The question before us is whether Alice Cooper is a threat to civilization itself or merely to our beloved rock & roll. Both parents and kids commonly see Alice as eroding the former, which they respectively deplore and celebrate. Alice is variously an actor, rocker, comic, madman and exorcist, the culmination of rock’s subversive tendencies. This is the reputation he carefully nurtures. What School’s Out confirms is what I have long suspected; that Alice’s profusion of roles are themselves self-cancelling; that as a cultural assassin he is quite harmless.
As a good old-fashioned American huckster, he is not harmless at all. To this paper he has simplistically asserted that “audiences are masochists … all an audience wants is sex and violence.” To New Musical Express, “there’s actually no point whatsoever to our act.” He has described himself as an actor first and a rocker second, a rocker first and a musician second, a pergator of people’s darker impulses, a black humorist. This confusion comes through in his music: most of the time I honestly don’t know how to react. I’m certainly not terrified or repulsed, though I sense that at points I’m supposed to be and am told that others are. I’m often inclined to laugh, but more at the burlesque of it than the satire. There is equally little sense that Alice’s public aberrations are an outgrowth of his private demonology. Electric chair, noose, serpent, straitjacket — they are the arbitrary horror symbols of our society, calculated to trigger an immediate, intense and predictable response. Doubtless Alice is a little insane but nothing too serious; still, his act, which by this time has been thoroughly exposed to be precisely that, bears a more than accidental connection to Alice’s offstage personality.
As an artist of suspense, Alice is surely inept; like his visual props and his vocabulary, his vignettes are invocations, as if the proper combination of consonants and vowels should yield instant horror. His over-simplified formula patronizes his audience: if real suspense and fright are Alice’s stock in trade, surely the occasional “blood,” “dead babies” or the flimsy tales he hangs on them are short of what’s needed to genuinely arouse. Most important, the story and its enactment lack the psychological plausibility which is necessary for real terror. As an actor, his characterizations are too extreme for us to suspend disbelief. To wax Aristotelian for a moment, the catharsis of which Alice speaks so often never takes place because we are never completely certain that it is just an act. He never has to be fully convincing dramatically because his private personality, which bears a relation to his stage role, is never, unlike that of all other good actors, completely shunted aside. Nor does he ever dare the greater challenge of acting (or acting out) his neurosis in Laingian or Janovian fashion, the way David Bowie, Arthur Lee and John Lennon have. Alice’s self-satire, his implausibility always get him off the hook. Aesthetically, Alice cheats.
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But the real nub of the matter is what Alice means to rock & roll, or more exactly, what rock & roll means to him. Circumstantially, Alice doesn’t believe in the sufficiency of rock, dressing it up as he does in the macabre. Alice Cooper proved itself on Love It To Death to be a tight, respectable rock outfit. Specifically, it established the relevance of lyrics in heavy-metal music. It also demonstrated that with the requisite commitment Alice could be a certifiable rocker. But commitment and a palpable sense of self is above all what Alice Cooper lacks, and that makes him an ambiguous, not to say bogus, actor, black humorist, madman, shaman and finally musician. As the resources of the band, the multiplicity of available alternatives, expand (along with the sense that everything is permitted) the band’s focus becomes less and less defined. The style of rock offered on Love It To Death has been attenuated to the point where Alice’s rock, like Alice’s noose or electric chair, exists as an appurtenance to the band, another prop for Alice’s fantasies.
Not all of School’s Out is, however, rock. A good half is Broadway or movie soundtrack music, which is consistent with Alice’s vaunted theatricalism. But in an album which so obviously panders to the whole Fifties rock mystique — rock as social protest — such material is especially confounding. On the evidence of School’s Out, with its debt to Leonard and Elmer Bernstein, its plotting, its sound collages, Alice Cooper is more closely allied with the Emerson Lake & Palmer wing which parades kitsch as art, than with the furious monomania of a Black Sabbath. This stuff is as bad for high-school kids as it is for their parents.
The title song is emblematic of the whole mess. Ostensibly an updating of Chuck Berry’s inspiring anthems, here, Alice tells us that school’s out not just for the summer, but “forever.” “School’s been blown to pieces,” reaches new heights of escapism. “School’s Out,” written in a summer bereft of summer songs and so an instant classic, is also an instant manifesto. Unfortunately, its patent insincerity defeats it. A series of puns — “Well, we’ve got no class, and we’ve got no principles” — clever in themselves, are too self-conscious, too elegantly witty to fit a battle cry. The final line of the stanza — “We can’t even think up a word that rhymes” — gives it all away. Alice is employing the most explosive emotions at his command and he is trifling with us. Either he is cynical as hell, or he is obliquely trying to defuse the power of his message.
Those who don’t listen carefully will be misled; those who do should feel abused. The entire song is obviously not meant to be a satire it’s too vehement for that but neither does it have the single-mindedness of a Kanterian marching song. If Alice wants to rant, let him do so with conviction. Otherwise, we have another sickly hybrid, evidence again of the fact that Alice knows neither what he wants nor who he is. In “Desperado” from Killer, Alice sings “I’m a killer, I’m a clown.” We do not need an Arthur Bremer of rock & roll.
“School’s Out” is as aimless musically as it is lyrically. There are so many themes and digressions that the momentum and unity a song like this needs are absent. “Luney Tune,” the next cut, resembles “I’m 18” and is the best song on the album. It is relatively simple, except for a successful cacophonous ending. “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets” has Alice first as a feline Disney/ Crumb character; making a stab at Lady Macbeth (“I couldn’t get the blood off my hands”); then as a full-fledged scrapper. The sounds of a rumble are preceded by a synthesizer whirring the Jets’ theme from West Side Story. “Blue Turk” continues the soundtrack ambiance; about Alice’s between-set dalliance, its music could be described as “Jim Morrison meets the Pink Panther.” You’ll want to snap your fingers.
“My Stars,” with what sounds like Franz Liszt at the piano, is vaguely sci-fi; “Public Animal (no. 9)” is Motown derived. It describes the travails of a teacher’s pest — “She wanted an Einstein, but she got a Frankenstein.” “Alma Mater,” with Alice impersonating Paul McCartney, is the album’s only genuinely witty number. A fond farewell to old Cortez High School, it is a typical Mothers’ farce. The grand finale is “Grand Finale,” a heavily orchestrated synthesized “Walk On The Wild Side” which ends with a reprise of the Jets theme.
In its middle-brow, backward-looking way, this is an ambitious album. Against this background the characteristic morbid imagery — “Earthworms through your brain” etc. seems more gratuitous than ever. The music is more pictorial, plotted, broadly theatrical, ornate and convoluted than ever before, but the consequence is to undermine what this album pretends to be — a paean to teen-age defiance.
Yes, you say, but they must be doing something right to sell all those records. Admittedly, they are an outrageously cocky band who have caught a glimmer of what the public wants. They don’t happen to know what they are doing, but they do it with panache. But soon the band’s innate contradictions will become apparent. I’m waiting for David Bowie, a more credible transvestite, to hit these shores. An experience with Bowie might ensure that we don’t get fooled again.