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Alice Cooper Has Some ‘Detroit Stories’ to Tell

The original shock-rocker talks about his new hometown-saluting album, why he enjoyed reuniting with his original band members, possible Broadway plans and why he owes Variety a debt.

alice cooper interview
Jenny Risher

The only thing that Alice Cooper has forever done better than scare and shock is create titillating heavy rock filled with odd, often dangerous characters and their noir-ish tall tales. Cooper’s new “Detroit Stories” is ripe and rocking with such offbeat personalities and their memories, all in dedication to the Motor City where Alice Cooper — the man, and his original same-named band co-starring Neal Smith, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and the late Glen Buxton — made their bones back in 1970.

Produced by Bob Ezrin as a continuation of their 50-year collaborative friendship, “Detroit Stories” doesn’t just talk the talk of the good old bad days of being “Drunk and in Love” and characters such as “Sister Anne” and “Independence Dave.” Along with playing and songwriting from the aforementioned original band members, “Detroit Stories” walks the walk with guest-starring local legends such as MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, organist James Shelton and the Motor City Horns. Combine these genuine Detroit rock vibes with that city’s long-held R&B heft, and Cooper’s new album is a delicious tip of the hat to ’70s classics such as “Killer” and “School’s Out” without sounding like a throwback.

Not only was Cooper eager to talk about “Detroit Stories,” his original band, and his side hustle (the Hollywood Vampires with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Johnny Depp), but he gave Variety props for the most important relationship of his life.

VARIETY: Before launching into “Detroit Stories,” it’s 50 years since “I’m Eighteen,” your first hit. What do you recall about its recording, and what signature of yours came from those 1971 sessions that you still use today?

COOPER: We were a band, then, that believed you had to be complicated to be good. Before we got Bob Ezrin, everybody was playing everything at the same time. Bob came in and said, “This song is called ‘Eighteen.’ Dumb it down.” We couldn’t understand what that meant. What he was saying was that the simpler we made it, the more powerful it would become. We could not get that through our heads… until we heard it. As soon as we dumbed it down, got it to be three chords with nothing in the way of the lyric, it sounded powerful. Learning that is something we still use today. Beatles songs are powerful because they’re not complicated.

Gender fluidity was not a big thing in pop in 1969. Was anything you were doing meant to connect to the feminine within?

It was always more about the shock value. Nobody in the band was gay or had thoughts toward dressing like a woman. We didn’t even think of it as dressing like a woman. The “Alice Cooper character” was androgynous, but frightening. It was pretty to look at, kind of. But it was also threatening. I would be on stage, wearing a skin tight pair of leather black pants, right? Then I would have my girlfriend’s pink slip on top, ripped, and with blood all over it. Add the makeup and the hair, and I think that it all left the audience with a “What just happened?” feeling. The music already had them in the middle of a question. The look just made it more intense. We wanted the crowd to just be totally thrown off. The whole idea of the name “Alice Cooper” was that you’d think you were coming to see some blond folk singer, but instead got this band that’s gonna freak you out. We were good, but as a band, we knew how to sell it on stage. Neal (Smith) was this big blond guy with hair down his back, 6-foot-8, a gigantic drag queen. He was an amazing drummer. an octopus on stage. Glen, Dennis and I, we all came way before the glam movement. David Bowie used to bring the Spiders from Mars to our shows in London and told them, “This is what we should be doing.”

Talking about the live experience, you’ve been a consistent tourer, between solo shows and the Hollywood Vampires. When the pandemic clears, will you bring the original band back onstage? And where do the Vampires stand what with everything that’s gone on?

We’re all dying to get back on the road. The Vampires? I talked to Johnny a few days ago, and he’s writing up a storm. I told him “Keep writing,” as we can’t tour until at least the end of August. Same with Joe (Perry). They’re both writing, as am I, as we need to put out a new album. The originals? I spoke with Dennis and Neal last night — both of whom have been on my last four albums — and anytime that they are available, I bring them up on stage. In London, in fact, we did a whole show with my usual touring band, closed the curtain at the end, then opened it back up for the original band. One review focused on how sparkling and crisp the touring band was, then, how it got dangerous when the original band came out. The originals played darker. Their attitudes were more vicious. I even sing differently with them.

The fact that your voice sounds different when you play with the originals plays into the drama of “Detroit Stories.” How different?

When I’m working with the touring band, who are younger, they’re very crisp and precise in what they play. A hair faster, too, say on songs like “Billion Dollar Babies” and “Under My Wheels.” I sing higher with them too. When I get with the original band, we play slower, heavier and darker, so I sing that way. It’s amazing what the difference is.

Your family was from Detroit before moving to Arizona where you started the original Alice Cooper before trying your collective luck in L.A. How did you and the band re-connect with Detroit in the first place?

We were playing in Los Angeles, opening for the Doors, and in L.A. at that time, everybody was on acid. You could imagine then, if you were going to a concert to get groovy, and Alice Cooper comes on: we are uplighting, and we look like a nightmare to them. We put everybody in L.A. on a bad trip. We did not fit into L.A. We did not fit into San Francisco. We didn’t even fit into New York City. But when we went to Detroit, and played this big Saugatuck Rock Festival, Iggy & the Stooges and the MC5 were on the bill. I’d never heard of either. When we saw the MC5, wow, they were a show band, a great, in-your-face act. Then Iggy came out, and it was a “what-the-hell-is-this” moment. So punk. Ultimate punk. He looked like Mick Jagger, only more of a contortionist. A perfect body. Ragged Levi’s on. Women were going nuts. And the band was powerful as it was just three pieces behind Iggy. We got up on stage, and we were just louder, more vicious, more violent and way more scary than both of them, and the audience loved us. When they found out that I was from there, we became the missing link. And Detroit became our home. Immediately, we moved there. We belonged there.

