Monday, April 09, 2007
Random Walks: Nightmare Theater
scream, "Put me back in my cage!"
I saw him hanged by his tie;
I saw enough to make me cry."
-- "Planet Earth," Devo
As a young child, I had a pronounced morbid streak (much to my mother's dismay), devouring anthologies of ghost/horror stories from the library, and willingly paying the price of the inevitable bad dreams that followed my on-the-sly viewings of midnight monster movies. Once, after watching the classic I Was a Teenage Werewolf while sleeping over at a friend's house, I awoke in terror in the wee hours, convinced there was a werewolf at the foot of my bed. (It turned out to be a poster of David Cassidy.)
But nothing was more tantalizing than the Alice Cooper record collection owned by my friend's teenaged brother. Long before I began buying records of my own, I would sneak off to my friend's house and beg her brother to play Billion Dollar Babies, School's Out, or Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. Thus, by age 12, I knew all the lyrics to "Generation Landslide," "No More Mister Nice Guy," and "I Never Cry," and naively sang along to the catchy, but decidedly off-color, "Blue Turk," with no idea of what the lyrics actually meant. Yet it was the narrative-driven, staged theatrics of Welcome To My Nightmare (WTMN) that resonated most with my budding neo-Goth soul.
Many years later, while living in New York's East Village, I rediscovered Cooper's music, and found it still had that same resonating power, especially WTMN. In retrospect, it's not surprising that I found the "story" of Alice so compelling, given that we both hail from a religious background. Alice Cooper was born Vincent Furnier in Detroit in 1948. His grandfather was an ordained "apostle" of the Church of Jesus Christ, and his father was a deacon. The Judeo-Christian mythos was thus ingrained in young Vince at a very early age. Not even the worldly trappings of rock superstardom could erase that early imprinting.
Superstardom didn't come overnight. As a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona, the future Alice Cooper was on the track team, dabbled in surrealist art, and formed a band for the local talent show with some fellow cross-country teammates. Evincing a fondness for insects, they first called themselves the Earwigs, then changed it to the Spiders after graduating from high school, then (briefly) switched to The Nazz, before finally settling on Alice Cooper. (Rock legend has it that the name came out of a Ouija board session in which Vince learned he was the reincarnation of a 17th century witch of the same name, although Cooper himself later debunked that story. It was meant to conjure up an image of "a sweet little girl with a hatchet behind her back.") The name originally referred to the band as a whole, but gradually became associated with the group's flamboyantly androgynous lead singer, with his demented Kabuki-style makeup and penchant for wearing tattered women's clothing onstage.
From the start, theatrics were a big part of Alice Cooper's live act, but they didn't become notorious until September 1969, when a chicken ended up onstage mid-performance at the Toronto Rock 'n Roll Revival concert. Figuring that chickens should be able to fly, Cooper picked it up and tossed it back into the crowd, where it was ripped to shreds. After the incident was reported in national newspapers, rumors flew that Cooper bit the head off a live chicken and drank its blood onstage. The group's mentor, Frank Zappa, encouraged the rumor, and the band's theatrics became increasingly violent -- and legendary. (To this day, Cooper is widely credited with being one of the first to bring storylined theatrics to the concert stage.) The more loudly politicians and churches denounced the band and called for the shows to be banned, the more wildly popular they became. Sex and violence sells, a maxim that was true then as it is now. By the 1973 Billion Dollar Babies tour, it had become a full-fledged rock opera, with highly advanced special effects, many designed by magician (and future notorious pseudoscience debunker) James Randi, who even appeared onstage as the executioner during some of the shows.
A consistent (thematically speaking) storyline was also emerging, one with a surprisingly strong moral center. "Alice" became a stage villain, committing all manner of vile acts (complete with live boa constrictors, fake blood, and the lewd fondling and chopping up of baby dolls during the tune "Dead Babies"), and finally being "punished" for his crimes in the climactic scene via some form of onstage execution: hanging, electrocution, or the guillotine. The audience ate it up, in fine Aristotelian cathartic fashion. But Alice didn't stay dead: during the encore he would re-emerge triumphantly, this time in white tails and top-hat -- almost a figure of salvation and redemption. Somehow, Cooper had turned the stage show into a modern day rock 'n roll Passion Play, with himself as the central Anti-Christ figure who is sacrificed and resurrected from the dead.
Christians in medieval Europe would have grasped this immediately. So-called "mystery plays" were all the rage in the Middle Ages, most likely originating with the staging of Bible stories in churches, often with accompanying songs or musical performances. Thematically, the passion and resurrection of Jesus were among the most popular stagings, especially around the Easter celebration. Although they started out simply, the plays gradually became more elaborate and embellished, eventually spreading beyond the churches to become a mainstay of traveling troupes of players. According to Wikipedia, in later centuries, such plays "were often marked by the extravagance of the sets and 'special effects....'" Papier-mache masks were often worn to better delineate the stock characters, often grotesque when depicting Satan or his minions. One suspects Alice Cooper would have felt right at home in a medieval mystery play.
