Alice Cooper, as his friends, family, fans and maybe some music writers already know, is not the guy he plays onstage. Perhaps this is evident by the fact that on stage he’s been decapitated with a guillotine hundreds of times over the years, yet still has his head.
The fact remains that, unlike other artists in the same “horror-rock” genre that he sparked who are very close to the characters they portray in their music and on-stage, he is not. Though considered the “Godfather of Shock Rock,” and the pioneer of this amalgam of rock & roll, horror movies and the Grand Guignol tradition of extreme theatrical bloody violence, Alice Cooper is not a persona, but a character he plays.
In fact, “Alice Cooper” was the name of the band at first, back in 1964. He was still Vince Furnier then. It was a band that emerged from Phoenix with Vince on vocals and harmonica, Glen Buxton on lead guitar, Michael Bruce on rhythm guitar, Dennis Dunaway on bass, and Neal Smith on drums. Their debut album didn’t get made or released until 1969, but it wasn’t until 1971 that they had a hit with “I’m Eighteen.”
It was not until the band dissolved in 1975 that Vince became Alice Cooper, at which time he took that character as far as he could, leading to his first album as Alice, Welcome To My Nightmare, released in 1975.
When I interviewed him the first time for this magazine several years ago, he did admit to a recognition that he was becoming Alice in a lot of ways at first, in ways that were not wanted.
“I really did not know where I ended and Alice started,” he said. “I would be out drinking and partying with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon – you know, they’re like my big brothers – and I guess I got to be Alice all the time. I tried that and I drank more and it was really hard to be this character all the time, to the point that when I quit drinking I became very clear on one thing: Alice is an institutional character; he’s a character like Captain Hook or any of these other ubiquitous characters.
“That’s what makes Alice fun to play. He’s somebody who’s really the opposite of me. I didn’t see that when I was drinking because I was a little foggy.”
It’s a distinction he painted so boldly, perhaps, because he was speaking to a songwriting magazine. And though Alice was created for fun, for entertainment, and never as a serious symbol for his true self, when it comes to the songwriting, he is very serious. Writing for a character, as anyone who has done so knows well, whether in a musical or a single song, is a separate challenge from writing as yourself.
He affirmed this by saying that songwriters through the years often would send him a song, or just a lyric, that they were sure was perfect for Alice Cooper.
“And I would read it,” he said, “and tell them that Alice would never say that.” When they would ask why, he would say, “I know Alice, and he would never say that.”
It’s a story which reflects the writer in him, and his allegiance to the mission of writing the right songs for his character. His focus is not on the performance but the writing, and maintaining the authenticity of the character’s voice.
Which comes down to the central truth: it is songwriting that matters the most to him. Getting him right. And as his songs have been written for this character, people assume that is the totality of this man and his work. But they would be wrong.
“Being a songwriter,” he said, “is something I absolutely love more than anything else. It’s fun to play the character, but being a songwriter is greater.” And like most songwriters, he cares about songs, and wants young artists to understand that all the theatrics, attitude, costumes and effects in the world don’t mean anything if a band doesn’t have good songs.
He listens to tapes all the time that he’s given or sent, and often will have the same response. “I listen to it,” he said, “and I tell them, yeah, I get it, you’re angry. But I’m not hearing a song here.”
A song. That is what it’s all about, as he knows well. Without compelling songs he wrote for the character, alone or with co-writers, nobody would care. But he wrote real songs, and compelling ones. “I’m Eighteen” was first, followed by “Schools Out,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” “Feed My Frankenstein” and other hits, all defining Alice Cooper as only great songs could do.
But anytime songwriters ask him for advice, being a song lover as well as a humble guy, he tells them not to listen to him. As he said, “I tell them if they want to be great songwriters, listen to Paul McCartney. Or listen to Burt Bacharach, or Laura Nyro.”
Yeah, McCartney, sure. And Bacharach, too. Both geniuses of song. But the inclusion of the late great Laura Nyro, who exemplifies the greatest aspects of songwriting in her beautiful, soulful, sophisticated, singular songs, was surprising, though welcome.
Because since she left the planet back in 1997, her praises, and songs, are not sung as much. Yet her music made such a profound impact on so many, it seems right to embrace any moment in which we can celebrate her work. Because in that work is the essence of true greatness in songwriting.
Never did Laura do anything but work most essential to her expansive soul. Always she was on her own turf, both musically and lyrically. She wrote her first masterpiece, like John Prine and nobody else, right at the very start. The classic song “And When I Die” was her very first written when she was a teenager.)
Those in the know already know this. But for those yet to be initiated into the fold of her timeless splendor, especially those who love and admire Alice, his oft-expressed love of Laura is especially welcome, and deserves to be shared with songwriters. That she would be his favorite was initially surprising. But now, knowing what matters most to him, it makes perfect sense.
When he mentioned her along with McCartney and Bacharach, it was a perfect opportunity to ask him to talk about her. He wasn’t about to expound on her glory without encouragement. But when invited, he happily jumped at the chance, and beautifully shared his love for Laura.
ALICE COOPER: Laura Nyro is my favorite songwriter of all time. Listen to her Eli’s Coming album. That is amazing songwriting. I have worn out all of her albums.
And even with all of the people who have covered her songs, nobody does them better than her. And I don’t know how she does it, but she comes up with some of the most unique lyric lines that I have ever heard in my life. It’s almost Porgy and Bess (by George Gershwin).
It’s got this strange quality. Nobody writes like her.
I appreciate other writers. But nobody was ever in the league that Laura Nyro was in. I was hoping she’d be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class that I was in. I would have asked if I could induct her.
All the guys that I know in the business who are Laura Nyro fans are the guys who are the real songwriters. I appreciate Burt Bacharach and Laura Nyro. I appreciate people like Arthur Lee, Brian Wilson and Paul Simon. Those are the great songwriters. And McCartney and Lennon, of course.
But Laura. She is the best of all. The first time I heard one of her songs – I think it was “Wedding Bell Blues” or “Eli’s Coming,” I thought Porgy and Bess. It reminded me of that. It has that Gershwin-esque thing to it, and her lyrics are so unique.
I love her song “Timer” so much, and I learned later it was about her cat. I listen to her lyrics now and it’s just astounding to me.
Sometimes I don’t know what she is saying; it’s pure Laura Nyro.