“If you eat too little, you see visions; and if you drink too much, you see snakes.” —Bertrand Russell
The director of operations on the Alice Cooper tour, a native of Los Angeles, walked the streets of Paris in a bright blue felt jacket with fancy white piping, trying to decide where to have lunch in the world’s premier city of food. He settled on McDonald’s — there is a McDonald’s hamburger installation in Paris. He ordered a Big Mac.
“How did it taste?” he was asked over oysters later at the Hotel George V.
“Just like a Big Mac anywhere in the States,” he said. “The guy behind the counter didn’t even speak French. He just said, ‘Whaddul you have?'”
* * *
Beer, porno magazines, elbow-in-ribs jokes about the women in the last town. Fake French accents in Paris, Nazi jokes and Hitler picture books in Munich; hours spent in darkened air-conditioned hotel rooms watching John Wayne films on a rented projector while the Amsterdam skyline darkens out the window. Strippers, yodelers and hookers. Complaints about the money, the language, the lack of American football on American color TV.
Is this a description of a European tour by an American rock & roll band or by a group of American insurance salesmen? Returning from a sunrise walk around the Centrum district of Amsterdam, I see a bus loaded with people in front of the hotel and rush up, thinking the Alice Cooper tour is about to leave me flatfooted in Holland. But it is a different tour, a group of businessmen. They won the trip as a company prize for improving office efficiency.
* * *
Stoked with a six-hour jet lag and champagne, I look up from the table and find myself in a Paris gay bar facing Omar Sharif and Alice Cooper. Alice is an old friend of Omar’s, it turns out. An earlier place has closed, and we have come here at Omar’s suggestion. This is the first time I have seen Sharif offscreen, and I am surprised to find that he is not the size of an aircraft hanger.
The resident drinkers, all male, are clustered at one end of the room, surveying us with indifference. Alice stares back at them blankly; he is on perhaps his 30th beer of the day and is beginning to feel a bit bored. It is boredom, he says, against which he wages an unending battle.
We are seated next to a small stage on which are placed a piano, a microphone, and four red cushions. For some reason I keep expecting someone to emerge from behind the curtain and perform on the piano, or on the cushions.
Finally a man appears. He is carrying a chair. He walks quickly across the stage and hits me on the head with the chair. I see two Omar Sharifs, hear an apology proffered in French. He was a waiter, passing through.
* * *
Alice is being interviewed in his hotel room by a serious-looking German TV newsman in a turtleneck who watches him apply eye make-up in a mirror. The cameraman has trouble moving around the room without knocking over empty Michelob bottles.
“I read in an interview, Mr. Cooper, that you are, uh, without sex, no?” “Well, I really like lying. It’s one of my favorite things, as long as it’s creative lying, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. Vogue magazine asked me what was the biggest lie I had ever told, and I couldn’t think of one, so I lied about that. I made up a lie.”
There are a great many empty beer bottles in the room. The high-heeled glitter-finish boots on the floor, the torn sequined tights, the make-up kit, the harvest of British pulp fan magazines with pictures of Alice’s Glasgow concert, all pass almost unnoticed in this sea of beer bottles. The bottles are dark brown and graceful in shape. Each is surmounted with gold foil torn jaggedly where the top has been removed. None contains any beer. Every level surface is covered with these bottles.
The interview done, Alice rises to go upstairs where more press are waiting. “I’ll need some beer for the press reception,” he reminds his manager.
* * *
Alice lies, he explains later, because he has done so many interviews he would otherwise fear for his sanity. A regular joke is to run through the questions that recur with nightmarish regularity:
“Mr. Cooper, where were you born? Where did you go to school? What was it like?”
“Where do you live? Do you like it?”
“What is your snake’s name?”
Now Alice reclines on a couch in a hotel room in Hamburg to do another interview, this one with Rolling Stone. With his pallid skin and tangle of matted hair, he looks like a beached fish. His body hangs from his shoulders like a suit on a rack; it would not be very startling if he got up suddenly and left it behind. In contrast are his eyes, steady and alert, and his manner, friendly, wry and intelligent.
