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Phoenix hasn’t much going for it beyond mind-searing temperatures and year-round golf. It’s as culturally barren as the deserts its developers paved over to put in more strip bars and strip malls, so it’s no wonder the chamber of commerce clings to Alice Cooper’s continued citizenship there as a chief selling point.
True, he elevated his alma mater into rock lore when he sang about it on “School’s Out” but since that misty-eyed ode was on the same album that cheered books, pencils and teachers being blown to pieces, Camelback High won’t be erecting a statue of him in the study hall any time soon. If they had any class they’d at least name the metal detector after him.
Phoenicians’ claim to Coop’s musical legacy amounts to a couple of early Spiders and Earwigs singles and they can have a tug of war with LA for the right to call Cooper’s ’80s and ’90s music Valley of the Sun spun. Truth is, the best Alice Cooper came during the years when he readopted Detroit as his home base.
Of his original band Cooper recalls, “The band actually broke in Detroit. We pretty much got thrown out of LA. We didn’t really become Alice Cooper until we got with Bob Ezrin, and that was in Michigan. We were total nomads. We said, ‘Wherever we get a standing ovation is where we’re gonna live.’ And if it would’ve been Cincinnati or Wichita, Kansas, we would’ve stayed there.
“We did a pop festival in Saugatuck and it was huge. And it was the first time we ever saw an audience react correctly to our music. I’d never heard of the Stooges. I’d never heard of the MC5. We got there and played between those bands in front of 3,000 people and got the biggest ovation. They loved the theatrics, they loved the fact that we were loud and we were absolutely not gonna stand down. LA just didn’t get it. They were all on the wrong drug for us. They were on acid and we were basically drinking beer. We fit much more in Detroit than we did anywhere else — and on top of that I was from Detroit.”
Which is why his new album makes a musical pilgrimage back to his home — and damn it if every track on this mother doesn’t sound like it belongs on a single with a moss-green Warner Bros. label. If you’ve felt that Alice’s last couple of decades were more adroit than Detroit rock, might I suggest you remove disc No. 4 of your Alice Cooper boxed set and shove The Eyes Of ... there in its place. So long, Hey, Stoopid, Slash cameos and multiple versions of “He’s Back.” Hell, this new outing could even give disc No. 2 of the set a run for its money — and that’s high praise indeed.
“It’s truly a return to that era,” sniffs Cooper with considerable pride. “What I insisted on was there can’t be one touch of ’80s or ’90s on this album. I want it all to be ’70s and ’60s. At the same time, I want this to sound like you’re in a small club. I don’t want a squeaky-clean, produced rock album. I want something more like our early stuff — and I think these guys really caught it.”
Recording the two guitars, bass and drums all at the same time partially achieved this. It also helped that his new material was largely written with two guitarists — Eric Dover and Ryan Roxie — who, according to Cooper, are record buffs with an encyclopedic knowledge of riffs and the gear that made them. “I can reference an Iggy song or an MC5 thing and they totally understand and say, ‘oh, I’ll use a Telecaster on that.’”
Yet the group’s mandate also allows for a tip of the hat to yesterday’s sounds made last week. Consider the song “Between High School and Old School” where Alice and the boys shake up the Vines’ one-hit wonderful riff.
“Here’s bands like the Vines and the White Stripes doing ’60s music and they’re the new school of rock and here’s Alice Cooper who’s old-school going back to that and sounding modern. It’s like a dog chasing its tail,” he laughs. “The White Stripes, they’re in another world. When I first heard ‘Seven Nation Army’ I said, what is this? But after the third time I thought that guy has written one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time. I keep hearing how great the Detroit Cobras are, but I haven’t heard them yet.”
And though it’s taken him nearly 40 years, Alice finally has written a Detroit rock anthem that happens to have MC5er Wayne Kramer on ax duty. “I started to think, why would Kiss write ‘Detroit Rock City’? They’re not from Detroit. Why would Bowie write ‘Panic in Detroit’? I’m from Detroit and it’s about time I write a song that’s the anthem for Detroit. Every weekend we played at the Grande or the East Town with the Five or the Stooges or Seger, Nugent, all of those bands. We were part of the gang, the new kids on the block, but we were accepted as if we were there all of our lives. When you talk about the Detroit sound, we were right in the middle of that. And so I did the references to those bands from when Shady was in his bib and the posse wasn’t even alive.”
“The great thing about Detroit,” he continues, “was when I was a kid, there would be about three carloads of kids that would go down to the East Town movie theater or the Grande. They were movie theaters then. And they’d show three horror movies, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Them and It Came From Outer Space. We’d get there 11 o’clock in the morning and our parents would pick us up about 6 in the evening. And we’d sit there all day watching horror movies. It was the greatest time of my life. You could go all day on 50 cents. Every time I see “The Simpsons,” it reminds me of my childhood. Every one of these movie theaters I used to go to as a kid, when I came back in ’68, they were all rock dungeons. When I played there I’d think how I used to watch all these great horror movies here. They [the theaters] were really ornate and pretty creepy.”
While the new album has a token horror number “This House Is Haunted” (imagine the happy couple from “You and Me” still sharing popcorn and TV even though one of them is dead), what makes The Eyes Of ... turn heads is that the “Alice-as-a-victim” motif of songs like “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Raped and Freezin’” missing in the spate of “Alice-as-aggressor” albums is back and more hilarious than ever. Blast the opening track (“What Do You Want From Me”) and you’ll hear Cooper cheerily recasting himself as a love schlub trying to lure a lady with offers of burning his offensive porno and buying a LoJack for her Pontiac.
“I loved the idea of Alice playing a trailer-trash guy trying to win his girl by getting her an autographed Buns of Steel or taking her to Target. And I love ‘Man of the Year’ because it was sort of a nod to the Sex Pistols,” he says, returning the compliment Johnny Rotten paid him in his gushing liner notes for the Cooper box set. He even sings it with a Rottenesque English lad snarl, boasting that he even made Madonna faint.
The Eyes Of … live show will feature appearances by old faves like “Cold Ethel,” “Dwight Fry,” the umpteenth snake, and a nonstop blast of Detroit rockers like “Eighteen” and “Under My Wheels” in the first hour before the theatrics are rolled out.
Anyone worried about how long this 55-year-old son of Ferndale can keep up this deadening pace can take heart. He still has plenty of relatives in the Detroit area.
“All my aunts and uncles live in the same houses they lived in when I was 5. And they’re in their 90s.”
See Alice Cooper Monday, Oct. 13, at the Royal Oak Theatre (318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak). For info, call 248-399-2980.
Serene Dominic has a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.