Alice Cooper has been giving the music world his everything for the last 50 years – touring endlessly with the most shocking and theatrical shows the world has ever seen. Along the way, he’s released 27 studio albums and sold millions of albums, CDs and mp3s.
The Detroit-born rocker has a unique connection to southern Ontario, with relatives in Windsor and a massive history of events and recording sessions in Toronto.
We spent a few minutes with the legend to chat about the area and what it means to him.
How are you today?
I am doing great. It’s 105 degrees in Phoenix today. I’ve already played 18 holes of golf and getting ready to drive to California for two days.
Golf is almost like another part of your life, right?
Well, I just play it every day at six in the morning. Since I have an addictive personality, I had to find an addiction that wasn’t going to kill me. All my addictions from the ‘60s and ‘70s were all deadly. This one, I play six days a week.
I’m just going to dive into some questions. Let’s go with your new album that’s going to be coming out. I hear you’re back in Detroit to record some of that?
I’m from Detroit, and it’s in my DNA. I think the one thing that is consistent in an Alice Cooper album is that it’s guitar-driven rock and roll, very Detroit-oriented hard rock, and it always will be. Of course, we put all kinds of different flavors on it. I’m working with Bob Ezrin. Bob is one of those guys that has a darker sense of humor than I do. So when it comes to some of those songs, and for lyrics especially, working with him is like working with another part of myself. Yeah, the new album will be a pure Alice Cooper rock album. I don’t want to give anything away, but I can just tell you that it’s a guitar-driven rock album, but it’s got a lot of different flavors on it.The new Vampires album is entirely different in that it’s a much more modern sort of rock sound and doesn’t sound like Alice Cooper or Aerosmith. It sounds like the Vampires.
Oh, exactly. The Vampires new album is really interesting, because it started as a cover thing, but there are a lot of originals on the new album.
Oh yeah, most of it is original. I think the only covers are Johnny sings Heroes, and those were the people that died. And then Joe sings a Johnny Thunder Song. Other than that, the other 12, 13 songs are all brand new original songs.
How does a band like the Vampires, with so much personality, decide on covers to do?
Here’s the crazy thing. You’ve got Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp. Those are the three main Vampires, right? We’ve been together five years. We have never been in an argument at all. During rehearsal, during recording, during anything, there’s never been an argument. You have three Alpha males who totally look at the other guy and go, “What do you think?” rather than, “This has to be my way.” We don’t do it like that. It’s like everybody’s very, very cooperative, and that’s what makes it great.
It seems like there was a magic there right away.
There was immediate magic because we started out just saying, “Look, let’s pay tribute to our dead drunk friends.” And there was a lot of them, Jim Morrison and Jimmy Hendrix. Between the three of us, we knew everybody.
We brought Robby Krieger in and said, “What do you think Robbie?” He says, “Well, let’s do Five to One and To Break on Through.” I went, “Absolutely. It’s a great idea.” And then Paul McCartney walks in and sits down at the piano and says, “Two of the guys from Badfinger committed suicide.” He says, “I wrote this song for them.” He sits on the piano and starts playing, “If you want it, anytime, come and get it.” He goes, “Alice, you sing that middle part.” He says, “Johnny, you do this” We’re all sitting there with our jaws open, going, “It’s Paul McCartney.” Being in the studio with Paul McCartney … I’ve known Paul for 35 years. I’ve been to his house, and everything. But being in the studio with Paul McCartney is an entirely different thing because now it’s not just a Beatle, he is the Beatles.
You can probably relate to that because Alice Cooper, the onstage person, is different than you personally.
Oh, absolutely. When I play that character, he’s an arrogant villain. He’s a condescending Alan Rickman kind of guy. He looks down on everybody. Right? That’s part of the fun … that’s why he’s funny because you can tell he’s so arrogant, that you know he’s going to slip on a banana peel at some point. You know?
That’s what makes that character fun to play. He never talks to the audience, never says thank you, till the very end of the show. When I’m with the Vampires, I don’t play that character. I talk to the audience all night. I tell them stories about Jim Morrison and myself. I tell them stories about Jimmy Hendrix, about Bowie, about all these, because I was there for all of it. People then get the insight, we’re not just going to do these songs but I used to get drunk and high with these guys.
The Toronto area has always been kind of a big story for you. I remember 1980- and the canceled show at the CNE. That was actually going to be my very first show. It was major chaos.
It was the only show I ever missed in my entire career, and the reason was I was born with asthma. I mean, I had asthma all my life. That was the highest pollen count ever recorded in Toronto, that day.
I was having a hard time breathing. It was just one of those things. If I’ve got a migraine headache, if I’ve got the flu, I’ve played with six broken ribs. I’ve played with 28 stitches in my head. I could not sing because I couldn’t get any breath. There’s just no way I’m doing a show. I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal, but that place went crazy. We’ve played Toronto 25 times since then. Every time I played Toronto … and I also did three or four albums in Toronto, at Nimbus 9, with Bob Ezrin. I knew Toronto probably as well as I know Detroit. It’s always been one of my favorite cities. Every time we play Toronto, we always go out of our way to make sure that audience, that we kill that audience, because that one show is in the back of my mind, that I had to miss that show.
I think you set the standard though, in 1969, at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. The chicken story is legendary.
The chicken thing. You couldn’t write this. Here we are. We’re going on between The Doors and John Lennon. We got Jim Morrison and The Doors, and we knew them, they were old buddies of ours, on one side. And then we got John Lennon and Yoko on the other side watching the show. There’s feathers’ going and then I look down, and there’s a chicken. No, I didn’t bring the chicken. I can’t imagine anybody saying, “I got to go to The Peace Festival. Oh, and let me see. I have my tickets and my wallet and my chicken.” Who brings a chicken to a rock show?
