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Alice Cooper is living proof of shock's value

ALICE COOPER
ALICE COOPER
Alice Cooper is the father of shock rock and he's talking about how things used to be when he started performing his bizarre stage show for audiences back in the late 1960s.

"Fantasy used to be a lot more effective than reality," said Alice Cooper, speaking via telephone.

Now "you cannot shock an audience anymore. Audiences are shocked - and I'm shocked - by CNN. When you're seeing a real guy getting his real head cut off by real terrorists on television, and then you see Alice Cooper get his head cut off in a guillotine that's an obvious trick, well, it's not very shocking."
Strong words from the guy who once threw a chicken into an audience, thinking it could fly away. When the audience ripped the chicken apart, the reputation of the man born Vincent Damon Furnier in Detroit was cemented in the mind of middle-class America, which, according to a 1972 article in New Musical Express, "branded him a pervert." (Ozzy Osbourne, whose own poultry incident is another piece of legendary rock lore, is a friend of Cooper's.)

"My reputation's been going for 40 years now. They know that the guillotine is coming," continued Cooper. "Back then, they didn't know it was coming, so it was easy to shock an audience."

So now, the 58-year-old rocker doesn't really try to shock anybody. He tries to entertain audiences by staging over-the-top pieces of rock 'n' roll theater that blend garage rock with horror-movie gore, vaudeville and operatic grandeur.

And when it comes to inspiration, he just takes a page out of his own book.

"My theory is that the lyrics to your songs is the script, so you just follow the lyrics," Cooper said. "If the lyrics say, 'Welcome to my nightmare,' give the audience a nightmare."

Cooper's road to success began early, when he was a teenager living in Phoenix (his family had relocated from Detroit in hopes that young Vincent's asthma would benefit from the dry Arizona air). He formed a high school band, the Spiders (later the Nazz), with three classmates that gained some local recognition. After the band moved to Los Angeles in 1968, they signed to Frank Zappa's Straight Records imprint.

The group's first record, "Pretties for You," was released in 1969, followed quickly by "Easy Action" in 1970.

Neither album fared particularly well, so Cooper, disillusioned with the L.A. scene, packed his bags and headed back to the Midwest, where, he said, people "expect a hard-rock band to be loud and raunchy. If you're in Detroit and you're not loud enough, they'll just kill you. That's Detroit for you."

Though the band spent a year developing its stage show, the focus was always on the music, Cooper said.

"You don't have a show without the music," he said. "Take 'West Side Story.' Take the music out and what do you have? A bunch of guys dancing around ... You have to have the music first. We knew this from the very beginning."

The band, whose contract with Straight was moved to Warner Bros., hooked up with producer Bob Ezrin for 1971's "Love it to Death," which spawned the No. 21 single, "Eighteen," and eventually went gold, peaking at No. 35 on the Billboard chart.

By that point, Cooper had developed a sound that was one part garage rock in the vein of Iggy & the Stooges, and another part crunchy heavy metal. His next record, 1972's "School's Out," contained the song that eventually earned him a place among rock 'n' roll's elite. "School's Out" hit No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 1 in the United Kingdom.

Thirty-four years and the Columbine shooting later, Cooper stills fends off accusations that his music, and the music of other artists such as Marilyn Manson (who counts Cooper as a big influence), is somehow responsible for the actions of disturbed teenagers.

"I think any time that you're a personality that goes against the grain,you're an easy target," Cooper said. "If I wrote a song that said, 'Go out and buy yourselves some guns and go to your school and go kill everybody that you don't like and it'll be OK,' well, yeah, I think I'm responsible if somebody does that. But if I say, 'School's out,' I don't think that 99.9999 percent of the people will go, 'Yeah, school's out; I hated school, too; (I'm going to kill someone).' "

But, as Cooper acknowledged, "you're always going to have that 1 millionth of a percent that goes, 'Yeah, I know what I'll do ...' That person's going to do something horrible no matter what they hear."

Though he might have strong opinions, you won't hear Cooper giving his political views in his lyrics. For Cooper, rock 'n' roll and politics were never meant to be bedfellows.

"You won't find any political songs, excepted for 'Elected,' which is a satire, on my records. You're never going to find me promoting this candidate over that candidate because I'm sitting there going, 'Why should people who like my music ... vote for the guy I'm voting for?' " Cooper said. "Asking me who to vote for is like asking the guy who makes your pizza who to vote for.

"I think we get caught up in the celebrity of it and we keep forgetting to think for ourselves," he continued. "Any celebrity that you depend on as being a political analyst, come on. Why do you think we're rock stars? We're morons."

Now, with 25 gold records and 50 million albums sold, Cooper has returned to his roots.

"Dirty Diamonds," released in 2005, is pure garage rock, a departure from Cooper's more recent conceptual records such as "Brutal Planet" and "The Last Temptation," a Something Wicked This Way Comes-inspired collaboration with comic book writer/artist Neil Gaiman.

Cooper said his next album, which he plans to record in September, will be another shot of rock 'n' roll minimalism.

In the meantime, he's busy with charity golf events (he's an accomplished golfer with a 5 handicap), his restaurants - Alice Cooper'stown has locations in Phoenix and Cleveland - and his radio show, "Nights with Alice Cooper." (Clips of the show and podcasts are available online at www.nightswithalicecooper.com/listen.asp.)

Cooper said the show grew out of his frustration with today's radio programming.

"I listened to classic radio and wondered, 'Where's all that great music?' ... And one day, people came to me and asked if I would want to do a show," Cooper said. "I said, I'll do it if I can play all the other things.' "

A lot of classic artists are overlooked in today's market, which he says isn't about what's good, but is about what's next.

"U2 would never get signed in this day and age because they're too old," Cooper said. "Their last album ... would never have gotten heard on the radio. Now, that's absurd! That just doesn't make any sense."

He said his show connects with a lot of people, young and old, who want to hear something different.

"It just so happens that 90 percent of my e-mail, and I'm on 100 stations now - No. 1 in most of those - is because I'm playing that stuff that they're hungry for. I've taken it back to old-style FM radio."

It seems like the father of shock rock has a shock or two left up his sleeve after all.

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