Billion Dollar Baby: My Alice Cooper Obsession

When I was 16, I thumbed (actually fingered, but that sounds wrong, so I’ll stick with thumbed) through my Aunt Jackie’s collection of Stones, ZZ Top, and Average White Band LPs to discover an album of mystery. I pulled it out of the mix. The album artwork was unique and beautiful. It was designed to look like a green-snakeskin billfold. On it’s cover was a gold embossed button logo that had a baby’s face in the middle, and the words: “Billion Dollar Babies $ Alice Cooper”.

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Billion Dollar Babies (1973), front

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This was the hook. I knew the name Alice Cooper, but I associated him only with the songs I’d heard in the late ’80s, like “Poison” and “House Of Fire” (both pounded into mundanity by MTV). I knew he was classic rock, but–up until this point–I thought he was lame. I opened the wallet-design, gatefold jacket only to fall deeper. There were photos of the band on perforated card stock, so you could separate them if you wished. There was a giant billion dollar US currency note, with an illustration of a nuclear missile being rolled through Washington, DC, while onlookers cheered. I dubbed it to cassette and listened to that record–pops and all–for the rest of the Summer of ’91.

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Billion Dollar Note Insert

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Inside of gatefold

My Alice Cooper fascination grew. Almost every record of his (including Billion Dollar Babies) was a concept album: The whole album told a story. They were all produced by Bob Ezrin, who masterfully molded the sounds of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the KISS album “Destroyer“.

I needed to know everything about Alice Cooper. I read the liner notes in the CD reissues of his albums, which deepened the intrigue. I learned that his birth name was “Vincent Furnier”. The original “Alice Cooper Band” were all on the same track team in high school. They got their name from a Ouija board reading. His dad was a church preacher.

In the early ’90s there was no Google or Wikipedia, so I had to rely on spending my hard-earned Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers dollars on a VHS tape documentary, released by Alice himself, to learn more about this guy. His stage theatrics were crazy: He danced around with a live boa constrictor, played with baby doll heads, and had his head chopped off every night by a guillotine. He had his name legally changed to Alice Cooper. I suspect he did the latter so he could ditch the band and go solo (as he ended up doing with 1975’s “Welcome To My Nightmare“).

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Spent a lot of wasted hours watching & re-watching this as a teen.

I loved Alice’s albums, but I came to realize that the quality of the songs depended on his co-writers. Like his later equivalent Marilyn Manson (Brian Warner), Alice is a brilliant conceptual artist who writes great lyrics, but lets others compose the sounds. This is why albums from the original Alice Cooper Band (“School’s Out“, “Billion Dollar Babies”) sound like early ’70s hard rock, while his solo stuff (“Welcome To My Nightmare”, “From The Inside“) sounds akin to a Broadway rock musical. In fairness, one of the only songs he both wrote and composed, “Second Coming”, is a stirring song that is one of my favorites (it also leads perfectly into the creepy “Ballad Of Dwight Fry”, both on his 1971 LP, “Love It To Death“).

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Alice’s eyes, from the inside gatefold of “Love It To Death” (1971).

I’m now much later in life (read above and do the math), but I still adore Alice Cooper. The mystery and darkness that surrounded him has evaporated though (he’s probably happy as a born-again Christian, but it’s not very scary). The last book I read about him he wrote himself, and much of it was filled with tips on being a better golfer.

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He loves golf.

Until recently, I never saw him live. Most of what kept me away is that I’m strictly a fan of every one of his ’70s albums plus 2 from later decades (1983’s “DaDa” and 1994’s “The Last Temptation“). I feared that seeing him on stage would disappoint. I speculated he would play too much newer material, or have an annoying band backing him.

On November 15, 2013, after over 20 years of fandom, I finally saw Alice Cooper live on stage at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Washington. While some of my fears were confirmed, overall it was a good show. Not fantastic, not great, but good. 3 out of 5 stars. A “C+”.

On a production level the show was impressive. For the opening song “Hello Hooray”, a beautiful shower of sparks rained on the stage in front of him. During “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” Alice was strapped in a straight jacket by sexy zombie nurses (one of them being his daughter, Calico Cooper). There was also a giant operating table and Frankenstein monster (for the crap ’80s track, “Feed My Frankenstein”). And, of course, he did his signature guillotine execution. All fun stuff.

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Calico Cooper as a naughty zombie nurse.

The band backing him squashed my concerns over musicianship. They all sounded like accomplished performers who performed as a tight, cohesive unit with a powerful heavy metal sound. My favorites were the drummer and a blonde gal who played lead guitar. Real pros.

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Performing “Ballad Of Dwight Fry” in Tacoma in 2013.

As a stage presence, Alice was adequate. Though he still has a great level of energy (considering he’s in his 60s) he has almost no engagement with the audience. Great performers interact with their audience on different levels. They banter about what’s on their mind, do a city shout-out (“Helloooo Seattle!!!”), or even variate the performance a bit to make it not seem routine. Alice did none of these things. I felt like I was in the Holodeck of the Starship Enterprise watching a computer’s interpretation of an Alice Cooper performance.

For his set list, my fears were confirmed. He performed 24 songs: 12 classics from the ’70s, 4 from the ’80s, 4 from the ’90s onward, and 4 COVERS. Yes, a rock icon like Alice Cooper became a cover band for 4 consecutive songs on his set list. He performed “Break On Through” (The Doors), “Revolution” (Beatles), “Foxy Lady” (Jimi Hendrix) and “My Generation” (The Who). Very odd.

All-in-all I wasn’t really disappointed though. I went into the show with low expectations and came out somewhat-satisfied, and–in very few moments–impressed. To make myself feel better about it, I ordered his latest box set. It contains an entire live performance from the “Killer” tour in 1971. I won’t be able to see smoke, blood, fireworks and straight jackets, but at least I’ll enjoy all the music.

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