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A Sign Of The Times: Getting Elected With Alice Cooper
DETROIT -- The hog-calling contest or being part of Alice Cooper's concert. What sounds like the more inviting opportunity at the Michigan State Fair?
The latter comes into play Thursday night, while having a quiet backstage dinner with Cooper's manager, Toby Mamis. During dessert and discussion about the Democratic convention and the Detroit-born shock rocker's current tour, Cooper's personal assist, Brian, strolls into the catering area and announces that "I think it's time for Gary to be in 'Elected.' "
"Only if he wants to," Mamis replies.
Well, why not? Cooper is, after all, the king of theatrical rock 'n' roll, standard-setter whose use of props and stunts -- including some pretty convincing mock executions -- have become legendary and built an acknowledged foundation for followers such as Kiss, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and My Chemical Romance. Who wouldn't want to be part of the show -- as long as it's not [i]my[/i] head they're thinking about sticking in the guillotine or the gallows noose.
So the pact is made, with instructions to arrive at stage right in time to carry a "campaign" sign on stage during "Elected," a Top 30 hit from Cooper's 1973 "Billion Dollar Babies" album that will be the show's final encore. Until then I'm free to watch the rest of the show from the sound board in front of the State Fair Bandshell -- and try not to get too nervous that I'm going to be part of it.
The usual packed house has turned for Cooper's annual State Fair visit -- even bigger than last year's crowd, in fact. Then again, this is Cooper's home turf, and two years ago another large turnout stayed intact throughout a heavy rainstorm. There's also something appropriate about seeing his macabre carnival of the show amidst a backdrop of ferris wheels and other midway rides.
And even though Thursday's concert is a somewhat stripped-down affair, it still has its share of props and set pieces as Cooper is joined by his daughter Calico, 27, who's been the main "extra" in the show for several years, as well as her younger sister Sonora, 15, and their mother, Sheryl, who was a dancer on Cooper's mid-'70s "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour. The show, in fact, begins with Cooper "slashing" Calico's throat as the curtain drops and climaxes with his "punishment" on the gallows -- made all the more impressive because he's recovering from a broken rib and torn ligaments suffered in a fall during the tour's opening show.
It's certainly more eye candy than the average rock band gives its audience, of course, and there's also plenty of music to back it up -- an array of favorites such as "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "Eighteen," "Under My Wheels," "Be My Lover" (with big cheers for the "I told her that I came from Detroit city" line, of course), "Feed My Frankenstein," "Dead Babies" and "School's Out," along with two songs from his new album "Along Came a Spider," all of which keep the State Fair crowd on its feet and pumping its fists through the hour and 45-minute performance.
My orders are to be backstage by the time the group starts playing the second encore song, "Poison." There I meet Kyler, a tech who leads the "Elected" sign brigade, and then get ushered to the other side of the stage to wait for my spot in the show.
Considering how much goes on in a Cooper concert, it's surprisingly calm behind the scenes. Other crew members, who are well-practiced in hauling dismembered body parts around the country, after all, are beginning to pack up gear, while the monitor mixer offers around a bag of cotton candy. Sheryl does sit-ups behind an equipment case while Sonora watches the crew teasingly place objects atop Calico's head. The drums come through loudest from the stage, while Cooper's vocals and the other instruments are a bit more distant in the ambient mix.
As the first licks of "Elected" sound, however, everybody springs into action. The three "little Coopers" as Alice calls them, don George W. Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain masks and head to the stage, where they'll parade around for a few minutes. Kyler, meanwhile, gathers the six of us in the sign brigade and shouts individual instructions to each of us; amidst the rock 'n' roll din mine sounds something like "Mfbgltrstmpnkski...," but I get the general idea to just follow him and do what he does.
It all happens quickly, too. We parade on stage -- me following a woman holding an Alice For President sign with one that says He Doesn't Care. I whack my shin against an amplifier but still make it to center stage, where the crowd is well illuminated and the bass drum thumps against the back of our heads. At Kyler's behest we hold the signs above us and jump around a bit, then he gestures to follow him back through the curtain at stage left, where he applauds everyone and takes our sign before bidding us farewell.
Alice's manager smirks and raises his eyebrows, and I can only laugh. It was a quick thrill-ride, a Tilt-A-Whirl with spotlights.
Now it's time to go practice that hog call...
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