Alice Cooper: The Gentle Man Behind The Shock Rocker Shock rocker Alice Cooper is a member of the incoming class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2007, he spoke to Terry Gross about the creation of the Alice Cooper persona, his early stage shows and his vaudevillian humor.
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Alice Cooper: The Gentle Man Behind The Shock Rocker

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Alice Cooper: The Gentle Man Behind The Shock Rocker

Alice Cooper: The Gentle Man Behind The Shock Rocker

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

On March 14th, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will hold its 26th annual induction ceremony. Among those to be honored are Neil Diamond, Leon Russell, Darlene Love, Dr. John and two of our guests on today's show: Alice Cooper and Tom Waits. We'll hear from Tom Waits in the second half of the show, but let's start with one of the pioneers of what came to be known as shock rock.

The name Alice Cooper thrilled teenagers and scared parents in the 1970s. In concert, his brand of theatricality was about breaking taboos and being decadent. He wore makeup, black lingerie and a boa constrictor. He took a hatchet to female mannequins and spit into the audience. He often ended his performances in a guillotine.

As intentionally crude as his stage show was, some of his songs were really catchy. A few of them became big hits, such as "I'm 18," "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." Lots of bands have since copied Alice Cooper's looks and theatrics.

Terry Gross spoke to Alice Cooper in 2007 and asked him how he transformed himself from Vincent Furnier into Alice Cooper. But first, let's hear what may be his most famous hit, from 1972, "School's Out."

(Soundbite of song, "School's Out")

Mr. ALICE COOPER (Musician): (Singing) Well, we got no choice, all the girls and boys making all that noise 'cause they found new toys. Well, we can't salute ya, can't find a flag. If that don't suit ya, that's a drag.

School's out for summer. School's out forever. School's been blown to pieces.

No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers' dirty looks.


Alice Cooper, welcome to FRESH AIR. Alice Cooper, I mean, the act, the Alice Cooper act is - it's theater. I mean, it's not just a concert. It's theater. It's a whole persona, and, you know, there's, like, special effects. There's a snake.

I mean, there's - you know, over the years, you've done, you know, things with - crude things with mannequins. Alice gets executed at the end. Why did you want to do rock as theater as opposed to just, like, doing straight concerts like most people were doing at that time?

Mr. COOPER: That's exactly it, right, just what you said, the idea of just doing a straight concert with no fun in it - you know, I mean, rock and roll, the most theatrical music in the world, and nobody was doing anything.

I would look at bands that I really admired like The Who and The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and their theatrics were built into the character. You know, they had - like, Pete Townshend was very theatrical. Mick Jagger was very theatrical. But I looked at the whole stage - and you have to remember, the original band were all art students. And we looked at that, and I said: Why aren't they painting that canvas? You've got this entire stage up there, and nobody's doing anything with it.

I also looked around and I said: Rock and roll is full of Peter Pans. Where's Captain Hook? And I will gladly be Captain Hook. I always thought the villain always got the best lines. The villain was always the one that everybody kind of really wanted to see.

And so I created this Alice Cooper character to be all of those villains wrapped up into one, you know, with this certain amount of tongue-in-cheek. I definitely - you can't do horror without having a punch line. I think you need to make the audience laugh. If you scare them, you need to make them laugh at the same time.

GROSS: There's been so many stories over the years about how you created the Alice Cooper persona. I'd love to hear you tell the story.

Mr. COOPER: We were a good rock band. We lived with the Pink Floyd and, you know, we were, you know, playing gigs with The Doors and The Mothers of Invention and all that. Nobody would record us.

Finally, Frank Zappa did record us and, you know, put us on Warner Brothers. But there was that moment of saying: I'm - we're frustrated. We better do something that's going to get a lot of attention.

That's when Alice was created. That's when I said: Let's create this character that every parent in the world is going to hate. You know, Alice Cooper. It's a guy. It's a band of guys. We're wearing makeup. We're wearing our girlfriends' lingerie, only we've got black leather pants on and codpieces, and we have canes.

We're more of "Clockwork Orange" than "Clockwork Orange." We were as - and we didn't mind a little bit of violence up there. We borrowed a little bit of "West Side Story." This was 1970, when people were easily shocked. I always said that we were the band that drove the stake through the heart of the love generation, you know? We were the next thing.