Having fallen into the rhythm of the tour, I am on my 20th or so beer of the day and am beginning to slow down. Alice, with the better part of a case behind him, is just beginning to wake up. He pops open a fresh Michelob from one of 20 cases the group brought with them from the states, and we turn on the tape.
You’re such a nice guy and all, how come you have this show that’s full of violence, Alice?
I don’t know, really. I lie all the time and tell them, but really I don’t know. I’d like to find a psychiatrist who could figure it out.
Are you preoccupied with these things? Think about gallows a lot?
Yeah, I fantasize a lot. I think what it is, is just that I like sensationalism. In all reality, I just like sensationalism.
But there are lots of different kinds of sensationalism beside the violent kind.
Oh, well. Nudity.
That’s so boring, though. You can’t think of anything sensational that. . . . That doesn’t have to do with violence, no. I mean, I don’t like violence at all except when I’m onstage, or when I go to a movie or something. Onstage, for some reason, it seems natural. But I’d never get in a fight with anybody offstage. I’d get killed.
How seriously do you think audiences take your show?
Well, the way I really deem a concert successful is if I see the audience walking out with their mouths open. You know, like that thing in The Producers. . . . “Springtime for Hitler”? Yeah. When they go out saying, “Augh, augh! I can’t really believe what I just saw!” I like to go to a concert myself and leave feeling that way. If it takes violence to get that reaction, I’ll use it. I don’t mind using it at all. I feel satisfied, like a comedian who feels satisfied if everybody laughs hysterically at a joke. If I can act a villain when I’m really not and convince them I am, then I must be doing it right.
But most critics who have written about the show say it’s not convincing.
Most critics don’t have fun at concerts. They go there like robots. The kids, though, they’ll tell you they are convinced.
Well, I’ve had fun at your concerts. I’ve been through six or eight of them now, and that’s about twice as many as I could sit through by almost any group, but the theatrics are not convincing to me.
Yeah, but you’re older than most of our audience. A young audience usually comes stoned. Most of them come there wiped out of their heads. When they see us they’re convinced we are mad. . . .
We give the audience an enormous number of images, really fast, so fast that they can’t possibly digest all the ideas going down. They can’t digest the whole thing. It goes by like speed-reading. Have you ever done speed-reading, where it goes by and you know that you’re missing a lot of it? Well, we’re giving them all these images and we’re not offering any final answer. We’re presenting all these problems, and we’re not giving them any answers.
What are some of these problems?
Well, like how are they going to cope with a snake on stage? By the time they’ve digested that, we’re already into the fight scene. Then we’ve hung me, then there’s a skeleton on the gallows, and it’s going a lot faster than they can comprehend. And they’re trying to make a whole story out of that, you see.
Why is that so difficult to cope with? You can watch any western on TV and see people mowed down with guns. You could go into a theater in Shakespeare’s time and see people being poisoned and killed. Why is it so hard to cope with a snake?
It’s not so hard, except that it’s a rock band doing it. They think they’re there to hear music, and they’re being presented with all these different things. It forces them into thinking about a lot of things they don’t normally think about.
We really appreciate the ridiculous, the absurd. We do things onstage which maybe look awkward, look clumsy, but that’s the type of theater we’ve developed. Nobody can say it’s not good — oh, they can say it’s not good — but nobody can say it’s not entertainment. People get off on it. It’s proven itself.
You’re deliberately clumsy onstage sometimes.
Yeah. I overact the drunk part, because I like that image. I think people like that: “I really dig that man, he’s really fucked over.” They wonder what I took before I went on. But I don’t get so drunk that I can’t walk onstage.
You were saying the other day that you think rock music is political, because kids like it and their parents don’t. That’s an argument that I hear a lot which I really don’t think holds up.
Well, I think to a point it must be political music. I think anything that separates a kid and his parents is somewhat political. Don’t you think that?
I, for some reason, do. I think that a kid at the age that buys our records is at a rebellious stage. He doesn’t like the government, doesn’t like this, doesn’t like that, doesn’t like anything his parents like.
But if his parents like, say, Rembrandt, then he’s not going to like Rembrandt. That doesn’t give his opinion any artistic significance.
