Cooper, Alice (1948—)

views updated

Cooper, Alice (1948—)

Rock stars come and go, but Alice Cooper's contributions to the canon of rock 'n' roll showmanship have been remarkably lasting. In a career spanning three decades, Cooper has elevated the live presentation of rock music with bizarre theatrics, taboo subjects, and an uncompromising hard-rock sound.

Alice Cooper was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Michigan, on February 4, 1948, the son of Ether (an ordained minister) and Ella Furnier. The family moved quite frequently. Living in Phoenix, Arizona, Vincent was a high-school jock who was on the track team, and reported for the school newspaper. During his time in school, he met Glen Buxton, a tough kid with an unsavory reputation as a juvenile delinquent who was a photographer for the newspaper. Buxton played guitar; the young Furnier wrote poetry. It wasn't too long after school that the duo moved to Los Angeles in search of rock 'n' roll dreams.

While in L.A., Furnier and Buxton enlisted Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, and Dennis Dunnway and began calling themselves the Earwigs. In 1968, the band changed their name to Alice Cooper, noting that it sounded like a country and western singer's stage name. (Another legend about the name's origin included a drunken session with an Ouija Board in tow.) In 1974, Furnier legally changed his name to Alice Cooper. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa went to one of the group's Los Angeles club shows. Impressed with their ability to clear a room, Zappa offered the band a recording contract with his label Straight, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. The band recorded two records for Straight, Pretties For You and Easy Action, before signing with Warner Bros. in 1970.

The band's first album for Warner Bros., 1971's Love It To Death, featured the underground FM radio hit, "I'm Eighteen," a paean to youth apathy that predated the nihilistic misanthropy of the punk scene by five years. Later that year, the band recorded Killer, which featured some of their most celebrated songs such as "Under My Wheels," "Be My Lover," and "Dead Babies."

The tour in support of Killer elevated the band's reputation in the rock world. Cooper—with his eyes circled in dark black make-up—pulled theatrical stunts such as wielding a sword with an impaled baby doll on the end or singing with his pet boa constrictor coiled around him. For the grand finale, Alice was sentenced to "die" by hanging on a gallows set up on stage. The crowds adored him, the critics took note of the band's energy, and soon Alice Cooper and his band were poised to bid farewell to underground obscurity.

The band followed Killer with their breakthrough album, 1972's School's Out. The title song was an anti-authority rant that became a hit single. The subsequent tour that followed was no less controversial, for the singer was placed in an onstage guillotine (operated by master illusionist James Randi) and decapitated. Later Cooper returned in top hat and tails singing "Elected." With each year, the presentations became increasingly absurd—with Alice fighting off oversized dancing teeth with an enormous toothbrush during the tour supporting their 1973 album, Billion Dollar Babies —and both fans and critics thought the music was beginning to suffer.

The final album by the original Alice Cooper band, 1974's Muscle Of Love, was a financial and artistic failure. The band split up, and Alice pursued a solo career. His 1975 album, Welcome to My Nightmare, spawned a hit single (the controversial ballad "Only Women Bleed"), a theatrically-released film of the same name, and widespread mainstream fame. Cooper became one of the first rockers to perform at Lake Tahoe, play Pro-Am golf tourneys, and appear in films and mainstream shows like Hollywood Squares and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Cooper's post-band work was informed by then-current trends in music and his personal life. He went public with his battle with alcoholism, an experience chronicled on his 1978 album, From the Inside. He used synthesizers and rhythm machines on such new-wave tinged records as Flush the Fashion (1980) and DaDa (1983), and enlisted the services of the late Waitresses singer Patty Donahue for his 1982 Zipper Catches Skin album. None of these records catapulted his name back up the charts, and Warner Bros. chose not to pick up an option on his contract.

Cooper returned to the rock marketplace in 1986 with a new album Constrictor, on a new label, MCA. He was aping the overproduced metal scene, and the record was a flop. Critics blasted Cooper for staying in the rock game well past his shelf life. But it wasn't until 1990, when Cooper signed with Epic Records, and made several rock hard albums, Trash (1989) and Hey Stoopid (1991), that exposed the singer to a new generation of metalheads. In May 1994, Cooper released The Last Temptation, a concept album based on the characters created by respected graphic novelist Neil Gaiman.

Alice Cooper's career is marked by dizzying highs of grandeur and influence, and miserable lows of bargain-bin indifference. The shock-rockers of the 1990s such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails are merely driving down the same roads that were originally paved by Alice Cooper's wild imagination.

—Emily Pettigrew

Further Reading:

"Alice Cooper Presents." 1999.

Cooper, Alice, with Steven Gaines. Me, Alice: The Autobiography of Alice Cooper. New York, Putnam, 1976.

Henssler, Barry. "Alice Cooper." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 8.Detroit, Gale Research, 1992.

Koen, D. "Alice Cooper: Healthy, Wealthy and Dry." Rolling Stone. July 13-27, 1989, 49.

"Mr. America." Newsweek. May 28, 1973, 65.

"Schlock Rock's Godzilla." Time. May 28, 1978, 80-83.

About this article

Cooper, Alice (1948—)

Updated About content Print Article