There is no Alice Cooper.
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At least, there wasn’t until a promising rocker born Vincent Damon Furnier began thinking about a career in music.
This is the story of how Vincent Damon Furnier got his new name.
The Early Years
Born on February 4, 1948, Vincent Damon Furnier was a natural performer.
Today, he’s become a legend in the rock scene for his elaborate stage performances, make-up, and songs like “School’s Out” and “Poison.” The live performances also include pyrotechnics, guillotines, electric chairs, fake blood, lizards, baby dolls, and swordplay. Taking cues from vaudeville, he is the Godfather of “Shock Rock.”
The man who would become Alice Cooper was originally from Detroit, but he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, as a young person. Later, he moved back to the Motor City where he made his name, so to speak, in the acclaimed Detroit rock world. Originally, in Motor City, he started a band called the Earwigs. Later, though, the group of rockers renamed the band Alice Cooper, a name that Furnier later took on for his own, legally and professionally.
The band Alice Cooper released its debut album in 1969 but it was their third LP, Love It to Death, in 1970 that broke them, via the song, “I’m Eighteen.” The band later broke up, but its frontman continued on as a solo artist, adopting the name Alice Cooper for himself in the mid-70s.
The Earwigs, the Spiders, Nazz
As the Earwigs, the group played an early show dressed up in costumes and wigs to resemble the Beatles. Thus, the dramatics on stage had begun. They performed several parodies of Beatles tunes. The performers also didn’t know how to play instruments (except one played guitar) and they mimed their performance to a roaring ovation.
Later, they got their own complement of musical instruments from a local pawn shop. Getting better at their craft, slowly, they renamed themselves the Spiders. Furnier was the lead vocalist. The Spiders graduated from high school in 1966 and continued to release songs like the locally popular track, “Blow Your Mind.” In 1967, after making regular trips to Los Angeles to record and perform, they renamed themselves Nazz and dropped the song, “Wonder Who’s Lovin’ Her Now.”
But later the group of guys learned that rocker Todd Rundgren also had a band by that name, so they had to find yet another moniker.
Growing frustrated with the trajectory of the band, Furnier decided they needed a new name and a gimmick on stage if they wanted to succeed. They landed on the name for the group, Alice Cooper, because it sounded wholesome and safe, which was in stark contrast to the wacky antics they began to employ during performances.
To wit, Furnier began to put on makeup, inspired by films and actors like Bette Davis, writing in his memoir, “Bette wears disgusting caked makeup smeared on her face and underneath her eyes, with deep, dark, black eyeliner.” He was also inspired by the 1968 film, Barbarella, writing, “When I saw Anita Pallenberg playing the Great Tyrant in that movie in 1968, wearing long black leather gloves with switchblades coming out of them, I thought, ‘That’s what Alice should look like.’ That, and a little bit of Emma Peel from The Avengers.”
As the group’s career continued to evolve, they met their manager, Shep Gordon who introduced them to Frank Zappa. Zappa signed them to a three-album deal. Through Zappa, they met the all-female band GTOs, who liked to dress the band up like full-size Barbie dolls, which played an important role in their developing look on stage.
The Chicken Incident
In 1969, it was rumored Alice Cooper, who had taken the name on for himself and his solo career, bit the head off of a chicken and drank its blood. Cooper said this didn’t happen—at least, not exactly. What did transpire was that he was performing at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival when a chicken somehow got onto the stage via a pile of feathers set to be used for the show.
Cooper said he thought it could fly, so he picked it up and threw it into the crowd. He expected it to fly away but it dropped to the audience, where they tore it apart in a matter of moments, sadly. The rumor began to swirl that Cooper had eaten its head. When Zappa called him to ask if that was true, Cooper said no, but then Zappa said, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it.”
Vincent Damon Furnier
The rock legend was named after his uncle, Vincent Collier Furnier, and the short-story writer, Damon Runyon. Years later, in 1972, he was asked about his assumed rock name and he told talk show host Dinah Shore that he got it from the American television series, Mayberry RFD. That show features a character named Alice Cooper, played by Alice Ghostley.
In 1975, he dropped his solo release, Welcome to My Nightmare. Then, to avoid legal issues, since Alice Cooper was also the name of his past group, he’d changed it to his legal name. “It got very basically down to the fact that we had drawn as much as we could out of each other,” Cooper said in 1975 of the band’s breakup. “After ten years, we got pretty dry together.”
American Songwriter recently interviewed Cooper and below a Q&A with the shock rocker about his name and sense of stage performance.
