Alice Cooper interview: 'None of us ever thought about getting past 30'

Alice Cooper in Detroit, 1970 - Ross Marino/Getty Images
Alice Cooper in Detroit, 1970 - Ross Marino/Getty Images

In 1970, Alice Cooper decided to leave Los Angeles. Stymied by commercial failure, in two fruitless years the theatrical rocker had caught the ear of almost no one. “I don’t get what you’re doing,” Frank Zappa had told him, “and I think that’s great.” Few agreed. With “20,000 groups from around the world heading to [LA],” in the first revolutionary act of a career that has endured for more than half a century the singer moved to Detroit. In the Motor City, he found his crowd.

“As a hard rock band we didn’t really fit into Los Angeles,” Cooper tells me. “LA was The Doors and bands like that. Detroit, though, now that was a blue collar town. That was the hard rock capital of the United States. The people in the blue collar parts of that town did not want soft rock. They only wanted hard rock. And we gave it to ‘em.”

These days are recalled on Detroit Stories, the singer’s 21st album, released last week. Produced by long-time collaborator Bob Ezrin and co-written by Wayne Kramer, the guitarist in Detroit punk-rock band MC5, the 15-song collection is both a love letter to the city in which Alice Cooper (real name, Vincent Furnier) was born, and in which he lived until he was 10, and his best record this century.

In the Motor City, Alice Cooper and his band were welcomed with open ears. In LA, they could clear a room in the space of a single song. Striking up in front of 6,000 people at the Cheetah club, in Venice Beach, the band opened their set with a muscular version of The Who’s Out In The Street that saw the audience decamp to the street until the whole noisy business had blown over.

Part of a bill curated to celebrate the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce, it says something that “Coop” was able to outdo the most controversial comic in the history of the United States.

“The people in Detroit wanted their bands to sound like the machinery that they were working with in the Ford factories, or at Chrysler,” Cooper says. “It was a very masculine kind of society. It was tough. If you were in a band you also had to know how to fight. Nobody ever went out alone.”

It is, though, all too easy to overdo this stuff. In this tale of two cities, Los Angeles is inevitably cast as the easygoing nirvana while Detroit plays the role of a combustible heartland city at war with everyone, including itself. Such broad strokes overlook the fact that in 1969 LA’s good vibrations turned bad. That August seven people were murdered at the behest of the white supremacist hippy cult leader Charles Manson. The Motor City was many things, but minded to kill you with free love it was not.

Out west, “suddenly the hippies became potential murderers,” Cooper says. “You saw a hippy and you thought, ‘Well, he may be on drugs like Charles Manson, he may be the most dangerous guy in the world.’ So now they were being looked at totally differently. Not that we really related to the hippies, to be honest with you. We were a band, so we didn’t really understand why the hippies wanted to be hippies. We were much more interested in Ferraris and making money.”

Alice Cooper performing in Sweden, 2019 - Michael Campanella/Redferns
Alice Cooper performing in Sweden, 2019 - Michael Campanella/Redferns

As recounted in songs such as Rock & Roll and Social Debris, in the Motor City the Alice Cooper band were free to “play it loud and fast”. California could keep its dreamin’ cos here they were in the thick of a meatier musical epicenter. As well as being the home of Motown, Detroit harnessed wild men such as Iggy Pop and Ted Nugent, and the honourable heartland rockers Bob Seger and Suzi Quatro. Out west the quest was spiritual. In Michigan, bands like MC5 allied themselves with violent civil rights groups and used images of guns and bombs.

For my money the most exciting guitarist of his generation, in his wild days Wayne Kramer seemed to believe that his music could help to overthrow the state. Under the stewardship of manager John Sinclair, the MC5 were not messing around. Associates of such strident underground movements as Up Against The Wall Motherf-----s, after wiring their equipment through a hot dog stand in 1968 the group provided the soundtrack to a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention, in Chicago. Sentenced to a decade in prison for possession of marijuana, the plight of Sinclair drew public support from John Lennon and Abbie Hoffman.

Now aged 72, Kramer’s playing imbues Cooper’s new album with sparks of wild electricity. These days natural bedfellows, the singer confesses that in the flush of youth “I never got into the politics myself. The MC5 were a show band, a great band, but those guys were on the FBI’s most wanted list. I got what they were doing but I stayed away from it. Every time I picked up the paper I would read something about them and the [associated radical movement] the White Panthers. It seemed like they were always under investigation.”

What a time to be alive. On Detroit Stories, Cooper describes a city in which people were “trying to burn the place down”. The riots of 1967 between mainly black residents and the police left 43 people dead and 2,000 buildings in ruins. More civil unrest followed. Scarred for generations, Detroit became a byword for urban decay and a warning to others as to just how far the United States would allow a great metropolis to fall. Pockmarked and freezing, the Motor City, renamed “Murder City”, laboured under a racial divide that permeated all areas of life save for one.

“If you were a musician who had long hair, during a riot you could walk into any black bar and you were not the enemy,” Cooper says. “You were a musician so you were a brother. Other times we’d be onstage and I’d look down in this audience of black leather jackets and long hair and I’d see Smokey Robinson, and there’d be two of The Supremes, or there’d be one of the guys from the Temptations. There was no colour barrier in Detroit in music.”