Anyways, there it is. It’s onstage. I’ve never been on a farm in my life, I’m from Detroit. It had feathers and it had wings. I figured, “Well, it’ll fly. If I just kind of chuck it in the audience, it’ll fly. Somebody will get it and take it home and have a cool pet and they’ll name it Alice Cooper.” Chickens don’t fly as much as they plummet. The audience tore the chicken apart and threw the parts back up onstage. Now the kicker to this is, of course, the first five rows were all in wheelchairs.
That I did not know.
Well, how weird is it that all the people in wheelchairs destroyed the chicken? That’s even more bizarre. And then it’s in the paper the next day, Alice Cooper kills chicken and drinks the blood and duh, duh, duh. Right there, I understood one thing, that the rock audience was hungry for a villain. They wanted a villain.
I was more than happy to be that character. I said from then on, I went, “Okay. You want villain? I’ll give you a villain.”
How did you decide to go, “That’s it. I’m going to put on something different and better”?
Well, it was really one of those things where it was in our DNA, I swear. Dennis Dunaway and myself and John Spear and Glen Buxton all went to high school together. We were all on the newspaper together. We were all in the art class together. Three of us ran cross country and track together and were four-year Letterman. Even before the band, we knew each other really, really well. When we did our very first show, knowing nothing about anything … We were in beetle wigs. We were making fun of the Beatles kind of, and on that stage there was a coffin and a guillotine because, if you were late with an assignment at the Tip Sheet, that was the name of our newspaper, you had to stay in the guillotine. They’re hitting the guillotine for 5 or 10 minutes, which was very uncomfortable.
When we get ready to do the show, I said, “Let’s put the guillotine on stage.” And then the guy that introduced us was another guy on the cross country team, and he came out of a coffin. It never ended. That, to me, just felt like rock and roll and horror and comedy should all be in bed together.
The funny thing is people forget the comedy part, right? Sometimes, they get overdone with the shock part.
You know, you can’t shock an audience anymore. Back in those days, it was really easy to shock an audience because nobody ever … everything was shocking. Now, nothing is shocking. I use shock, if you call it shock. It’s really illusion. It’s really just misdirection. You have to do it with an attitude of this is real. This is for real, this is what we do, and people want to believe that. People want to believe that I live in a big dark castle somewhere and that I drink blood at night and things like that.
Well, that’s what we love about the Alice Cooper character though.
I think so. I’ll never ever go away from that. I think that that’s what God gave me to do was this sort of show. Everybody that I work with, we’ll sit in there and we’re going, “Okay. Now…Do you think we should use a wood chipper?” And everybody looks around and goes, “Well, of course.” If we’re thinking maybe we shouldn’t, then that’s the cue to, yes, we absolutely should.
I’m in Windsor, so I can’t have you here and not talk about CKLW.
Oh my gosh. Without CKLW – they were the ones that got us going. Rosalie was everything to us. Her son loved the song I’m Eighteen. When he heard the song, he says, “Mom, this is where rock is going.” She went, “Okay, we’ll put it on.” When we heard our record on CKLW, I’m Eighteen, believe me, we stopped the car dead and just sat there with our mouths open. Trust me, we never thought we’d ever have a hit because our image was so strong. We were such a notorious band that we never thought we’d ever get any kind of commercial success. Well, we ended up having 14 top 40 hits.
So somebody actually shocked you?
Can you imagine us sitting there when Shep Gordon comes in and he goes, “Oh, by the way, School’s Out’s number one.” Then we go, “What?” And then he comes in again the same year and goes, “Oh, by the way, Billion Dollar Babies is number one.” When that happens, you would think that that would be an egocentric moment. It was humbling and embarrassing because we were such fans of The Who and The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, and that’s who you’re up against right then. When your record is higher than theirs in the charts, you almost want to call them up and say, “I’m really sorry. We don’t deserve to be ahead of you. If it was up to us, we would be number five and you guys would all be number one, two, three, four.” Honestly, that’s the way we felt about it. That’s how much we loved those bands. When you see your band competing with them, you kind of feel embarrassed because you’ve know how good they are, and you don’t really think of yourself as being in their league?
Growing up in Detroit, you must have crossed over to Windsor and you would have known quite a bit about Windsor.
My uncle lived in Windsor. My Uncle Jerry lived in Windsor. He lived right on the lake, and we used to go over to Windsor all the time. It was so cool because you’d have barbecues right on the lake. Yeah, we were there all the time.
What can we expect at your Detroit show?
We’re going to be doing the brand new show. The great thing is is Nita Strauss, our shredder – she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, and she plays like Steve Vai. She just got voted best female guitarist in the world. And our drummer, Glen Sobel, got voted best drummer. This band is awfully good.
When you put Chuck Garric in there and you put Ryan Roxie and Tommy Henriksen and all those songs, it’s amazing. I love it when I read the review and it’s not about the theatrics, it’s about how good the band is.
How long do you think you’re going to do this for?
I always said if we ever book a concert and nobody shows up, then I know I’m done. Or if there was something physically wrong or something happened with my family where I couldn’t tour, then I would say, “Man, I had an amazing career.” But right now, I look at it this way. I don’t think I’ve done my best show yet. I don’t think I’ve written my best songs yet. If you don’t have that attitude, you should stop. I sit around thinking about McCartney sitting at a piano going, “Okay. I’ve written all these songs, but you know what? I have not written my best song yet.” That’s why he keeps writing songs.