A veritable historical happening is about to go down at the Stone — but not everyone, it seems fair to say, is as excited as the event’s creator.
Guitarist and composer Nick Didkovsky has assembled a group of dedicated musicians for a live performance, set for November 8, of the first Alice Cooper record, Pretties for You. The album was released in 1969 on Frank Zappa’s label and was met with much ambivalence, largely due to its avant-garde aesthetic. The same could be said of Didkovsky’s choice to cover it.
“There’s genuine, sort of hostile confusion [from] some people,” says Didkovsky of the comments he has received online. “Like, why would anyone cover a record that did so badly commercially? Alice doesn’t do any of these tunes anymore.”
For others, including himself, the project is “a dream come true.” And for two of the original Alice Cooper band members, bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith, the opportunity to hear songs they haven’t played in decades performed by someone else is truly unprecedented.
“I think that was Alice Cooper’s most original album,” says Dunaway. “We did albums after that and became more conscientious about writing songs that would be relatable to the public, but that one was unlike any other album. I don’t think we could all sit down and write another one today that would come out like that.”
Dunaway and Smith worked closely with Didkovsky to help him prepare the most accurate lyrics possible for the show. (You can read more about Didkovsky’s week-long residency at the Stone in this week’s music feature.) Here’s what they had to say about revisiting the album 46 years after its debut.
On the lyrics:
Dennis Dunaway: “I still have a lot of the original lyrics handwritten by the band from Pretties for You, and in it, lyrics evolve so much that I’ll find three different versions of the same song. One’ll be in Michael Bruce’s handwriting; one’ll be in Alice’s; and one’ll be in mine. And then when you look through them, you find that the final song had a combination of all three of those…. Things were evolving very fast with a lot of collaboration in those days. When we recorded something, it was kind of like the song continued to evolve after that, so our stage version might be slightly different than the recording.”
Neal Smith: “Mike Bruce, who wrote a lot of the songs on it, [was] our rhythm guitar player, and he’s also a good singer. He and Alice would sing different lines over the same music. So if you try to pick songs off [an album] normally, it’s kind of difficult, but when you have two singers singing different words at the same time, it’s almost im-freakin’-possible to do it.”
On the crazy tempo changes:
Dunaway: “Some of the [songs], like ‘B.B. on Mars’ and ‘No Longer Umpire,’ where there are drastic tempo changes in the middle, are typically tricky because you can’t really set the tempo. The song will start off at a particular tempo, but then all of a sudden it will go off into another section where the tempo slows down radically, and then when it comes out of there, it’ll go back to the original tempo. Those things are total feelers. There’s no way that you can count it. You really have to have everybody just know the right amount to slow down and the right amount to speed back up. So those are tricky. Neal and I would just watch each other closely on those parts and managed to keep it reasonably tight.”
Smith: “ ‘10 Minutes Before the Worm’ and ‘B.B. on Mars’ are a couple of the shorter ones, and I don’t think they were written like normal songs. We wanted something to be very, very different and unique…I think that was our trademark. The music changed, but still we always wanted something to be unique, and these songs were certainly unique.”
On “Titanic Overture”:
Dunaway: “The first song on the album Pretties for You was recorded on a giant pipe organ [at the] Whitney Studio in Burbank, and Michael Bruce sat down and they had giant pipes inside the walls of the studio. So these big, wooden panels would open up, and then you could see the pipes in there. Glen Buxton and I went inside the wall and closed the panels when Michael was recording it. It was really loud in there. Gigantic. But the song is called ‘Titanic Overture’ because Michael imagined that this is the kind of haunting song that the organist would have been playing on the Titanic as it sank.”
On hearing these songs played by other musicians at the Stone:
Smith: “Dennis and I are going to be two of the most excited people about this because obviously we’ve never heard these songs live. We’ve played them live, but it’s not the same as being in the audience. It should be very, very interesting.”
Dunaway: “When [Didkovsky] sat in with us [at the Chiller Theatre Toy, Model, and Film Expo in Parsippany, New Jersey, on October 24], and he played Glen Buxton’s parts, I really thought that he nailed them, the feel. I’ve played with a lot of musicians that play those parts, and they don’t quite capture the feel that Glen did. I think that Nick does, and I think it’s mainly because he’s passionate about making it sound like Glen.”
Smith: “You kind of study a guitarist when you learn the early music that they did, and Glen was at his rawest and his best in those early years.”
On stage theatrics:
Dunaway: “The problem was, a lot of people thought that because we did theatrics, the only reason they could imagine anybody would do theatrics is to hide the fact that they can’t play — and we could play. It’s just that our theatrics overpowered our music onstage. So we would work very hard to write this song ‘Is It My Body’ [from Love It to Death] and be all excited to play it for a live crowd, and then we’d play it, and then the next day we’d read about the snake. They wouldn’t talk about the song. They’d talk about the prop that went with the song!”
And about that original snake, Kachina the boa constrictor (immortalized on the Killer album cover), and her unfortunate demise:
Smith: “It’s very possible [that] if she would have lived, she would have been around [today]. We were, I think, on the School’s Out tour in Knoxville, and I think it was [at] a new Hyatt…. It was a hotel that was just built. Alice and I had a suite we were sharing up on the top floor. Big, monster room with a stairway down to the doors and everything. It was a great room. I just let Kachina — because she was my pet, I took her on the road, and we started using her on Love It to Death — have free rein of the room, and I would wake up every morning, and she’d be under my pillow. But sometimes she decided to do a little bit of wandering around the room, and she’d find a little nook and cranny to go into that was real warm, and we’d have to dig her out, and the room bill would be a little more than normal because repairs would have to be made to get her back again. But this time, we lost her. We couldn’t find her. And about three months later, I got a call from the hotel because I’d told them how to get ahold of me if they ever found her. Charley Pride, the country singer, very famous back in the day, was playing in Knoxville, and he was staying in that room, and he noticed a really strange odor coming from the console with the radio on it, between the two beds. There were two king-size beds in the room, and in the middle was the radio. So they took it all apart, and unfortunately she had climbed in there to keep warm, and with the radio, I guess she couldn’t get out. She couldn’t back out because of her scales, and she was so big. She was six feet long. I don’t even know how the hell she got in there, but anyway, she suffocated in there, and that was pretty much it. I guess they just threw the radio away, or something. I never asked about that. But that’s what happened to her, and then we had to call Hertz Rent-a-Snake after that.
“[Of] everybody in the world it could have been, [Charley Pride] was just checking in the room and goes, ‘Wow, what the hell is that smell in there?’ Maybe he was the only one that said anything about it. Maybe they just thought that’s the way Knoxville smelled.”
Pretties for You will be performed in its entirety live at the Stone at 8 p.m. on November 8 by Nick Didkovsky, Paul Bertolino, Adam Minkoff, Nick Oddy, Max Johnson, and Glenn Johnson. Special guests are rumored. Admission is $15 at the door with no advance sales.