I remember: Alice Cooper

Simon Button

Rock legend Alice Cooper, 71, is best known for such hits as “School’s Out” and “No More Mr Nice Guy” as well as his shocking stage antics. He looks back on his Detroit childhood, finding fame in England and how he once nearly ended it all…

…Being chased by a giant bumblebee.

That’s the first thing I remember. I was three or four years old and when you’re that young a bumblebee is about the size of a bird. I remember it chasing me and I couldn’t get into the house, although eventually I did manage to get away without it stinging me.

 

...I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which was a sort of all-American city where one street was Polish, one street was Italian, one street was Irish, and everything was about sports: baseball, football, hockey. We’d get up in the morning and ask, “Who are we playing at baseball today? We’re playing the Irish? Great!” There was never any racism going on; we were all just friends.

 

…Detroit was America's car capital and my dad sold cars so I was steeped really early in my life in what was a Plymouth, what was a Ford and what was a Chevy. To this day I still have that in my DNA and I own eight cars. My father was a used car salesman and an honest one, which meant he never made any money, but my mum worked as a waitress—one of those jive-talking waitresses you’d always get in the diners—and it seemed we had everything we wanted. It was a very happy childhood.

 

…Mum and dad were Jitterbug champions.

They did swing dancing on the local circuit and my dad played saxophone and was into Sinatra and big bands, which is where my love of music comes from. It was also around the time of doo-wop and Elvis and Chuck Berry so my parents also introduced me to rock ‘n’ roll.

 

...I was 15 when I first heard The Beatles. I had no idea what I wanted to do in life, although I was good at art and so I thought that perhaps I’d become a commercial artist. Then I heard The Beatles on the radio and I thought, I’d like to try that. I put a band together with some friends one summer, and then the next thing you know we were playing at all these parties and in little bars doing covers of bands like The Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds and The Who.

Alice with his sister Nicki Furnier at his high school graduation 

 

...I came up with the name Alice Cooper because of our reputation for being theatrical and confrontational on stage. I thought, Let’s go the other way from names like Black Sabbath and give them something they’re not expecting, like some sweet little old lady named Alice Cooper.

 

...When the band began to take off we had the choice of going to college, which we all did for a year but the lure of Los Angeles and playing clubs like Whisky A Go Go was too strong so we quit school and moved there. It was like putting all our eggs in one basket and saying, “This better work.”

 

...Every record company turned us down, then Frank Zappa asked us to audition for his label because he was looking for unusual acts. When he said to be there for seven o’clock we thought he meant seven in the morning and he was so impressed that any band would turn up so early that he gave us a deal.

 

…The so-called “chicken incident,” which happened at a music festival in Toronto in 1969, was an accident that became this urban legend in which I supposedly killed a chicken on stage. The truth is, I threw the chicken into the audience because I thought someone would take it home as a pet and they killed it and threw it back on stage.

 

...England understood us way before America did.

Our 1971 breakout album Love It To Death was a bigger hit there and I’ve never been more thrilled than when “School’s Out” topped the UK chart in 1972. Britain for us was like Oz and it meant that maybe some of our heroes, like Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney, might have heard of us. Everybody thought we were British because of how theatrical and androgynous we were, “If it’s shocking it must be British.” My attitude in terms of playing the villain was, “There are 7,000 Peter Pans in music and no Captain Hook, so I’ll be Captain Hook.”

 

...Mary Whitehouse was a huge part of our success story.

When she and the MP Leo Abse tried to get us banned they generated so much publicity for the band and got the public on our side. I sent her roses and him cigars to say thank you.

 

...Going solo in 1975 was a must-do.

The original band ran out of steam and ideas. I wanted to do Welcome To My Nightmare as our most aggressive album to date but everyone else was so tired and there was so much disagreement that it was time to move on. There was no bad blood, though, it was just clearly time for a change.

 

...My drinking club in the 1970s included Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, all the usual suspects and we drank every night, all night, because when you’re in your twenties you’re indestructible. But when Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix—all of whom were drinking buddies—passed away, all at age 27, that scared me. Then one day I got up in the morning and threw up blood. The doctor warned me I was heading for the same fate and I got sober—and I have been for 37 years now. I’m healthier now at 71 than I was when I was in my twenties.

 

...When I made the movie Sextette with Mae West she tried to get me to go to her trailer and I turned her down, saying, “You’re 86 years old and I’m not even sure you’re a woman.” She said, “Oh, I’m all woman”, but I still didn’t go.

 

...I almost killed myself when I was rehearsing a stunt with the gallows and the safety wire broke. Self-preservation kicked in and I managed to throw my head back out of the noose before falling to the floor and briefly passing out. After that I decided I needed three safety wires, not one.

 

...I finally got to work with Paul McCartney on the Hollywood Vampires album I made with Johnny Depp and Joe Perry in 2015. I’d always thought of him as being the best songwriter and the nicest, sweetest guy, and when he guested on the album it turned out to be true. I’ve always found that the bigger an artist is the nicer they are. I got along very well with Sinatra and Elvis and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It was always the guys on the way up who were the jerks with ego problems, but I’m too professional to name names.

 

...Getting to hang out with Groucho Marx is high on my “How great was that?” list. We duetted together at one of Frank Sinatra’s birthday parties, after which we became friends. And early in my career Salvador Dali did a plastercast of my brain. [Laughs] That will never happen again…

 

...Becoming a dad for the first time was the greatest thing. I always wanted to be a dad so when my daughter Calico was born in 1981 I was over the moon. I’ve got three kids now, all of whom are married and all of whom are in showbusiness, as well as three grandchildren. We’re a very happy bunch.

 

…Getting inducted into the Rock 'N' Roll hall of fame in 2010 was great but I’d never been one to go, “Hey, what about us?” over the years. I just figured it would happen when it happened. My fans were the militant ones, insisting the band were inducted. Then it finally happened and it was very humbling. I never expected to be as successful as I have been but then I don’t have a big ego. I pretend to be egotistical on stage but I’m really not, and I honestly can’t believe that I’ve been able to have this amazing career for 55 years now—and I still get to do it.

Tickets are on sale now for Alice Cooper’s Ol’ Black Eyes Is Back 2019 UK tour, which runs October 4–12. The new Hollywood Vampires album Rise is out on June 21. Visit alicecooper.com for more information