Flush with the success of albums such as Love It To Death and Killer, and with a macabre stage show that featured gallows, boa constrictors and gallons of fake blood, Alice Cooper shipped out after just three years. Returning to a music scene in Los Angeles that was whiter than the cast of The Waltons, the singer forged a shock-rock reputation.

With the platinum LPs Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome To My Nightmare he cultivated an audience noted for its continuing loyalty. In London, in 1975 John Lydon auditioned for the Sex Pistols by miming along to Cooper’s track I’m Eighteen.

“We were rock stars,” the singer says. “In Beverly Hills, if you were a rock star you could do anything you wanted to do. It was okay. Even the cops liked rock stars, so there was a status there… Unlike Detroit, LA was all about the glitz and the glamour. The parties were completely different because there’d be movie stars there. We’d go up to the Playboy Mansion. Up in the Hollywood Hills there were probably 500 parties a night. It was a whole different scene.”

Cooper filled his boots. Knocking out an album a year, sometimes two, the singer and his band played in such grand arenas as the “Fabulous” Forum, in Inglewood. "Super Duper Alice Cooper," they called him. At heart a blue collar grafter, so tireless was his work ethic that he lacked a house in which to lay his head. “There was a point there when I didn’t live anywhere,” he says. “I was basically a road rat… I was always on the road.”

Either that, or in the pub. Unusually for the seventies, Alice Cooper claims to have eschewed illegal substances. Turning his attention to bending the elbow, instead he gamely attempted to drink himself to death. Alcohol was “safe”, he reasoned, while pills and powders were “dangerous”.

Running riot in a rampantly licentious Los Angeles, with the observational acuity of a scarecrow the singer says that “if anyone was doing drugs, I certainly didn’t know about it”. It’s a dubious claim. Thinking aloud, I wonder if this determination to draw a line between drink and drugs indicates a mindset that is rather old-fashioned.

“I think you’re right,” he says. “But you have to remember that I had a career to protect. I worked really hard to get to that point. I had big records out and I was selling out all these big venues. At that point you definitely have something to protect. I was very aware of that, so I stayed very clean to anything like [drugs].”

It seems like a curious distinction. In full view of 17,000 people, in 1975 the singer broke six ribs and suffered a severe concussion after falling off the stage at the PNC Coliseum, in Vancouver. In the wings, Cooper drank a glass of whisky while a member of the road crew wiped away the blood. Following a short-lived attempt to resume the show, he was ferried to hospital with encroaching nausea and double vision.

“There were times when I would look at my costume,” Cooper told the journalist Mark Paytress, in 2005, “then I would look at the bottle of whisky. And I knew I had to drink that bottle of whisky in order to go out there. I was pretty beat up. I would literally cry towards the end of that tour. My spirit was going, ‘You’re killing yourself. Stop.’ But the other part of me was going, ‘You’re Alice Cooper. You can’t stop.’”

'You're Alice Cooper, you can't stop': Cooper in 1974 - Michael Putland/Getty Images
'You're Alice Cooper, you can't stop': Cooper in 1974 - Michael Putland/Getty Images

When not on the road, Cooper spent his time at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. on the Sunset Strip, becoming a key member of the legendary Hollywood Vampires drinking club. On any given night, “a car would pull up and John Lennon would get out with Harry Nilsson. Along with myself, the club’s mainstays were Keith Moon, Bernie Taupin and Micky Dolenz.”

Hiring outfits from Western Costumes, Moon would arrive dressed as Hitler, or Zorro. To ensure privacy, club owner Elmer Valentine cleared a space for the group up in the roost. None of them ever saw daylight, hence the name.

“At that point, nobody thought about getting past 30,” the singer says. “It was the party that never ended.”

Until it did. Following the release of a slew of albums that he can’t actually remember recording, Alice Cooper gave up drinking in 1983. Thirty-two years later the Hollywood Vampires were repurposed as the name of the supergroup in which the singer appears alongside guitarists Joe Perry, from Aerosmith, and long-time fan Johnny Depp. W

What did Cooper make of Depp’s widely-publicised libel trial last year, in which a judge concluded that Depp was, “on the balance of probabilities”, guilty of a string of assaults against his ex-wife Amber Heard?

“I know Johnny well enough to know that he’s one of the gentlest, most harmless people I’ve ever met in my life,” he says. “I only know him from being in the band, but I’ve been to his house, I record there, and I’ve never met anybody as nice as Johnny when it comes to people… That’s my capacity as knowing Johnny as one of the classiest guys I’ve ever met.”

Maybe, but it’s Alice Cooper who is the pro. Punctual and engaging, not for the first time I’m left with the impression that there isn’t a question on earth that will give him pause. Still, it’s worth a shot.

As our time together draws to a close, I ask the 73-year-old singer to nominate the words he’d like to see engraved on his headstone. He gives his answer without hesitation: “Here lies Alice, since from when he was teething, never stopped rocking ‘til he stopped breathing.”

Detroit Stories (Absolute) is out now