Darren Hirst met up with one of the most colourful figures in the whole pantheon of rock music, ALICE COOPER
Sitting opposite Alice Cooper is an unnerving experience. It takes me back to my childhood. Top Of The Pops. Summer of '72. Back then, Top Of The Pops seemed very innocent. We hadn't discovered what Gary Glitter was really like. And everything was silver and glitz and glamour. The Sweet and Slade before they were "heavy". Before even Alvin Stardust in black leather had dawned upon the scene. There was Donny Osmond and David Cassidy for the girls to swoon over and they were as saccharine as their smiles. No-one would blink an eye if "Amazing Grace" should top the charts. But then more troubling than Granddad's thoughts about Bowie's apparent androgyny was the nightmare vision of Alice Cooper. When Alice Cooper told a seven year old that "School's Out", the seven year old just knew that Alice had been holding the dynamite when the deed was done and that School was, indeed, "out for ever". Welcome to my Nightmare!
Fast forward to 2007 and I'm still sitting opposite Alice Cooper wondering what to say. A few days before, I'd been leading Christian Union at a Very posh independent boys' school. And when the subject of Alice Cooper and his faith came up, they left me in no doubt about his credibility and standing. 35 years since "School's Out" and at school, Alice is very definitely in. Witnessing him on his current arena tour of the UK, he draws an audience which ranges from five to 65 and everyone to a man (or woman) admires his showmanship, his ability to hold an audience in the palm of his hand and take his entire audience on a journey from grim horror and death to victory and life. There are no altar calls at an Alice Cooper show. There is no church. But this is not someone trading on his past. Not a whiff of nostalgia. Alice Cooper is still very relevant to his audience today. He still rocks. Alice is cool. And your church elders are not going to understand how Christian faith and Alice's show fit together. And your Granddad still won't like it.
Alice has thought about this: "As a Christian, I don't declare myself as a 'Christian rock star'. I'm a rock performer who's a Christian. Alice Cooper is the guy who wants to entertain the audience - it happens that he's a Christian. Alice (the character I play on stage) began life as a villain and he remains one. There's a villain and a hero in every Shakespeare play. Alice is no more dangerous than a villain in a cartoon or a Disney film. We have fun with him. He snarls and wears make up. He's punished for his crime and he comes back on the stage in white top and tails. We put on a good show. I've always put limits on Alice because I believe there's a certain amount of Alice that's a gentleman. He'd slit your throat, but he'd never swear at you. And there's always a punchline; he may kill you, but he'll slip on a banana peel. I get right-wing Christians down on me and I always ask them the question: 'If I was doing Macbeth, would it be OK?' And they always say that's Shakespeare so of course. I say that's about four times more violent than anything I do on stage."
On one level, that Alice should find faith is no surprise. His father converted and became a pastor in later life. His wife's father was a Baptist pastor. When he was struggling with alcoholism, it was to Christian counsellors that he and his wife turned to. They needed help with his drinking and help with their relationship. Therefore, his life has always been in touch with the church - albeit sometimes at arm's length. On another level, that a shock rocker like Alice who was described as a Satanist in more than one book by an evangelist in the '70s and '80s (evangelists who probably knew just enough about rock 'n' roll to want the young people in their church to avoid it) should embrace faith and continue in his chosen profession is seen by some as a little strange.
Interestingly, this is exactly what his foresighted pastor advised him to do: "I said to him I can't be Alice and a Christian. He said that God doesn't make mistakes. He said that God had put me in an unusual situation for a reason and now I should let my lifestyle do my talking for me and my beliefs. It wasn't the answer I was expecting."
Alice has a new book. It's called Golf Monster. It describes how he has exchanged one addiction (alcohol) for another far less harmful one (golf) but it is also remarkably frank about how his life has a different perspective now because of his Christian faith. This comes across in his conversation and in his music.
In his conversation, he is clear that he has no pretensions. He doesn't see himself as the world's greatest theologian or think he is ever going to be. He is concerned that his listener understands that the God he is seeking to serve is the "classic" one of the Christian Scriptures and creeds and not some modern amended version. The constant use of "classic" to describe his view of God, Jesus, Satan and the Bible may sound a little too much of the Coca-Cola wars to the listener who isn't used to the terminology but his point is well made. This isn't Alice Cooper's version of God or some celebrity-invented religion or anything of that kind. He goes to Bible study regularly when he is not on tour because he wants to understand God better and because he wants to know more about what God has to say to his life. He isn't interested in being a "celebrity-for-Christ". He wants to be a typical church-going Christian who is learning to love God and love his neighbour. It just so happens that he is Alice Cooper and this brings an interesting twist to the whole process.
