Billy Joel wasn't the only one who noticed that a sinner's popularity often multiplies that of a similar saint. When Vincent Furnier reached the same conclusion in Los Angeles, he found the inspiration for his long-running alter ego. In the process, he not only seeded the beginnings of glam rock but forever linked a sometimes tawdry sense of theater with a love of hard rock.
Whether it was Alice Cooper's costumed get-up that combined circus barker with comic book villain or the band's chugging acid-rock boogie, Los Angeles didn't like Cooper in the late '60s. (Here's where Marty McFly plays "Girls, Girls, Girls" and tells the slack-jawed audience their kids are going to love it.) In 1970, Furnier relocated the band to Detroit, where he'd lived until high school. Their high-energy rock fit right in next to the Stooges and the MC5, leading Cooper to later crack that the Angelenos were on too much acid to appreciate the band's beer-goggled sound. In Detroit, he ran into a little Canadian who'd change his life—producer Bob Ezrin.
While Furnier conceived of the Cooper character, Ezrin crystallized the sound that accompanied it. He made his mark and his career with Alice Cooper's breakthrough third album, Love It To Death, and its hit single, "I'm Eighteen." Ezrin importantly cleared away the psychedelic excess of the band's first two albums, reducing it to a big dumb rock essence not unlike that of the design credo, KISS: Keep it simple, stupid. (Indeed, several years later, Ezrin employed the same formula with the band Kiss.)
"[Ezrin says] you have to be as dumb as you can on this song. And every time we'd play it, we'd throw this little thing in and he'd go, 'No, I'm 18, and I like it. It's duh-duh dumb.' And it worked. If that song was any smarter it wouldn't have worked," Furnier says. "A lot of times Bob and I would say, if we were just a little stupider, we could make a lot of money. We're a little too clever for our craft."
As AC/DC would undoubtedly confirm, writing cleverly dumb music means walking an incredibly wobbly rope; if you lean a little too far one way, you've written a Poison tune. Cooper's no Dylan, but the beloved bard once called Furnier an under-recognized songwriter. Indeed, there's a wit and playfulness to his tunes, from "Only Women Bleed" to the goofy gothic rap "Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever" from last year's Ezrin-produced Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the sequel to Cooper's '75 hit record.
Cooper, of course, is pure alter ego: Furnier was the son of a preacher and had a relatively strict upbringing. His father at least appreciated rock music, and as Furnier tells it, his adolescence wasn't that of an outcast at all. In high school, with his 1966 band, The Spiders, he even had a regional hit, "Don't Blow Your Mind."
"I've always had that rebellion even though I had the best time in high school. I was Ferris Bueller," Furnier says. "There were kids doing my homework. I had a No. 2 record in the state. I was driving a new hot rod. I was on the state champion cross-country team. I had every base covered."
While all those wastoids getting stoned in the parking lot to School's Out were indeed cranking music by a popular Christian jock, Cooper wasn't precisely a poser. For decades, he was a notorious drunk, engaging in epic last-man-standing drinking matches with Keith Moon and musicians such as Harry Nilsson and John Lennon at the Rainbow in Los Angeles. He lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle throughout the '70s, or until he started throwing up blood. He went sober in 1983, though he'd already returned in part to the teachings of his youth.
"I was the prodigal son. I started out in a Christian home. I was very happy. I went as far away as I could possibly be. I was the poster boy for everything wrong and then ended up coming back to Christianity," he says now. "But that didn't mean I couldn't be Alice Cooper. There's a freedom in Christianity that people don't realize. My walk with Christ is a one-on-one relationship. I don't think he cares much about my stage show."
After all, "show" gets the top billing when it comes to show business. Cooper simply detoured the pomp and grandiosity of art rock through the gutter in the guise of his own, mystical Aleister Crowley-like eccentric. Cooper's great insight was to combine the drama of the Grand Guignol with the already overheated passions of rock. "A kind of circus emcee, sort of Jack the Ripper," he explains. "He's sort of a carnie and also sort of otherwordly."
The consensus considers Cooper the godfather of shock rock, but he's really nothing more than a power chord fan looking to take Tommy to the next level. Importantly, he also recognized the power of a galvanizing villain, just as any good Christian might. Even on the new album, which features a strange batch of collaborators including Ke$ha, Vince Gill and Patterson Hood, Furnier embraces the ills of his character with audible relish. We're intrigued by bad boys.
The irony, as Furnier sees the world, is that real evil lurks not on the stage but in day-to-day existence. It's practiced by those totally unaware of it.
"What I can't figure out is how Christians can be used car salesmen and lawyers," he theorizes. "If you want to look for Satanism, you should start there."