WELCOME BACK to Debate Club, the printed equivalent of two ticks fighting over a blood vessel. For this installment, we tackle one of the most confounding and iconic American rock stars of all time.
Alice Cooper was a freak-rock band that formed in the 1960s. It then became the name of their makeup wearing-frontman, who led the group through their hard-rock heyday before embarking on a solo career. Now Mr. Alice Cooper—born Vincent Furnier—is coming through Portland as the opening act on the second (and supposedly final) round of Mötley Crüe's last tour ever, which hits the Moda Center on Tuesday, December 15. The Mercury's two resident Alice Cooper experts, supporter Aris Hunter Wales and naysayer Ned Lannamann, hash it out as to whether the old baton-twirling showman's still got it. They did not reach an easy accord.
NED: Let's get right into it. Why on earth would anyone want to see Alice Cooper now? I ask you this, Aris, because I know you've seen him already—the last time Mötley Crüe came through on this supposed "farewell" tour, in fact. We can get into whether the old stuff is good, and at what point it stopped being good. But one thing is clear to me: Here's an aging, born-again Republican with his own theme restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona—basically, the antithesis of rock 'n' roll—and he's still playing the role of crazy, theatrical shock-rocker. How on earth can this be good in the year 2015?
ARIS: I think if you're a fantastic performer and you still have a passion for performing, what happens off the stage doesn't matter. The show can remain intact. I'm not gonna compare 'em to KISS... but think about Tom Araya from Slayer. Offstage, he's a devout Catholic, but onstage, he sings all these evil songs that are anti-religion. The same goes for Alice Cooper—offstage he plays golf and owns Alice Cooper'stown restaurant. But after seeing him play with Mötley Crüe, I was totally blown away. He blew them off the stage com-plete-ly. I honestly don't understand why they're still taking him out on tour.
NED: It must be a thrill to have someone like him open for you, even if he makes the headliner look bad. I'm sure he's a hero to someone in the band. I'd hope so, at least. I'm not 100 percent sure Mötley Crüe really care about looking good at this point, anyway. And with Alice Cooper along for the ride, they can raise the ticket price.
ARIS: It's worth it. His singing is still spot-on. Not that he ever had a huge range. But the way he moves onstage is still great—like a spooky vaudeville performer. He spins the baton. And does all the fun stage-magic stuff. He still does the guillotine. He has a sword and fake money for "Billion Dollar Babies." It's amazing.
NED: Is it musically good, though?
ARIS: Oh yeah, completely. It's not the original Alice Cooper band, obviously.
NED: We need to talk about them later. The whole original Alice Cooper band versus Alice Cooper's solo act.
ARIS: The original band reunited at a record store in Dallas just the other day. Did you see that? Obviously none of those guys are playing with him on this tour. The tour guys are all hired guns, from LA, probably. But Cooper holds down the whole thing. It's a tight, great show.
NED: Tell me this: What does a drunken Mötley Crüe crowd make of Alice Cooper in this day and age?
ARIS: Ha, I don't know. Some people didn't really appreciate it, that's for sure. I mean, you'll see people dance around to "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." I'll say this much: After Alice Cooper performed, I could have left the show. I didn't, but I should have.
NED: Does he do any of his solo songs?
ARIS: He did "Poison" and "Feed My Frankenstein" and maybe some others. I don't think he did "Only Women Bleed"—that wouldn't be very Christian of him.
NED: See, this is the part I just can't reconcile. He's become the very thing he rebelled against.
ARIS: That's very true. But really, what do you expect him to do, go into retirement?
NED: He could always hang out at his cool baseball theme restaurant. I bet they have a good chicken Caesar and a nice shrimp scampi.
ARIS: He was always such a ham that I imagine the performer aspect is still a really big part of his personality. You can't just stay around the house and play golf and hang out with Jesus if that's in your bones.
NED: Yeah, that sounds like a death sentence. Makes me think about those other guys from the original band. I wonder if they'll ever reunite and hit the road, and I wonder what kind of room they would play if they were headlining. I'd definitely go see that.
ARIS: He's worth seeing now, is what I'm saying.
NED: We need to get into their backstory. So tell me if I have this right: Alice Cooper was a band that broke up, and then the dude stole the name?
ARIS: I think at that point his name was already Alice Cooper. He had taken the character upon himself and became the face of the band. In fact, he had it legally changed. How many other members of the band can you name?
NED: You got me. There was the guitarist, Glen somebody [Buxton], who's dead. And somebody named Dennis [Dunaway, bassist]. And two other guys [drummer Neal Smith and guitarist Michael Bruce].
ARIS: My introduction to Alice Cooper was Wayne's World. By that point he was Alice Cooper. I didn't know there was another name. He was an icon by that point. Following that, my introduction to Alice Cooper—the band—was Love It to Death. That was the first full album I heard.
