Alice Cooper Is the Real Motor City Madman
The iconic rocker goes home to Detroit for a different brand of shock and awe inspired by his city’s hard rock history.
It was fitting that Alice Cooper spoke to me about his 2019 Ol’ Black Eyes Is Back tour finale and its recently announced extension into 2020. Cooper had just launched his Halloween Horror playlist on all streaming services, as well as a “My Nightmare” AR Filter that allows you to try on his classic, runny “Ol’ Black Eyes” makeup.
But Cooper’s new music has little to do with his usual showbizzy frightfest, and everything to do with where he actually was when we talked: Detroit—his childhood home, as well as the city that’s given us Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, MC5, and others he’s covered on his most recent EP, Breadcrumbs.
On that EP’s muscular rock foundation, Cooper finds himself in a unique position, writing and recording anew from the thematic standpoint of his humble start in Detroit.
Your holiday, the spookiest of the year, is upon us—and yet, I want to duck back to your Detroit roots, the newly-released Breadcrumbs EP, and where you’re taking the next excursion into your hometown’s heavy sound.
That’s what I’m doing right now, recording bed tracks in Detroit for that next album. Breadcrumbs was just an indication of where we were going…
…An actual bread crumb trail.
Yeah, towards the next step. Generally, I write albums that have a theme. This one doesn’t have a storyline as its theme, but rather a sound. It’s based on where I was born, the home of hard rock music. For some reason, R&B and hard rock…the Motown sound and such has wound up in the DNA of rockers here. So when you hear hard rock from Detroit, it’s got R&B in it somewhere.
What differentiates a Detroit rock sound—and we can extend that to Iggy’s Ypsilanti, MC5’s Lincoln Park—is that there is a density to it, and a swing. Something muscular.
“If you were thinking of forming a soft rock act in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s, you were going to get killed.”
Yes. I think that is because of Detroit originally being an industrial city. People here are used to big machines and mom and dad being sort of not extremely sophisticated. This was not a soft rock city. When people get home from work, they don’t want to hear soothing rock. They want to hear hard rock. And it’s always been like that. If you were thinking of forming a soft rock act in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s, you were going to get killed. Think of the bands that came out of here: MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent. Think of the fact that two of the biggest white guys who rap, Eminem and Kid Rock, come out of here. It’s OK, because they’re from Detroit. There’s something about this city. It’s a bit of an underdog. There’s a different level of respect that you get coming out of here.
When you started as Alice Cooper, were you looking for someone like Michael Bruce—your principle co-writer at that time—who already had this swing and vision? What made your union special?
Michael Bruce came along at the right time. We had learned every Beatles song. We had learned every Rolling Stones song. We were educated at the highest level and learned how to write songs from Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards. Our generation was closer to the source. That’s why we wrote better songs. Mike Bruce was a pop rock singer. He wrote stuff like “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” that could’ve been handled as a pop song. When Bob Ezrin got hold of it, we were very naturally Yardbirds and The Who—those were the bands we wanted to be. As a unit, we loved and wanted to be hard rock. [Bassist] Dennis Dunaway did have that Pink Floyd thing about him. Bob Ezrin took us in a direction where we had all those flavors, but putting it all through Alice Cooper’s lens, it had to come out with a cynical, sarcastic cleverness to it. And let’s not back off from being edgy. So then, “I’m Eighteen” came out, there was nothing like it on the radio. The same with “School’s Out.” Think of it: before that, the last big rock anthem had been “My Generation.”
All of a sudden then, here comes Alice. And a lot of it had to do with Bob Ezrin.
Yes. Him directing us. He was our George Martin. It was his sound that got on the radio.
Considering what you just said about Ezrin and the sound, how did you and he go into the current sessions and update the sound or make it fresh?
What it is is that I’m using all Detroit players. Mitch Ryder [percussionist], John Bee on drums. Wayne Kramer on guitar. Guys who are steeped in that Detroit sound. They can’t help it. Then, Bob and I can sit down and go, “Yes, that’s an Alice song” immediately. I can write twenty songs, he’ll go, “These three have something, have substance, are Alice.” I can’t tell you what it is in words. Neither can Bob. But we know. Being with Bob forty, fifty years…
Now that you’re mentioning time, Pretties for You, your first album with Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, an anomaly in the catalog for sure. What were those relationships like?
