Alice sings the praises of his “favorite songwriter of all time”
Here on the occasion of what would be Laura Nyro’s 73rd birthday – October 18, 2020 – we bring thias series of tribute stories on her today, featuring this testimony from the songwriting heart of Alice Cooper.
It would probably be no great surprise that some of our great female songwriters, such as Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King or Joni Mitchell, have expressed lifelong reverence for Laura Nyro. Though all their work is distinctive, they share a soulful, authentic, sophisticated and beautifully tuneful songwriting journey.
But more instructive, perhaps, are those songwriters who have devoted their allegiance to Laura for decades, yet are stylistically so different. Of these, Alice Cooper remains the greatest candidate.
Alice, as his friends, family and fans 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, offstage, his head is prominently still in place.
The fact remains that, unlike other artists in the same “horror-rock” genre that he sparked who are, essentially, the characters they portray in their music and onstage, he is not. Long considered the “Godfather of Shock Rock,” and the esteemed pioneer of this rock and roll and horror amalgam, which draws on the deviantly comic Grand Guignol tradition of explicit theatrical bloody violence, Alice Cooper is not real. It is not a true persona, anymore than David Bowie was Ziggy Stardust.
In fact, “Alice Cooper” was the name of the band at first, back in 1964. He was still Vince Furnier then. 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 copped to his fearful recognition, early on, that he was in danger of becoming Alice in a lot of ways, most of which were unwanted.
“I really did not know where I ended and Alice started,” he said. “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.”
It’s a distinction he painted so boldly, perhaps, because he was speaking to a songwriting magazine. Because 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.
“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.”
So when people send him songs for Alice, he sees their attempt to get near the character. But they do not see the song craft – the reverence for the form and all its aspects – at the heart of this enterprise.
He usually tells them that, yes, he can hear the anger in their song. But what he is not hearing is a song itself.
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.
So anytime songwriters ask him for advice, being a song lover as well as a humble guy, he tells them not to listen to him. “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. 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 gratefully received, and deserves to be shared with songwriters.
Knowing she was his favorite was initially surprising. But now, knowing what matters most to him, it makes perfect sense.
Here’s Alice, in his own words, on the one we think of usually as “the divine 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.