Circus

Circus - August 1972

Circus
(August 1972)

Originally Published: August 1972

Interview

You enter Alice Cooper's house expecting to spend the day with Jack the Ripper, only to find yourself sitting in the kitchen with Archie Andrews.

Author: Howard Bloom

It's two o'clock on an exhilaratingly sunny Thursday afternoon when the sleek black Cadillac limousine turns off the main road, drives past a wrought iron gate that leans at a dilapidated angle, and rolls up the long, winding driveway through the trees until it finally comes to a rest by the flank of a house fit for a Spanish nobleman – white stucco walls, a red tile roof, and an enormous carved wooden door. Inside, the house is dark and quiet. In one room sit dozens, perhaps hundreds of trunks the size of refrigerators. Inside the trucks are amps, speakers and stage lights. Above them, dangling from the cathedral-like ceilings, a faceless dummy hangs by a rope around its neck.

Out back is a terraced garden with an ornamental pool, a fountain, and a statuette of a cherub 30 feet down the corridor of lawn. Up on a third floor a window swings open, then a tall youth leans out to let the dun dry his freshly washed, extremely long blonde hair.

Madman Alice: Suddenly a thin figure dashes out of the back door into the sunlight and looks up past the trees to the blue sky. In each hand he swings a six pack of beer like a weapon. His clothes – a tight black sequined leotard and high-riding, lipstick-red bell bottoms – are suspiciously feminine. A photographer waiting by the pool moves toward him and asks to shoot a picture. "Shoot?" says black-haired Alice Cooper softly, drawing back with a flirtatious look of alarm meant to pull every implication of gore and bloodshed out of his words, "why would you want to do a thing like that?" He poses obediently for a few seconds, then someone calls to him from the limousine and he disappears around the corner, slops into the Caddy's capacious seats, and rolls off through the thick threes to New York City for an interview with England's BBC radio DJ Rosko.

A hot trip to Hell: You've only seen Alice for 90 seconds and already he's raised the murky specter of murder and mayhem. Alice Cooper, labeled by one song on his latest album as "Public Animal No. 9", the 23-year-old who slithers onstage in his leather harness and torn tights, slides his hands over his bare thighs, moves menacingly towards the audience brandishing an axe while the mascara etched lines in his cheeks that make him seem older and more depraved than a fifty-five-year-old wife beater, then grabs a doll and hacks it to pieces amid a shower of blood. The man who has driven his image of evil one step closer to hell with his latest LP School's Out (on Warner Bros.), a hard rocking testament to rebellion, violence, slippery sexuality, and insanity: where Alice's lyrics mix love with death

I'm hurin', I'm wantin', I'm achin' for another go.
You're squirmin' wet, baby, comin' very slow.
And it's burnin' holes in me!
You're so very picturesque
You're so very cold
It tastes like roses on your breath
But graveyards on your soul
"Blue Turk"

Where Alice is finally caged for life in an insane asylum because he's spilled enough blood to fill a water-proof coffin:

They locked my for up good
Pinned me against the wall
I stole a razor from the corner store
I just couldn't take it no more
I'm swimming in blood
Like a rat on a sewer flood.
"Luney Tune"

The Alice mystery: But is this really Alice Cooper? The first blunt suggestion that this may not be Alice at all came from Shep Gordon, the group's manager.

With School's Out thundering from the speakers on the wall across from him, the 25ish Gordon had leaned across his broad desk several days earlier and with quiet intensity driven home the point that the press had totally misunderstood what Alice Cooper the human being was all about. "Reporters don't seem to understand, the boys are living out a fantasy. As part of the fantasy they do shoot off guns and say, 'love, peace and screw you,' but not from that space. From talking to them for five minutes you might get the impression that they're a bunch of guys that are just into killing people, but if you spend a day with them, you see that that's not really where they're at."

The ‘Playboy' dream: The scene back at the Cooper house this sunny day certainly fails to reek of whips and torture. Shafts of sunlight prove the dark corners of the empty first floor, when outside Mike Bruce, rhythm guitarist and keyboard commander ambles up the drive.