He may not see himself as the world's greatest Christian thinker but he wants to write classic songs and thoughtful songs that are touched by the content of his faith. He wants his lyrics to say something and what they say should be consistent with who he is. American singer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett once said something along the lines of "You can sing about the light, or you can sing about what you can see because of the light." Hearing it put in this way, Alice clearly sees himself in the second category. Perhaps surprisingly, he is quite comfortable singing songs from the early part of his career. He remarks that there are three albums he recorded when his alcoholism was at its peek ('Dada', 'Special Forces', 'Zipper Catches Skin') that he doesn't remember too much about. Even these when he later went back and reviewed he found contained "some interesting, quirky songs". Some of the songs from this period and from the next few albums ('Constrictor', 'Trash'), he will no longer perform because he considers them too sexual in a way that he now feels was inappropriate or that they just don't fit in with a worldview he is comfortable in. However, the vast majority of his old songs are ones of which he is justifiably proud.
His more recent albums clearly reflect his values since he committed his way to Christ. On 'The Last Temptation' (1994), he tells a story of a young man's struggle to see the truth through the distractions of the "Sideshow" of the modern world. It's Bunyan's Vanity Fair set out again for the late 20th and early 21st century. The world is full of distractions that will keep you from addressing life's big issues. However, the album's hero, a young boy called Steven, declines to live his life that way and pursues a different path. He is determined to find out what life is all about. "Stolen Prayer" talks about the desire to talk to God. "It's Me" is a divine promise to stay with us through all the stumbling. The final song "Cleansed By Fire" makes a list of all the questions that the modern world would rather you didn't ask: "What about truth?/What about life?/What about glory?/What about Christ?/What about peace?/What about love?/What about faith in God above?"
Bob Dylan once wrote that he'd "seen the kingdoms of this world and they're making me feel afraid," He also once said he thought that Alice Cooper was an underrated songwriter. Combining these thoughts, Mr Cooper sent his Alice character to see the world's kingdom at its worst on 'Brutal Planet' (2000). You could not wish to see a colder, harder view of our world. Brutal is the right word and there was precious little comfort for the listener as he looks hard at a world that can be devoid of compassion and morality. 'Dragon Town' (2001) once again brought Bunyan's allegorical world to mind. Dragon Town is a society of the lost, an earthly hell, a place where God is denied but everyone wants to take his place. When Alice started to record these albums he intended them to be a part of a trilogy. The third album was never completed. Perhaps it's better that way - some ideas are just too dark.
Since then Alice Cooper has returned to less thematic albums with 'The Eyes Of Alice Cooper' (2003) and 'Dirty Diamonds' (2005). These albums have less of the sense of someone trying to make a point but the pen-pictures they paint have more compassion and they return to the humour of his earlier songs. He's currently working on another concept piece 'Along Came A Spider' which has been delayed to make room for the current tour and family time. He expects it to be in the shops in the spring of 2008. It will be interesting to see where his lyrical muse takes him next.
"It will be a full-on Alice production," he said. "The last two albums got back to the songs. The three before that had been heavily apocalyptic and I needed to take a step back from the big themes."
Golf is not the only thing that Mr Cooper pursues away from music. Not too long ago there was a ripple of publicity when Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona decided to award Alice an honorary doctorate. The formerly Southern Baptist college which now describes itself as Christian but non-denominational awarded the honour not because of Alice's musical work but because of his financial support of the University's education programme and because of his work amongst troubled teenagers. His involvement with his local neighbourhood educational centre was then deepened when the singer jointly sponsored the building of a new youth centre with the University that began to be developed in 2006. The College granted five acres of land for the building of The Rock, an extension of the work amongst young people that was begun by Cooper's Solid Rock Foundation in 1995. He says that he wants The Rock to be a place of "safety for kids who otherwise might have nowhere to go." The centre will be distinctively Christian with counsellors available to those who want to talk but "no-one who just wants to play ball will be beat over the head with a Bible."
Not least of Alice's commitments to this project is to get out there and earn the money for the completion of the building. When you have been a success for over 30 years there is only so much you need to do to guarantee yourself home comforts but his tireless work schedule is fuelled by a desire to make sure that others have those comforts too.
You don't have to look too far on the internet to find some blog by some well-meaning Christian decrying Alice and his profession of faith. However, there can be no doubt that what he describes as "the truth" is something that he clearly believes in and which he is living out in ways that are tangible and where his influence and musical success allow him to realise things that others of us would only dream of and which are changing lives in American inner cities. Alice won't be fitting any time soon into the requirement of appearance and working life suitable for a Christian that might be offered by a typical conservative churchgoer in a fellowship somewhere near you. Nevertheless, others whose opinion may matter more said that the key things were to love God and to love your neighbour as you love yourself. On that scale, Mr Cooper is living out his faith pretty well.