Alice Cooper can’t tell you how many times he’s been beheaded.
“Countless times,” 70-year-old Alice Cooper says laughing. “I have no idea.”
Throughout his over 50-year career, Cooper has performed to audiences in every corner of the world. Most of the time, the concerts have ended with the character of Alice being decapitated by a guillotine. That character isn’t to be confused with the actual Alice Cooper — who changed his legal name from Vincent Furnier decades ago — as he makes clear by speaking about his act in the third person.
In August, he released A Paranormal Evening at the Olympia Paris, the companion live record to Paranormal, Cooper’s 27th album which came out last year.
Currently, the iconic shock-rocker is on the road and about to wrap up his 2018 tour. He has a clean bill of health. He isn’t tired. And he isn’t sick of the insanity.
Now playing shows with actor-turned-guitarist Johnny Depp and Aerosmith legend Joe Perry in the Hollywood Vampires, Cooper is happy to be able to bring two different versions of Alice to the stage.
Below, Cooper discusses the method to his madness, his carny instinct and his confusion over the media’s portrayal of his friend Johnny Depp.
You’re still touring voraciously at the age of 70. Are you tired of suiting up after all these years?
I’m officially a lifer. At this point, there’s no thought of retirement. This is what I’ve done all my life and I can’t think of anything else that I’d rather do. I’m in perfect health so there’s really no reason to even think about retiring.
Is there anything you do on the road to keep yourself in good shape?
I haven’t touched anything in 35 years. I quit drugs, alcohol and I never smoked cigarettes. I think a lot of it also has to do with stress levels. I’m happily married for 43 years, I’ve got great kids, great grandkids. I realized if you think you’ve written your best song, you should get out of the business. If you think you’ve done your best show or you’ll never do a better one, then you’re done. As far as I’m concerned, the next album is going to be the best album I ever did. And the next production is gonna be the best show.
How involved are you in the decision making behind the theatrics at your live shows?
The lyrics are the script. If you say, “Welcome to my Nightmare,” give the audience a nightmare. Make it come alive.
If you’re gonna do “Only Women Bleed,” then what would make that come to life? I would bring a rag-doll out of a toy box, she would do a ballet, and Alice, of course, would end up killing her. But it would be a real ballet. And all of a sudden the audience is going, “Well, I wasn’t expecting that.”
They get to hear the song, and then they get to see the song at the same time. Every single song in our show has some sort of visual device in it that is pure Alice Cooper. We don’t depend a lot on pyro, we don’t depend a lot on lasers, I would much rather have the audience be focused on the character Alice. It makes it a little bit more vaudevillian, more Broadway, but not in a watered-down way.
So when they’re putting the stage together, are you the guy asking for clowns, spiders and demented dolls?
We started writing the next show for next year already. We already have ordered five or six things that only certain people can make. These stage things don’t just need to work, but they have to travel and do 200 shows without breaking. People forget about that.
If you’re doing a Broadway show, you’re not taking all that stuff out on the road. When we design something for the stage, it has to be broken down, put in cases, get to the next city and have it work every single night. There are all kinds of Spinal Tap moments when you have that many moving parts. But we have very few accidents on stage. And if it doesn’t work, you just play it for comedy.
What was your definitive “Spinal Tap moment?”
The classic example for that was, we said, “You know what we haven’t done? We haven’t shot Alice out of a cannon.” And I said, “Wha, wha, what!?”
They said, “The cannon is 20 feet long, and we load you into the cannon, but you get out the side. The audience doesn't see you get out. The dummy is in there. And we shoot you across the stage, by the time it gets to the other side, you were already on the other side, and you walk out and it really looks like they shot you out of the cannon!”
It worked during rehearsals. Then we go in front of an audience. There’s a big explosion and the dummy comes out about half-way and just droops over. How do you play that?
I kind of sheepishly looked around, pulled the dummy out and let the audience know that it didn’t work. But then they wonder, “Was that the joke?” You never let the audience know if it was supposed to happen! [Laughs]
One of the coolest moments of your current tour is during the performance of “Feed My Frankenstein.” How did you approach the visual for that one?
Alice comes out and does “Feed My Frankenstein” as the doctor. At one point, I go back, they strap me into the machine, the smoke goes up, I disappear, and there’s another guy in a 14-foot Frankenstein outfit that comes out. The next time they see me, I’m in a totally different outfit and I’ve got Cold Ethyl, and she’s part of the nightmare. You let the audience use their imagination as to what just happened.
When you’re strapped in and surrounded in smoke, does any part of you ever say, “I’m getting too old for this s**t!?”
