If you think you’ve heard all the Alice Cooper stories, think again. You haven’t heard them the way the original bass player, Dennis Dunaway, remembers them in his new memoir, out today, entitled Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group.
Though Alice was the iconic face of the band, Dunaway was the brains behind many of its best-known songs (like “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out,” to name a couple). He also played a significant role in conceptualizing the band’s theatrical, surrealist stage show. In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the classic lineup’s other four members — guitarists Michael Bruce and the late Glen Buxton, drummer Neal Smith, and frontman Cooper — who together released seven studio albums between 1969 and 1973. It’s safe to say that, without Dunaway, the group’s now-legendary look and sound would have been vastly different. There might not even have been an Alice Cooper.
Tonight at The Strand, Dunaway launches his book with a reading and signing event. He’ll be joined for an acoustic performance by the members of his current band Blue Coupe (featuring Joe and Albert Bouchard of Blue Öyster Cult). In advance of this, we got our hands on an excerpt from the memoir, in which Dunaway recalls finding the inspiration for Alice’s signature eye makeup and meeting their future producer Bob Ezrin — right here in New York City.
SEPTEMBER 8, 1970, marked our return to Max’s Kansas City in New York. The band checked into the Gorham Hotel, and when Alice and I looked out our room’s window, we saw the dome of the City Center Theater. Staring back at us was a striking poster of a clown’s face wearing spidery makeup.
“Alice, take a look at this.”
Alice looked out the window and yawned. “That’s great, Den.”
“You didn’t even see what I was talking about. Look at that clown poster down there.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s really neat.” He plopped down in front of the television.
“I’ve got the feeling that you aren’t sharing my enthusiasm.”
“I never do.”
“I’m going down for a closer look.”
Since the clown’s spidery eyes had an impact from two stories up, I thought the look would be a great way to get Alice’s expressions across to the people in the back row at concerts.
I grabbed a theater program and took it back to the room. Alice now gave the clown’s face a closer look while I made my pitch. He agreed that we should go get some of that eyeliner stuff.
When we returned from the drugstore with the eyeliner, we had forty-three cents between us. Seeing Alice’s purchase, Neal [Smith] said, “I have eyeliner, you know. You should have asked me.”
Alice slapped his forehead and said, “How stupid of me.”
“You don’t want to use his eyeliner,” Glen [Buxton] said. “He has cooties.” Alice sat down, propped up his travel mirror, and meticulously applied a couple of lines to his eyes. I watched over his shoulder as the transformation took place.
Alice finished one eye and said, “Hmmmm.” Neal and Glen didn’t pay any attention until both eyes were done and Alice said, “What do you think?”
“Not bad,” Neal said.
“He should know,” said Glen, “he’s the queen.”
Neal grabbed a button on Glen’s shirt and asked him if he wanted it. Glen blocked Neal’s hand before he could pluck the button off. Alice looked at his reflection.
“I’m not too sure about the stage, but I love it for every day.”
Something else happened in New York besides finding Alice his trademark look.
While playing the den of supercool, Max’s Kansas City, we didn’t see Andy Warhol or any of his painted love children, but the very sound of the band took a pirouetting leap. Facing the withdrawn crowd had gone better than during our earlier visit, although the club manager still gave Alice a hard time after the show for saying “tits” on stage. With his eyes smeared with the new spidery makeup, Alice looked pretty tough defending himself.
“They misunderstood me,” Alice said as the manager walked away. “I absolutely did not say ‘tits.’?” Pause. “Did I?”
Just then, a young guy walked into the dressing room and introduced himself and got right into a hearty pitch. “Hi, I’m Bob Ezrin from Nimbus 9 Productions. I’m a producer who works with Jack Richardson of the Guess Who. That was a great show. I really think you guys have something unique. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I can help you capture that energy on a record. I really liked ‘I’m Edgy.’ That was really great.”
Nobody bothered to tell him that the actual song title was “I’m Eighteen.”
“We need to get you guys a record deal,” he said. “I’ll talk to your manager and see what we can come up with.” He smiled.
When he left, Glen shrugged. “The twerp’s got nuts. I’d offer to buy him a drink, but he ain’t old enough.”
“Since when did legality ever sway you?” I said.
We went downstairs to the bar. Glen ordered a triple Seven and 7 and tried to figure out how much all those sevens added up to. He soon gave up and asked if I could lend him twenty bucks.
“Was that kid for real?” I wondered. “What has he produced?”
“Do we even like the Guess Who?” Glen asked.
“I like their hits,” I said, “but I don’t own any of them.”
“They make great records,” Alice said. “Joe [Greenberg] and Shep [Gordon, the band’s managers] have been trying to get their producer to come hear us.”
“‘I’m Edgy’?” Michael [Bruce] said, laughing. “I kinda like that.”
“They could use it for a coffee commercial,” Glen said.
“This guy sounds like he wants to produce us,” Michael said, “so let’s see if anything happens.”
We weren’t aware of the extent to which Joe and Shep had been hounding the Guess Who’s producer, Jack Richardson, to hear the band. Richardson didn’t see the point and had sent this young associate, Ezrin. He assumed he could then give our band a pass and end all the phone calls. But young Ezrin went back to Toronto with a surprise judgment.
Hearing Ezrin’s rave, Richardson said, “If you like them so much, then you can produce them.”
This is Ezrin’s version, anyway. Richardson himself claims that he was supportive from day one.
Today, Bob Ezrin gets no end of credit for reshaping our music. But let’s be clear: He didn’t teach us to play our instruments. He wasn’t there when we were rocking the VIP Lounge or any of the theaters, clubs, prisons, or festivals where we smoked ’em. But we weren’t really writing Top 40 hits, either. Ezrin would change that.
Excerpted from Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group by Dennis Dunaway and Chris Hodenfield. Copyright © 2015 by the authors and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books.
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