Snakes! Guillotines! Electric chairs!
My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group
By Dennis Dunaway, Chris Hodenfield
St. Martins's Press Copyright © 2015 Dennis Dunaway and Chris Hodenfield
All rights reserved.
SCHOOL'S IN ...
"WHEN WEIRD PEOPLE BECOME THE MASSES, WE'LL BE FAMOUS."
VINCE'S CHAIR SCREECHED across the paint-speckled linoleum. All around the art class, heads popped up like a bunch of startled antelope. Everyone was instantly on the brink of illicit laughter. Vince turned to see if Mrs. Sloan had noticed. What he saw were her staring eyes, peering over the top of her reading glasses, locked on him, signaling to all that she was in charge.
Vince had a reputation for clowning his way out of trouble. So the class just waited. Mrs. Sloan was attractive and well liked, but she usually maintained a stern attitude. It was just about to meet its match.
Vince's eyes grew big as he mimed the TV character Barney Fife. He mouthed a silent, "Sorry." He was like an actor in the spotlight and could just as easily have turned into Inspector Clouseau or Stan Laurel or any one of a dozen characters in his repertoire. So now he acted out the shaky lawman, nervously picking up his chair and easing it over the floor next to mine.
A snot-snorkeling giggle erupted in the far corner of the room. It was from Maurice Kluff, a kid who always wore bright orange socks. Mrs. Sloan snuffed out his laughter with a deadly stare.
The class settled down, and Vince and I went back to flipping through a heavy book about modern art. It was our pirate's treasure. We came upon a Salvador Dalí painting of Sigmund Freud, vivid in its Surrealism.
Vince looked at the next one and pointed to each word in the title: Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War). He laughed and muttered, "Boiled beans?"
I propped my chin on my fist and studied the picture. Vince did the same, like we were modeling for that statue The Thinker.
Before I could come to a grand conclusion, Vince started nodding his head up and down like one of those wobble-headed dogs in the back window of a Chevy.
"Neat," he said.
"Really neat," I elaborated.
On the next page, another sweeping Dalí painting showed a grotesque structure that looked like a stack of disjointed body parts. It was crowned with a butt-ugly head. But right off, Vince spotted Freud again. It was the same image as the previous portrait, only smaller. The tiny Freud suddenly seemed even more amazing in the context of Dalí's full-blown vision.
What happened in that moment of discovery? I'd like to say we knew something big had happened. Something did happen.
* * *
I'd entered Cortez High in the fall of 1961. The school, on the northern edge of Phoenix, had just opened and didn't have air-conditioning yet. Every room felt like a furnace. The rules there weren't set in stone yet, so the kids were testing and pushing the limits all the time.
I joined the Cortez track-and-field team. Coach Emmett Smith noticed that I was pretty good at going the distance. Big glory. I soon found out that cross-country was about as popular as the parched dirt we ran on. During our meets, the bleachers were entirely buttless. The janitor and his dog watched us.
I met one of my future musical partners on that team. John Speer had dark curly hair, a big barrel chest, and the stamina of a bull. He had a great sense of humor, too, even if was clouded with pessimism. We developed a friendly rivalry.
Not everyone at Cortez got along as well as the guys on our team. A lot of times guys settled their differences with their fists after school. Any kid who wanted to build a reputation had to prove it regularly in the parking lot.
The worst hombre in school, though, was a big hulk named Ruben. He had three older brothers who would come pick him up after school, all jammed into a white Corvair that sagged down low. The brothers would be peering out with their dangerous stares, making the Corvair look like a nest of rattlesnakes.
Ruben's favored shtick went like this: He'd come up to you with an outstretched paw you couldn't refuse, then crush your hand till you dropped to your knees in agony; then he'd drag you to the trash can and drop you in it. Your pain made him happy.
Then a skinny little freshman named Vince Furnier showed up. He was the least likely human for anyone on earth to fear, and this struck Ruben as funny. So he "volunteered" Vince to join his handshaking reign of terror. Side by side, they looked like cartoon characters, Tweety Bird and Spike. Ruben would stand in the shadows while Vince, his scrawny puppet, lured their prey.
Vince would introduce passing kids to Ruben, who'd come out grinning and raising his paw. As long as Ruben was entertained, Vince had immunity from the dreaded handshake from hell. Vince was in his glory, and seemed perfectly happy to lure these victims. After all, it wasn't his fault — Ruben was making him do it.
In our school, Journalism class was considered an all-girls thing. Naturally I signed up for the class, which also meant writing for the student newspaper, the Tip Sheet. The girls saw me as an interesting novelty and showered me with special treatment and outright pampering. Oh, I was bad. The girls didn't want me to get all stressed out over missing a deadline, so they'd write my stories for me. I even won an award for one.
The guys on campus also gave me special treatment: They called me a pansy. John Speer gave it to me the worst. But after a while, seeing what a cushy life I had in that class full of cuties, Speer and the other slobs recognized my genius. Vince joined the class as soon as he could and became the Tip Sheet's sports editor.