And his political views similarly don’t have any political significance.
Well, you’re right on that point. But when I think of politics I’m not just thinking of McGovern-Nixon type politics. I’m thinking of the whole system.
You had an interview in which you said you couldn’t care less about Vietnam.
I really don’t. I think it’s boring. I’m not there, and I don’t have any friends who are there. It sounds cold and heartless, doesn’t it? If I were there or if I were involved I would care. But as it is, I couldn’t take time to care about it.
“There” may come here.
Yeah. If it comes here then I’ll be involved. I believe a person is in Vietnam because he wants to be. You don’t have to be in Vietnam, no matter what. You never have to be in any situation. You always choose it. If you believe in any sort of reincarnation — I really do — then you chose a long time ago where you were going to end up.
One of the characteristics of that way of thinking is that it generally incorporates no ethics. Well, I don’t always believe in ethics.
Our show is unethical. We think, who do we have to answer to? We don’t have to answer to anybody. In the entertainment game, all you have to do is entertain.
But when you say rock music is political, that is usually taken to mean that rock is not just entertainment, that it has some other significance. That question seems finally to be getting laid to rest now. It has to be one way or the other: The music is either political or it’s not.
If you’re trying to be ethical, it has to be political or not.
No, if you’re trying to be logical. It can’t both be something and not it.
Oh, I think it can. Because look: Say we don’t care about politics. And say MC5 does. They go out of their way to free John Sinclair and all this stuff, and they’re actually doing something political. But we are also doing something political, on the fact that a policeman doesn’t want his 16-year-old kid coming home with eye make-up on. That’s politics. That is going to hurt a policeman more than hitting him on the head with a brick, because the lump is going to go away after a while, but the policeman is still going to be thinking, “Oh, my kid is a fag.” That gets into politics there.
I don’t know, there are lots of right-wing fags.
There sure are.
* * *
At the Circus Krone in Munich, Europe’s oldest circus, roadies are working at top speed to rebuild a faulty stage for that night’s show when police appear and confront Shep Gordon, Alice’s manager. Everything about these cops seems to be made of leather — leather boots, leather jackets, black leather slouch hats. The very beerbellies that slop over their leather gunbelts seem made of leather.
“You will not have a snake here!” says one cop. “Our children come here; they will not be exposed to a snake! No snake is allowed in here.”
“I thought this was a circus,” says Gordon. But he is already reaching for his wallet. The music business is the same everywhere. The price for buying off goons in Munich comes to DM 500, about $166.
In Hamburg, as the show goes into its encore, Gordon negotiates in a small cream-colored room with the promoter. The subject is the size of the crowd. By nearly everybody’s estimate there are perhaps 3500 people in the audience. According to the promoter the gate was only 2500, and Alice is lucky not to owe him money instead of the other way around.
Gordon argues amiably. He has been with Alice for years — he picked the group up when they were an unknown L.A. band so desperate for audience response that they used to pummel each other onstage to get it — and experience has impressed on him the virtues of patience. He opens his attache case and produces his copy of a contract with the same promoter for a show in Essen four days away. He holds the contract by one corner and ignites the opposite corner with his lighter. The contract burns brightly on the concrete floor. The promoter stares at it. He reconsiders. The music business is the same everywhere.
* * *
Most of Alice’s audiences on the tour are enthusiastic, if, as Alice points out himself, a bit glassy-eyed. They tend to sit and applaud warmly, stand dutifully for the closing number, cheer until the encore and leave quietly when the house lights come up.
The atmosphere is not like the frenzy of, say, an old Rolling Stones concert. It is more like the mood of a circus, if you imagine half the circus crowd to be ripped on hash.
Like circuses, big rock & roll acts long ago settled into a businesslike routine of touring: If all the machinery works right — the publicity machinery, the promotional machinery, the airplanes and limousines and amplifiers — the tour will work. An audience is there, as were circus audiences a couple of generations ago, and as long as no major mistakes are made each big-name group can tap that audience in turn.
The machinery of Alice’s tour worked. His picture appeared on the pages of the dozens of pop music magazines that dot Europe, newspaper stories heralded his arrival in town, and he managed to sell out a series of concert-sized theaters as well as some larger halls up to the 10,000-seat range.