But the thing about it was, I looked at "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" you know, Bette Davis. And I looked at that old lady with that caked makeup on and sort of those black, smeared-on eyeliner, and I said: That's truly frightening. That, to me, is scary.

And then we saw "Barbarella," and we saw - Anita Pallenberg played the black queen. And I said: That's what Alice should look like, right there. And, you know, all the guys were all straight. You know, nobody was gay. But we had no problem, you know, wearing a piece of women's clothing.

GROSS: Dressing in things like, what, like leather corsets and wearing makeup and...

Mr. COOPER: Well, yeah, sure. I wouldn't have any problem with that, as long as, you know - I mean, I was very secure with my manhood. Girls loved it.

GROSS: They did?

Mr. COOPER: The girls - oh, yeah, are you kidding? Because everybody was - you know, Neil Young and Stephen Stills, and everybody was this, you know, hippie, hippie kind of look. And all of a sudden, here was this band of guys that were kind of like androgynous. And this was pre-Bowie, and you're wearing a great big boa, you know.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. COOPER: And you're wearing black leather - tight black leather jeans and boots and a switchblade and your girlfriend's slip-top that's all cut up, with blood all over it, and black leather gloves. And this is 1968, '69. People are going: Oh, no. My son's not going to - that's not going to be my - so that -when they walked into their room, and that poster was in their son's room, why do you think that poster was in there? Because mom and dad hated it so much.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, we're listening to an interview Terry Gross recorded with Alice Cooper in 2007. He'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month.

Terry asked him how the band came up with its name.

Mr. COOPER: We were sitting around, and we were talking about what could we name ourselves. Now, the obvious thing is, you know, some horrific name, you know, Venom or something like that, you know, Husky Baby Sandwich or something, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: And we're sitting there, and I went: Alice Cooper. And it was the first name that came out. I said: What if it was like a little old lady's name, a little old librarian, you know? But this little old librarian is, like, a serial killer, you know. Nobody ever suspects her. It sounds like a little girl, Alice Cooper, a little sweet little girl, and they get us.

And we all kind of liked that idea, the fact that nobody would see us coming. And what we were - I mean, we were actually pre-"Clockwork Orange," and "Clockwork Orange" borrowed an awful lot of Alice Cooper: the codpieces, the canes, the snakes, the makeup. The guy's name was Alex, not Alice. There was a ton of Alice Cooper in "Clockwork Orange."

GROSS: You mentioned in your memoir that, as a kid, you know, you were an athlete. You wrote for the high school paper. You were pretty popular. You were cool. But you couldn't fight.

So when you're on stage and you were being, like, the scary villain character, the horror character, was there any kind of compensatory aspect to it because you couldn't fight as a kid, but here you were being this, like, scary guy?

Mr. COOPER: Well, you know, the funny thing was, was it wasn't that I couldn't fight. It was the fact that - in fact, I was from Detroit, where you better -you know, I got into a lot of fights when I was a kid in Detroit.

And then when we moved back to Detroit, again, back to the toughest neighborhoods in the world, it wasn't that I couldn't fight. It was just that I was the great diplomat. I was the dark side of Ferris Bueller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: I could talk my way out of a sunburn, you know, and I was always good at talking my way out of it. You know, I always said: Why would you want to beat up me? I weigh 100 pounds. You know, the guy was going to beat me up, and I'd go: I'll tell you what. Name me a girl in this school, and I'll get you a date with her.

GROSS: Could you do that? Could you deliver?

Mr. COOPER: Oh, absolutely. The girls loved us, you know.

GROSS: How would you do it? How would you get the date?

Mr. COOPER: I was just a charmer. I was an absolute charmer. I'd go to the girl, and I'd go: Hey, look, you know, you're the best-looking girl in school. I mean, everybody knows that. And this guy over here is going to kill me if you don't do this. You know, could you just do me a favor and go out with this guy, and honestly, I'll owe you a big favor after this.

You have to remember now, in high school, we were the biggest band in Phoenix. We played at the best club in Phoenix, and we had a record on the charts when we were in high school. We owned that school. We owned everything about it.

And on top of it, we were athletes. We were four-year lettermen. We had the jocks covered. We had the - you know, we had the - everybody out there, and honestly, nobody could beat me up because I was in the letterman's club. They'd get killed by the football team. You couldn't beat up a letterman, you know. So, I mean, honestly, we had that school so wired, it was unbelievable.