[Laughs] I think that’s what people want Alice to do and I am more than glad to do that.
You have to do it with an attitude of, “This is purely logical.” The audience is going, “This shouldn't be happening.” But in Alice’s world, anything can happen. The nightmare is a series of images. I do try to connect songs.
For “Cold Ethyl,” I throw her all over the stage, into the toy box, then do “Only Women Bleed.” And the only thing you see is my wife, Sheryl, who plays the ragdoll, come out and do her ballet. Alice ends up killing her, then, of course, they have to put him in a straight jacket and cut his head off. To me, that still all makes sense.
How many times have you had your head cut off at this point? Thousands?
Countless times. Countless. I have no idea how many times that would be. But, let me tell you something, that’s a 40-pound blade and that’s a real blade and it only misses me by about six to eight inches every night. Every night it’s a bit of an adventure to put your head in that thing.
Why not just use a rubber one at this point?
I’ve always like the idea that if I go to the circus and there’s a guy in a cage with seven tigers and he’s got a chair and a whip, now, if that tiger decided, “I want to take this guy out,” he could do it pretty easily.
That’s what makes it exciting. It’s the same thing with the guy on the tightrope who doesn't have a net under him. You think, “This could be the night where he sneezes and goes down!”
I want the audience to think, “If this thing doesn’t work, it could actually take Alice’s head off!”
It gives it a circus, sideshow attitude that really needs to be in rock’n’roll.
You’ve said that when you practice you spend a majority of the time on music and not the theatrics, but your live show is still way more visually coordinated and complicated than most bands’. Is it just because you’ve set this standard for yourself so many years ago that you just have to keep the baseline high?
There’s a certain amount of carny in me, I can’t help it. In our early shows, when we were in high school, we were a really good Yardbirds band, we were a good Kinks band, but we could not help from making it theatrical. It was just in the blood. It would be very hard for me to just go up there and be a lead singer.
I think if you say a certain thing, you have to show the audience what you’re talking about. I don’t know where that came from, but it built into me somehow.
I went and saw The Who one time when I was a kid. I went, “Wow! It’s inside them to be this exciting.” Pete Townsend, the most exciting guitar player on stage of anybody, Keith Moon, nobody plays like that, and their music matched up. But I looked at it and said, “There’s an entire blank canvas behind them. Why isn’t the stage being used more than that? It’s already this exciting, but why not take it to the next level?”
When we created the Alice Cooper character we had the reason and devices to do that. If you’re gonna be rock’s villain, you better show them why you’re the villain.
Given the decades you’ve performed in the character of Alice Cooper, how does that contrast from taking the stage with Hollywood Vampires?
The great thing about the Vampires is — Alice Cooper never talks to the audience, because if he did he would suddenly become human. I don’t want Alice to be considered human. I want the audience to look at him as something other than human.
With the Vampires, I talk all through the show. “I met The Doors in 1968, Jim [Morrison] and I got drunk and here’s a song that he did that night.” Then boom, we do a Doors song. I would never do that at an Alice Cooper show.
The Vampires gives me the freedom to not be that Alice Cooper. I can find the real Alice Cooper for the Alice Cooper show, but I let him be different in the Vampires show. It’s a little weird, it’s like controlling your schizophrenia.
So, we’re not going to see Johnny Depp get beheaded anytime soon?
No, no! But, he would probably like that. By the way, Johnny is a killer guitar player. People are very surprised when they see him play.
And here’s another thing that I’ve got to mention. I keep reading in all these magazines how Johnny is 118 pounds or he’s drunk all the time, or he’s high, or he’s depressed. And I’m reading this, and he’s sitting across from me, I’ve never seen him look better in his life!
He’s happy. He’s playing guitar. He’s laughing. And he’s making five movies a year. I’m going, “What Johnny Depp are they talking about in this magazine?” It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. How somebody has created this “other Johnny Depp” that they want the audience to see. That’s not the real Johnny Depp. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.
(Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper of the Hollywood Vampires in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 2016. Bruce Kluckhohn/AP Images)
Have you guys spent time together recently?
We did a European tour together. I’m one of those guys that buys every magazine, I went over to him and said, “Wow, you look a lot bigger than 118.” [Laughs]
I asked him, “How depressed are you?” He replied, “Do I look depressed to you?” I said, “Not a bit.” It’s just one of those things where, whoever is stewing up this anti-Johnny Depp thing, I don’t get it. I don’t understand where it’s all coming from.
Listen, if I saw him in the condition that I read that he was in — I’d be the first guy over his house saying, “Hey, we gotta talk. Let’s get you some help.” But I’ve never seen that guy.