He might also have felt comfortable with commedia dell'arte ("comedy of humors" in Italian), a form of traveling improvisational theater that was hugely popular in Renaissance Italy. Despite the improvisational nature of the format, there were set characters -- each with its own telltale accompanying masks and costumes -- and situations that influenced literature and theater (even music) for centuries to come, from Shakespeare and Moliere, to Rostand's Cyrano and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." The Alice Cooper stage shows featured the same elaborate costumes, props, even a few slapstick elements, albeit of a darker variety than one would have found in 15th century Venice. And Cooper's trademark painted face is a version of a mask, now forever associated in the public mind with that particular demonic character.
Masks predate modern theater, of course, and have played many symbolic roles throughout human history. In ancient Greece, they were used to depict mythological gods, and belonged as much to religious ritual as to drama. In such diverse cultures as Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, China and Mexico, they were used as a protection to ward of evil spirits. And among some New Guinea tribes, masks were seen as living demons or spirits: they were treated with great respect, with natives conversing with them as if they were alive.
Something of that anthropomorphic character of masks seeped into Cooper's colorful stage persona. Somewhere along the line, it stopped being an act. The stage "Alice" -- the fictional character -- began to take over, as the Man Behind the Mask (Vince Furnier) sank further and further into chronic alcoholism to cope with the mounting pressure of having to "be" Alice Cooper 24-7. He split with the group in 1974, releasing his first solo record, WTMN, in 1975. It told the story of a young boy named Stephen's nightmare, and featured narration by Vincent Price and the most elaborate stage effects to date. The tour was a spectacular success, even being filmed live for a concert film that remains popular with the midnight movie crowd today.
Yet despite his spectacular solo success, Cooper was drinking more than ever, even founding his own drinking club, The Hollywood Vampires. (There is actually a cocktail named the Alice Cooper, a blend of vodka, whiskey and lager, that originated in Australian bars.) He was rumored to be consuming up to two cases of Budweiser and a bottle of whiskey a day at one point, and the habit soon had a deleterious effect on his performances. His 1976 follow-up album was appropriately titled "Alice Cooper Goes To Hell," and it was clear from the wretchedly shambling live concerts that the rock superstar was on the road to ruin and professional (if not spiritual) damnation.
Like a 52-car- pile-up on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it was impossible to look away; one stared in horrified fascination at the spectacle of a performer clearly hellbent on destroying himself for his real or imagined sins -- a super-slo-mo, public suicide, performed to a driving rock beat. It was enough to break your heart, even at the tender age of 12. Like everyone else, I couldn't look away, but inside, I ached for Alice, at the site of such obvious psychological turmoil and pain. Because for all his naughty shenanigans, there was always something likable about Alice, something that made us root for the "bad guy" -- and it was the part that belonged to his "creator," Vince Furnier.
Sometimes even Mega-Villains can be saved. In 1977, right after concluding a disastrous Lace and Whiskey tour, Cooper checked into rehab and cleaned up his act. He used his experiences inside the sanitarium as fodder for 1978's From the Inside, featuring "How You Gonna See Me Now," a rather touching ballad whose lyrics centered on his trepidation about how his long-suffering wife would react to him after his hospitalization. Alas, while his health was on the upswing, his musical career was on a downward spiral, and subsequent albums failed to achieve much success. By 1983, he was back in rehab -- and this time, the treatment took. Vince made his peace with Alice, learned to set some critical boundaries between himself and his demented stage persona. The two have co-existed ever since, each in his own realm: Alice on stage, Vince in private, and never the twain shall meet.
Isn't that a compelling tale? All the more so because, well, it's real. Cooper still performs regularly, still releases albums, even hosts his own nationally syndicated radio show, Nights With Alice Cooper. He's still playing out that age-old story, finding new mythological variations on the Mystery Play. For instance, in 1994, he released The Last Temptation, a concept album dealing explicitly with faith, temptation and redemption, accompanied by a graphic novel written by Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series, American Gods). He remains one of rock 'n roll's most magnetic stage presences, his shows still visually striking, except now they lack that edgy, self-destructive desperation of his shows during the Uber-Alcoholic Era. Some might mourn the loss of the intensity, but it came at such a huge personal cost to the performer one can hardly begrudge the man his inner peace. (What is it about rock 'n roll culture that demands we sacrifice our rock gods on the alter of our continued entertainment?)
I'm glad Cooper has battled back his personal demons and emerged triumphant from his own private nightmare. These days, he plays golf at his local country club. He's served on the PTA. He owns a couple of restaurants, and makes the odd cameo guest appearance, most recently as a murder suspect on the USA Network's Monk. He even (gasp!) votes Republican. (Okay, that one's hard to forgive....) But as far as his many loyal fans are concerned, his place in the modern musical pantheon is secure.
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