that may or may not have been mutilated on stage became part of the operatic hard-rock legend that’s the backdrop of Super Duper Alice Cooper, a rock-doc that premiered April 17 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“There’s always been a dark sense of humor to the Alice Cooper thing, and I’ve always appreciated that,” says Cooper. “I think maybe that’s what kept it going for so long – the fact that people love being scared but they love that there’s punchline in there somewhere.”
Click below for an exclusive clip from the documentary and a Q&A with Cooper. (We’re not worthy!)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The famous phrase is “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” In your experience, is that an accurate ranking of the three in a rock star’s lifestyle?
ALICE COOPER: It was much more “Rock and roll, beer, and… more blood, more fog.” I wanted to call the documentary More Blood More Fog. If there’s any problem, just bring out more blood, more fog… and more mirrors.
Rockstars are supposed to be accustomed to female fans throwing panties on stage. I love that Alice Cooper returned the favor and dumped panties on the crowd.
Nobody was going to throw it at us, so we threw it at them! When we did the Hollywood Bowl show, we had the helicopter come down and drop panties on the audience. And Elton John is down there fighting for these panties, because he was in the front row. It was just the perfect hellzapoppin kind of thing. I loved the idea that anything could happen at an Alice Cooper show. Just when you think it’s over, you get bombarded with panties from a helicopter. How great is that?
I couldn’t help but laugh at the mention in the doc of Lester Bangs’ extremely dismissive review of your first album. Did you ever cross paths with him?
Lester Bangs was a buddy of ours. After that, he thought that we were going to hate him. He was, you know, Creem Magazine’s Lester Bangs, and we were all part of the Detroit gang at that point: Iggy [Pop] and Alice and Ted Nugent and the MC5 and the whole thing. “A tragic waste of plastic.” We laughed so hard. That is such a great line. Of course, Lester Bangs is gone now, and I am on my, what, 30th album, 31st album. Now people listen to Pretties For You and they think, “This album is just art.” Frank Zappa loved that album. He says, “I don’t get this. You guys don’t make any sense at all.” That’s a major compliment. That’s when we knew we kind of had something.
Alice Cooper was originally just the name of the collective band, and then it became your personal identity. Was there a moment during that evolution that you sort of figured the character out, where you said, “Yes, this is what I do.”
I just always said, I want Alice to be rock’s villain. I want him to be the Moriarty of rock. The really smart villain. Clever, and at the same time, it’s sexual. But funny, too; it’s got vaudeville to it too. And we did it. We actually created that guy, and 50 years later, he’s still here. [Though technically] there were two characters. There was the early [Alice]. When I look at him and I go, “Wow, this guy was such a victim.” He was always getting his head cut off and he was in a straight-jacket. The world was against him, and I realized I was pretty much representing all those disenfranchised kids out there that were not Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fans. I had the lunatic fringe audience. They related to the whipping-boy kind of character. Then when I was sober, I realized I couldn’t play that character any more because I didn’t feel like that character. So the new Alice was this arrogant villain – and that’s the way I play him now.
There was such outrage early on with the whole shock-rocker thing, and some of your stage theatrics were intentionally provocative.
The more that we saw people react, the more license we had to do it. Every time I saw a negative something in the paper about, “Oh, how dare they do this and this and this,” I’d go, “This is really good.” [Laughs]
You can make a living pissing off moms and dads.
Elvis pissed off every parent. Sinatra pissed off every parent. He was the first rock star, with the bobby-soxers who used to tear up the theaters. We just happened to be that on steroids. And we were smart enough to cash in on it. The funny thing was, as an artist, when you see people reacting, you don’t care what the reaction is – as long as they react. If you do a painting, and people all of a sudden are just reacting all over to that painting, that means you did something. You affected them somehow. So in rock and roll, why not guillotine, why not a snake, why not chopped-up baby dolls. And if they didn’t get the joke – I mean, it took awhile, but finally people started getting it, in a Monty Python kind of way, you know.
Did playing Alice ever become a burden for you? I mean, whether it was on stage or at the food store, people probably expected a certain type of performance from you.
Yeah, there was that gray area, of Where did I end and where did Alice start? I just didn’t know. I’m going to go to a movie, do I bring the snake? Do I have to wear the makeup? And I finally got to a point of realizing, when I finally got sober, that I had to be able to play both characters. I had to be Dr. Frankenstein during the day, and then that night, the monster onstage.
But my problem was – actually when I got into the hospital for alcoholism, the doctor said, “Well, how much does Alice drink?” I mean, I blamed everything on Alice. And I realized that when I was onstage, I never drank. When I was doing a movie, I never drank. When I was doing TV, I didn’t drink, when I was doing Johnny Carson, I didn’t drink. So it wasn’t the monster that had the problem. It was the Doctor. So 22 hours of the day was the problem. The two hours on stage was the only time I was sober. Alice was fine. I was the problem.
Watching the doc and looking back at your career, did everything happen to way it had to happen? Or do you see crucial moments that could’ve gone very differently?
We were at the right place at the right time with the right attitude and the right stuff. I keep telling other bands, it’s a one in a million – it’s like winning the lottery – if your band makes it. Even a band like Mumford and Sons. At this point in time, in this part of the world, somehow their music relates to everybody. But in 1969, Pink Floyd related to everybody somehow. So there’s no predicting this stuff. I mean, Justin Bieber would never have happened in the ’70s, but he happened to be exactly the right thing for this time in the history of rock and roll. In those days, everything was squeakily clean. There was no backstory. Whereas now, with a guy that’s kind of squeaky clean, then you want to see the dirt. And I think people just kept prodding [Bieber] until he finally became the criminal they wanted him to be, and now they hate him. It’s very weird how this business works. We tried to stay ahead of that. We said, “We already know you hate us. But we’re going to make records that you love and no matter what happens, you’re going to have to digest us.”
Super Duper Alice Cooper will open in theaters on April 30.