There are a few rock stars whose careers were founded on the bedrock of infamy, and most of them owe a proverbial debt to Alice Cooper. The original shock-rocker (at least in America) is now the subject of a trippy documentary, Super Duper Alice Cooper, which premiered in NYC at the Tribeca Film Festival and plays again tonight at Village East Cinema.
Produced by Banger Films, Inc., the film recounts the genesis of the Alice Cooper group in the late ’60s and their disbandment in 1973, when singer Vincent Furnier struck out on a solo career and all but lost himself in the character of Alice Cooper.
The Coop spoke to us by phone from his home in Phoenix. He offered his own version of the Ouija board myth (told differently in the film) and (sort of) explained why founding band member Michael Bruce was left out of the documentary completely.
You’ve said many times you’re a born-again Christian. Does it ever freak you out that the character, Alice Cooper, you’re portraying onstage was supposedly a witch you first “met,” so to speak, through a Ouija board?
That’s the only part of the documentary that there were nine versions of. Now, my version of it was that we had a guy working for us named Dick Phillips. [He] and his mother: they were the ones that did the Ouija board. And they were the ones that said:
“We said, ‘Who was Vincent Furnier?’, and [the Ouija board] said, ‘Alice Cooper.’ And then, ‘Who’s Alice Cooper?’ ‘Thirteenth-century witch.'”
And I went, yeah, I believe that as far as I can throw this building. I picked up the name Alice Cooper because it just sounded like a scary old lady. It sounded like Baby Jane. It sounded like Lizzy Borden. It had that ring to it. And it was totally opposite of who we were. The Ouija board story came later, but I guess everybody liked that story so much, and it was so much better than the idea that we just came up with a great name, and it stuck. When I saw that in the documentary, I went, “Really? OK. I guess we’ll go with that.” [Laughs]
The history seems to evolve depending on who’s telling it.
All of us have got very, very strange memories about what was going on at the time, and we all were, at best, looking through a glass darkly at what happened and how it happened… So, it really is one of those things where, when you’re going back to the late ’60s, early ’70s, in that era, nobody has any clear recollection of what happened.
I noticed that Michael Bruce, one of the two founding guitarists and the keyboardist of the band, wasn’t in the film.
Yeah, you know, it’s like trying to find Izzy Stradlin. Certain guys disappear, and you see them once in a while. He lives in Mexico. Impossible to get in touch with. Or somebody’ll say he’s in Spain now. I would have loved to have had his input on it also, but to pin a guy down and say you’re going to do 20 hours of talking to these guys, we just couldn’t do that with Mike Bruce. Neal [Smith] and Dennis [Dunaway] wanted to talk.
Michael Bruce played on your most recent album, and he played the Chiller Theater in New Jersey in 2012 with Dennis. I feel like he’s kind of been around. But his name was never even mentioned in this movie. Not once.
Yeah, and the funny thing is that I, during all of the interviews, I think I talked about Mike more than anybody only because Mike and I wrote all the songs together. So I don’t know why it was… Even when he was in the band, we never knew where he was. He was sort of our phantom.
In the film, you talked about how you used to grab whatever was backstage–a lightbulb or a broomstick or whatever–and use it in the show. It reminded me of that improv game that actors play where they have to take a prop and use it in as many ways as they can. Where does your sense of theatricality come from?
You know, the funny thing is, that’s what my daughter does. She’s with The Groundlings [improv troupe in Los Angeles], and she can pick up anything and make it funny. But, at the time, we were all art majors in school. Dennis and I especially loved Salvador Dalí, and we loved the Dadaist movement, where anything that’s a normal thing–a lightbulb or a cord or anything–put it in the wrong place and take it out of context, and it suddenly becomes something else. We’re onstage, and we could not afford props. And yet, we wanted to do theatrics, and so if I found, like you said, a broom, I could think of nine things to do with that broom. And people in the audience would go, “What the hell is he doing? He looks scary, and now he has a broom!” You know that they’re going to go home and talk about that. And, to me, that was the whole idea: get them talking about you.
Initially you and the group were notorious. Some people feared you. Parents hated you. Now, even people who don’t know your music seem to know you as this lovable household name, not threatening at all.
I’m kind of the Vincent Price of rock ‘n’ roll now, yeah. I think that happens when you get rolled into Americana. Even guys like Ozzy. Ozzy is now one of the sweethearts of the media. Here’s a guy that was snorting ants, you know? Alice Cooper was the scourge of every PTA, every church, everything that had to do with any authority at all… I think that I gave up the mystique when I started doing the Johnny Carson show. I would go on and be Alice, and then I’d come over and sit with Johnny and talk. And when they found out that I was funny, and I could sit and talk with Johnny and throw things back and forth with guys like Groucho Marx, that changed the game.
Now it’s at the point where you can’t shock an audience. The audience is shock-proof. If a Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway would have come out in 1971, it would have been the most shocking thing of all time. But in 2014, it’s fun to watch. Nobody’s going home going, “Oh, I just can’t believe that!”… We were lucky to be in an era when you could shock an audience.