Archie Andrews, at your service: Mike guides you back to the kitchen, and as he settles down at the table to tell you about the band's beginnings in Suburban Phoenix, Arizona, the breakfast crowd begins to swarm hungrily into the room. A slender, dark-haired girl in a floor-length house coat storms in looking for the peanut butter. Cindy, the Playboy girl, dives into the messy refrigerator to hunt for mushrooms. A young blond in a white bikini comes down the lawn from a neighbor's pool and gets out some dog food for Gretchen, the affection-loving Saint Bernard.

And suddenly it hits you: it's the American comic-book dream come true; it's what Archy and Jughead would do if they had long hair and had smoked a bit more weed . . . they'd start a rock band, strike it rich, buy a big house for a movie star, then invite Betty and veronica to com e up and cook their breakfasts. It's five times as normal as mom's apple pie.

High School heavies: The "perverse" history of Alice Cooper started normally enough back in the sophomore year when Alice, Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway were on the Cortez High School newspaper together. Their home lives could easily have won a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Alice's father was a missile engineer working on guidance systems for the Apollo rockets by day, acting as a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ in the evenings, and going out as a missionary to the Apache Indians on weekends. Glen's dad worked with Alice's on the production of electronic systems, and even helped design the blimp the Beatles used in Help. Mike, who wasn't part of the group yet, had been raised in a neighborhood still unspoiled enough to have horse pastures. His father sold Coca Cola during the week and took his kids fishing and mountain climbing on weekends.

Rough stuff gets serious: The earliest embryo of Alice Cooper – a group called the Spiders that played to high school dances and Catholic Youth Organizations – gave off their first faint whiff of violent punkhood when they came on in Carnaby Street clothes and punctuated their sets of Yardbirds tunes with furious rave ups that would frequently degenerate into phony fist fights. The fights were a goof – an exuberant tissue of make believe but the public seemed determined to make the group take their punk image seriously. Glen tell of one typical evening when a hostile audience stiff-armed them into over-playing the tough-guy pose. "we were playing for the greasy peoples, the bee-hive hairdos and the jocks, doin' a place in Tucson that held 2,000 people. It was back in the days when long hair was on women . . . and let me tell you, our hair was not short. We went dancin' in there and the places was crawlin' with greasers, and those guys were gonna kill us. There was about five guys lookin' at Alice goin' "Ah'm gonna gitchoo outside an' Ah'm gonna beat the sheeit outa yoo." I was the first one onstage and I'm practically shitting my pants cause I have to get all the way over to the other side of the stage, and I'm scared outa my mind, and they're all buggin' me, and there's this chick right in the middle."

Sizzling some nipples: "She's like this dirty, clap-ridden, pimply, braced groupie idiot that everybody hated, and I didn't even know that, ya know? And I go out feelin' like I'm walkin' the gauntlet and the chick goes (Glen screws his face up and imitates an idiotic nasal whine) ‘Play "Louie, Louie." Play "Louie, Louie".' And I go, 'Play "Louie, Louie," huh.' All this shit goin' on and I'm going to get killed and she's going 'Play "Louie, Louie".' She had on this blouse that exposed her bresticles, you know? A ghost named Alice: But peculiarly enough, while their audiences were leading them up the trail that led to slaughtered baby dolls, the quiet, spiritual side of their natures – the side that led them to explore Yoga, Christ and consciousness expansion – was taking them down the path to their fate as feminine seductresses, the path that would transform them from super masculine Spiders to lasciviously trans-sexual Alice Coopers. Mike Bruce recalls, "One night Alice and his sister and our old road manager and his mother were all working a Ouija board when they met this spirit that said it was Alice Cooper. The spirit said her sister had been burned as a witch in England, and that she had taken poison and died. Alice became infatuated with the whole idea, and once when he asked the board who Alice Cooper was, it said ‘Alice Cooper is. . . (Alice's real name)." A Ouija board had told Alice that he was the 20th Century incarnation of a 16th Century teen-age girl, and Alice had been intrigued!

The most disgusting act since Elvis: By the time they appeared with the Doors for a Lenny Bruce Memorial Night at LA's Cheetah club, they were probably the most bizarre group the West Coast had to offer. They came out in chrome colored suits with fringes while fog machines spilled dense clouds around them and black lights triggered the phosphorescent glow of spinning wheels at the back of the stage. Then they thoroughly antagonized a crowd that had come for Jim-Morrison-style rock by giving it a mixture of Dionne Warwick tunes and science fiction songs about computers taking over earth. By the time they got into their fourth number, 7,000 Doors fans had fled. Only Frank Zappa, the GTO's, a handful of dedicated drinkers, and two 21-year-olds who'd recently driven their dilapidated Cadillac out from the East Coast remained. The 21-year-olds, future Cooper manager Shep Gordon and his partner, Joe Greenberg, decided they had better grab the group and run. After all, any kids who could turn the stomach of 7,000 people had power.

