Of Dreams & Nightmares: Alice Cooper Interviewed

Brad Sanders, A Gentleman Of The Colonies, talks to Alice Cooper about Native American hallucination jewellery and why he's more like Lady Gaga than any modern metaller

In rock’s early days, everyone who came along seemed to make it just a little more dangerous. Elvis shook his hips, the Beatles grew their hair, and, by the late 60s, an American born Vincent Damon Furnier but known by the pseudonym Alice Cooper was hanging black spider webs behind his drum riser, beheading himself onstage, and allegedly throwing chickens at paraplegics. Somehow pelvic thrusting never seemed quite so scary again.

Alice Cooper cemented his reputation as the father of shock rock with his 1975 concept album Welcome to My Nightmare. The record follows a young child named Steven through a series of nightmares and stands as one of the studio recordings by Cooper that best replicates the Grand Guignol horror of his live show. Now, for his 26th studio album, the singer has decided to revisit the theme of nightmares for lyrical inspiration. Welcome 2 My Nightmare is 14 tracks of wildly disparate, surprisingly horror-free rock & roll. Here Cooper’s musical vision is enhanced by guest appearances from Ke$ha and Rob Zombie. The product, oddly, is perhaps one of the freshest albums he has released in over four decades.

That’s not all Cooper wants to talk about, though. In a 20 minute chat, he touches on the desensitization of rock audiences caused by cable news, peyote-influenced Native American jewelry and artwork, the irony of his devout Christianity, and why Godzilla and Bob Dole can coexist in your dreams.

The new album is a sequel to Welcome To My Nightmare. Why now?

Alice Cooper: Well the funny thing is I don’t know if it’s a sequel. It’s another nightmare. If I was lying down and had a nightmare and 35 years later I lay down and had another nightmare, that’s what it was like. We aren’t limited to one nightmare in our life, so why not give Alice another nightmare and make it 35 years later and see what happens. I think the first one was written from the point of view of a seven-year-old little boy. When mom closes the door and shuts the lights off the thing in the closet comes alive and the thing under the bed wakes up and his imagination runs totally insane. This album is written 35 years later, and he’s remembering what a nightmare is like and he doesn’t want to fall asleep. The thing I like about nightmares is during them they seem logical. You’re having dinner with Bob Dole and then you go to the baseball park and Godzilla comes in. That doesn’t make any sense at all, but it does when you’re dreaming. That’s what I like about writing from the point of view of a nightmare. I can really go anywhere.

There’s definitely a wide variety of musical styles on the album. Was there a conscious effort to mix up the sounds?

AC: Well, a song has a life of its own. When you have 300 or 400 published songs, you start realizing you don’t try to force a song into something it’s not. A case in point would be to take a song like ‘I’ll Bite Your Face Off’. It just had the nature of being a 1964 Rolling Stones song. It had the feeling of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. We absolutely tipped our hats to that and let it be a 1964 Rolling Stones song. But then ‘Last Man On Earth’ all of a sudden took on the spirit of a Tom Waits kind of song. Don’t try to turn it into a rock song. Let it be the sort of honky-tonk song that it is.

Ke$ha guests on ‘What Baby Wants’, and there’s a popular YouTube clip of her singing ‘School’s Out’ live with you recently. How did you guys meet?

AC: I was thinking: If I were going to introduce the devil in a nightmare, who would play the devil? And my first thought originally was Vincent Price. Classic voice, classic Americana, classic nightmare. Then I started to think Christopher Lee, Anthony Hopkins, these kinds of guys. But then I thought, what would Alice’s nightmare be? Who would be the devil? A diva. A diva would definitely be the devil. I know that Ke$ha would rather be a rock singer than a hip hop singer. So I asked her, ‘Why don’t you play the devil on my album?’ And she said okay. And I thought Britney Spears would be the devil to Alice, and I was trying to think who right now the voice of that world is. She was the one who got picked, and she got it. She totally got the sense of humour behind it. If she didn’t get it, I wouldn’t have used her.

GWAR have covered ‘School’s Out’ and made a video for it, and Rob Zombie has been touring with you and guests on the new record. What does it feel like to have these sort of second-generation shock rock acts paying such direct tribute to you?

