Alice Cooper’s Carnival Of Carnage


Isn’t it amazing how the first inklings of spring changes your mindset walking into a music venue?  The short walk from Mystic Lake parking lot into the Showroom had concert goers shedding coats; not walking like frostbite was about to pounce.  Next thing you know, shows will be moving back outside.  That’s when the Minnesota music scene shines.  Last night indicated it was just around the corner.

I’ve talked before about how much I’ve come to enjoy covering shows at Mystic Lake.  The bottom line is that the theater is modern and purpose built.  No, you don’t have the beautiful gilded gold proscenium arch of a State or Orpheum.  But the sightlines and acoustics are as good at it gets.  They know what they’re doing when it comes to staging a big performance.  While I still love standing in a sweaty club, there’s another part of me that loves a seat in a theater.  When it comes to room and comfort in those rows, nobody is cushier than The Showroom.

Not that it really mattered once the headliner hit the stage.  Nobody planted a fanny for a minute.

Buckcherry opened the night’s carnival of carnage right on the scheduled minute.  Another one of those casino show attributes.  They run like clockwork.  I’d seen them once previously but for the life of me, can’t remember when or where.  They left no impression.  From the word go, I found myself wondering how that could be the case.  They made a big impression this time around.

One of the first questions scribbled in my notebook asked whether it was appropriate for rock and roll to be so pretentious.  The answer is Hell Yes!  Often we like to talk about how “authentic” a band is.  We see so many bands now that seem “natural”.  A bit of tousled hair, a trendy t shirt and jeans.  A pair of Doc Martins or Chucks.  Almost gone are the days when 5 guys walk out onto a stage and metaphorically scream at you:  We’re Rockers!  

It’s black, it’s leather.  Eyes are kohled.  Hair is hippie long or punk Mohawked.  Jeans are ripped, if they aren’t leather.  Shirts are coming off. And heaven forbid that that the whole look isn’t festooned with chains and silver.  F bombs flying like shrapnel. Think about it.  Who does that any more?  The Struts come to mind.  Maybe Social Distortion.  Pretty damn good company to my mind.

While most folks in the theater were there for Alice Cooper, there’s no doubt that there was a contingent of hardcore Buckcherry fans.  They were on their feet, throwing angst and anger back at the stage as hard as it was coming out.  Mystic features a huge stage and this band worked well in that big space.  Lots of room for wandering, dancing and posing.  It was rock and roll spectacle and as the set progressed, it became apparent that this was a perfect opener for the Master of The Macabre.  

On one hand you couldn’t be more different from Alice Cooper.  Buckcherry is like a bunch of So Cal skater punks who decided to be an LA version of ACDC.  It’s dark, aggressive and unapologetic.  They understand the theatrical aspect of what they’re doing and after nearly a quarter century, they’ve got it down pat.  It screamed West Coast to me.  Cooper will always be the Denizen of Detroit.  On the other, it’s big, bashing metal.  Neither band is singing heartfelt love songs.  Unless, of course, it’s to a corpse. 

Usually the opener plays a smaller stage than the headliner.  But that wasn’t the case last night.  The boys had a huge expanse in front of a sprawling Buckcherry backdrop.  I wondered how on earth, the stage crew would be able to quickly replace and build whatever Cooper needed for his show.  As soon as Buckcherry wrapped, a second screen dropped mid stage.  Cooper’s entire set was hiding behind the curtains and set up in a heartbeat.  Another reason you need a theater like Mystic Lake for something like this.  How often do you see set changes at a rock show?  A bit of Broadway.

I first saw Alice Cooper back in the first half of the 1970s.  It was aggressive.  Designed to shock.  It certainly did that.  Alice was dangerous.  I’ve seen him a couple times since.  Each time was enjoyable.  But the thing that really struck me last night is that at age 74, nobody in rock and roll history displays as much grace as Alice Cooper.

Wait!  How does one square grace with the hijinks, fake blood and excesses that take place within Cooper’s castle dungeon?  For the first time, it struck me that I was seeing a Broadway musical more than a rock show.  It is a huge undertaking!  Cooper is the most natural, comfortable character to ever blur that line between fantasy actor and rock frontman.  He is no longer frenetic.  The danger is implied rather than palpable.  The fear is all in good fun.  He’s learned to make you believe with a small gesture or twisted grin.  

Alice Cooper is the ringmaster and he makes it look so damn easy; presiding over nightmare characters crossing the stage.  I just kept coming back to the impression how graceful he made it all seem.  There might be blood dripping but never sweat.