Shep had it all worked out: he figured Elvis Presley had disgusted people by swiveling his hips . . . and become a superstar. The Rolling Stones had nauseated parents by pissing on a gas station . . . and become superstars. Bob Dylan had infuriated adults and youngsters alike by assaulting the airwaves with "the world's worst voice" . . . and had become a superstar. How could Alice Cooper miss!Living on spaghetti: But it wasn't going to be that easy. Several days later a record company president came to see the same act, shouted out at the top of his lungs that it was the most disgusting thing he'd ever seen in his life, smashed his glass on the floor, and stomped out in a rage. And a year and a half later, when the group had been traveling from one end of the country to another playing at the bottom of the bill, still so poor that they were carrying their own spaghetti pot and hot plate to feed eleven people on $15.00 a week, it was beginning to look as if Alice Cooper's only superpower might well be that on a good night it could still clear a huge theater with a single song.

The final taste of blood: That's when as audience in Michigan made it clear for the last time that it would allow Alice Cooper a place in the public's heart on only one condition – that the group take a total plunge into violence. It happened at the outdoor Saginaw Festival, a rough-shod, cut-throat affair where a guy could get killed if he didn't cover his sneezes. A motorcycle gang had taken the Festival over, beaten up the promoter, and dragged one girl through the grounds by a chain around her legs. Alice was the last act to go on. He came out in his night-dress with his pants underneath and aped a teenage girl singing "nobody loves me." Then eventually the band went into its grande finale – the fight scene where they beat the shit out of an inflatable rubber rabbit. But things didn't really begin to cook until the bikies got into the act. Swarming onto the stage with their chains, their greasy levi jackets and their bulging biceps, they took the act a step further and began to beat the shit out of the band. Blood flowed and the crowd loved it. They screamed, they shouted, they clapped for more. It was Alice Cooper's first taste of triumph, and after a year and a half it seemed finger lickin' good, even if it did have the salty flavor of freshly slashed vein.

The real birth of Alice Cooper: As the real-life Alice worked on their first Warner Brothers album, Love It To Death, he and the others had a brainstorm. Why not create one character, one human being who would tell his story in the songs and live out his life on the stage? A character whose saga would unfold in one album after another? A character named Alice Cooper? "The Ballad Of Dwight Frye," says lead singer and songwriter Alice Cooper, was actually the first song in which the dark, foreboding personality of the imaginary Alice rose from the primordial swamp of his psyche and invited an uncaring world to follow the grim tracks of his struggle to survive insanity:

See my lonely life unfold
I see it every day
See my lonely mind explode
When I've gone insane
"The Ballad Of Dwight Fry"

The Alice master plan: On Love It To Death, Alice was going to have a nervous breakdown. On Killer, the second album of his incarnation, he would go even further and kill a baby, then die for his crime. And on School's Out he would rebel against everything that had ever locked him up – the insane asylums, the jails, and, of course, school.

The freshly invented character of Alice Cooper finally carried the band into the limelight. With Love It To Death the years of failure were over. "Eighteen" became a hit, and Killer the next LP actually turned gold. Bianca Jagger came to several of their converts in France and kept returning to visit the group backstage. Rumors began to flow that Mick wanted to win Alice over to the Stones own label. The band moved from their farm in Michigan to a mansion in Connecticut, and Alice started to look around for a Rolls Royce.

The great mistake: But fans and press alike began to make a big mistake. They were convinced that Alice Cooper, the imaginary character conceived in Pontiac, Michigan, was real. And that Alice Cooper, the twenty three year old who wrote the lyrics and played the part, was actually the effeminate madman he sang about. Seventeen-year-old boys began to show up at Cooper concert in makeup and gowns, and homosexuals began to make advances when they ran across Alice and the boys in a bar. Headlines played up Alice Cooper as a swishy pop queen with a propensity for sadism. Nobody remembered anymore that it was all just make believe. Nobody realized that when Alice tells a photographer not to shoot, he's just kidding.