Although he was a year younger, Vince was a character, and I was drawn to him instantly. Making friends seemed so effortless for him. He didn't need to go anywhere to find new friends — not even across a room. He drew people in with his congenial magnetism.
When we met, Vince's family had just moved in from Detroit, and it was only the latest move. A kid whose family picks up and moves all the time learns how to shed friends and make new ones. Sometimes it's just too tough to adapt. Vince's older sister Nickie dealt with all the moving around by just avoiding friendships. That cut down on the number of sad goodbyes she had to endure.
Vince took the opposite approach. No matter where he was, he treated everyone like a friend. He could talk to anybody about any subject. He'd quickly figure out what the person wanted to hear and then he'd say it, even if he had to stretch the truth to do so. You might even say he preferred exaggeration. In his world, the plain old truth was just so dull that he had to dress it up in its Sunday best. Yet he knew exactly how far he could stretch his embellishments.
After all, his father, an aeronautics engineer, was also a part-time minister. (He was a cool guy, though, with an interesting hairdo and a riverboat gambler's pencil-line mustache. Funny — in all the sketches that Vince compulsively drew, the characters often had that suave mustache. Vince and his father shared that duality of being strongly religious and extra hip.) So with religion in the home, Vince believed in being truthful and would never have lied. This was not entirely out of respect for his father; he held the same beliefs. Yet, as I said, he did have a constant need to exaggerate, which he rationalized as a simple matter of making the truth more interesting. There's nothing bad about that!
To make his enhancements believable, he spoke with casual confidence and laughed a lot, as if to say, Wow, I can hardly believe that myself. His laughter signaled to everyone, and perhaps to himself, that it was only a fun conversation, nothing serious. It was easy to enjoy Vince's conversation, too, because he never tried to make himself look better than other people.
And we're talking about a teenager named Vince, not our sinister stage character named Alice. We're talking about the skinny underclassman with a relaxed but energetic manner, the witty guy with an unlimited repertoire of tales.
That limitless stream of wonderfully enhanced tales is a big part of why I like Vince so much. It's a big part of how he charms the world.
Vince's universal congeniality didn't cramp our closeness as friends. We were best friends. What created our tight bond was our mutual interest in Surrealism and Pop Art. Vince and I were so inseparable that people rarely talked about either of us as individuals.
Girls liked us, even though Vince and I were pretty shy in that department. I was pathetically shy. For an introvert like me, I had to gain friends by association. Still, I was voted as having the "Best Personality" in the 1965 Cortez High School yearbook, although I never felt that popular. I'm sure the football quarterback was scratching his helmet over that one.
Art class was the place where Vince and I hatched plans for revolution. We'd sit in back and talk quietly of artists and art movements. One day, he showed me the famous Magritte painting of the businessman whose head is obscured by a green apple. I realize now how this influenced Vince's style of odd character portraits. But it was also easy to segue the conversation to the latest hit song, like "Surfin' Safari."
I loved hot rods, and Vince favored sporty cars like Volkswagen's Karmann Ghia. We agreed that whichever the ultimate dream car was, Brigitte Bardot should be riding in the passenger seat wearing pointy harlequin sunglasses and a polka-dot dress with her blond hair blowing in the breeze.
Vince's conversation overflowed with television references. He'd watch anything and everything: The Steve Allen Show, The Twilight Zone, The Ernie Kovacs Show, Peter Gunn, The Untouchables, Ozzie and Harriet, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show. When programming ended at ten o'clock, the screen would show a test pattern of an Indian chief's head before it went to static snow. Vince claimed that he'd even watch the static Indian chief.
That day in art class we snapped back to reality when we noticed Mrs. Sloan standing behind us.
"I hope I'm not interrupting you two," she glowered as she plugged in a portable record player. "You two think you're so hip. I want you to sit quietly, if that's possible, and listen to this."
She handed an album jacket to Vince. On it was a photo of a couple of young bohemians walking down the middle of a snowy city street. The guy appeared to be engaged in a game of pocket pool while the girl clung to his arm. The title was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Mrs. Sloan lowered the needle on the record. Out came a strumming acoustic guitar sound and a froggy voice asking socially pertinent questions.
We'd never heard this kind of seriousness in a song. Vince laughed at the guy's weird voice, but he had to admit it seemed like important stuff.
We also had to admit we'd just been out-cooled by our art teacher.
It hits me now, all these years later, how Vince and I were knocked off balance by this woman and sent down our slightly crooked path.
Mrs. Sloan was so tough-minded. There were no indulgent pats on the head from this woman. She'd tell us right out that we weren't Living Up to Our Fullest Potential.
Maybe she didn't care for our stunts. Once, when Vince returned from the bathroom wrapped from head to toe in toilet paper, staggering like he was a wandering mummy, the class erupted in laughter. But Mrs. Sloan just grabbed a pitcher of ice water from her desk and dumped it over his head. "Touché!" she said.
For the rest of the day, slivers of wet toilet paper fell from Vince, blowing his image as a sharp dresser.
