Happy Birthday, Alice Cooper!

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Alice Cooper, Live At Montreux 2005 album
Alice Cooper, Live at Montreux 2005 album

When he’s not onstage, shock-rock legend Alice Cooper, 73, is pretty mellow these days. He lives in Phoenix and plays a lot of golf, which he credits with helping him get and stay sober decades ago without the need of a 12-step program. He also hosts his annual Rock & Roll Golf Classic tournament (benefitting Alice Cooper's Solid Rock Teen Centers) and is given to statements like this: “The most important club in my bag is the putter...You can hit the ball straight onto the fairways all day long but if your short game is weak, you’re going to have a terrible time.”

In the 1970s Alice Cooper, the man and the band, soundtracked the decade by blasting out one glam-metal classic after another, from “I’m Eighteen” to “Under My Wheels” to “School’s Out” to “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. Their uniquely theatrical stage show featured pyrotechnics, guillotines, fake blood, swords, and boa constrictors. Not only metal bands like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses but also alternative bands like Sonic Youth and The Flaming Lips claim Alice Cooper as an influence. Lifelong fan Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols by singing along to an Alice Cooper song on Malcolm McLaren’s jukebox.

Alice was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit on February 4, 1948. His family, active in their evangelist Christian church, moved to Phoenix in the early 1960s, where Vince met his future bandmates on the Cortez High School track team. Only guitarist Glen Buxton could play, and he had to teach the rest of the band. The Earwigs became The Spiders and relocated to Los Angeles in 1968, where they chose the name ‘Alice Cooper’ as a humorously wholesome-sounding contrast to the scuzziness of their music (not, as rock lore would have it, after a ouija session with a 17th-century witch). In his 2007 memoir Alice Cooper, Golf Monster, he attributes their bedraggled, gender-bending look to their love of movies like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: "In the movie, Bette wears disgusting caked makeup smeared on her face and underneath her eyes, with deep, dark, black eyeliner." Not only did the aspiring rockers look freaky and play poorly, but their music was also sinister and ugly-sounding, especially for the hippie era. At the Cheetah Club on the Santa Monica pier, they managed to clear out a large crowd in under ten minutes. This feat attracted the attention of manager Shep Gordon, who foresaw the possibility of turning their negativity into gold, and an audition with Frank Zappa. The band misunderstood Zappa’s request to arrive “at seven o’clock” to mean seven in the morning; his experience of being awoken by the sound of their malevolent caterwauling impressed Zappa so much that he immediately signed them to his Straight Records label.

The shock-rock image was cemented by a 1969 incident at which a chicken somehow made it onto the stage; Alice, inexperienced with farm animals, thought it would fly and heaved it over the audience, who reportedly stomped it to death. This was extrapolated into the rumor that he had ripped its head off and drunk its blood on stage, which Alice was inclined to deny until counseled by Zappa, "Well, whatever you do, don't tell anyone you didn't do it."

In 1970, fed up with hippie Los Angeles after two failed albums for Straight, the band relocated to Michigan, where they were much better received by the rowdier fans of the Stooges and the MC5. Here they refined their classic tough-glam sound with albums like Love It To Death and Killer and won a multi-album contract with Warner Brothers. On tour in Europe in 1971, fans witnessed a histrionic stage show in which a villainous, spandexed Alice, menace to society, chopped the heads off baby dolls, and was executed by electric chair. At their 1973 commercial peak with Billion Dollar Babies, they were outselling the Rolling Stones and touring the world by private jet, and Alice was demanding a teenage nation sick of Nixon that he be “Elected” President instead. Their Broadway-inspired show was more violent, expensive, and visually stunning than ever. Exhausted by concept albums and massive tours, the band broke up after 1974’s Muscle of Love and Alice went solo with the more stripped-down, writerly Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975.

Book cover for Welcome To My Nightmare
Welcome To My Nightmare
Cooper, Alice

For the rest of the decade he was in and out of sobriety. He refers to his early 1980s work as “the blackout albums” because he claims he was too wasted on drugs and booze to remember even recording them; still, they yielded unexpected pleasures like the extremely New Wave “Clones (We’re All)” and “Skeletons In the Closet”. In 1983, after being hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver, he found golf and went sober for good. His musical output from here on became more traditionally metal; he recorded songs for ‘80s horror movies and guested with Twisted Sister and Guns N’ Roses. Alice never stopped putting on and innovating his shock-rock extravaganza stage show. He mentored and toured with younger metalheads like Megadeth and Rob Zombie, and even encouraged some of them to sobriety. In Wayne’s World in 1992, Alice impresses Wayne and Garth by expounding on the history of Milwaukee to them backstage. In 2011 he finally reunited onstage with his original bandmates (minus Glen Buxton, who died in 1997) for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Alice loves classic Hollywood and is ever tongue-in-cheek. In the 1970s he liked to appear on Hollywood Squares; in 1979 he performed “Welcome To My Nightmare” on The Muppet Show, playing a satanic character trying to get Kermit and Gonzo to sell their souls. He also appeared on his idol Soupy Sales’ show and played a disco-loving waiter in Mae West’s final film, Sextette. In 1978, he helped Hugh Hefner lead the campaign to restore the dilapidated Hollywood sign and personally donated $27,778 for the second ‘O’ in memory of his old friend Groucho Marx.

For all the makeup and theatrics, Alice Cooper’s songs stand the test of time. With his craggy voice and rough-hewn lyrics, veering between funhouse satire and hungover honesty, he always entertains and inspires over knockout guitar hooks. No less than Bob Dylan is a fan, calling Alice “overlooked” as a songwriter in an interview for Rolling Stone. Listen to “Generation Landslide” to hear what Dylan is talking about.

Book cover for Alice Cooper, Golf Monster
Alice Cooper, Golf Monster
Cooper, Alice

Alice reportedly plays golf six days a week, with an impressively low handicap. As he writes in his memoir, “If rock 'n' roll made my life, then golf saved my life.“