A new Alice: Later that night, Alice finally comes home from his interview with the BBC. Two of the five road men who take care of the group when it's home are out by the ornamental pool barbecuing hamburgers under the night sky, and inside Mike Bruce is running through tunes from "School's Out" on his organ. Alice slips quietly to his room upstairs – so quietly that no one even knows he's come in. When you go up to see him, he's slouched by the side of his enormous brass bed watching ball game on the small color TV. He turns his head when he sees you come in and gives you a pleasant smile. Without the make-up, he no longer looks like a hard-assed fifty-five year old sadist. His face is young, relaxed and honest, his voice soft and educated. With a few words, he is able to put you totally at ease. There's about to be a radical change in the character of Alice Cooper he says. Now the soft side, the positive side, is going to come out. School's Out may be the last of his really vicious manifestations. When Alice tries to explain why he wants to change his onstage character, he suddenly stumbles. "We're trying to break away from . . ." he stops short, groping for a way to talk about the feminine image that's disturbing him, then finally settles on a word, "the drag thing".

Muscles McNasal: As he beings to explain School's Out, he leans forwards to turn down the TV, then sits up with his back against the side of the bed and turns his eyes gently towards you. " ‘Luney Tune' and ‘Public Animal No. 9' are like a combination of being locked up in school and being locked up in jail. One line says, ‘hey, Mr Blue Legs, where are you taking me', which is the policeman, and another says, ‘Hey, Mrs. Cranston, where are you taking me,' which is the teacher. What's the difference between being locked up in school and being locked up in jail?"

Then he leans his head against the maroon bedspread and he things about to his own high school days. "I had a column on the Cortez High School paper called ‘Ger Outta My Hair.' I always signed it Muscles McNasal because I was skinny and had a great big nose. I got kicked out eight times in 64 days even though my hair wasn't that long." Then, suddenly, as if he'd just thought of the ultimate Christmas wish, Alice Cooper – supposed drag, queen, and supposed sadist – declares energetically, "Gee, I'd love to go back and visit Cortez High School; but needless to say, I didn't get invited to the reunion."

An Inside Look At ‘School's Out'

Though Alice Cooper insists there are a lot of romantic moments on the new album, School's Out, romanticism is not what strikes either your eye or ear when you visit drummer Neal Smith's room to give the record the once over. Stuffed lizards, monkeys and deer heads litter the walls and dresser=tops, and Alice's pet boa constrictor is coiled like a wrist-thick rope in a terrarium by the wall. It's as if this one room is the repository of all the evil that Alice is supposed to represent. Pianist Mike Bruce puts the needle down on "Looney Tune" and a hard, throbbing rhythm overlaid with a crazily-wavering melody fills the room, Alice's voice, at first full, thins to a hiss as he sings of losing his mind and the men in white coats closing in. then a guitar cuts in with a razor-like sound as the words spew out "I'm swimming gin blood! Like a rat on a sewer flood!" You notice a tarantula (mounted, of course) on the wall. A blond wrapped in a yellow towel slippers in. Michael Bruce's girlfriend, sitting on the bed, begins to tap her toe to the music. Then, there it is, by God – the mean, black leather and switch blade fighting anthem from the Puerto Rican street gang in West Side Story. And suddenly Alice cooper is ass-kickin' gang of juvenile delinquents singing, "here come the Jets like a bad out of hell, Someone gets in our way, someone don't feel so well." As the records rocks on, Mike leans over to point out the other borrowed pieces in the LP – the TV overtones from Peter Gunne in "Blue Turk", the line "Clat too verata nicto" in "My Stars" (A formula that once froze a giant robot in his tracks in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still), and finally the rain-like sound that opens "Alma Mater" – courtesy of a fizzing table of Bromo Seltzer. When the closing lyrics lurch to the fore about "the time we took that snake and we put it down little Betsy's dress. Now I don't think Mrs. Axelrod was much impressed," Glenn Buxton comes charging into the room muttering angry words. It seems Mrs. Axelrod took umbrage at Glen's misuse of her laboratory reptile back at Cortez High School and tossed Buxton out of the bio class. Little did she realize that one day the lad would get a loud and final revenge . . . in song!