The state of shock rock isn't so strong these days. So says no less an authority than Alice Cooper.
"I don't honestly believe that a rock band can shock an audience anymore," the legendary rocker said in a recent phone call from San Francisco, where his supergroup Hollywood Vampires was preparing for a show. "With ISIS, with people shooting cops, with cops shooting blacks — now CNN is so much more shocking than Rob Zombie or Marilyn Manson or Alice Cooper. It was easy to shock the audience in the '70s. Easy. Because we were much more wholesome. Now, with the Internet, it's literally impossible to shock an audience."
Lady Gaga's meat dress? Miley Cyrus twerking on TV? Nope. Not even close.
"I mean, somebody just killed 50 people in a gay bar," Cooper said. "That shocks me."
Strong words from the man considered the godfather of shock rock, a macabre metal icon whose twisted stage show and ringleader personality have influenced nearly 50 years of outlandish pop performers, from David Bowie to the Sex Pistols to Slipknot to Lady Gaga. On the strength of hits like I'm Eighteen and School's Out, he and his band entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
At 68, Cooper's live performances remain polished and choreographed, his band "really, really, really tight." And it's not as if his sense of showmanship has mellowed. When he hits Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday, he'll do so in the middle of a mock campaign for president, built around his 1972 hit Elected.
"Every four years, every presidential election, that song comes up," he chuckled. His campaign slogan? "I'm just as good at doing nothing as they are. So why not vote for Alice Cooper?"
It's all satire; Cooper professes to be "the least political person on the planet. I hate politics and rock and roll. I hate the two in bed more than anything." As for this year's actual election, he says: "The candidates this year seem like Kurt Vonnegut characters. They're bigger than life, and some of the most outlandish stuff they say is comical and at the same time horrifying."
But it isn't like Cooper's losing sleep over the state of American politics. Truth be told, apart from all the awfulness in the headlines, 2016 has actually been a pretty fun year for the man born Vincent Furnier.
A big reason for that is his new supergroup Hollywood Vampires, which features his pals Johnny Depp and Joe Perry on guitar. Named for Cooper's early-'70s circle of L.A. drinking buddies — Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Keith Moon — the band has played a handful of shows and festivals since debuting at this year's Grammys, and Cooper says they'll book more in the future, once their schedules all clear up.
"It's like going back and being in a bar band," he said. "The swagger on stage has a whole different looseness. We all started out in bar bands, everybody on that stage did. And we bill ourselves as the most expensive bar band."
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Most of the artists the Hollywood Vampires cover live were friends of Cooper's who are no longer alive, including Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, T. Rex and Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister.
"Last time I saw Lemmy, he said, 'Alice, I've quit drinking whiskey. I drink vodka now,' " Cooper laughs. "His legs were as big as my arms. And he was yellow. And he was shaking. Being an alcoholic, I went, I give him two weeks. That's what he had."
Cooper himself has been clean and sober for 35 years, a recovery he calls a "miracle."
"I came to that crossroads, and really had to decide, am I going to live or die?" he said. "I was more of a healed alcoholic than a cured one because it was much more spiritual than that. God just kind of took it away from me. Thirty-five years later, I've never had a craving for alcohol. Doctors said, 'That's impossible, because you are the classic alcoholic.' I can't explain it either, but miracles happen."
When he sees clips of himself as a drinker, he thinks: "That character was a victim. That character was society's victim. That character was the whipping boy. The way I looked on stage, my posture was always stooped over."
When he got clean, he decided: "Why should Alice be that now? I wanted Alice now to be this really over-the-top, arrogant, Alan Rickman type of villain. I wanted to be a supervillian with a sense of humor. And rock needed that, a really defined villain."
To this day, he plays the character of "Alice Cooper" with such phony, overconfident arrogance and swagger that he's able to win over crowds generations younger than him. When he played Bonnaroo in 2012, he recalls seeing fans in the pit agog at the spectacle before them.
"Did you see The Producers? It was Springtime for Hitler. Their mouths were open, going, 'What is this?' "
Sounds like kids these days can still be shocked by a rock show.
"They do understand energy," Cooper said. "They understand if a show is rock and roll, loud, energetic and in their face. That's what they got."
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.