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Interview:
Alice Cooper enters the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame "club"
 

By GARY GRAFF
of the Oakland Press

» See more SOUND CHECK

Alice Cooper will be leaving the guillotine, gallows, electric chair and snake at home when he attends the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday, March 14, in New York City.

But the Detroit-born shock rocker promises that he and his band will be dressed appropriately for the occasion.

“We’ll do tuxedos,” Cooper says. “We’re actually getting tuxedos made — special Alice Cooper tuxedos. It’ll definitely be our style. It’ll be within our sense of humor.”

And, he promises, there will be much smiling as the quintet takes its place alongside its peers and predecessors in the Rock Hall’s ranks.

“It’s terrific,” says Cooper, 63, who was born Vincent Furnier in Allen Park. “The whole idea of finally being in that club ... once you get voted in, you realize it’s your peers that voted you in, the guys that you actually watched on ‘Shindig’ and ‘Hullabaloo’ and all that, they’re the guys voting on you.

“So it’s a nice feeling, that thing that you’re in the same club as them.”

Cooper and company — guitarists Michael Bruce and the late Glen Buxton, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith — certainly waited for this moment. Artists are eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after the release of their first album which meant the Cooper band — which debuted with the self-produced “Pretties For You” in 1969 — has been on the clock since 1994. Year after year went by without the quintet, which pioneered a school of highly theatrical rock performance, even being on the nominating ballot, however.

And when acknowledged disciple Kiss was nominated for the class of 2010, though it didn’t ultimately make the final cut, it was considered an affront.

Nevertheless, Cooper — who’s “defensive mechanism” was slamming the Rock Hall through the years of being slighted — says he always felt confident his band would have its time.

“It’s been that way our whole career, really,” he explains. “It took (Bob) Dylan and (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney and people like that talking about Alice Cooper before we got accepted as a band, before people started taking us really seriously. Even when we were No. 1 with ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ (in 1973), we were still striving for acceptance because people were so taken in by the theatrics. It finally got through to some people who thought we were a novelty act that we have 15 platinum records and 14 Top 40 singles and really were a big, commercial success musically.

“It’s almost like Lady Gaga now; you take the theatrics away from Gaga and she’s a really good singer, she writes pretty good, she’s a good piano player, she can hold her own with anybody. But right now not too many people are talking about how good her voice is. They’d rather talk about her coming out of an egg.

“So with us, when you had other musicians going, ‘You know, these guys make great albums,’ that’s when we started getting people’s approval. That made a big difference.”

The Cooper band is the 28th Rock Hall inductee from Detroit or with Detroit or Michigan connections. The group was formed in Phoenix, where Cooper’s family moved when he was an adolescent. A high school letterman in cross country, he had formed a group called the Earwigs that won a talent contest for miming Beatles songs — and then learned to play instruments.

The Beatles and Rolling Stones were certainly influences, but Cooper adds that, “if there was any blueprint for us, it was The Yardbirds,” the British band in which Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page became famous. “We always wanted to be America’s version of The Yardbirds. That’s who we really listened to on every level.”

But there was another aspect to the band, which renamed itself The Spiders and then The Nazz, that would ultimately separate it from the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll pack.

“We were a garage band with a lot of really creepy ideas,” says Cooper, who initially claimed to have received his stage name from a 17th century witch during an Ouija board session. “The theatricality was always there. We didn’t mind throwing a little ‘West Side Story’ in there, a little ‘Diamonds Are Forever,’ TV themes.

“That’s what made us who we were — horror movies and detective shows and all that stuff. We grew up on TV and movies, so you had to expect to see that stuff fall into our music somewhere. We couldn’t deny who we were.”

The music took the Alice Cooper band to Los Angeles, where the quintet met manager Shep Gordon and was signed by Frank Zappa to his Straight Records label for “Pretties For You” and “Easy Action.” Neither sold well; the band’s notoriety at that point came from an incident at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival where someone threw a chicken on stage and Cooper threw it into the crowd, where it was reportedly torn apart. But no one sought to correct the resulting story, that he’d actually bitten the chicken’s head off and drank his blood, that surfaced afterward.

“(Zappa) called me and asked me if that was true,” Cooper recalls with a laugh. “I told him no, but he said, ‘Don’t let anybody know that. This is great publicity!’ ”

Looking to refocus its music, however, the band decided to move to Detroit in 1970. “In L.A., we were notorious but we weren’t popular,” Cooper recalls. “So we were fumbling around, and we said that the first place that gives us a standing ovation, we’re moving there. It happened to be Detroit, my hometown.”

The group, which took up residence in a farmhouse on Brown Road in Pontiac, quickly became part of a burgeoning scene that included the Bob Seger System, The Amboy Dukes, The Stooges, The MC5 and others. “We had never heard of any of these guys,” Cooper says, “but when people found out I was from Detroit, I was suddenly taken in as one of these bands. So we felt right at home there.”

Cooper recalls “a very creative period in our lives” while back in the metro area, working with producer Bob Ezrin on the breakthrough “Love It to Death” album during the week, then playing concerts on the weekend “to make money to live on.”

It wasn’t all work, of course. “Every band had their own house,” he notes, “and there was always a party. We’d have 150 or 200 people show up in Pontiac on a Saturday night after everybody played, and during the night we’d be, ‘OK, who’s having the party next week?’ It was the closest thing to a fraternity there was.

“And everybody was pulling for everybody. I was pulling for The Stooges and The 5, Frijid Pink, SRC. Everybody pushed each other, too; in our case it was always, ‘Who’s weirder, Iggy (Pop) or Alice?’ It was the biggest compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.”

