The legendary showman who brought gory spectacle to the pop music universe hits the Boardwalk pleasure dome Saturday night
He isn’t usually mentioned in the same sentences as artists like The Beatles, Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, but the argument can be made that, in his own way, Alice Cooper molded the course of rock music every bit as much as the above-mentioned titans.
After all, it was the man born Vincent Furnier in Detroit 71 years ago who fundamentally changed the live-music experience forever at the turn of the 1970s by injecting over-the-top theatricality into the rock-concert universe.
At a time when virtually every touring act performed in jeans, T-shirts and fringed vests and—save for a few exceptions like Mick Jagger and Roger Daltry of The Who-- offered little in the way of visual focus, Cooper stalked stages in fright-night eye makeup and ripped rhinestone-studded tights, blowing the collective minds of his young audience members with outlandish shtick like fighting his way out of a straightjacket, decapitating a baby doll and pretending to fry in an electric chair.
Not that the likes of David Bowie or Elton John—or Madonna or Lady Gaga, for that matter--wouldn’t have emerged anyway. But it was “Auntie Alice” who first proved that pop music and show business were not mutually exclusive—a concept embraced by a significant slice of the Woodstock Generation.
So how did this son of a Baptist preacher come to mine the dark side—albeit in a cartoonish, winking way--for a career that remains vital a half-century later?
“I used to go see The Who and all these great bands, and I would think, ‘Wow, what would happen if they brought the lyrics to life?’” Cooper recalled during a recent phone call. “In other words, I looked at it and said, ‘There's a whole canvas behind these bands that nobody's using. If you can come up with something that nobody's done, that would be great.’
“I thought that in order to do that, I have to create a character that's going to deserve to have a show around him. So, I [became] the villain with a show wrapped around him that is theatrical.
“You want the villain to have guillotines onstage. You want the villain to challenge the audience theatrically and visually. All I did was, I brought something that was necessary to rock, but something nobody had done. I wanted to put some glamour in the show. Give the audience a show that when they walk out of there, they go, ‘I can't wait to go see them again!’”
Of course, it wasn’t just spectacle that propelled Cooper to the pinnacle of early-1970s stardom. There was also a canon of timeless hard-rock numbers—“I’m 18,” “Under My Wheels” and, of course, his 1972 fist-pumper, “School’s Out” (all of which are expected to be in Saturday’s set list)—performed by what, almost a half-century later, remains one of the great American rock bands of all time—the original quartet that backed him (his current unit featuring world-class shredder Nita Strauss on lead guitar is as tight and ferocious as that first unit).
By the end of the 1970s, Cooper had achieved enough fame and fortune for several lifetimes. But when asked what keeps him working as if he were an up-and-coming act with everything to prove rather than a musical legend whose place in history is assured, he insisted it’s because, as far as he’s concerned he has yet to fulfill his creative potential.
“I think if you asked [Paul] McCartney or Mick Jagger or anybody the same thing, they'll probably tell you they haven't written their best songs yet, they haven't done their best shows yet,” he offered.
“I think that's what pushes any artist forward. If I felt that I had done my best work already and there was nothing I had to do, I’d have quit. But I'm in the studio right now with [his longtime producer] Bob Ezrin writing an album, and every day we're creating new music. You never know when you're going to hit that one song that everybody's just going to go, ‘Wow, that's the best thing you've ever written!’ Or when you're going to do that best show.
“Actually, right now people are saying this show is equivalent to the Welcome to My Nightmare tour [of 1975-‘77].
“I really am encouraged by the fact that I have no physical problems; my life is stress-free when it comes to that, and I’m married 43 years with great kids. So, I’m touring because I want to tour, not because I have to tour.”
Ocean Casino Resort, Boardwalk at Connecticut Avenue, Atlantic City; 8 p.m. Saturday; $69 and $49; for tickets, click here.
Alice Cooper also performs at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minn., on Nov. 29.