The Weekly interview: Alice Cooper

After touring through the snow-covered Midwest, original shock rocker Alice Cooper makes his way to Las Vegas on November 26.
Matt Wardlaw

“We’re in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and it’s just as bleak as you think it is.” That’s the opening report from Alice Cooper, as we check in on the tail end of his summer/fall run as the opening act for Motley Crue’s (alleged) final tour. “You look outside and it’s snowing sideways, and I’m going, ‘Don’t I live in Arizona?’ The next run of shows is in Madison, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and then three shows in Canada, so I’m going to be seeing a lot of snow in the next week and a half.”

But as the legendary shock-rocker tells us, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Touring just goes on and on for me,” he says. “I never ever thought of retiring. The ‘retirement’ word never came up. For me, that’s it. I’ve never lost my love for touring and making records. That’s just what I’m going to keep doing.”

Cooper will be back in Vegas for a show this week at the Pearl, a gig that comes at a busy time for the 66-year old, who’s celebrating 45 years in the business. He’s got two tracks on the just-released The Art of McCartney, a tribute to (of course) the music of Paul McCartney, and he’s also been working on his next album, a covers collection with a unique twist.

There’s a lot of people from your generation of rock music that have unbelievable tales of addiction and the things that they went through. At age 66, you seem really aware of how many different ways you could have punched the clock back then. But you’re still here. The next album that is coming out is dedicated to all of my dead, drunk friends. I’ve never done a covers album, so I did an album with all of the guys that I used to drink with, you know, that all died. I could have been in that “27 Club” very easily. But I think my generation kind of learned from our big brothers.

You know, my big brothers were Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, and we watched them burn out. And I kind of went, “Well, how do I avoid that?” You know, you still want to party and you still want to have fun, but how do you keep doing that without dying? There’s that crossroads that you have to face—Steven Tyler had to face it, Ozzy [Osbourne] had to face it and I had to face it—where you decide, “Am I going to burn out or am I going to make 20 more albums.”

The concept of that new record is interesting. What led you to the idea of doing an album like that? It might have been when I was recording for the McCartney thing. Bob Ezrin, my producer, said, “The funny thing about you, Alice, is that you’re a really good lead singer. You can do covers. I’ve heard you do covers of other people, and they’re really convincing.” He said, “Even when you’re not Alice, you would be a great lead singer in any rock band.” Then we started talking about the fact that we never did covers, and we never really did a covers album.

Everybody else did except us and we decided [to do one]. But let’s not just be random; let’s make it purposeful. Let’s single out what it’s going to be about. So it ended up being, “Well, let’s honor the Hollywood Vampires”—that was my drinking club. It was an odd bunch of people—Harry Nilsson, Micky Dolenz, Keith Moon. Early members were Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, T. Rex and some of the guys in the Small Faces. So that seemed to be the right thing to do. Let’s do an album dedicated to all of our drunk, dead friends.

Just based on some of the stories I’ve heard you tell about Jim Morrison, it seems like there could be a companion book that could go alongside this album, collecting those tales. People always went, “It’s just amazing that Morrison died at 27.” And I said, “If you would have known Jim, the fact that he got to 27 was a miracle!” The same thing with Keith Moon. Keith would take whatever was there and then drive a car into a swimming pool and then go dive off of a building into the ocean. And he called that Tuesday. So I don’t know how he got to 32 years old.

You’ve recorded a couple of tunes for the new McCartney tribute, including a cover of “Smile Away,” from the Ram album. What drew you to that one in particular? I figured that they would want me to do a rock ’n’ roll song, then the next thing you know, I get there and they go, “Uh, ‘Eleanor Rigby’” and I go, “What?” Because that’s a song you don’t mess around with. That’s like “Michelle” or “Yesterday”—one of those songs that you try to keep as true to the real version as possible.

So I did that one as true as I could to the real song. “Smile Away” was a rocker, so I’ve just gotta be Alice on that one. But I think the fact that I had four ballad hits in the ’70s and ’80s led somebody to believe that I could handle “Eleanor Rigby” and it would be one that nobody would be expecting. Everybody liked the version I did, and it was nice.

Even if you’re going to play “Eleanor Rigby” straight, as you said, you still have to figure out your approach. How did you work it out? The thing about it is that when we were in high school, we were all in Beatles cover bands; everybody was. I don’t care who it was, you learned Beatles songs—whether you’re Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, it doesn’t matter who it is—you learn Beatles songs, and that’s how you would learn how to play. So we probably knew 40 or 50 Beatles songs. I could do John Lennon’s voice really well. When it came to “Eleanor Rigby,” it was just in the right key where I could fake a Paul McCartney voice on that (laughs).

The Super Duper Alice Cooper documentary that came out earlier this year was an interesting watch. It ends prior to the success of “Poison” and Wayne’s World and some of the other things that helped to carry your music forward to future generations. Why did things wrap up where they did? When we did this, all of the drama with Alice Cooper—the lifestyle, music, bands and everything—a lot of the drama ended that night in Detroit [in 1986] when we did the Halloween show and I came out sober and did the show. In other words, I finally kind of overcame my demons and was able to play Alice Cooper sober. That was the punch line right there.

We thought after that, everything went right! Nothing went wrong after that. There was really no drama left. There was a lot of success, and I said, “Well, what’s the rest of this thing going to be, just all success?” I didn’t really want to do that. Everybody knows from then on that my marriage is intact, my kids were great, I never drank again, [the] records did great, tours did great, so there was really no drama.

Bob Greene’s 1974 book Billion Dollar Baby was an interesting look at the life of a band on the road in the ’70s. Yet I’ve heard that you and the members of the band weren’t a big fan of the book when it came out. What I liked about it was that Bob Greene was a buddy of ours. But he came on the road not knowing what the road was, and he had no idea what our sense of humor was. So we would stage things. Like he would come into the room and be sitting there, and Neal Smith would come in and throw an ashtray across the room say, “blah blah blah blah blah,” and as soon as he would write all of that down and leave the room, we’d start laughing. Because that never really happened—we never really had fights (laughs).

Honestly, there really weren’t very many problems at all. Billion Dollar Babies was a No. 1 album, [and] we’d just had a No. 1 album with School’s Out—we were living the life. But when we realized he was gullible, then we started inventing things for him.

But he’s a great guy. We dressed him up as Santa at Madison Square Garden, and I beat him up at the Christmas show. He knew it was coming, but he was game enough to go along with it.

Alice Cooper November 26, 8 p.m., $50-$100. The Pearl, 702-944-3200.

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