No act touring these days can match Cooper’s production.  There isn’t a detail that’s been overlooked.  His costumes, sure we expect that.  But the look, not to mention the other-wordly chops of his bandmates, is dialed in to perfection.  Back to that earlier question of whether it’s appropriate for rock and roll to be pretentious?  You better believe it.  When you watch those band members hit their marks with precision, sneer for the camera, dance and pose you know for sure:  that’s a rock star!  And those of us sitting front of house will never be.

There’s a documentary out there called Hired Guns.  It’s a look at these remarkably talented players who are there for the hire by the big stars in the rock world.  Bowie used them.  So do people like Billy Joel.  Alice Cooper has always gone this route.  In the film, these players talked about their experience working with these different bosses.  To a musician, they all pointed to Alice Cooper as the best slot out there.  You get to play like a mother.  You will be featured and respected.  You will be well paid.  If everybody’s happy, you stick around for awhile. 

So I was focused on my impressions of that band.  Every single one of them has what it takes to be a star in his or her own right.  They chose to do the big production with Alice Cooper.  An absolute delight.  Pros pros.  They are as good as it gets.  

There’s a great book by local author Steve Hyden titled Twilight Of The Gods;  A Journey To The End Of Classic Rock.  In it he points out how by the middle 1970s, the era of rock Gods began to disappear.  Our rock heroes were not human to us.  The worship was real.  But then those excesses began killing them.  Constant media exposed that they really were more like us than we thought.  You want to know what your hero had for breakfast?  Somebody covered it.  Like the wizard in the Emerald City pleaded:  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!  But we did and it was never the same.

So how does one explain Alice Cooper?  He survived.  I’d argue he’s as big now as he’s ever been.  There’s no sign of slowing down.  On the drive home I tried to come to some conclusions of how this has happened.  Here’s my theory.  Rock and roll is a creation of the Baby Boom generation.  We Boomers grew up in a world where Walt Disney was a pillar of nearly every childhood.  We accepted and embraced fantasy.

But those ’60s were anything but a smooth ride.  Parts of rock became anti-social, dangerous.  By the end of the decade, rock music expanded into sub genres like Punk and Metal.  Angry, assaultive and designed to shake up the apple cart.  Alice Cooper sprung directly from that time and place.

The trick about longevity in rock and roll still remains.  For the most part, a young person’s game.  They are most of the live audience out and about on any given night. Yesterday’s rock god is today’s grandpa and those younger fans see through that.  It can’t be real in a 70 year old!  So the next icon gets his or her start.  Think about those rock stars who wallowed in excess during their heyday.  How many survived?  If they did, how many of those hardcore, drinking drugging fans didn’t grow up?  Get jobs, raise families, babysit grandchildren?  

I think Alice Cooper beat the odds because he was his character for many years.  It damn near killed him and he just about lost it all.  In terms of rock street cred, the man earned it the hard way.  What changed was that he sobered up, drew clear lines between the stage character and who he was at home.  Why else are people so fascinated seeing Alice Cooper tee it up with the pros at The Pebble Beach Pro-Am and give it his all?  Maybe it’s because so many of us relate.  We survived those dangerous years.  We became something more “normal”.  And the job(s) we do, we do with 50 years of wisdom and experience. 

Alice Cooper creates rock and roll theater.  Nobody has come close to doing it as well as he has.  So when I watch this seething crowd of 60 something (mostly men) pumping rock and roll horns while screaming “I’m 18!  And I like it!” it became clear.  Brilliant theater is always one step removed.  It makes it safe to make believe.  If you’re of a certain Boomer age, you understand that we’re not simply the man or woman who stands in front of the mirror today.  Instead, we’re a complex stew of times, fashions and self images we’ll never shake.  

Cooper is the director of this carnival of carnage.  Like that creepy, carny character that populates so many books and movies nowadays, there’s this implied magical ability.  The ability to cast a spell or nightmare.  He can trap us in an age as much as he can chain us to that traveling circus.  For that 90 minutes we let him.  We want him to.  I walked out feeling young, brash and happy.  Maybe just a little bit dangerous.

One of a kind.  Will I see him next time around?  Yes.  How will it be different?  It will be Alice Cooper again, won’t it?  Sure.  But for all those people who annually attend The Guthrie’s A Christmas Carole, couldn’t we ask the same questions?  Haven’t you seen it?  Isn’t it the same tale?  Sure.  But the beauty is in the details.  How will it be staged and interpreted this time around?  Like Alice Cooper’s blood, the mayhem and macabre is always kept fresh.