AC: It’s impossible to shock an audience. We stopped shocking audiences when CNN came out. CNN is more shocking than Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga or Alice Cooper or Slipknot put together. That worked in the 70s because there wasn’t instant communication. It used to be if I cut my head off on stage in 1970 there was nothing to compare that to. Now you turn to CNN and someone’s really getting his head cut off by a terrorist or somebody’s really getting hung. When I saw Saddam hanged on CNN, I said, ‘Well, there goes the hanging’, because I just saw it live! I think you can use shock methods. You can use things like Lady Gaga’s meat dress and Marilyn Manson saying ‘I’m a Satanist’, and that’s shocking, but not as shocking as CNN. I don’t think we can shock an audience any more. But you mean the bands who look like Alice’s disobedient little children, and they’re very good bands. They’re very good. They do industrial or some kind of a combination where I’m pretty classic hard rock but I really still like them. You know, I saw Gaga because I wanted to see her show and I thought it was great. I’m not into this kind of music, but I love the way that she created a character with Gaga like I created Alice and she writes songs for Gaga like I write songs for Alice. We’re probably more similar than anybody else.

If you don’t think you can be shocking anymore, what becomes your aim when you’re putting together a live show?

AC: It’s just entertain the audience. People expect an Alice Cooper show to be a certain thing. They know they’re gonna hear the hits. They know Alice is going to have a great live band. They know it’s going to be a production beginning to end. If they’re shocked, I’m amazed. I’m more interested in the fact that they walk out of there going, ‘That was the best show I saw all year.’ I care more about that than the ooh and ahh factor. I want to go out there and play songs the way that they’re meant to be heard. I hate to see the Rolling Stones and hear the reggae version of ‘Brown Sugar’. I want to hear the real version! So I make sure my bands know the real versions. We’ll play those longer, stretched out songs like ‘Halo of Flies’ so the band can breathe a bit, but the audience is definitely gonna get a show. All those guys are my friends. Zombie’s like my little brother. But I still manage to let them know that I’m not an antique, that I’m still competing with them. I am the oldest vampire, so fear me!

We wanted to talk about your interest in Native American culture a little bit. What draws you to it?

AC: Living in Arizona, my mom and dad both did missionary work with the Apache Indians. They lived in abject poverty, and from the time I was 13 to the time my dad passed away on the reservation I was there every weekend. All my friends were Apache kids, and they really were an interesting bunch of people. If you could get an Apache to say ‘I’ll meet you at 3 o’clock’, then you’d better be there because he’ll be there at 3. Getting him to say it is another thing. They’re very mystical, they’re very superstitious, very interesting and very honest. I grew up on the Apache reservation so I kind of lived with that. My mom owned a jewelry store where she worked with the Hopi and Navajo artists. So it’s just always been a part of my life, really. What’s funny is we’re actually Sioux.

I was going to ask that. Do you think your own Sioux heritage has something to do with your connection to Native American culture?

AC: It definitely has something to do with it. My dad’s side was Sioux and my mom’s side was Cherokee. Both of those tribes were not peaceful. If there was a fight, they were in it. That probably has something to do with me not backing down from the battle. My whole career’s been a battle, just to get people to listen to Alice Cooper and watch the theatrics. When we first started we weren’t just hated by the press but also by the bands because they saw us and worried that this was where rock & roll was going.

Could you talk a little bit about the store in Scottsdale that you used to own?

AC: That was my mom and dad’s interest in Indian jewelry and Indian pottery and all the stuff that was southwestern Indian. Some of the stuff these people did, it was really interesting. In the art you could see the peyote they were doing. In the jewelry you could see the hallucinogens they were on. The stuff looked alien almost, but really amazingly well done. I don’t know, that’s such an American thing. You don’t get this kind of outlook from any other Americans except American Indians. They allow all their culture to end up in their artwork. We didn’t just do jewelry. We did paintings, we did everything. We never did any of the jewelry that was done in Taiwan and sent to the United States. It had to be signed by an American Indian on the back or we wouldn’t use it. We would support the artist. My mom was very firm on that. She said, ‘We won’t sell anything unless I know the artist.’

What has Native American culture and spirituality taught you about life?

AC: It’s very funny, being a Christian. I was a prodigal son. I grew up in a Christian home. My grandfather was an evangelist, my father was a pastor, and they were both very good preachers and had very good senses of humor. My dad couldn’t do a sermon without telling three jokes. But he was not anti-rock & roll. My dad liked the Beatles and the Stones and the Yardbirds. He came from the school of Sinatra and big band, but when Elvis came along, that didn’t make him go, ‘Oh hell, this is the Devil’s music,’ and when the Beatles and the Stones came along, he said ‘This is just another extension of the blues.’ And I think the fact was I became a prodigal son because I went away from the church and I came back. It doesn’t have a lot to do with Native Americans, but it has a lot to do with something that shouldn’t happen. I was this rock & roller, and for a while I was the most reviled person on The 700 Club, and then I ended up being a Christian. Of course, sometimes I have a problem with TV evangelists. Anytime it gets to be big business it worries me.

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