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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.
"But still, I've got the music to back it," he points out. "That's the thing: If you don't have the music, you're a puppet show. I mean, if the Sex Pistols didn't have a great album, they would have just been sort of like, 'Oh, that's interesting. Okay, see ya.' Same thing with Bowie. Same with anybody. KISS, even. KISS made great albums, or they wouldn't have gone as far as they did.
"Same thing with us," he continues. "We were the first band that was outrageously theatrical. We outraged everybody out there. But we had fourteen hit singles. That was something that had never happened before. So we became commercial. We actually became what was in. We went from was being what was totally out to what was incredibly in, but that doesn't happen without the records."
While Cooper says he normally follows a story line during his shows, on the current Raise the Dead tour, the sets are broken into three parts: the early-'70s glam Alice, which Cooper says will feature more his glitzy tunes like "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and "Hello, Hooray"; "Welcome to My Nightmare," which will include all the really dark, creepy songs for which he's better known; and, finally, a tribute to four of his fallen "brothers," which includes covers of the Doors' "Break on Through," the Who's "My Generation," the Beatles' "Revolution" and Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady."
During the '70s, Cooper had a drinking club called the Hollywood Vampires at the Rainbow in Los Angeles. He says musicians like the Who's Keith Moon, Doors frontman Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon would drop in. It was like last man standing every night, Cooper remembers. "These were guys who taught me how to drink," he says. "They were not my wholesome big brothers. And they all died around the same age. Of course, John's [death] was much more tragic than anybody else's. Everybody else was self-done. John, of course, was incredibly tragic. But, still, they were my drinking buddies."
Cooper says some of these premature deaths showed him that you can die because of your image. Moon, for instance, didn't have an off switch. He had to entertain no matter what, Cooper says. He was like a kid on Ritalin who couldn't stop. And Jim Morrison "was so self-destructive.... People say, 'Isn't it amazing that he died so young at 27?' Anybody who knew Jim Morrison went, 'I can't believe he got to 27.' I mean, the guy should have been dead at nineteen, as much as he was taking. I mean, he was death-defying. He'd be hanging out of a window fifty stories up just to see if he could do it.
"These guys weren't all necessarily self-destructive," he goes on. "John wasn't, and I don't think Jimi was, either. Jimi's was an accident. But they lived really hard, fast rock-and-roll lifestyles."
Nearly three decades ago, Cooper, who says he got used to starting his day by having a couple of beers and then throwing up all the stuff from the night before, woke up one morning and vomited blood, which he saw as God's way of saying, "The party's over."
"I think all of us have had that near-death experience and had to decide at that point — do I live or do I die?" Cooper says. "Do I keep on this path, or do I go get myself fixed and start something new? I wanted to make twenty more albums. I wanted to tour another twenty or thirty years. So I just decided to live. I don't think Keith decided to live. I think he really did want to die before he got old."