Alice Cooper turned 67 last week.
It may not mean a lot to a lot of people, or it may mean everything to a generation of fans, but it meant something to me and I didn’t totally realize why when the date flashed on the screen. Each day we hear news of a celebrity birthday, or death, but this one scratched a scab on my psyche.
Alice Cooper was my first. He was the first singer/band I actively followed, and the album Killer was my first record. Well, I owned records before that, and I’d always listened to my brother’s albums (it started The Monkees), but Killer was the first rock and roll record I had an interest in. I didn’t own the whole thing; I was only a shareholder (my brother was 50 cents short, and managed to talk me out of the few quarters I had), but that initial investment launched me on a lifetime enjoyment of music.
I finally owned a piece of rock and roll.
Killer was everything rock music should be to a 1l-year-old kid. From the cover image of the boa constrictor to lyrics that fascinated and delighted a young mind, the album was dangerous. It was revolution; it was three-chord, loud and proud, guitar-based rock and roll with a backbeat big enough to wake the dead (or your parents). Cooper was a screamer, and the band played to its shock rock limits and were, perhaps, even more creative than what others offered at the time
The music sounded like everything you heard and read about the musician.
Through the years other artists have come and gone, or fallen out of favor. Some have remained cherished favorites; I still can’t explain a lifelong affinity for Pete Townsend and The Who, or Joni Mitchell. I was saddened by the news of Joe Cocker’s recent passing, still have a moment of repose on the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and have millions of moments inspired by other artists and albums.
But Cooper is significant because he led me into this journey. He was my white rabbit. The moment the turntable’s needle hit the vinyl, I embarked on this path of searching for great music. I’ve purchased, collected, and accumulated thousands of records. My love of music led me to writing a weekly review column for a daily newspaper, and eventually led to a full-fledged career as a writer. It may have been because of Alice Cooper.
That’s not to say Cooper remained at the top of my list. When I recently changed cities, I was forced to select only about 500 albums from a massive collection to bring with me. None of Cooper’s albums made the move.
I guess Cooper no longer spoke to me. I knew I tired, decades ago, of the form and format of most of his follow-ups. He never again rose to the brilliance of Welcome To My Nightmare, the epic 1975 disc in which everything the singer represented was distilled into a near-perfect thematic album. The record contained perhaps the first top 40 single that openly spoke of domestic violence, and was stuffed with the lush keyboards and arrangements producer Bob Ezrin would later use with Kiss (an act that took more than a few moves from Cooper’s playlist. I hesitate in using the term ‘rip off”)
But it’s not as much about the music as it is about the moments etched into the dusty grooves of an LP, the clean crisp bytes of a CD, or the hiss and pop of a mixed tape.
We all have moments in time easily brought back by music. A love song, a chorus, chord or hook that takes you back to doing nothing important with teenaged friends, or a particular night at one particular party, a first kiss and more, a breakup; or a person, a lover, or a daughter. Memory. The songs may belong to the artist, but the music belongs to you.
Alice Cooper’s birthday took me back over four decades.
Now Cooper is not getting any younger . . . and neither am I. Still I can return, even if just briefly, and fondly remember a time, a certain time, when I discovered the magic of music. I found something that interested me enough to keep listening. It was my introduction to pop culture.
There are many such moments, and others I probably reference more than Alice Cooper. I still remember the first time I played Springsteen’s Jungleland and was in awe of not only the melody and musicianship but of the sheer lyrical poetry. Behind Blue Eyes from Who’s Next does the same thing. A certain selection by Yo-Yo Ma can transport me to a certain place. I remember the radio recognizing a public shift in style each time I hear I Love the Night Life by Alicia Bridges, or Doobie Brothers Minute by Minute or, much later, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.
All are moments marked by a particular passage or piece of music, steps on our ladder as we move on and move up. And we keep moving up that ladder.
Music changes. So do we. Alice Cooper is older, and so am I.
Moments and reflection, these days, are not as easy to come by. Artists, like us mere mortals, will not live forever physically, yet through their music times remain immortal. That, in itself, is a reason to keep on listening.
“Man makes your hair grey, he’s your life’s mistake
All you’re really looking for’s an even break
He lies right at you, you know hate this game
he slaps you once in a while and
you live and love in pain.
She cries alone at night too often,
he smokes and drinks and don’t come home at all.
Only women bleed . . .”
– Alice Cooper