Then, now, past, present, there’s something about heavy Detroit rock that’s always had a deeply soulful, deeply funky swing to it. How does that city’s Black experience filter into your work, whether back in the day, or a new song such as “$1,000 High Heel Shoes”?

We all go back to Chuck Berry, the first guy who started a record with a guitar, and the greatest lyricist whoever lived. He could tell you a story in under three minutes, while making up half the words. “Don’t give me no bother-ation?” Classic. The odd thing about Detroit; we’d be playing at the Grande, maybe us, Brownsville Station and the Who. You’d look into the audience and see sweaty, long-haired rock dudes in leather. You’d also see Smokey Robinson, and maybe two of the guys from the Temptations. Those guys loved rock. Dug the energy. It was all just music — not Black, not white. The Detroit music scene was color-blind. Good music was good music. You’re right about the swing thing. When I got this new band together in the studio…

With real down-in-the-dirt, old school Detroit session cats such as R&B/jazz bassist Paul Randolph and drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek…

Right. R&B is in this music that we were making’s DNA. Any other record I would have said, “No. We have to get rid of that. Gotta be hard rock.” For this album, I wanted all of that. I wanted it to taste and feel like Detroit. When we did “$1,000 High Heel Shoes,” we just went for it, and made it as pure Motown as we could with horns, female background vocals. Alice Cooper doing something with a Motown feel is now suddenly valid.

You’re not a nostalgic type. That’s always been clear. How did you and Ezrin even come up with the idea for something dedicated to Detroit in in the first place?

Bob and I are close. The only guy who knows “Alice” as well as I is Bob. We talk about “Alice” in the third person; have for all the 15 albums we’ve done together. If I write a lyric, Bob might jump in with, “I don’t think ‘Alice would say that.’” When we considered covers for “Detroit Stories,” I remembered Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with the Velvets, the height of NYC heroin chic. I decided to take it to Detroit and put a V-8 engine in it, up the horsepower. You’re right that I’m not particularly nostalgic, but when we thought about a Detroit record, I knew we had to get Johnny B, the premiere Detroit drummer. Wayne Kramer? He was a White Panther, and went to jail for his work in Detroit — and plays better than he ever did. 

Was the feeling between you and Ezrin the same when you wrote “Detroit Stories” together and particularly, say, “Shut Up and Rock” and “Wonderful World”?

Those two songs in particular, yes. And we worked with Tommy Hendricksen on them. When those songs came in, they made me laugh. “Shut Up” was about the most politically incorrect — no, politically incoherent and intolerant — character ever.

A Detroit guy untouched by #MeToo and #TimesUp.

I hope people take this with the sarcasm it’s meant to have. “Wonderful World” was about a guy so egocentric that the world would only be so wonderful if everybody would think like just him. That’s the punchline. Who thinks like that? Satan. His ego’s that big. So I said let’s make it about Satan putting a gang together in Detroit. He doesn’t see the point in morality and decides to teach his new gang how to cheat and steal. And I did use my Jim Morrison voice on that song.

Despite that devil’s touch, the nicest thing about “Detroit Stories” is that it allows you to duck back to characters and storytelling beyond Alice’s third person.

These were Detroit people I knew, guys getting out of prison, stealing cars and getting talked into outrunning trains by their girlfriend. The three guys sitting in an alley whose whole days revolve around one woman – Hail Mary – going to work and coming home from work. “Independence Dave” is a con man and dealer. I wanted people to see the pictures I had in my head of that city.

“I Hate You” is a self-roast of everyone in the original Alice Cooper band, including yourself, and the late Glen Buxton.

This was a great moment. When bands break up, they generally never talk to each other again. They hate each other. They go from being the best of friends to the worst of enemies. When our band broke up, it was less a divorce than a separation. We simply burned out after five albums and non-stop touring, and wandered away from each other. But we always stayed in touch. If I needed a drum or bass part, I’d call Neal or Dennis. If they needed something from me for a record, yeah, sure. They’ve been on the last four albums, and we figured out: Wouldn’t it be funny if we just did one song where we roasted each other? So we did. But when we lost Glen, we lost our Keith Richards. He was so unique, he left a hole that could not be filled. With him in mind, we wrote (the lines) “We hate your mutton chops” and “your smell of beer,” but “most of all we miss that hole you left on stage.” That was a tear-jerker. We meant it. We lost him at age 49… he never quit drinking and doing the stuff that we all put in the back seat. That’s what made us mad.

So many musical icons who got their start in the ’70s now have Broadway musicals or biographical films: Elton John. Queen. David Bowie. Have you considered an Alice Cooper Broadway musical and/or movie, or is every performance of yours a Broadway show?

I can tell you that, currently, there are at least four treatments being written for something. If they wanted a Broadway show already written and ready to go, they could just re-mount “Welcome to My Nightmare” from 1975. It was designed by a Broadway designer, choreographed by a Broadway choreographer, and directed by a Broadway director. We wouldn’t have to change a thing now. It would be pure Alice Cooper rock ‘n’ roll. We wouldn’t water it down for the farmers that come in from Iowa to see a Broadway show. That’s what happened to Pete Townshend’s “Tommy.” They watered it down. So “Welcome to My Nightmare” is ready to go.

Variety thanks you.

Look, Variety is responsible for my wife and I being married. She was a 17-year-old ballet dancer, saw an ad in Variety that Alice Cooper was having auditions for a dancer, showed up and got the part. I thank you.