The Alice Cooper… Group”
Dennis Dunaway’s Adventures With…
Reviewed by Dave “Alice D.” Lancon
Mention Alice Cooper to the average person these days and they’re likely to remark, “Oh yeah, the golfing rock star. Just saw him on TV.” Sadly, what’s missing from that response is any mention of the four other high school pranksters who met in Phoenix, Arizona and formed the seminal band that eventually became one of 1970’s most formidable rock acts, Alice Cooper, the group, the “five ring circus,” the non-stop team collaboration that created the Alice creature.
Dennis Dunaway, founding member and bass player for what transformed into Alice Cooper, has just published his remarkably soulful saga and tribute to his fellow bandmates, Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group. Adventure? More like a ten year joyride in a stolen Detroit hot rod with “What, Me Worry?!” blasting from the radio as Screamin’ Jay’s lucky rabbit foot swings from the rear view. These five aspiring freaks, flying the Nazz out of Phoenix, were constantly crafting, constantly evolving their formative band, morphing into Alice androgyny while speeding through small town and big city America, then around the world; playing, writing, gobbling groupies and unknown substances with well tuned regularity, faster… faster… hit after hit, show after show, unknowingly side swiping Ken Kesey’s vintage 60‘s Prankster bus and making off with their freak flag into 1970’s wham bam, excess… success, until… KaaWhooosh!, the head gasket blows! Kaching, Kachunk kachunk… the wheels fall off!… and as the band slowly skids into the pressures of rock star commodification, almost everyone is too bombed, burnt out or frustrated to notice. Just another day in the rock and roll neighborhood? Not so fast.
“When the weird people become the masses, we’ll become famous.” It seems the pre-Alice Vince Furnier, c. 1966, may have been on to something.
March 30th, 1974. Mr. Dunaway, “cursed with the gift of a vivid memory,” begins his memoir with the Cooper Group’s last shows together in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This concert was noteworthy not only for being the largest indoor concert ever with 158,000 “trashed-up, sexed-out” South American freaks, fans and weirdos, but, possibly due to logistics, politics and expense, was also one of the rare shows they performed at their peak with minimal “big stage” theatrics, ironically, “like old times… happiest in a primal, teeth-baring state,” writes Dennis, and reminiscent of their late 60‘s, very early 70’s stripped down, Nazz, early Alice days. It was also to be their last performances with Glen Buxton (R.I.P.), founding guitarist and smart-ass extraordinaire.
The Cooper Group had reached this point, “famous” beyond their wildest Arizona desert dreams, not because of the genius of any one member, but musically and creatively, because of the collective genius of “five people united as one,” i.e., the “Alice Cooper” Group: Dennis Dunaway pushing the edges on freaky, funky bass while pushing Neil Smith to wail on luney tuned surf skins as Michael Bruce, on buff guitar, gets adamant about ditching the cover songs and emphasizes writing original music while Mr. Buxton, channeling Chet Atkins psycho-billy through W.C. Fields wise cracks, cigarette smokes and whiskey shots, taunts Vince, aka Alice, into twisting the songs and exploring the soon to be menacing characters within the songs. All five members contributing song suggestions, slinging show and performance ideas like moist Topanga panties, living and breathing together, deeply hooked on a “shock rock” doctrine, all of them committed to a single mission — to fuck with your mind, “outraging the world,” says Dennis. And, hell yeah!… putting on the shows that would become their legacy.
But who knew this would be their last show? “Their last show?!” You say you just saw Alice Cooper opening for Motley Crue at the Hollywood Bowl! (HoBo, anyone?!) Well, like Mr. Dunaway goes on to tell you in “Snakes,” there appears to have been a little mix up with the beakers in the science lab at Cortez High. Post Sao Paulo, with the band on hiatus, suddenly there’s two beakers labeled “Alice Cooper” instead of one! Oh Oh, management?! Had the evil monster Monsanto cloned the Alice Cooper gene? Or had the shrewd double headed management of Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg snuck into the Amazing Randi’s bag of tricks, masterfully turning what had now become an almost unmanageable five for all Alice creature, into a much more manageable Alice Cooper, solo entity, complete with holographic blessing by Salvador Dali?
