Of the many, many wonderful things to love about the American treasure known as Alice Cooper, perhaps the most delightful is this: He is one of the world’s greatest name-droppers.
In a recent phone conversation, the original shock rocker brings up, unprompted, personal connections to the following: Paul McCartney, Groucho Marx, Iggy Pop, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny, George Burns, Andy Warhol, Metallica and the Partridge Family. He’s got stories about them all because he actually hung out with them all because, well, who wouldn’t want to hang out with Alice Cooper?
"Everybody that sees the show has a different version of what they saw in the show, and I ended up meeting everybody from all walks," Cooper said by phone from his Phoenix home. "I was as accepted with the Friar’s Club as I was with the rock and rollers. So it was nothing for Frank Sinatra to go, ‘Hey, Coop, how you doin’?’ I was one of the guys. I was the villain of rock ‘n’ roll."
Offstage, Cooper may be a mensch and raconteur, a golf-addicted granddad whose idea of a fun Valentine’s Day date with his wife of 42 years was a steakhouse dinner, then Stranger Things 2 on the couch.
But on stage, his sinister, snake-charming sneer has lost little of its early-’70s funhouse elan. His concert Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater will be packed with kids at heart (and probably a few actual kids, too). And a week and a day later, he’ll be live on national television, appearing alongside John Legend and Sara Bareilles in NBC’s Easter Sunday telecast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Cooper will play King Herod, a small but flashy role he took on 20 years ago, covering "the only funny song in the whole show" for a soundtrack album to a London revival. His Herod is "like an Alan Rickman character ... very condescending, arrogant ... a real bad boy." And the way he tells it, Superstar co-creators Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice thought only of him for the role.
"Tim Rice and I are very good friends," he said. "When they asked me to do the part of Herod 20 years ago, he says, ‘I really want you to bring Alice into this. I want you to take the song and make it so you can tell there’s a certain threat in the music, in the voice.’ I think I accomplished that for him. And when this thing came up, I guess him and Andrew both looked at each other and went: ‘Alice Cooper.’"
Superstar debuted in 1970 as a concept album, then a musical the following year. This was around the time Cooper crashed into the public consciousness with the monster pop-metal hits I’m Eighteen and School’s Out. Even at the peak of his powers, though, Cooper and his legendary Hollywood drinking mates — including John Lennon and Keith Moon — had a great deal of respect for the phenomenon that Webber and Rice had pulled off.
"I’ve always respected Broadway, because it’s been a big part of what I do," he said. "West Side Story was a big part of getting the original Alice Cooper Band — let’s bring that kind of thing to rock ‘n’ roll. Or at least borrow from it, and make rock look like that on stage."
The decline of rock showmanship happens to be one of Cooper’s most kvetchable topics. Part of the reason he hasn’t given up his guillotine is that he feels he has to carry the flag for a certain kind of rock ‘n’ roll, because in his eyes, not many other bands seem to want to.
"There’s very few bands that have the outlaw attitude," he said. "Alice Cooper and Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses, we were outlaws. Now I hear bands and go, ‘Wow, how wimpy.’ It just seems like there’s a lot of wimpy bands calling themselves rock bands."
It might sound like a raging case of back-in-my-day-ism. But think again about all those names Cooper tends to drop. For a while, the character he created was so thrilling and ubiquitous that virtually everyone wanted a piece of him, celebrities included. No one escaped his titillating orbit.
Take, for example, Salvador Dalí. In 1973, the Spanish surrealist was so infatuated with Cooper that he created a holographic bust of his likeness. (It’s now part of the collection at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg; it’s not on display, but Cooper sometimes checks in on it on tour.)
"He was so bizarre that it was unearthly. It wasn’t even in this world," Cooper said. "I was an art major, so he was my hero even before the Beatles came along. So getting to work with Dalí was like getting to work with the best of the best."
Funny thing about Cooper and Dalí’s collaboration. In a way, it proved decades ahead of its time, as holograms of late icons like Ronnie James Dio and Frank Zappa are now going out on tour.
"It’s very weird," he said. "I get it, and it’s kind of cool. I think it’s great in small doses. I don’t think I could go to a full concert of a hologram event. It would be great for the Hollywood Vampires" — Cooper’s new-ish rock supergroup with Johnny Depp and Joe Perry — "because we honor all of our dead, drunk friends. To have John Lennon show up, or Harry Nilsson or Keith Moon or any of these guys in some sort of ghostly thing that happens behind us, that would be a very cool way to do it."
But you probably won’t see his own hologram on tour anytime soon. Retirement doesn’t interest him. If you want to see Alice Cooper, you can do so in the flesh.
"I said at the very beginning of my career, I will retire when I put up tickets for my show and nobody shows up. Or put out an album and nobody buys it," he said. "But that hasn’t happened yet. So we’re full steam ahead."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.