Alice Cooper hasn’t changed much in the four decades he’s been strutting the stage, but it’s not because he’s held on to his youthful good looks.
It’s because since the early 1970s he’s haunted nightmarish scenes of his own creation with a sinister countenance and appearance that’s been likened to that of a crow. Ragged and lean, eyes glittering wildly from sunken black smears of greasepaint, Cooper has always looked sepulchral and menacing, even as a young man.
But off the stage? Let’s just say that Cooper is not a guy you’d be afraid to run into in a dark alley somewhere.
He’s the affable fixture in the Wednesday Bible study group. His bright blue eyes sparkle when he talks about his wife of more than 40 years, Sheryl, and their three children and two grandchildren. He’s a regular on the links, a low-handicapper who fits in a round of golf nearly every day.
It takes moxie to cultivate an image as everyone’s worst nightmare on stage while building a dream life at home, and Alice Cooper has it. Here’s how:
Moxie plays the villain.
Before Alice Cooper became one of rock’s darkest solo acts, he was the frontman for a band known by the same name. The preacher’s kid and several friends formed the band and moved to Los Angeles to try to breakthrough. They connected with manager Shep Gordon, who fully believed that no publicity was bad publicity. Gordon helped the group land a spot at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Festival. In the midst of their set, a fan threw a live chicken on the stage. Cooper snatched up the hapless bird and tossed it back into the crowd, thinking it could fly. Instead, the frenzied crowd tore the poor thing to shreds on the spot.
The horrific scene led to a realization for Cooper.
“It seemed to upset the whole world,” Cooper said in an interview with The Guardian. “That’s when I realized rock was looking for a villain, somebody that would have done that on purpose. That spurred me to create the Alice character to be darker.”
Cooper leaned into that dark vision both as a group and later as a solo act. His character was dispatched in horrific ways, including by guillotine and hanging. He impaled baby dolls on a sword. Long before Britney Spears, he danced around wearing a snake. He even beat up Santa Claus.
All these antics brought to life outcast teen angst. His stage shows are live-action horror movies, designed to shock and thrill. They are a catharsis of sorts, a way to safely experience terror.
Moxie takes on demons and wins.
But even as Cooper brought demons to life on stage, he was battling his own demons off stage.
His peers were heavy drinkers, and Cooper joined in. Cooper was soon drinking daily from dawn until dusk. He didn’t drink on stage or while working, but he maintained a constant low-level buzz otherwise. He eventually graduated from beer to hard liquor.
But after years of abuse, alcohol began taking its toll on him.
“I was drinking with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and trying to keep up with Keith Moon and they all died at 27,” he told the New York Post in an interview.
When he began waking up vomiting blood in the morning, his wife insisted he get into treatment. After two rounds of rehab in the late 70s, Cooper emerged clean and sober and with no interest picking up a bottle ever again. He credits God for his transformation. Around the time he began his struggle towards sobriety, he renewed his Christian faith.
Cooper may play a demon on stage, but he’s really a saint. He reads the Bible daily and is active in his local church. You won’t ever hear him preaching from a pulpit, but he doesn’t shy away from discussing his faith and his life speaks pretty loudly on the night he fell deeply in love with his wife. Decades later, they remain smitten with each other. That and their faith keep them grounded.
Anybody who has ever been married knows that maintaining a healthy marriage takes moxie, and the Coopers both have it.
If I ever have the chance to interview the Godfather of Shock Rock, what should I ask?