GROSS: I find it so kind of amusing that you're so, like, easy to talk to, and you are such a charmer, and how different that is from the Alice Cooper stage image.

Mr. COOPER: Well, the Alice character has never, ever talked to the audience. I mean, I looked - when I created this character, I said: Well, what would he do? What wouldn't he do?

You know, you have to remember now, Alice is my favorite rock star. I create Alice to be - what would I want to see this character do? And I talk about Alice in the third person because when I play Alice, I play him in the third person.

And so would Alice say thank you? No. Alice wouldn't get up there and go: Gee, I hope you like us tonight. Here's a song we wrote in 1968, and all this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: Alice gets up there and grabs them by the throat and says: Come here. You're mine. It's almost - he's almost the dominatrix, you know, and the audience is his trick, as far as he's concerned.

BIANCULLI: Alice Cooper, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Alice Cooper, one of the artists being inducted later this month into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He had many dramatic and bloody ways to end his stage shows, and Terry asked him to describe his favorite, which turns out to be him in a guillotine.

Mr. COOPER: There's a certain amount of real anticipation behind it. You see that blade, it's a 40-pound blade. It's razor-sharp, and it really only misses me by about six inches.

GROSS: It's a real guillotine?

Mr. COOPER: Oh, yeah, and it's a good trick. But if I didn't do the trick right, it would cut my head off. I mean, it's - you have - don't try this at home, by the way. I'm a professional.

GROSS: Can you describe the trick, or...

Mr. COOPER: In case any of you people have guillotines at home. Well, it's a trick. It's an old vaudeville trick. In fact, you know, when guys like Groucho Marx would come to the show - Groucho saw us as the last - he always called me, he says: You're the last hope for vaudeville.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: And he would bring Jack Benny and George Burns and Mae West. And people like that would come to the show because it was vaudeville to them. They said: Ah, remember 1923? The Great Floyd used to do that. You know, the (unintelligible). Of course, he would have doves come out of his sleeves when he - and this was nothing new to these guys.

They would - you know, Groucho would come to the show, and he'd see it, and he'd go (mumbles). You know, he'd insult everybody there. Excuse me, I've got to go insult the maitre d', you know, that kind of thing. We were best of friends, Groucho and I were. But they saw it as vaudeville, and actually, that's what it is. It's rock and roll vaudeville.

But this generation, the last five generations have no idea what vaudeville is. So to them, it's something new. It's some kind of strange, dark cabaret.

GROSS: So can you describe the guillotine trick, like, how it's done?

Mr. COOPER: Well, the guillotine, you actually - you are in the guillotine, in a stock, right, and you are holding yourself up with the hands. The audience sees your head in the stock, and there's a basket in front of you.

What they don't see is that when the guillotine comes down, at one point, you let yourself go, and your whole body drops, OK. They don't see that. They only see your head lop off. They see your - because they only see your head fall down. And then there's a fake back that comes up and gives it the illusion that your head literally comes off.

Now, we learned the trick. The Great Randy was one of the guys that helped us with it. And it looks perfect. And then, of course, the guy, the executioner pulls the head out, and the head is rigged so that he looks at the head, he talks to it, and he turns around, and the head spews blood out of its mouth into the audience, like it throws up what's left of - he's not dead yet, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: Now, it's so over the top, that if you're not laughing by now, there's something wrong with you. Because it's...

GROSS: But the thing is, though, that some of your fans took it really seriously, which leads to the chicken story. It leads to the chicken story.

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, yeah, which, of course...

GROSS: Tell the chicken story.

Mr. COOPER: Well, no, the chicken story was one of those things that nobody saw that one coming. We're playing in Toronto, and my manager, Shep Gordon, who I've been with 38 years, who was also total vaudeville, totally gets it, you know. He's the one guy that always goes: Let's go for the Hollywood publicity stunt, you know.

He - we just - we were going to go on between John Lennon and The Doors. Now, you have to remember, nobody's ever heard of us. But he promoted the concert, and 60,000 people there, and we didn't get paid. Our payment was that we went on at the end, between the two biggest acts.

So in the end of our show, we always used to do a thing where we would open up a feather pillow and CO2 cartridges, and the whole stage was a flurry of feathers. In the middle of all this, all of a sudden, I look down, and there's a chicken. Somebody threw a chicken onstage.

