Commentary

Alice Cooper talks shock rock and jocks

Updated: October 28, 2011, 2:55 PM ET
By Roger Lotring | Special to ESPN.com

Before making a career out of onstage beheadings, hangings, and various other forms of execution, Alice Cooper dreamed of baseball and prowling the outfield with his hero, Al Kaline.

[+] EnlargeAlice Cooper
Mark Metcalfe/Getty ImagesAlice Cooper is still shocking and rocking at 63.

Cooper, 63, grew up worshiping the Detroit Tigers and all Michigan teams. Now, although he's mostly recognized as an obsessive golfer, beneath the mascara, rock and roll's most adored villain is still an all-around sports fanatic who, despite his 1973 hit, really is a nice guy.

2011 has been something of a championship season for the Detroit native, who now resides in Phoenix. After years of eligibility, Alice Cooper, the band, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on their first nomination. The singer also reunited with the surviving members of the original band, plus an all-star cast of players from his solo career, for "Welcome 2 My Nightmare," a sequel to his ambitious 1975 solo album.

ESPN will be featuring his music on the "Monday Night Football" Halloween broadcast, and Cooper lent his name to a maze at Universal Studios Hollywood's third annual Halloween Horror Nights attraction, based on the nightmares of those concept albums.

The Life caught up with the man named Alice by phone earlier this month, when he was touring Australia, to talk music and sports, especially his beloved Detroit teams, and the Phoenix franchises he has also come to love.

The Life: Public perception is that most of your time is devoted to watching horror movies and playing golf. How often are you actually at a sporting event?

Cooper: Oh, I go all the time! I go to almost every [Phoenix Coyotes] hockey game. I mean, I was born in Detroit, so sports DNA is in my system. When we were kids, all we did was play baseball. Hockey in the wintertime, football in the fall, basketball and baseball, that was like, that was it. You just played sports all day.

And I think that most musicians I know were involved in some sport. I know very few guys in bands that don't want to play for their team. I wanted to be the left fielder for the Detroit Tigers. And every guy in sports wants to be in a band. [Laughs]

What it really is, is the fact that most [athletes] -- especially baseball and guys that travel on teams -- it's very similar to what we do. We go from city to city. We probably stay in the same hotels; we eat in the same restaurants; we play to the same people. So, it's very much like being in a rock band, as being on a team.

The Life: As a spectator, which team sport is your favorite to watch?

Cooper: Well, I think hockey is, by far, the most exciting live sport to watch. Football -- college football -- to me is, for some reason, a lot more sincere than NFL football. I think it's because they're not playing for money. I'm a Big Blue fan, so I sit and I watch Michigan, or really any good game. You know, if you've got Auburn playing Alabama, you have to watch that game, 'cause you know those guys hate each other. [Laughs] So, those are the great games.

In national football now, I kind of feel like it's a business, even though I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Detroit Lions fan. It really just seems like more of a business than it is a sport sometimes.

The Life: Who's your favorite pro athlete to hang out with?

Cooper: I know a lot of guys out there -- mostly golfers. John Daly's a lot of fun; Rocco Mediate is a lot of fun, those guys. But, you know, I used to go to see the Suns play all the time and got to know Charles Barkley and guys like that, and they're great guys, they really are. Charles Barkley won't spend a lot of time with adults, but he'll sit and talk with kids for three hours, so he's got his head in the right spot. [Laughs]

The Life: Despite character flaws, or misgivings you may have, you can't take away from that, spending time with younger fans.

Cooper: Not only that, it's like, when I was a kid, my room was a shrine to Al Kaline. Al Kaline was my hero. He was my Mickey Mantle, he could do no wrong. And I've met everybody from Sinatra to Elvis to The Beatles to Dylan to everybody. I'm getting ready to tee off at Oakland Hills in Detroit, and somebody says, "Oh look, there's Al Kaline behind us. He's going to tee off behind us." I was like a 5-year-old kid. I mean, I was literally a nervous wreck because it was Al Kaline. It wasn't like that with The Beatles or the Stones, or Sinatra or anybody. [Laughs] But this was a guy that my bedroom was … every picture. I still have his rookie card, everything. So, Al Kaline was a bigger deal to me than any of the big stars.

The Life: The Detroit Tigers were your first love. Before you became Alice Cooper, did you want to be Al Kaline? Was he the person you emulated and wanted to be?

Cooper: Oh, man! I didn't want to be Al Kaline, 'cause he was right field. I wanted to be left field. And when I played ball, I always played left field. I was a hawk out there. I would wait 'till the ball was a little bit over my head, so I could dive for it and make it look better. [Laughs] So, the theatrics were always in my system. [Laughs]

And I was a good hitter. I mean, I could absolutely hit the ball. I could put the bat on the ball and hit it to right field, hit it to center field or left field. I was a good spot hitter. I wasn't a power hitter, but I could hit those doubles and singles.

The Life: Going to your first Tigers game made an indelible impact. Is the magic still the same whenever you go to a baseball game now, or any sporting event?

Cooper: Yeah, there is something really, incredibly special -- now, you have to remember, when I was a kid, we were playing with a ball that had black electrical tape on it, in a hard, dirt field. It was because it's all we had.

And each block was a different nationality. The next block was Polish; the next block was Italian; the next block was black; the next block was Irish. We'd get up in the morning, and say, "Who are we playing to today?" And they'd say, "We're playing the Italians today." Oh, OK … good. Who are we playing tomorrow? "We're playing the Irish tomorrow." Nobody ever thought of anybody as being anything other than baseball players. They weren't black; they weren't Puerto Rican; they were a baseball team. So, there was no prejudice with kids when it comes to baseball.

But my dad, finally, got two tickets to a doubleheader. I was about 7 years old, and it was the Tigers and the Cleveland Indians. It was Jim Bunning against Herb Score, and it was one of those days where Rocky Colavito hit five home runs; Harvey Kuenn went 7-for-8; Al Kaline had a couple of doubles and three singles -- I was in heaven! I never asked my dad for a hot dog, for a Coke, for anything. I was so enthralled with the fact that these guys were playing ball on grass! [Laughs] I said, wow! We should find grass somewhere. [Laughs]

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Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAlice Cooper's heart is with Detroit teams, but living in Phoenix lets him devote more time to his love of golf.

The Life: [Justin] Verlander got a lot of attention -- 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA -- but who else in the Tigers lineup caught your attention this season?

Cooper: Well, [Miguel] Cabrera's the most dangerous hitter in both leagues. I mean, that guy has been probably the best hitter for the last 10 years. There's a Hall of Famer for you. You get a team like that, that can all play together, you don't necessarily need the superstars. You need the team that plays well together.

When the Diamondbacks won the World Series against the Yankees [in 2001], they were a no-name team. The only two people they had were [Curt] Schilling and the Big Unit [Randy Johnson]. Nobody else on that team was a name at all. It was just a team that played well together. And I think that's what the Tigers were this year. They're a team that just really played well. They had one great hitter and a couple of really good pitchers.

The Life: How does Detroit build character in its teams, and in its bands?

Cooper: I think it's always thought of itself as the underground, as sort of the underdogs. Detroit's not a classy place; it's a blue-collar place. Everybody works -- the history of it is that everybody worked at the car factories. Our baseball teams were always just nuts and bolts guys. It was never really what you would call a glamorous sport.

But sports were really important in Detroit. Win or lose -- Lions, Tigers, Pistons, Red Wings -- the fans were always there for their teams. Being a Lions fan, for a long time, was tough. This year, they look like they're doing pretty well. [Laughs]

The Life: What you just described about the environment of Detroit building character in its teams, did it do the same thing for you, and for other bands from Detroit?

Cooper: Detroit bands, again, were not glamorous. It was Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Bob Seger. We were all loud rock and roll bands. In fact, in Detroit, if you were a soft rock band, they'd just kill you there. They wanted their bands to sound like their cars: loud and horsepower.

So, you had to be a big, tough, rock and roll band -- a street band with some credibility -- in order to really make it in Detroit. That's why there were very few ballad bands, or sort of soft rock bands, ever to come out of Detroit. In fact, the only white rappers that have any credibility are Detroit guys … Eminem, the [Insane] Clown Posse, Kid Rock … the only white guys that have any credibility in rap.

The Life: MLB Strikezone did a great bit, illustrating your conflicting allegiance to the Tigers and the Diamondbacks --

Cooper: Oh, did you see that? Yeah, the Tigers and Diamondbacks.

The Life: Following a National League team would have gotten you disowned as a kid, right?

Cooper: Oh, man! You know, there were three things that you had to be in my house: one was Big Blue … you had to be a Michigan fan; you had to be a Tigers fan; [and] a Lions fan, all the way. There were just certain things that were not negotiable in our house. [Laughs]

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Sport/Getty ImagesAl Kaline was Alice Cooper's boyhood idol.

The Life: What was it about the National League that just did not find favor in your house?

Cooper: Well, it was the Tigers were American League. You had to pick a league. You were either National League or American League, and that was it. Now, living in Phoenix for 50 years, we never knew we would have a team. And when we did get a team, I was going, please let it be National League, because I already had an American League team. I mean, I wasn't going to go against the Tigers.

When we got a National League team, I said, well, finally, I have a team I can root for in the National League. The D-backs came along and they won the World Series pretty soon after they were a team.

The Life: Across the board, in any sport, what non-Detroit or non-Phoenix franchises do you also follow?

Cooper: There's certain teams that I kind of like, only because of their image. I like the Oakland Raiders, only because of the fact that their fans are like our fans. It's like Halloween there every week, and you gotta like that. [Laughs]

I always did like Boston because of the guys that they came up with -- you know, Frank Malzone and Ted Williams and … I mean, there were always -- [Carl] Yastrzemski -- there were always great players in Boston that, to me, were fun to watch. I mean, I loved to watch Ted Williams at bat. And Yastrzemski was sort of Boston's Al Kaline. So, there were really, really good players that came out of Boston, and you love that.

The Life: There's a real finesse to team sports, a rhythm and flow, not unlike an orchestrated stage production that features plot, characters and music. Are the similarities between a team and your stage show a subconscious homage to your love of sports?

Cooper: I think that sports has now become such a big business that it's taken on a certain glamour, and it's taken on a certain amount of show biz. I mean, you go to a game and they play rock music. When the Diamondbacks play, each player, when he gets up to bat, has a song that he wants them to play. One guy's got "Highway to Hell," one guy's got this song, that song. One of the guys has "No More Mr. Nice Guy." I think that's kind of cool because it gives the athletes more of a human aspect. You realize, oh, they actually do have favorite songs. They actually do have favorite bands and things like that.

I think that the odd thing about it is -- and I grew up in the '50s and '60s. In the '50s and '60s, when you were a Detroit Tiger, you were a Detroit Tiger for life. When you were a Red Sox, you were a Red Sox; when you were a Yankee, you were a Yankee. There was no such thing as trading somebody. I remember the biggest headline I think I ever saw in my life, in Detroit, was Kuenn for Colavito. That was such a huge headline because nobody ever traded, especially your best player for another best player. So, that was such a big deal. Now, I really hate the idea that you get locked into this player, and you really put your allegiance behind him, and the next thing you know, he's traded. That's the one thing that bothers me about pro sports.

And the other pet peeve is that, you should pay a guy at the end of the season, not at the beginning. Like golf. You give everybody a million dollars at the beginning of the season. And then, if he wins 25 games, yeah, you give him $10 million … in every sport. In other words, pay the guy at the end of the season for what he did, not for his potential. I'm sure that the agents don't want to hear that. [Laughs]

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesAlice Cooper's shows in the early 1970s were demanding enough that he wore a cup during performances.

The Life: Going back to that question, do you recognize the similarities when you're onstage? When you nail it, does it click in your head like, Yeah, we just pulled off an amazing double play; yeah, we just got the first down!

Cooper: Absolutely. And the thing about it is, the real similarity is this: you can practice, you can rehearse -- and baseball players, basketball players, everybody practices all week. Then, the lights come on, the show is there, and you have one shot at it. You don't get a retake. It's like, in a movie, you can keep shooting it until it's perfect.

Live stage, you have one shot at it with that audience and it better work. Same with sports. A guy gets up to bat, and in batting practice he hits 13 balls out of the park. And then he gets up to bat and goes 0-for-4. Rehearsal is one thing, when the rubber hits the road is another thing. It's two different mindsets, and that's the similarity right there of being in a band. You have to perform and nail that song in front of that audience, 'cause you don't get a second try. The same guy that's up at bat, or pitching that day, only gets so many shots at hitting the ball out or striking out 15 guys. The rubber hits the road and you better be ready.

The Life: And, of course, there is a lot happening onstage. And you have worked with your share of all-star musicians over the years. Is your role almost managerial, like coaching a team through a game?

Cooper: Well, it is if you're -- it's my band. So, at the end of every show, we do the same thing [as a team], watching tapes. We videotape the show every night, and if there is something that I hear or see, I will make a mental note of it, and I'll get the band together and say, OK, on "Only Women Bleed" tonight, something went out of tune; or somebody's singing the wrong part on this. So, it's like going over tapes of the game and saying, oh man, we could have done that better. Let's do that better tomorrow.

I very rarely have to bring it up because the musician who made that mistake comes by and goes, "Wow, I was in the dark. I missed that chord." I don't have to mention it to them; they know. And it's the same thing, I think, with sports. The guy that's sleeping in the outfield, and he doesn't get a jump on a fly ball, the manager doesn't have to say, "Hey, where are you?" The guy says, "I was asleep, man. I should have had that ball."

The Life: Carrying on with that analogy, equating a show to a game, have you ever had a "perfect game"?

Cooper: Oh yeah, I'm telling you, we had one last night, one of those nights where everything was on the money. Yeah, we have quite a few of those, honestly, because you pick the best players. Even though it gets to be muscle memory, 'cause you're doing the same show every night, there is a lot of factors that can go left, right, up or down. When you get everybody not only hitting all the right notes, but hitting the right notes with the right attitude, then you have what you call a flyer -- we call it a flyer. I said, we had a flyer last night. That just means that everything was right.

The Life: Is there a sense of euphoria when you recognize that you're doing that?

Cooper: Yeah, you don't even have to say it. You get onstage, and you can hear everybody backstage going, "Whoa! What was that? That was way too good."

I mean, to make it rock and roll there's always got to be a little looseness to it; there's got to be moments where somebody does something, and you kind of look over there. And a lot of times a mistake will happen, and the audience reacts to it in a positive way. You look at the guy, and you go, you know that thing you did? Do it again. Whatever that was, it worked. The audience loved that.

[+] EnlargeAlice Cooper Fender Guitar
Fender Guitars Go to Alice Cooper's website to enter to win a Fender guitar autographed by the rock legend.

The Life: The period of 1971-1973 was a whirlwind, championship years, so to speak. Now, with "Welcome 2 My Nightmare," you brought back the team that produced the classic albums released during that time, and also a who's who of notable players from your band throughout the years since. Is it kind of like a Hall of Fame game lineup?

Cooper: You know, it is, and it still works. That's the great thing about it, was the fact that it's not like in baseball, guys do lose their edge after they get to a certain age. They can't go left, they can't go right as fast as they used to. They don't get that ground ball like they used to. They can't throw the ball in from left or right field like they used to. With musicians, they get better! I mean, guys that played in the '70s that are playing now are usually better players.

So, a guy like Steve Hunter, who played with me in 1975, is a better guitar player now than he was then. We actually can get vintage and get better with age. [Producer] Bob Ezrin and I, I think, wrote and put together one of the five best albums I've ever done in my life with this album. And we did use guys that were all veteran players.

The Life: And speaking of the Hall of Fame, after 17 years of eligibility, Alice Cooper, the band, was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, kind of like the Bert Blyleven of rock and roll.

Cooper: Yes, yes. We kept getting ignored for years. Finally, we got nominated, and we went in on the very first ballot. I mean, once we got nominated, the ballot shows up and it goes to all the members of the Hall of Fame that are in. I mean, it was just like, landslide, which was great.

The Life: Which irked you more, [original bandmates] Glen Buxton, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith not getting their due by the Hall of Fame for so many years, or players like Blyleven being overlooked for so long?

Cooper: Well, I don't know how you can keep Charlie Hustle out of the Hall of Fame. [Pete] Rose is one of the great examples of everything a ball player should be. Yeah, he bet on his own team. If he was betting against his team, then you could see why he would put all the wrong players in to lose. He was betting on his team! I never understood the foul in that one. That would be like saying, oh, well, The Beatles got in trouble for taxes, they don't belong in the Hall of Fame. I mean, how stupid is that?

What he did on the field had nothing to do with what he did off the field. So, they're judging him on a moral standard. If they're going to do that, you've gotta take Ty Cobb out of the Hall of Fame, because Ty Cobb was the biggest jerk on the planet, from what everybody says. How can you keep Pete Rose out?

So, when we got in the Hall of Fame of rock and roll, I was going to ask Pete Rose to accept for me. I just thought that would have been the greatest thing in the world, to have Pete Rose come up, dressed like Alice with my makeup on, saying he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. [Laughs]

The Life: Finally, Alice, what's the best Halloween costume … other than yourself?

Cooper: I always was Zorro. I was always Zorro because he was a swashbuckler, all in black, all the girls loved him. How cool can you be?

Roger Lotring is an author, freelance writer and radio show host based in Connecticut.