NED: I knew who he was by the time I saw Wayne's World. I think "Poison" had been on the radio before the movie came out. But I must have known who he was when "Poison" came out, too. I already was aware that Alice Cooper was a man by that point—there was none of that confusion of, "Is he a lady? Is he a man? What's up with this crazy guy with the gal's name?" As a little kid I used to check out books from the library, like Rock On and The Rock Dictionary and all kinds of cheesy books about bands. There was one in particular that must have been published in the late '70s and it included 40 different bands, each with their own double-page spread, with a big photo on one page and a short bio and a list of albums on the other. I remember that's how I learned about KISS, who weren't on the radio at that point; that's how I learned about Peter Frampton; and that must have been how I learned about Alice Cooper. Because I knew what he looked like long before I'd ever heard the music.
ARIS: I think that's true for most people—they know what he looks like even if they don't know many songs.
NED: We had a babysitter who was also a teacher at the elementary school. He used to watch kids when their parents went out of town, to supplement his hefty public-school income, I guess. Such a cool guy. I remember he introduced me to the Kinks' "Victoria" and the pleasures of McDonald's french fries. And he also told me about the first concert he ever saw, which was Alice Cooper in the '70s. He snuck out his window to go see it, and he got in big trouble for it, but he said it was the coolest thing he'd ever seen. He told me this crazy story about this wild rock star who did all kinds of insane stuff during the show, and at the very end he cut off his own head with a guillotine. It made a pretty big impression on me. Although, I have to say, I didn't believe a word of it at the time. At yet, I guess it's true—I guess Alice Cooper does guillotine himself at the end of every show.
ARIS: My dad filled me in after I got the Wayne's World soundtrack, and "Feed My Frankenstein" was one of my favorite songs on there. He told me about when he saw Alice Cooper, with the big snake on stage—and he hung himself at the end. I guess he used to hang himself during the show.
NED: Maybe that was the first iteration—he would hang himself as a grand finale, and then at some point they realized they could step it up with the guillotine. I still have this skepticism about it. Like, there's no way you could be fooled by it if you saw a man guillotining himself onstage. How could anyone be tricked? But I guess it's done pretty well.
ARIS: It looked good from where I was sitting. There's a flash of light or a firework or something. And then a fake head drops into the basket. It's basic stage magic. Any magician could see it and probably know instantly how they did it.
NED: So my next real experience with Alice Cooper—well, there were the songs they used in Dazed and Confused: "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." But my first deep dive came after that, when I got the Greatest Hits album. I bought a used vinyl copy of it for, I think, a dollar at the Great Escape in Nashville. It's the one with the old-timey brown-and-white drawing on the cover where the whole band is supposed to look like gangsters. I put it on and was immediately like, "This is awesome!" The first song on there is "I'm 18." Which is still my favorite Alice Cooper song and one of my favorite songs, period. I was probably right around 18 when I heard it, so it was perfect.
ARIS: You know how I feel about greatest hits albums.
NED: I think you can make a case for this one. It's really good. It's 12 action-packed slammers.
ARIS: All those early '70s albums are good, though. I don't think there's a bad one.
NED: The other song that really stuck out was "Hello Hooray." It sounds like it's from a Broadway play or something, the first song of the night. It's a perfect statement of purpose.
ARIS: Oh god, I love that song. Totally love it. I think he opened with it when I saw him. Was "Elected" on there?
ARIS: Those are both on Billion Dollar Babies. Both great songs. You could kick off any mixtape with "Hello Hooray." It's a perfect opening song. And "Elected" is insane. That might be my favorite song overall.
NED: So the next thing I learned is that this Greatest Hits album I liked so much was the work of not one man, but a band—a band called Alice Cooper, which just happened to have a lead singer with the same name. That was after he changed it from Vince Furnier; I'm not clear exactly when that happened. But all the songs I liked were done by this band that was originally from Arizona, which then moved to LA, and then moved to Detroit, then moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, of all places—and then they broke up and the singer guy went solo under the name Alice Cooper. Eventually I heard "Only Women Bleed" and "Welcome to My Nightmare," and said, "Oh, okay, so I guess solo Alice Cooper sucks." With that, I'd figured it all out. That has been my philosophy ever since, and I'm sticking to it.
ARIS: He obviously was pandering to an era. He was kind of like ZZ Top. Once Eliminator came out—and even a little bit before that, Degüello is kind of like that too, even though I like that record—they just got super polished, super clean, over-produced, and lost their blues, basically. It was still there, but it got glossed over by so much studio magic and tricks and synthesizers and all that shit. They pandered to their particular era. And it basically broke their back entirely and they never did anything good since.
NED: Did you know Billy Gibbons is playing in Portland this week?
ARIS: No! We digress. When did Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare come out? Was that in the '80s?
NED: No, that was his first solo album. 1975, I think.
ARIS: I don't like that record too much either, although there are a couple of good songs on there. Before my tape player broke, it was one of the last tapes I ever got. "Only Women Bleed" is just kind of ridiculous. That song is just weird.
NED: The album cover is really off-putting to me. Where he's got the top hat and he's coming out of a triangle.