Of course, in Europe the audience is much smaller than in America, so even successful European tours by many American groups, because they involve heavy expenses, lose money. Alice’s tour lost tens of thousands of dollars, as was expected. The record company and the group’s management alike believe it was worth the cost. A successful European tour is said to stimulate record sales and to enhance a group’s image of ubiquitous appeal.
In its rococo years, the American circus degenerated into entertaining crowds not by developing highly skilled, spectacular new acts, but by filling three rings with so much action and color that the audience couldn’t help but be entertained. This is pretty much Alice’s theory of entertainment as he explains it, except that instead of dancing bears, you get Alice.
* * *
Unexpectedly, a journey to Europe uncovers a fresh effluvium of old-fashioned American patriotism. Alice, who has not ventured into Hamburg even so far as the lobby of his hotel, says, “I’ll tell you, I’d never live anyplace else but the States. I’m very uncomfortable everyplace else. It’s nice to visit other places, but I really love the way the system is set up in the States. I don’t mind being used or manipulated.”
In a Paris bar, one of Alice’s people told me that if he had voted in the last election, it would have been for Nixon.
“The way McGovern handled the Eagleton thing, you could see something was wrong,” he says. “And McGovern would have wrecked the economy.”
* * *
“What are you like when you don’t drink?” I ask Alice.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen that personality for about four years.”
* * *
Backstage at the sagging, tattered Olympia Theater of Paris, Alice uncaps a bottle of VO and excuses himself: “Well, I have to go get drunk and become Alice.”
A misunderstanding with the promoter has resulted in his doing two shows in one night, a rare burden for a performer who gets beaten up and hanged at every performance. The audience for the first show was inert, and Alice bets $20 he can get them on their feet by the end of the second show.
He loses. The snake is brought forth, the gallows sprung, the balloons and posters tossed out, every gimmick exhausted — short of throwing money into the crowd (which Alice does at succeeding shows) — but the Parisians remain in their seats.
“Get up, you bastards,” Alice shouts. He stalks off in disgust.
In the days that follow, this incident is blamed on “intellectuals.” It was, I am told repeatedly by members of the group, “intellectuals” who spoiled the night.
* * *
Intellectuals have, indeed, displayed zero interest in Alice. For example, there is a secret to the show; Alice hints at it repeatedly in interviews. Yet nobody, so far as I know, has ever attempted a scholarly analysis aimed at revealing that secret. Nobody seems to care.
If intellectuals are not, therefore, to turn their penetrating gaze upon this phenomenon, how shall the public come to know of its danger? As evidence that a danger exists, consider this fact: An informal survey of people leaving one of Alice’s concerts in America revealed that one-quarter of them believed he was female. (I know this statistic is true; I got it from a nameless wretch in Long Island, who wouldn’t lie.) This was immediately after the concert, and so there is no way of knowing whether the phenomenon persisted; but the question remains: Can society tolerate entertainment which has this effect upon the minds of its audience?
A few critics have alerted themselves to the possibility that the Alice Cooper show will promote gang war, destroy sexual identity and lead to a reversal of the recent Supreme Court decision prohibiting capital punishment. They have seen past the rubber knives, the smeary make-up and the sleepy-eyed snake to denounce the show as bad stuff for kids and a genuine litmus paper on the decline of peace & love. A few, paid to write, have written this. But none have been real intellectuals.
It’s not as if America had nothing else to export to Europe and offer its own youth at home. There is Let’s Make a Deal, the new Pontiac Grande Am, posters showing Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix against a photograph of a sunset, graduate courses in sociology, Dare to Be Great, the Big Mac, the complete libraries of New York’s ten top coke dealers. . . .
One thing about pop culture, you get a lot to choose from.
* * *
Alice appeared at the Amsterdam airport at 10 AM in the same blue polkadot suit he had worn for three days. He was finishing off the beer that had sustained him in the limousine out from the hotel.
“Want to get a drink?” he asked.
“Alice,” I said, as we headed for the bar, “you sure have a way with words.”