When Frank heard what we were doing and saw what we looked like, he said, “I don’t get it.” I asked him if that was good or bad, and he said that it was good. Half of that album is so insane, songs like “10 Minutes Before the Worm” and “No Longer Umpire.” Even The Mothers of Invention, in his estimation, would not have gone that far. Two-minute length songs with thirty-five changes in them. Wow. Frank said he wanted to record it, because he didn’t understand it. That was a cool thing for him. But I don’t think the first Alice Cooper album happened until Love It to Death. If you remember, Pretties for You and Easy Action were all songs written when we were The Nazz and when we were The Spiders. We didn’t come into our own until Love It, when Bob showed up. The funniest thing with Pretties for You is that it was reviewed as a tragic waste of plastic in its time. People then thought it was stupid. Critics who listen to it now, however, think it is art, ahead of its time, closer to Beefheart and Zappa than Alice Cooper.
Thinking about the EP, working with Wayne Kramer and Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad…you all seemed like loners despite being just miles apart. Did you guys hang out?
We were. And we did. We all knew each other well, and every weekend, several of us would play the East Town or the Fox. Three of us might be on the bill with The Who—in those days, The Who and The Kinks played clubs. After the show, we’d figure out where the party was and hang out there. If the party was in Ann Arbor, it meant The Stooges. The next week it might be at Alice Cooper’s band house in Pontiac. So we hung, but we all had our own sounds, and our own image. It was competition, but we were all always good friends.
“When we did ‘I’m Eighteen,’ Bob Ezrin kept saying, ‘Dumb it down.’ At the same time, the kid in ‘Eighteen’ was poetic and smart. But dumb. You can’t get all Steely Dan clever.”
On Breadcrumbs, I can understand why you covered some of the bigger songs. But how did you come to the Bob Seger obscurity “East Side Story?” That’s going way deep.
That’s why. Because nobody had done it. You would expect one of his hits, right? One day we’re in the studio, and Ezrin tells me he wants to show me this video—it’s Seger on Canadian television from like the ’60s doing “East Side Story” with bongo drums. The song told a story. Ezrin wanted to tackle it. He thought I could kill it with my voice. When I told Seger we were covering it, he was like, “Wow, that is so off the wall.” Such a strange song, and I love that it captured that sound, and that era.
You said that Ezrin can spot an Alice song a mile away. Since the Detroit stuff is miles away from your usual brand of metal, how does that work? And are you writing differently?
We know where we can go with Alice. Dark. Theatrical. Or we can go, as on “Go Man Go,” with something Alice just likes to do. It had a rockabilly thing to it—a real freight train. The secret to that song was just don’t get too smart. That was the mantra of the whole EP, and then the album: don’t get too clever. Think “Under My Wheels” level rock n’ roll. When we did “Eighteen,” Bob kept saying, “Dumb it down.” At the same time, the kid in “Eighteen” was poetic and smart. But dumb. You can’t get all Steely Dan clever.
You have a pretty crack band that you have toured with forever. Did they have an easy uptake on the Detroit stuff?
The band I have now is so versatile. They get it in two takes. The only thing I might have to say is, let’s not be so slick. Those riffs—take them out. Leave the holes. Why don’t we have them on the album? They’re just not those type of players. Same thing with the guys on the album. I don’t know that I’d have them on stage. If I was going to write an album with my stage band, I wouldn’t even write it for the studio. I’d write new songs for the stage and do it live. No overdubs.
I think you just discovered your next album. Which reminds me: unlike so many of your contemporaries, you’re not content not making new music. You usually don’t tour without new material. You’re always recording and releasing. Why?
Like McCartney, I don’t think I have written my best song yet or recorded my best album yet. When I do think that, when I don’t look forward, I’ll quit. Even the new stage show—it’s brand new. People wouldn’t expect that for almost seventy-two. My shock level is doing such high-energy new shows. I’m the only one not breathing hard at the end of a show. FL