American Songwriter: You’re famous for being a “villain” of rock and roll. Through these conversations, I know you to be a very kind, generous person. So, what has it been like to be this dichotomous entity, to be a villain for so many years on stage?
Alice Cooper: I totally enjoy it. I can see why—I’ve met Vincent Price and I’ve met Christopher Lee and I met all these guys that were the great villains and great horror characters and they were always the funniest, nicest guys. I got it. I went, okay, I get it. You play the villain but you don’t have to be the villain.
Sometimes if you’re totally opposite of that character, which I could not be more opposite from Alice Cooper. I mean, he’s arrogant and he’s condescending and he stands straight up and he looks you in the eye and he says exactly what he’s going to say, and he kind of looks down on everybody. But that makes him a bit comical. Because if he does slip on a banana peel, it makes that even funnier.
So, I created a character that I’m nothing like. That’s why it’s so much fun to play him. There was a time, though, where I did not know where he began and I ended. There was a time before I got sober, where I really honestly did not know where the grey area was. Am I Alice Cooper? Or is he Vince [Alice Cooper’s birth name is Vincent Damon Furnier], or what?
AS: Can we talk briefly about the power of the stage? The stage is a special place and you’re special on it. What does the stage mean to you, and what does its power mean to you?
AC: It’s the funniest thing with me. I feel more comfortable on stage than I do off-stage. When I get on stage, I feel like I’m at home. I think it’s because of how many years of touring, 55-60 years of being on that stage. I feel when I get up there on stage, that’s when I’m really alive. When I can really be an artist. I used to paint and I used to do that but you don’t get any reaction from paintings.
You don’t get any reaction from recording, really. You get a reaction from what you do and there’s an audience and they react to what you just did on stage. You either hear them laughing or you hear them cheering or you hear them do this “Ah! Oh my gosh!” To me, that’s so fulfilling. That you’re actually getting the reaction from the audience. And you miss it; that year and a half we had off, it was like coming off of a drug or something.
AS: Looking back at your life, what seemed to be the biggest thread that tied everything together? Was it rebellion, love, music, friends, or taking risks?
AC: I think it was an appreciation for the absurdity. I mean, I love the music. But I always thought—there’s a movie called Hellzapoppin’ by Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, 1941, where everything could happen in this movie, and it did. They broke the fourth wall, that whole thing. And I was so affected by that movie.
I took that and I said, if I can make that come alive in a rock and roll stage—so, anything can happen on an Alice Cooper stage. There’s never a moment where we go, ”oh, well, that couldn’t have happened.” We go, “of course that could happen. It’s our stage.” So, I really grew a fond appreciation for the absurdity of things. But you put that together with really good rock and roll and it’s going to be pretty fun to watch.
AS: What drew you towards taking that to the more extreme, the darker and more provocative side of things—was it subversion, rebellion?
AC: I just kind of looked at it and said, ‘What’s missing in rock ‘n’ roll?’ And, to me, what was missing was a villain. We had all these heroes, rock ‘n’ roll heroes. All these Peter Pans and no villain, no Captain Hook. And I just went, ‘Well, I would gladly take that part.’ We were just naturally theatrical anyway. So, when you put that idea about horror, comedy and hard rock in once place, it created Alice Cooper. I said I just can’t be a lead singer. I’ve got to be a character. So, I created this character named Alice Cooper and even to this day, Alice is my favorite rock star. I mean, I talk about him in the third-person all the time.
AS: Do you remember the first time you put on makeup for Alice?
AC: Yeah, it was way back. Probably in 1969, just messing around with it. I said, ‘if this guy’s going to be a villain, he can’t just look like a rock singer. He’s got to have some sort of theatrical signature. A look that every time you see him, you know it’s Alice.’ That’s when I started doing the eyes. And it wasn’t done feminine at all. It was done in the band—I’d be wearing a pair of black leather pants and black boots, but then I’d be wearing my girlfriend’s slip that was all torn with blood all over it. And immediately the audience goes, ‘What happened?’ [Laughs]. They’re already in the middle of some sort of a story, they’re going, ‘Wait, what?’ And all the guys in the band are all guys and there’s no girl, but the name of the band is Alice Cooper? So, the lead singer is Alice Cooper, but he’s not gay and he’s not a transvestite—what’s going on here? Because everything else, you have to remember at that time is “peace and love” and everything’s wonderful and good. And we’re on stage doing parts of West Side Story where we’re actually bleeding on stage. It scared the hell out of everybody.
Photo: Courtesy of Atom Splitter PR