Lost and Found in America

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Sandford_01-2019

One Saturday night last summer I found myself sitting on a warm, grassy knoll outside Missoula, Montana, watching a blood-red sun set behind a cup in the hills with the snow-fringed Bitterroot Mountains beyond, while in the foreground an elfin, 70-year-old man dressed entirely in black leather, accompanied by an energetically hair-swinging band, blasted out a heavily amplified song called “Feed My Frankenstein.”  The vocalist was my old friend Vince Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper, and he was there bringing his “A Paranormal Evening” show to town.  Even rock music can have produced no sight stranger, nor one more removed from its origins, I reflected, than this mascara-streaked figure, prowling the stage before a huge mural of yellow-eyed spiders, with a working guillotine positioned directly behind him, haranguing the audience with songs about insanity, mutilation, and necrophilia.

How did we get here?  In my case, the literal answer was by way of a commandeered 1970’s-vintage school bus shuttling concertgoers from the comparative metropolis of downtown Missoula to an amphitheater carved out of lush hills a few miles to the east.  Although brief, this proved to be one of the more trying experiences of a life not devoid of shadow.  It was a big, closed bus with a driver in a tie-dyed T-shirt, and one apparently bereft of suspension.  The highway deteriorated appreciably as we approached the venue, and the driver had to honk, and turn out, to avoid running into a herd of deer grazing at the roadside.  Several of my fellow passengers were enjoying a communal smoke.  One of them wore a blood-red T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan Jesus Was a C---.  I debated whether to ask the man what Jesus had ever done to him, but instead I turned to the middle-aged woman sitting next to me and chatted affably with her until we arrived at the site.  The woman told me she suffered from panic disorder.  Her conversation was modest and never about herself.  It consisted entirely of pointing out interesting things such as horses, dogs, and trucks, either by naming them or by parodying the noise that they make.

There was a touch of Dunkirk about the final stretch of the journey as we passed by bedraggled-looking pedestrians carrying backpacks and blankets, and finally pulled up to park at the top of a hill from which you could look down and see the huddled masses of fans with their collapsing chairs and tents and spirit-stoves, and, in the distance, the stage and the bright red Staff T-shirts that darted to and fro in the dusk.  I pushed my way to the front, and there I waited, not standing interminably in line for the Honey Bucket, not buying overpriced beverages, until show time.

Then, after what felt like three days, Alice Cooper cavorted on stage to the thumping beat of “Brutal Planet.”  The crowd behind me surged forward, and, as I momentarily stumbled and recovered my balance, I caught a glimpse of my Jesus-phobic friend in the red T-shirt now busily engaged in what looked like a native fertility dance.  On the stage itself, cartoon characters raced by on urgent missions.  Alice Cooper waved as he sped past in his tight black britches and a stovepipe hat, jabbing the air with a swagger stick.  Several other characters of indeterminate sex bopped restively from foot to foot.  Cooper himself clearly knows how to play an audience, even if the words “Hello, Montana!” tended to recur at perhaps overfrequent intervals.  That blemish aside, the night turned out to be a rowdy celebration of what might still be called the American spirit—the music at once energetic and 1960’s-nostalgic.  By the end, the whole brilliantly lit bowl of the amphitheater and its surrounding hills were transformed from a scene of eerie isolation into a raucous outdoor party.

The live rock concert is nothing but a game of shadows.  The stars themselves are products of artifice, their manipulated stage personas and tricks contriving the same effect once achieved with candles and mirrors.  Even so, in the case of Alice Cooper the gap between the public image and the real man would appear to be not just unusually wide, but freakishly so.  I know this because a few hours earlier I happened to share an iced tea with Cooper in the lobby of a Missoula hotel.

“Alice was always a villain,” he remarked genially, referring to his alter ego in the third person.  “When I started I looked around and I saw the Beatles and the Beach Boys with their happy, three-minute songs.  I thought, they’re heroes, they’re Peter Pan; I want to be Captain Hook.”

I asked him about the comically sinister stage routine, and its more ghoulish set pieces that have both amused and thrilled audiences over the decades.

“We’ve looked at all the permutations of killing me off during the performance,” Cooper said, with the furrowed brow of a Victorian diplomat grappling with the intricacies of the Schleswig-Holstein Question.  “But we keep coming back to the guillotine or hanging, because that’s so classic Alice.  You can’t have something that lingers.  The electric chair wasn’t sudden.  Burning at the stake is too slow.  You have to give it that sudden snap”—a click of the fingers—“to give the audience that buzz.”

Behind the demonic makeup, Cooper is a born-again Christian, a doting grandfather, and that rare rock star who’s interested while on tour not in scoring drugs, but in finding the nearest golf course for a relaxing 18 holes.  He attributes his longevity to low stress levels.  “The juxtaposition is that I’m the nicest guy in the world playing this character who’s the worst guy in the world.”  He used the word juxtaposition.

Not content to occupy a single pigeonhole, over the years Cooper has collaborated with everyone from Salvador Dali to the 85-year-old Mae West in her swan song Sextette, a feature in which the star herself wore a concealed earpiece under her wig to have her lines fed to her, dutifully interpolating in the script the radio calls of a local taxi company using the same frequency.  This past Easter, Cooper played the small but indelible part of an orange-suited King Herod in NBC’s live adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar, a performance of which Variety wrote, “His was a star turn of the highest order, and a delightful amount of fun.  He stole the show.”

If a pollster were to ask us which art form has dominated the last 50 years of Western civilization, or has attracted the most fee-paying customers, or has provided us with the most lurid headlines and exotic personalities, most of us would put pop music near the top of the list.  And if we were asked which art form has the greatest ability to appeal both to brain and body, or most immediately prompts us to feel happy, aggressive, lustful, sad, or even ecstatic, or can hurry our step or put us to sleep, and which can most fairly be described as our universal language, we would also rate pop music highly, perhaps with reservations acknowledging its influence on everything from trends in fashion to the global prevalence of narcotic drugs.

Yet if we were asked which art form was the most morally laudable, or the least corrupting, or the most successful in providing viable role models for our impressionable children, we would be unlikely to place pop music very high.  Fifty years ago, long-haired pop groups signified distasteful uncleanliness to a generation whose collective memory of army life was still strong.  Today, we deplore the discrepancy between the need of so many pop stars to parade their exquisite taste, impeccable politics, and compassion for the masses, even as they blithely strut and preen for some of the world’s most unsavory dictators.

It’s not that Alice Cooper is completely blameless when it comes to the steady erosion of our Western culture, with its relentless celebration of the sordid or banal.  He’s had his moments.  But perhaps Cooper’s redeeming feature is that, unlike so many pop stars who need desperately to be taken seriously, he’s fully in on the joke.  His show is an exercise in mood and character, with more than a touch of old-fashioned vaudeville: It’s a comedy that also makes you wince and a horror that makes you laugh.  Cooper is an elderly gentleman who’s prepared to dress up and entertain us for two hours a day and then return to his shockingly normal private life.  He’s clearly studied the way in which pop stars allow us an imaginative outlet, just as the ancient gods and demigods once did, and he’s clung on tenaciously at a time when technology has profoundly changed the nature of modern celebrity so that it can vanish just as quickly as it came.  More pertinently, he’s done all this while recognizing that “When you get out there and realize you’ve had every car, every house, and all that, you realize that that’s not the answer.  Materialism doesn’t mean anything. . . . If you don’t have Christ in your life, you’re a victim to the world.”

Long billed as the prince of darkness, Alice Cooper may be the most truly honorable and God-fearing of pop icons.  Long may he prosper.

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