Alice Cooper on partying with Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon
Catch Alice Cooper tonight at the Paramount Theatre.
Vincent Furnier has gone by Alice Cooper for more than four decades. During that time, two different versions of his on-stage persona emerged: the early one, when he was kind of meek; and the later one, when he became more of a villain. The change came when he stopped drinking.
"It was so distinctive that I didn't even notice it until after I was sober for quite a long time," Cooper says. "I kind of looked at Alice in videos from TV shows, and I always noticed how bent over I was. I kind of had this beaten-dog sort of attitude on stage, which I made work. I made that work because I think the kids out there that were the disenfranchised kids related to Alice. He was disenfranchised. He wasn't even accepted by rock-and-rollers. So there he was, a sort of victim of society, and a lot of kids related to that.
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"When I got sober," he goes on, "I said, 'I really am not that anymore. Now I want to be this over-the-top villain. I don't want Alice to bend over anymore. Alice from now on stands straight up. His neck is stiff. His arrogance is almost to the point of comedy. I want him to almost be Alan Rickman, you know -- so over the top that he's scary, but he's funny.' I don't mind that guy being arrogant and looking down on the audience and every once in a while slipping on a banana peel."
On stage, Cooper has died many times as part of his shock-rock vaudevillian act, whether by guillotine, hanging or electric chair -- all with a wink and a smile. And he notes that he and his group were wearing makeup as far back as 1968, essentially starting the glam movement ("We were glam before Bowie was glam," he declares). But it was the infamous "chicken incident" at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969 -- Cooper threw a live chicken into the audience, thinking it could fly, and the bird was reportedly torn apart by concert-goers -- that revealed the power of having an outrageously theatrical show.
This was a time where information wasn't immediate, decades before the Internet went mainstream. By the time Frank Zappa, who had released Cooper's first two albums on his Straight imprint, caught wind of the chicken incident, the press was reporting that Cooper had killed a chicken, ripped its head off and drunk the blood, all live on stage.
"And what had really happened was that somebody threw a chicken on stage and I threw it back in the audience, and the audience tore it to pieces," Cooper recalls of his set, which was between John Lennon and the Doors. "But with my image, it was much easier to believe that. It was easier to believe that I was this circus geek who destroyed this chicken on stage. So Frank, of course, called up and asked, 'Did you kill a chicken?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, don't tell anybody. They love it.'"
Negative press was better than no press, Zappa figured, and the band now had a controversial narrative that was going to generate a lot of interest. Zappa told Cooper to capitalize on it, and Cooper saw the value in that. Much more a fan of the National Enquirer than the New York Times, Cooper says he totally understood sensationalism even back then. After Cooper got banned from performing in England in the early '70s, Billion Dollar Babies shot to the number one spot on both the U.K. and U.S. charts. The band was eventually able to perform in England, and, Cooper says, in 1975, after he sold out Wembley Arena, he really started to understand how important being notorious was.