Now, it never occurred to me - here's a guy, let's see, I've got my keys. I've got my tickets. I got my drugs. I got my chicken. I got...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: Who would bring a chicken to a rock concert? It wasn't us. We didn't bring it. I mean, I didn't - I'd never thought of using a chicken on stage.

So there's this white chicken, and being from Detroit, never being on a farm in my life, it had feathers, it had wings, it was a bird, it should be able to fly. Is that not logical? I - oh, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, I understand.

Mr. COOPER: And I pick it up, and I kind of like softly, you know, throw it into the audience, where it didn't fly as much as it plummeted into the audience, and the audience tore it to pieces.

The next day in the paper: Alice Cooper rips chicken apart and drinks the blood. I was the new geek of all time. Of course, nobody had a picture of it, because it didn't happen. Now, I got a call the next day from Frank Zappa, who was producing me at the time, and he goes: Alice, did you kill a chicken onstage last night? And I went: No. He said: Well, don't tell anybody. They love it. He says, everybody's talking about it.

GROSS: I guess there's a part of me that wonders if, in a way, Alice wasn't the villain here in the sense that maybe the fans were kind of behaving the way they thought you wanted them to behave, or the way they were expected to behave at an Alice Cooper concert. You know, a chicken, yeah. We're villains, too. Let's get the chicken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: That could - you know, be it. And it also could be the fact that they were the ones that were high. We weren't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: We were in the band. We didn't get high. We drank a little beer. That was about it.

GROSS: Can I just name a few names to you and get your really short take on them?

Mr. COOPER: Sure.


Mr. COOPER: KISS, we told KISS where to buy their makeup. Everybody wanted there to be a huge feud between KISS and us, because they were the great copycats. Alice came out with the makeup. KISS came out with the makeup. Their very first statement was: If one Alice works, then four ought to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: Now, my joke with them - and they're friends of mine - was they use pyro. I never used pyro. I said: As long as you guys do - don't do my show and do different records, there's room for us both out here. Just don't be Alice Cooper.

So they turned into four comic-book characters. They were like the X-Men, whereas Alice Cooper was Phantom of the Opera, you know. I always used to laugh, and I'd say: When you guys can't think of anything clever to do, you just blow something up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Marilyn Manson.

Mr. COOPER: Marilyn Manson, you know, understood what Alice was, looked at it and said: I'm just going to up the ante. I'm going to be Marilyn Manson. OK: Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson. OK. Let me see, a girl's name. Gee, I wish I would've thought of that. Makeup - oh, wait a minute, I did that.

But he said: OK, my thing is: Now, Alice did makeup, snakes and violence, mock violence on stage. OK, what am I going to do? OK, I'm going to be a devil worshipper, drug addict, duh, duh, duh. That'll get him.

What he does is very stylistic. I don't - I think he's missing the sense of humor in it, and I certainly object to a lot of the things when it comes to tearing pages out of the Bible. And he became an anti-Alice as soon as he heard I was Christian.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. COOPER: He's publicly said: Alice is - I hate Alice now. Why? Because he's Christian.

GROSS: And I want to ask you about Frank Sinatra, and here's why: In a concert film from 1973, you come out first in a white tuxedo, singing "The Lady is a Tramp," a song Sinatra made famous.

Mr. COOPER: (Singing) She gets too hungry for dinner at eight. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. COOPER: Well, he was the first punk.

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Then you say, in the middle of the song, you go: I've had enough of this. And you act, like, really angry, and you strip out of the tuxedo and start getting into Alice Cooper drag. But I figured you must love Sinatra.

Mr. COOPER: Love Sinatra. It was - he actually was a friend. And Frank Sinatra totally got Alice Cooper. In fact, all of the Hollywood guys, the old pros, got Alice Cooper. They got it. They understood what it was. They saw the image. They said: Oh, I get it. OK, cool. He's playing this thing to the hilt. Way to go. And the hit records keep coming.

Frank Sinatra did one of my songs. He did "You and Me" at the Hollywood Bowl one night. I actually got along quite well with Frank Sinatra. He looked at me as an original, and, of course, everybody - you can't beat Sinatra. He's the best voice of all time.

GROSS: Well, Alice Cooper, it's really been fun talking with you.

Mr. COOPER: Well, thank you very much. We hit on some fun stuff.

BIANCULLI: Alice Cooper, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. On March 14th, he'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We'll hear from another inductee, Tom Waits, in the second half of the show.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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