ARIS: Why is that?
NED: I don't know. I guess that was part of that era during the '70s, in the wake of The Sting where everyone was like, "Hey, let's make everything look like the '20s!" It's weird. Why is he all dressed up? What's with all this showbiz razzle-dazzle? Isn't this supposed to be rock 'n' roll?
ARIS: Because he's a showman! He's the emcee, the ringmaster of his own world of nonsense. Nightmare is the only solo album I really investigated. Anytime I'd see one of his other solo albums, I'd pick it up and then put it right back down. I'd know just from looking that it wasn't going to be good.
NED: He's had some crazy album covers. There's the one that's just a close-up of his face with a split down the middle, and you open it up and it's an insane asylum inside his head. And there's Muscle of Love—that's an Alice Cooper band album, but the cover is just a thick chunk of cardboard with a suspicious-looking stain at the bottom. That's the album that signaled the end of their most successful era. Record stores didn't want to carry it.
ARIS: Have you seen the cover of Raise Your Fist and Yell? It's a fist, but with his face on it, and it's screaming. It's really bad.
NED: That sounds horrifying.
ARIS: And his comeback album, Trash—the one with "Poison"—that song's not good. Super cheesy '80s metal.
NED: That's a Desmond Child song, right? It always sounded super generic. Desmond Child was the go-to producer for all of the hair-metal power ballads of that era.
ARIS: And after that came "Feed My Frankenstein." I have affection for it just because of Wayne's World and how much I played the tape of that soundtrack. It's stupid, for sure. It's a really bad song. I sang it at karaoke once. About halfway through, I thought, "What am I singing? This is disgusting." It's about his penis.
NED: That opening line always makes me think of the En Vogue song, "Free Your Mind."
ARIS: Yeah, they're pretty close.
NED: I remember that part in Wayne's World, the scene where Alice Cooper actually says a line, and he does that joke about Milwaukee. That cracked me up, because you think he's going to be scary or crazy, but he's actually very reasonable and soft-spoken.
ARIS: You can't really talk about Alice Cooper unless you talk about Arthur Brown. Alice Cooper basically robbed his makeup. Arthur Brown was the first one doing that sort of thing. And he had the fire coming out of his helmet. He was the first, quote-unquote, shock rocker.
NED: Oh, interesting. I hadn't thought about him. Yeah, other than "Fire," which you might hear late at night in a Time-Life commercial, no one ever talks about Arthur Brown anymore.
ARIS: I love that album, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. You can trace that whole style directly to him. Alice Cooper obviously took some stuff. And KISS of course. And in the '80s, other people really copied him, too.
NED: You mean the makeup and stuff? Like Boy George?
ARIS: No, more in the rock world. In the '90s, of course, there was Marilyn Manson. I guess in the '80s, there was Ozzy, who bit the head off a bat and did all that shock-rock stuff. There was that infamous incident where Alice Cooper, really early on, threw a chicken into the crowd, which then tore it to pieces.
NED: There were the Misfits, too. And Adam Ant. All those makeup-wearing kooks.
ARIS: I think you could say Arthur Brown was the biggest influence on all of Alice Cooper's early theatrics. Which, by the mid-'70s, were being copied by everyone. Another early influence, which will sound strange to some people, was Frank Zappa. The band's first two records were on Zappa's record label.
NED: Yeah, they include a lot of weird sort of anti-rock and bizarre jazzy stuff. "We're gonna let our freak flag fly and challenge your perceptions of good taste!"—that sort of stuff. Rebellion 101. Especially when you consider Cooper was a preacher's kid.
ARIS: Yeah, it was really quirky and presentation-based. The type of thing where, if you're going to a show, you'll really get the personality of the music. But it didn't always translate to album until they left LA and went to Detroit, where they were influenced by bands like MC5 and the Stooges.
NED: It's crazy to think that bands used to go to Detroit to "make it." That's not a thing you can do anymore.
ARIS: You can hear the shift on albums like Love It to Death and Killer. They're much more direct and punk rock. Would you say that Alice Cooper was more infamous than famous?
NED: For sure. He—or they—were a household name in the early to mid-'70s. I think there's some statistic where at one point they were the highest grossing band of the year, beating the Rolling Stones or something. I think for a brief period they might have been the biggest band in America, around the time of "School's Out" and Billion Dollar Babies. They got rich enough to buy a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, where they recorded part of Billion Dollar Babies.
ARIS: Well, some of that album must have been in a studio, too, because that's how they got Donovan to sing on "Billion Dollar Babies." They were in London and he was in the next studio over.
NED: It's so weird that Donovan is on an Alice Cooper record.
ARIS: And he sounds great on it. He's perfect for the song.
NED: So I think we both agree that the original Alice Cooper-band era was pretty great. But I don't know if I like anything after that. This is where I'm standing. Would you say, to someone who has to pay for tickets to this show, to go just for Alice Cooper?
ARIS: Absol-LUTELY. And then leave.