Side Bar… Rock and roll meets Quantum physics. Is base matter a particle or can it also exist as a wave? Quantum physics says, both. Extrapolating from the quantum to rock and roll… can an entity, an “Alice Cooper” exist as both a band and as a solo performing artist? Indeed, Yes, yes and yes, as we triangulate back to an uninspired Frank Zappa, producer of the first Alice LP, Pretties For You, who, not quite knowing what to do with these overly ambitious, longest of long haired Arizona weirdo’s; and possibly threatened by the fact that these five freaks might just be freakier (let alone much more “glam”-orously attired) than his band of Mothers; submits a third quantum alternative worthy of a Kim Fowley marketing campaign.
Alice Cooper to “Alice Cookies”!
Mr. Zappa, in jubilant seriousness, suggests making a name change (Oh No! Not Again!) from Alice Cooper to “Alice Cookies”! Perhaps this was payback for the Coopers unannounced morning audition, waking Frank from a deep slumber. “Each song,” he gushed, “will have it’s own little record, the size of a cookie, and the cookies will come in a can. The cans will be stacked on the counter at the record store…,” a truly rock and roll comm-oddity as images of teenage Girl Scouts selling Alice Cookies to the hippies, tourists, and prostitutes along Sunset Boulevard at midnight had yet to be mentioned. The gas passing from Mr. Zappa’s brain fart into the stunned nostrils of the assembled Coopers elicited an instantaneous, “Faux pas, Mother Cream Cheese!,” from the band. You don’t argue with the Quija board.
The short drive from Zappa’s Laurel Canyon digs to the Whisky A Go Go soon finds the Coopers opening for yet another up and coming band from England. During their previous incarnation as the Spiders and Nazz, the Coopers had opened for the Turtles, the Doors, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and once had Aretha Franklin opening for them, sorta. It’s New Year’s Day, 1969, and tonight’s Whisky headliner, Led Zeppelin, was “still six months away from becoming sensations.” Dennis gives the details, how the Coopers were ultra ready for this gig, coming on like gang busters in full glittered glamour and feathered finery when the lights hit the Whisky stage, no holds barred, with the do or die resolve to “seduce” and “conquer” this Hollywood Go Go audience. Unfortunately, for Led Zeppelin, the Alice alchemy was “On!” They owned the room. The mad desire to seduce was a bit too successful. “We went right to the edge of a smashing finish, and then went over it,” literally, as Dennis relates how Neal’s over exuberant “thunder and slapstick” drum solo “ended with him falling off the stage backwards” and into the softness of the groupie pillows below. The audience burst into an orgasm of “cheers and applause” as the Zeppelin roadies dutifully waited to move gear into position.
Led Zep played their set that night and then mysteriously cancelled their remaining five nights at the Whisky, rumors circulating that, “they all had the flu.” Interesting, a new band from England, a long, long way from home, giving up the financial proceeds the five nights would have generated, plus the media attention, plus the Hollywood sex, drugs and groupie perks that went along with it… Right. I’m no doctor, but I suspect, “upstaged by Alice Cooper,” to be the more accurate diagnosis.
Moving further up the year and further up the peace and love California coast, the Coopers find themselves at the Fillmore Ballroom greeted by an irate Bill Graham, demanding they get off his “motherfucking stage,” screaming, “Either they play motherfucking music or they motherfucking act, because they ain’t motherfucking doing both!,” which is best witnessed in it’s full bombastic spectacularity on the 2014 Alice Cooper documentary, Super Dooper Alice Cooper. What’s odd about Mr. Graham’s hissy fit is that he was a founding member in the mid 60’s of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who, to this very day, regularly incorporates musicians, music and superb acting in their social political productions, and whom Mr. Graham regularly sponsored benefits for at the Fillmore. Weird. It is possible that Ike and Tina Turner, who were headlining that evening, may have had a Chuck Berry, “cash up front or we ain’t going on” policy that temporarily lightened Bill’s petty cash box. You don’t mess with Ike. The Cooper Group’s managers, Shep and Joe, also routinely insisted on “cash up front.” This possible run on Bill’s bank, especially coming from some uppity unknown L.A. he/she band with slick New York managers might have been what sent the usually genteel Mr. Graham into one of his legendary tirades. Just a thought.
