'We were not against a little violence onstage': Alice Cooper on life in Detroit
My Hometown (fka Root Down) is a recurring column that explores how artists' hometowns influenced their music.
There are few things Alice Cooper loves more than telling a good story, especially one with vibrant characters, tons of action, and horrific scares that unfold one killer verse at a time. But for Detroit Stories, his 27th studio album, the shock rocker, 73, turned to his hometown for inspiration — and found a fresh appreciation for the Motor City music scene.
"Welcome to My Nightmare, Brutal Planet, School's Out, Paranormal: I like writing to a theme," he says, listing off a number of his prior records that each revolved around a concept. "This one, I said, 'I want to do a real rock & roll album; real AC/DC-type, pure rock & roll.' That takes me immediately to Detroit, because it's the home of hard rock. Los Angeles had the Doors; San Francisco had the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead; New York had the Rascals; and then Detroit, what were they known for? Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 — and Alice Cooper."
Cooper (born Vincent Furnier) grew up in Detroit, but his family moved to Arizona when he was 10 years old. He cut his teeth with his first band in Phoenix before heading to Los Angeles at the end of the '60s, where he scored his first deal, on Frank Zappa's Straight Records. But Cooper's career didn't really take off until he left L.A., in part because the city didn't feel like home. He puts it succinctly: "We just didn't fit in anywhere we went." Though his hard-partying days at notorious West Hollywood hangout the Rainbow inspired the formation of the Hollywood Vampires, his star-studded supergroup with Joe Perry, Duff McKagan, and other veteran rockers, Detroit had always been Cooper's lodestar. He considers it to be the "proving ground" of hard rock, which goes back to his first game-changing gig in his home state, at the 1969 Saugatuck Rock Festival.
"Shep [Gordon], my manager, said, 'The first place that gives us a standing ovation, we're going to move there,'" he recalls of that first show, which also featured the Stooges and the MC5. "We watched the bands going on before us, and every band was a killer rock band. We got onstage, and they loved us, the theatrics, the attitude. They could see that we were not against a little violence onstage. They took us right under their wing. When they realized I was born in Detroit, I became a favorite son. We fit right in with all those bands. It was exactly where we should've been." Cooper adds that in Detroit, "if you didn't come onstage with an attitude, and with artillery, that audience is not going to respect you."
Fast forward to 2018, when the seed for Detroit Stories was planted. While touring behind 2017's Paranormal drew to a close, Cooper spoke with his longtime producer Bob Ezrin. Intrigued at the prospect of pulling from the world Cooper knew for his next album instead of building a new one, the two began working on songs that would eventually make up 2019's Breadcrumbs, Cooper's first EP to date — and one that serves as the "movie trailer" for Detroit Stories. They eventually returned to Detroit and assembled a wrecking crew for the project, with the Detroit Wheels' Johnny "Bee" Badanjek on drums, renowned jazz bassist Paul Randolph, and notorious MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer.
"'I immediately said, 'Is Wayne still working?'" he recalls. "He's a better guitar player now than he was then! I thought, 'Okay, I'm connected now to pure Detroit.' This guy was a White Panther, this guy was in jail, he always kept a sense of humor, and always kept his true sense of rock & roll. I love his playing. It's got this real street Detroit feel to it, and it's not glamorous at all."
Kramer's blistering solos stand out on Cooper's cover of "Sister Anne," one of his favorite Detroit Stories tracks; other notable covers include his pummeling take on Bob Seger's "East Side Story" and the Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll" (which was penned in Detroit). Detroit Stories offers plenty of new material, too, which touches on multiple facets of the city's musical history and indefatigable spirit. "Don't Give Up" is a moving encouragement anthem that Cooper released at the bleak height of the coronavirus pandemic. (Cooper was diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020, as was his wife, but both made a full recovery: "We had it at the same time, which was great, because we could commiserate.") The R&B groove Randolph brought to the table for "$1000 High Heel Shoes" invokes the influence of Motown, which Cooper considers to be a crucial helix in the "DNA of Detroit." And while the adrenaline and heavy guitars that roar throughout the record throw to the scene of his youth, the lyrics are just as surly and street-savvy — and occasionally inspired by the Detroiters Cooper counts as kin.
"When I started writing the songs, I thought, what references can I make to when I was a kid?" he says. "I made a reference to St. Clair Shores; my mom was a waitress there. I tried to put something about Detroit that tasted like Detroit in every lyric… it's not written about elegant characters, but blue-collar characters. The three bums that are sitting and singing 'Hail Mary,' they sit there drinking all day in the alley, and this one secretary walks by every day, Mary, and she's the high point of their life: 'Hail Mary! Full of grace, what are you doing in this place?!' In other words, we belong here, you don't belong here. My uncles were all those guys. I had an Uncle Jocko, an Uncle Lefty, and an Uncle Ratsy, and they were at the track every day, that's all they did. That influenced me."
But Detroit Stories is, if anything, a prompt for further listening: it's a love letter from Cooper to his city, and one that encourages a deep dive into his own back catalog and that of his peers. He even namechecks his essential Detroit artists — Mitch Rider, Suzi Quatro, the Stooges, MC5, the Motown roster — on the updated version of his 2003 single "Detroit City," which he includes on the track list. One thing's for certain: you can take the rock star out of Detroit, but you can't take the rock & roll out of Cooper — and you definitely can't take it out of Detroit, either.
"I'm proud of being from Detroit, I really am," he says. "I always found that Detroit was a tough city, and rock & roll belonged to Detroit — they deserved the title of hard rock capital of the world."