Cooper says WABX-FM, the area’s hot rock radio station at the time, was also “sort of a second clubhouse” for the community. “Everybody ended up at ABX 3 or 4 in the morning,” he remembers. “If you ran out of anything, you’d go there and pick it up. It was like an all-purpose shopping place.”

The scene, meanwhile, also stoked everybody’s creativity.

“We were writing every day,” Cooper notes. “There were no limits. Nobody was saying, ‘You can’t write that. You can’t go there. You can’t do this.’ We’d take those raw ideas and feed them to Bob Ezrin, and he’d come back and filter them through his crazy brain and then you’d have ‘Love It to Death’ or ‘Killer.’ ”

Cooper says Ezrin’s ideas mostly were to streamline the band’s ideas. “He kept going, ‘Dumb it down.’ We’d go ‘What does that mean?’ ‘You’re playing too many things.’ But it was hard for us to do that; we wanted to be The Yardbirds.” With the 1970 hit “I’m Eighteen,” however, Ezrin’s admonitions finally took hold.

“We had this song that was powerful because it was dumb and three chords,” Cooper notes. “It ended up being an anthem, ’cause the music was saying what the lyrics were saying. After that, we were like, ‘Oh, [i]now[/i] we get it.’ ”

“I’m Eighteen,” in fact, put the Cooper band on the map, hitting No. 21 on the Billboard chart and driving the “Love It to Death” album to platinum status — the first of four consecutive million-sellers. More hits such as “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” kept the group on radio, while concerts that featured mock executions, chopped-up baby dolls, live snakes and other theatrics generated enough controversy to make the Toronto chicken incident seem like the accident it was. From 1971-74 it’s safe to say few touring bands generated more headlines, discussion and debate than Alice Cooper.

The band broke up somewhat acrimoniously in 1975, but Cooper — who’s recorded under the name ever since and has chronicled his life, including his battles with alcoholism, in the memoirs “Me Alice” (1976) and “Alice Cooper, Golf Monster” (2007) — says there was no question it should be inducted into the Rock Hall as a group rather than him as a solo artist.

“The original band was the one that broke all the ice,” notes Cooper, who resides in Arizona with his wife, Sheryl, with whom he has three children — daughters Calico, 29, and Sonora Rose, 17, and son Dash, 25. “It wasn’t me on my own. It was the original band that had all the iconic records from ‘Love it to Death’ on to ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Muscle of Love.’

“What I did after that was an aftermath. The original band were the guys that had to cut through that big, thick ice in order to become an entity out there. I can’t see how I could just go up there as an individual.”

Any remaining rancor from the split has long been smoothed over, and the surviving band members regrouped in December to play at Cooper’s 10th annual Christmas Pudding in Phoenix to benefit his Solid Rock Foundation for children. They’ll also perform at Monday’s induction ceremony, with Steve Hunter and former Frost guitarist Dick Wagner — the guitar tandem who worked with Cooper on his 1975 “solo” debut “Welcome to My Nightmare” — joining in. (Rob Zombie is inducting the group.) Bruce, Dunaway and Smith also appear on “When Hell Comes Home,” a track from Cooper’s forthcoming “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” sequel album which is due out in the fall.

“It fit just like a glove again,” he says. “I was going to go in and say, ‘What I want this thing to have is this live, ’70s sound,’ but I didn’t have to say that. That’s just the way they play. They just had that sound you couldn’t go in and try to direct them to get. That’s the normal way they play.

“So I said to Bob (Ezrin, who’s producing the album), ‘I don’t want it to sound any different than that.”

The group will, however miss having Buxton, who died on Oct. 19, 1997, in Clarion, Iowa, from complications from pneumonia at the age of 49.

“Glen was the heart and soul of the Alice Cooper group,” Cooper says of the guitarist, who was ranked No. 90 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. “He was our Keith Richards, with the cigarette on the end of his guitar. He always had a drink or something on him that was illegal. He was purely Keith Richards without copying Keith Richards.

“He was truly a Bowery Boy. There was always some kind of trouble around him, but he would sit in his room and just noodle with a cigarette and a guitar and play great music. We’ll be thinking about him. He’ll be there in spirit.”



FYI

The 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, honoring Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Darlene Love, Tom Waits, Leon Russell and music executives Jac Holzman and Art Rupe, takes place Monday, March 14, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The ceremony will be broadcast at 9 p.m. on March 20 on Fuse TV. Gary Graff talks about this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees on “Ann Delisi’s Essential Music” at 11 a.m. Sunday, March 13, on WDET-FM (101.9).

Alice Cooper performs Aug. 27 at the DTE Energy Music Theatre. Tickets go on sale Friday, March 18.



Alice Cooper is the 28th Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees with Detroit or Michigan ties. Its predecessors include:

Hank Ballard (1990)

Benny Benjamin, Motown drummer (2003)

The Four Tops (1990)

Aretha Franklin (1987)

Marvin Gaye (1987)

Berry Gordy Jr., Motown founder (1988)

Al Green (1995)

Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown songwriters and producers (1990)

John Lee Hooker (1991)

The Isley Brothers (1992)

The Jackson 5 (1997)

James Jamerson, Motown bassist (2000)

Gladys Knight & the Pips (1996)

Little Willie John (1996)

Madonna (2008)

Martha & the Vandellas (1995)

Joni Mitchell (1997)

Parliament-Funkadelic (1997)

Smokey Robinson (1987)

Bob Seger (2004)

Del Shannon (1999)

Patti Smith (2007)

The Stooges (2010)

The Supremes (1988)

The Temptations (1989)

Jackie Wilson (1987)

Stevie Wonder (1989)



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