Mrs. Sloan had stunts of her own. One day she presented the class with a black bag. "You've been struck blind," she said, and told each of us to reach inside and touch the bag's contents and then draw whatever we think we'd felt. "Let your hands be your eyes."
Vince slinked his hand into the bag and then yanked it out fast. "Whoa, what is that?" he said, aghast. He held out his hand as if it were contaminated.
I watched my own hand disappear into the bag. Ugh. Whatever was in there was nasty. It felt like dry leather, a twisted spine with a tail, and a head with needle-sharp teeth.
One by one, the students were grossed out by this thing in the bag, while Mrs. Sloan, perched on a stool, grinned like the Cheshire cat.
It was only the next day, after we'd put our interpretations down on paper, that Mrs. Sloan hauled out the object of our terror. What she pulled out was far more disturbing than the grossest of our drawings. "It's a dried-up devilfish from the Gulf of Mexico," she said, beaming while holding up the petrified thing.
Diane Holloway's arm shot up. "May I go wash my hands?" she pleaded. All the girls rushed over to the sink.
You think this experiment had an influence on me and Vince? You think?
Vince liked to draw. His character sketches were a zany stew of Magritte, Peter Gunn, and MAD magazine. The characters were heavily stylized and usually looked like him. If he wore a sharkskin suit and a pencil-thin tie to school that day, so did the character on the pad. Or he'd do himself as a beatnik, and you could almost hear the bongo drums pattering in the background.
My own paintings had bold slashes of color and rarely any discernible subject matter. I just liked letting go. My artistic orgasms usually came out looking like an explosion in a scarf factory.
Mrs. Sloan's painting style was also somewhat vivid, so I looked to her for guidance. One day, I found her standing in front of my canvas with her hand to her cheek, staring at my painting in unnerving silence. Finally, she turned and said, "When everything is screaming, nothing is screaming."
Her comment puzzled me for days. But the next time my brush went to work on a canvas, I gave my screams some solitude to shatter.
Little life lessons. Vince and I would later apply this advice to song structure, album order, set lists, and theatrical presentations.
Another of Mrs. Sloan's pieces of wisdom came from her method for getting a fresh viewpoint on a problematic composition. "Just hold it up to the mirror," she said. "Sometimes the reversed image reveals the imbalance." The artwork's problem, she explained, becomes hidden — the brain simply gets accustomed to the imbalance and your objectivity is gone.
This was another life lesson we took with us to the world of music: If you're writing a song and it's problematic, do it on a different instrument, play it through a tiny speaker, perform a reversal on it, and hear it fresh.
The film version of West Side Story influenced how Vince and I dressed that year. We bought white sneakers and rubbed dirt on them so we'd fit right in with either the Sharks or the Jets. One night, we hid behind some bushes at the end of my block, and when a car drove by, we'd jump out and fake a rumble. The car sped on, and we cracked our knuckles, confident that our staged scene had left the driver terrified.
Little frauds like that were the highlight of our drab existence. We didn't own cool cars. We weren't California surfers. Our sex lives, if we were lucky, stuck to the pages of Playboy. But we knew that something more was out there. Vince had seen the stories.
* * *
Our daily conversation was a rummage sale of pop culture effluvia, all spoken in very authoritative terms, and music was becoming more and more the focus.
I had already lived through three pretty significant revelations about music. My first big eye-opener — and ear-opener — happened on a scorching 102-degree day in Phoenix, "the Valley of the Sun." I was happy to be in an air-conditioned movie theater balcony, devouring my popcorn and watching a double bill of Peter Pan and Hercules Unchained. During the intermission, the red velvet curtain swished closed over the screen and some guys began setting up a drum set and amps on the narrow stage. Then the announcer tapped the mike.
"And now," he said, "the Fox Theater is happy to present — [squeak] — Phoenix's own Duane Eddy and the Rebels!"
The theater was suddenly filled with the blistering electric guitar of the Twang Meister himself. The word twang is always used to describe Duane Eddy's lowdown guitar sound, but it doesn't really describe the barreling thunder he created in hits like "Rebel Rouser" and "Forty Miles of Bad Road." You've got to understand, this was so many years before anything like acid rock or heavy metal. Duane Eddy was one of the early kingpins of heavy guitar raunch. Guys like Duane, Link Wray, and Bo Diddley laid it down early.
Duane Eddy — even his name sounded like a guitar lick — was strutting one way across the stage while his wailing saxophonist slid the other way. "Go git 'em, man!" yelled the drummer. "Go! Go! Go!"
A guy on the far side of the theater balcony belted out a bloodcurdling "Yeeee-haw!"
The Rebels rocked through three of their guitar instrumental hits, then waved like heroes and trotted off behind the curtain. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Snakes! Guillotines! Electric chairs! by Dennis Dunaway, Chris Hodenfield. Copyright © 2015 Dennis Dunaway and Chris Hodenfield. Excerpted by permission of St. Martins's Press.
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