Snakes and Guillotines also spotlights the pivotal people who contributed greatly to the rise of Alice Cooper; Bob Ezrin, the Guess Who’s record producer with his magical ears honed in on “Edgy” hits: Charlie Carnal on lights, adding so much to their visual impact that the Coopers put him on the payroll way back in the Phoenix Spiders days; Jack Curtis, the owner of the 1960‘s Phoenix V.I.P. Lounge who fed the pre-Alice Spiders with professional encouragement and house band status; Managers Shep and Joe, wheelin’ and dealin’ Dylan bootlegs and Mexican medicinals out of a Cadillac hearse to keep the Cooper’s boat afloat before the tide came roaring in; and drummer Neal’s little sister Cindy Smith (now Mrs. Dunaway), who also rode out of Phoenix with the band, finding herself working at a Santa Monica boutique as a shirt designer, (and eventually designing “the striking clothes that set Alice Cooper apart”) when two hip looking dudes come walking in, Shep and Joe, blowing, “yeah, we’re band managers” smoke. Cindy bites and tells them about her big brother’s band that just signed with Zappa and needs a manager. “Really?! You don’t say?” Fire up the hearse! Fire up a joint! It’s off to Topanga to hustle the Coopers!!… Hard work, big fun, and a hell of a lot of luck, that’s what makes history; and Screamin’ Jay’s lucky rabbit foot, just in case.
The twists and turns and what-could-have-beens began early for the Cooper’s. Here’s one last story from Dennis’s juicy bio. While still performing in Los Angeles as the Nazz, a 1967 impromptu audition at Mercury Recording studios in Hollywood goes very successfully, almost. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” conveyed Mike Bruce to his fellow bandmates after privately discussing the session with the studio’s engineers. They dug the band’s sound. They dug the band’s energy, but the lead singer, Vince, not so much. An offer was made to sign and record a song, sans Vince. Two day’s time given to let the temptation sink in, to think big time thoughts. The band’s immediate response, (pardon another paraphrase) “Thanks, but no friggin way! We’ve come this far together. We’re stickin’ with Vince!” Which made what was to follow as the Cooper’s rocket ascended to stardom, a bit surprising; Vince turning into Alice, turning into “Alice Cooper,” media spokesman for the group, then with a quick flick of management’s hand, the smoke still clearing from the Sao Paulo stage… “Alice Cooper,” solo performer. The band’s hiatus, unknowingly, became permanent.
The bitter comes out better with the passing of time. Ultimately, Mr. Dunaway’s bio is about his relationship and deep history with his buddy, Alice, now aka Vince, his solid partner since high school pranks, and the ride that personal relationship took before, during and after the bottom fell out from under the Alice Cooper circus. Mistakes were made, time passes, wounds heal; deep grievances, appear to be gone… allowing the ability to let both entities, this rock and roll quantum conundrum, to gracefully co-exist and to be equally honored for their separate and collective contributions. You might say, there would not have been Alice Cooper, the solo artist, had there not been Alice Cooper, the group.
However, this still leaves us Copper group/solo Alice Cooper aficionado’s to deal with a third quantum entity, the Alice Cooper “archetype” that the Cooper band unearthed; that mischievous, kinda malevolent, distinctly American, raised on Hollywood, TV., Mad magazine, monsters and sci-fi, Alice creature that’s lurking in all us Alice fans, and won’t go away! It’s that archetype/influence that walked into mid/late ‘70s CBGB’s, the Masque, etc. wearing distressed biker jackets, shredded t-shirts, paint splattered dinner jackets and all things fucked up and/or shockingly applied that started the art punk/punk rock movement. Dennis’s bio lays it down; as with “Alice Cooper,” without the Alice Cooper Group, that scene would have looked very, very different. Just ask Johnny.
Dave “Alice D.” Lancon fronted 1990’s Alice Cooper Group Tribute “Billion Dollar Babies” and can be found regularly dispensing Akashic Records @ the Rose Bowl, P.C.C. and Orange Co. Record Shows.