Alice Cooper at 70: Shock rocker lives on | Music | DW | 03.02.2018
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Music

Alice Cooper at 70: Shock rocker lives on

While many of his contemporaries have fallen by the wayside, the once hard-living pioneer of gory rock theatrics and catchy heavy metal anthems is one of music's great survivors.

When Marilyn Manson started strutting the stage with his grotesque gothic visage, or the singer of the Death Metal band "Bloodbath" screamed into the microphone while covered with blood, it was nothing that new. Alice Cooper pioneered such gruesome heavy rock theatrics over half a century ago. Interestingly, the devil on stage doing his voodoo was not only a shock rock pioneer but the son of a pastor.

Vincent Damien Furnier was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 4, 1948. While not much is known about his childhood, he was a regular church-goer and at age 13 was proud to watch his father — who also loved rock'n'roll music — become ordained as a bishop. Indeed, few know that Alice Cooper remains a committed Christian to this day — despite his irreverent stage persona and long struggles with alcohol and drugs.

The birth of Alice Cooper

Having started a band in high school, Furnier pursued his musical ambition in the midst of the 60s flower power movement. But he soon wanted to show just how much the Love Generation got on his nerves. While Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin became hippie icons, Vincent scratched around for gigs with his band The Spiders, who would regularly empty out clubs with their quirky garage rock.

Alice Cooper on stage in London, 2000 (picture-alliance/dpa/Yui Mok)

Cooper has been shocking audiences for 50 years

Furnier and the band ultimately ended up in Los Angeles, where they met musician Frank Zappa. The leader of the experimental rock band, The Mothers of Invention, liked this group that didn't care less what the mainstream was doing. So Zappa signed them to his new label, Straight Records.

The band called itself Alice Cooper from then on because they allegedly thought it was funny to have a name that sounded like the nice grandma from across the street. A different version of the story says that Alice Cooper was the name of a witch who was burned at the stake in 17th-century England.

The chicken incident

The band Alice Cooper would soon find success on the back of an inimitable stage show. It was during a concert in Toronto in 1969 that the idea for a stage routine that Alice Cooper continues to perform to this day was conceived. A live chicken came flying out of the audience and onto the stage. Singer Furnier threw it back, saying "It's a chicken, it can fly on its own."

Unexpectedly, the audience tore the bird to pieces. Some in the media wrongly reported that Furnier himself had torn the head off and drank the chicken's blood. The incident strangely inspired the band to shock audiences with bizarre theatrics, including cavorting on stage with an 11-foot boa constrictor snake.

Alice Cooper on stage in Toronto, 1972 with an 11-foot boa constrictor (picture-alliance/empics/The Canadian Press/B. Spremo)

Cooper's reptilian stage act with a boa constrictor in 1972

But with the new shock rock schtick also came musical success. The 1972 single "School's Out" went to number one in the UK charts; while the next year, the album "Billion Dollar Babies" also reached number one in the US. 

When the band broke up after its initial success, Vincent claimed the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo artist — and even managed to have it written into his passport. And the hits kept coming with the release of the 1975 solo concept album, "Welcome to my Nightmare," which also went top ten in the US.

Only a monster on stage

Cooper was an acute alcoholic until 1983 but has been sober ever since and never fully succumbed to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle. These days, he's a loyal husband and loving father; and contrary to the shock rocker cliché, Cooper's hobby is golfing and he goes to church every Sunday.

USA Alice Cooper beim Golfen in Palm Desert (picture-alliance/Icon SMI/C. Baus)

Mild mannered Alice Cooper on his days off

He even (jokingly) contemplated running for US President in 2016 — part of his platform was "Adding Lemmy (from band Motorhead) to Mt. Rushmore."

In an interview with a Christian online magazine, Cooper explained why he stringently separates these two sides of his life.

"Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died because they wanted to embody their stage presence at all times. They drank and took drugs to do so," he said. "When I stopped drinking, I made a decision. I wanted to co-exist as a person alongside the stage figure Alice Cooper. But I didn't want to be that figure all the time."

"Leave Alice on stage just as he is: the arrogant, evil guy," he reflected.

"When the curtain goes down, I am a completely different person than I am on stage."

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