“Wherever we could play, who’s ever gonna pay us, we were gonna show up. If it paid for groceries for that month, that’s what we were gonna do.”
The 1970s saw a string of platinum albums from the Alice Cooper band including Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies, followed by continued success as a solo artist with Welcome To My Nightmare and Alice Cooper Goes To Hell.
The shock rock pioneer then became a horror icon in the 80s by cutting tracks on slasher films while slithering his way on screen in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, followed by a performance in Wayne’s World that forever cemented Alice Cooper as a music legend by 90s movie-goers.
Speaking from Louisville, Kentucky, on his Ol’ Black Eyes is Back tour, the survivor of alcoholism, asphyxiation and the guillotine is asked to open his catalog of stories from over 50 years on the road:
“The Midwest is always the best. You go to New York, you go to L.A., those are ‘show me’ audiences – ‘we’ve seen everything.’ Then you get to the Midwest, and they’re much more of a hard rock audience. That’s what they get with us. We’re hard rock all the way.”
Alice Cooper says he’s eager to return to Indianapolis and isn’t shy about showing off his killer band once again.
“I’m old-school about ‘Who’s got the best band? Who’s best live?’ So I spend 80 percent of the time making sure that the band is the best band out there.”
This Alice Cooper lineup is composed of a triple-guitar threat in Ryan Roxie, Tommy Henriksen, and ‘Hurricane’ Nita Strauss, while bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Glen Sobel are the rolling thunder of the rhythm section.
“I’ve really put together a band that just will knock everybody’s brains out when they see ‘em. You add the theatrics to that and the Alice Cooper character — it’s a pretty exciting night!”
While preparing for soundcheck with the current crew of misfits, Cooper recounts his return to Michigan from the west coast at the end of the 1960s.
“L.A. had the Doors, and they were our best friends, but it was a different style of music. San Francisco was all groovy, sort of bluesy. New York had its sound. We were much more Detroit, that’s where we felt most comfortable.”
With Michigan as home base, the original Alice Cooper lineup would open for big touring bands at clubs and theaters along with their Motor City peers.
“Every weekend, we would play either The Grande Ballroom, the Eastown or the Fox. Back then, big bands from England did not play arenas, they played clubs. It would be The Stooges, Alice Cooper, and the Kinks or The Who. Tickets were four dollars!”
Cooper also recalls the staggering amount of talent in the early days of Michigan’s rock n’ roll scene.
“Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Iggy and The Stooges, the MC5 – none of us were big bands. We were just local Detroit bands. None of us knew who was going to make and who wasn’t. It ended up that all of us did, really.”
Before landing a national tour, Cooper says they would play surrounding states in pretty much any place that would have them. This included Lafayette Jefferson High School’s After Prom in 1970.
According to Tippecanoe County legend, the prom committee was duped by promoters into thinking “Alice Cooper” was a female folk singer, solidifying a gig that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
“We depended on that! Wherever we could play, who’s ever gonna pay us, we were gonna show up. If it paid for groceries for that month, that’s what we were gonna do. I don’t think I was elected prom king that night though, pretty sure!”
The Alice Cooper band continued to carve out a notorious reputation, fueled by stories like the infamous “chicken incident.” Commercial success for the outfit, however, seemed out of reach.
“At that time, if you weren’t Creedence Clearwater or the Supremes, you just didn’t get on the radio. There was a Top 40 and you were up against Sinatra and Elvis Presley.”
It was a collaboration with legendary producer Bob Ezrin, Cooper says, that scored them a hit record in Love It To Death.
“Bob became our George Martin. He took a song like ‘I’m Eighteen’ and put it into a three-minute package that every eighteen-year-old kid could buy into. It was simple, it was very punk, and the hook on it was ‘I’m eighteen and I like it.’ He had the same sense of humor as we did.”
“I’m Eighteen” was the band’s first charting hit, landing on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, and solidifying a long-time relationship with Ezrin.
“He could come in and know what to slice off, what to keep, and really was our sixth member. As soon as we got Bob Ezrin, we had five platinum albums in a row! For a band like that, to have hit records was something that was unheard of. That was the whole success story right there.”
A half-century later, Alice Cooper sits atop a throne of countless world tours, smash albums, and legions of fans.
When asked about the competitive nature of the industry, Cooper speaks with love and respect about other artists that created stage characters, like the late, great David Bowie.
“David and I were good friends. David used to bring the Spiders From Mars to London to see us play, just so he could give them the idea of what theatrical rock was, because we were the first. I really respected Bowie. We were always in competition, but we were never enemies – we were always friends.”
As a syndicated radio show host with seemingly endless knowledge of music, Cooper is also godfather figure to metalheads like Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine and compadres with countless other rock n’ rollers.
Cooper recounts being asked by his friends Guns N’ Roses to do a verse for “The Garden” on their Use Your Illusion I album in 1991, a few years after taking them on their first tour.
“Slash, Duff and I are really good friends. I don’t see Axl very much, but we always got along really well. Axl called me at about two in the morning. And he says, ‘I got this song and it’d be great if you sang on it.’ I knew that they liked to take a lot of time [recording], so I said, ‘Axl, I will come down, but I’m gonna nail the song in about an hour.’ I think I got in two takes.”
Before wrapping up the call, the conversation comes full circle as Cooper explains how the band started blending Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” with his classic cut “School’s Out” at recent live shows.
“We were friends with Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett was in the band. They ran out of money back in 1969 in L.A. and moved in with us. Bob Ezrin produced ‘School’s Out,’ he produced ‘Another Brick In The Wall.’ Both songs had kids singing on it, both songs were anthems, and when we put them together I said, ‘This fits like a glove!’”
As another night descends upon another city, Alice Cooper doesn’t sound like he’s closing the coffin any time soon.
“I’m working on a new Alice album right now. That’ll be my twenty-ninth album, I think. It’s constant touring, we finish in December and we go back out in February to Australia.”
He says Hollywood Vampires, his supergroup with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and actor Johnny Depp, will also be doing another album and tour next year.
“I never thought that at 71, I was going to be in two touring bands and two recording bands. I made four records last year and two records this year. It’s been constant work – and I’m the only one not breathing hard!”
Alice Cooper performs November 25 at the Murat Theatre in Old National Centre: