Rock legend Alice Cooper’s most controversial act may well be dedicating his life to God, writes David Goodwin.
When Alice Cooper comes to town, it’s not just a concert—it’s a full-on theatrical production. The man known as ‘The Godfather of Shock Rock’ is known for his elaborately staged, and often shocking, onstage theatrics. Playing on imagery taken straight from horror movies, his shows are a spectacle in their own right, featuring guillotines and electric chairs, fake blood and real snakes, creepy baby dolls, and duels with swords.
Some performers might be upstaged by all the thrills and special effects, relegated to a supporting act to their own extravaganza, but Cooper has no problems with being the centre of attention. Even casual fans would recognise his distinctive look anywhere. With his long, dark hair, Gothic makeup and costume motif that can only be described as magnificently sinister, he is the poster child for shock rock edginess.
For those who see heavy metal as a malignant influence that corrupts youth, or standing for immorality and debauchery, he represents their worst nightmares. From the persona he projects on stage, to some of the sensational stories of his heavy metal exploits—including the mistaken claim that he bit the head off a chicken during a live show!—he is a magnet for publicity.
Alice Cooper hasn’t tried to downplay any of this, in fact he has made a point of playing up to the public perception of him, because he was one of the first to realise that these sort of stories don’t damage a heavy metal rocker’s brand—they actually sell records. The more people are outraged, the more people are talking about him.
It’s a business model that has been embraced by countless bands and artists following in his footsteps, and his influence can be seen in acts from Marilyn Manson to the Sex Pistols. However, despite all the imitators, he remains the original and the best.
He has been so successful at building this persona that people believe the act, and think that they are seeing the real Alice Cooper. But the man behind the show—born Vincent Damon Furnier—is first to stress that there is much more to him than people think.
In an interview with The Independent, Cooper tried to explain his relationship with his alter ego, saying, “I treat Alice in the third person, because I can’t take him anywhere. He belongs on stage. But there was a grey area for quite a long time when I didn't know where I began and where Alice ended.”
This grey area included a time in his life where Cooper struggled to deal with the some of the excesses of the rock star lifestyle.
“When I was 30, I was a mess. I was drinking a bottle of whisky a day. I did shows that weren't anywhere near as good as the shows I do now.”
In another interview, with dw.com, he says that he recognised the dangers of buying into his own publicity.
I grew up in a Christian house. My dad was a pastor, he was an evangelist for 25 years, and I used to go up and do missionary work with him with the Apaches in Arizona.
“Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died because they wanted to embody their stage presence at all times. They drank and took drugs to do so,” he said. “When I stopped drinking, I made a decision. I wanted to co-exist as a person alongside the stage figure Alice Cooper. But I didn't want to be that figure all the time.”
Fortunately for Cooper, and for music, he was able to avoid sharing their fate, returning to the foundation his upbringing had given him, and finding a power that could change his direction.
Cooper has shared his background, telling HM Magazine that, “I grew up in a Christian house. My dad was a pastor, he was an evangelist for 25 years, and I used to go up and do missionary work with him with the Apaches in Arizona. My grandfather was a pastor for 75 years. I grew up in a Christian home. And my wife’s [Sheryl’s] father is a Baptist pastor. So, I was like, we were PKs—preachers’ kids—so we married each other.”
It was this faith that ended up not only saving their marriage, but also his life, when his drinking got to the point where he says it would have killed him—it had gotten to the point where he “started throwing up blood in the morning”, leading to Sheryl filing for divorce.
“I finally realised, I had to go one side or the other,” said Cooper. “The Lord really convicted me, saying, ’Look, it’s time to make a decision here.‘”
It’s clear that, unlike his stage presence, his deep faith is neither an act nor something he takes lightly. It’s hard to know who out of the ‘rock music is of the devil’ crowd and the people lining up to buy his albums would be more shocked to learn that Alice Cooper, shock rock icon, teaches Sunday school from time to time at his local church.
While it is clear that Cooper is a man transformed, it hasn’t meant that he has stopped making great music, or somehow lost that heavy metal edge. In fact, he thinks this change has only made him a better performer. He certainly feels it has made him a better person.
While he is happy to share his faith, he tries not to set himself up as a false idol, saying that he doesn’t believe in ‘celebrity Christianity’, going on to clarify that he believes, “It’s really easy to focus on Alice Cooper and not on God. I’m a rock singer. I’m nothing more than that. I’m not a philosopher. I consider myself low on the totem pole of knowledgeable Christians. So, don’t look for answers from me.”
However, he does use his position as an elder statesman of rock to try to make a positive difference. Concerned at the way he could see that alcohol and drugs were becoming a problem for members of one of the biggest heavy metal bands in the world, Megadeth, Cooper approached them to offer his support, a gesture their front man and co-founder, Dave Mustaine, appreciated so much he calls Cooper his ‘godfather’.
“I’ve made myself very available to friends of mine,” Cooper told Billboard magazine after he received the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award as an acknowledgement of the work he has done in supporting those struggling with addiction, just like he had. “They’re people who would call me late at night and say, ‘Between you and me, I’ve got a problem.’”
But, as Cooper explained to HuffPost, some people may find it hard to look beyond the stage show, seeing a contradiction between rock icon and man of faith, “because it goes against everything I’m meant to stand for. But I’m dead serious about it. I can still be Alice Cooper, and be a Christian.”
If they do judge this book by its cover, they are missing the real story. Forget chickens and narrow escapes from death, the most fascinating part of the Alice Cooper legend is the substance behind style—a man who has found a faith that has not only saved him, but inspired him to try to save others.