Illustrations by Brian Walsby.
I first met Alice Cooper at a party on Park Avenue in the mid-1970s. It was really one of those, “I’m not worthy” moments. Alice was one of the few guys I truly respected back then, because he’d made it on his own terms: by “driving a stake into the heart of the peace-and-love Generation,” and by playing delinquent rock ‘n’ roll for punks like me. That night on Park Avenue, Alice invited me to interview him, so we sat down for a long session at his place in Bel Air a few days later. Alice was deeply disturbed by what he’d heard about some of the punk bands, telling me, “I don’t get this scene, I mean, do they wanna make money or don’t they?”
I explained that yes, they did want to make money, but they wanted to do it on their own terms like he’d done. Alice was relieved that the punks wanted to make money – and so we’ve remained friends ever since. He's just finishing a new album of cover songs by all his old friends from the Hollywood Vampires, the old drinking club he conducted at the Rainbow in LA that included Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Ringo, Micky Dolenz, Keith Moon, and Jim Morrison, among other rock luminaries, I called him up to talk about some of his old pals.
Three Hollywood Vampires: John Lennon, Harry Nillson, and Alice Cooper, 1974. Image via
When we put the Hollywood Vampires together, it was sort of a tribute to the old Hollywood drinking clubs, like when John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, and W.C. Fields would drink every night. So I said, “Well, we do that anyways, so let’s just go down to the Rainbow and drink…”
Pretty soon it was a thing called the Hollywood Vampires, and we would go up to the top of the Rainbow and sit there and drink. Every night it was Harry Nilsson, Bernie Taupin, Micky Dolenz, myself, and whoever else would show up. Ringo was there once in awhile. Keith Moon came when he was in town.
John Lennon would come too. He and Harry Nilsson were the best of friends, ya know? So if Harry was in town, he was always with John, and they’d come over. He was great! John was just another one of the guys, ya know?
But the really fun thing to do was to see what Keith Moon was gonna wear that night. One night he’d be in an Adolf Hitler outfit and the next he’d be the Queen of England. I mean he would go all out, Keith was the full package, and the greatest drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.
Keith was everybody’s best friend. When he was in town, he would stay at my house for a week, then go to Harry Nilsson’s for a week, and then stay at Ringo’s for a week. There was nobody like him. I always tell people, 30% of what you’ve heard about me is true, 30% of what you hear about Iggy is true, 30% of Prince is true, whatever… but everything you’ve heard about Keith Moon is true.
Keith got into the Hollywood Vampires because he was the life of the party, which probably killed him too. It was the kind of thing where he really didn’t have an “off” button. And when you’re really good friends with somebody, after a while you go, “Hey, ya know, you don’t have to entertain me…”
There are a lot of guys that can’t turn it off. Chris Farley was like that. All those guys who were overweight comedians, they were guys who had to prove themselves all the time. They just performed all the time, and you wanted to just sit them down and say, “You don’t have to perform right now!”
Keith Moon was like that. He was like a little kid that needed Ritalin or something, it was like, “Keith, just relax!” But he just couldn’t.
Alice Cooper: Jim was just as self-destructive as you can imagine. It all came out in his lyrics. He would go to a party – and in those days at a party, instead of jellybeans there'd be bowls of pills – and take a handful of pills and wash it down with Jack Daniel's. And who knew what those pills were?
I never took anything unless I knew exactly what it was. I guess that’s what eventually killed Jim.
I got to meet Jim way back when we first moved to Los Angeles. The first people I ran into were Robby Krieger and the other guys from the Doors. They invited my band to come down to Sunset Sound and watch them record, which was great for a bunch of nobodies from Arizona.
We were just out of our first year of college, so we had to be 19 or 20 years old when we came to LA. We were the biggest band in Phoenix, but we didn’t realise was there were 15,000 other bands in LA from Utah, Oregon, everywhere. They were the best bands from their cities too, and we were all trying to get gigs in the same clubs. There were maybe twenty clubs to play in and 20,000 bands – so the Doors took us under their wing. Those guys became our best friends, ya know?
I used to drink with Jim. Robby Krieger tells a story that when our first record came out, we were opening for the Doors in Oregon and Washington, which was a great experience for us, because we were playing for huge audiences that we would never play in front of. So we were playing a theatre somewhere in Oregon and Robby came walking into the theatre – there was a balcony there. Jim’s hanging from the balcony, and I’m hanging next to him! The whole idea was to see who can hang on the longest. I don’t even remember doing that, but, ya know, we were drinking all day and it seemed like the right thing to do.
I’d go to the Doors recording sessions and I’d be watching them. The thing that amazed me about Jim Morrison was that the version you hear of "The End" was the version they took from the session I watched them record. There were 26 other versions of the song, with different story lines, and every time they did it, Jim changed it. He never did it the same way twice. The version they used was terrific, but everybody would usually go in to the studio with their lyrics and decide if those were the lyrics that worked for that song. I mean, when Jim did "When the Music’s Over" and all those other songs – he was just improvising as he went. Which was pretty amazing, cause you were only gonna hear them once that way. The Doors were very jazz-oriented, so they played off each other well.
I come from a totally different school. I come from the school of, "write the lyrics, rehearse it, do it exactly like you did it in rehearsal, and perform it exactly like you did it on the album." I certainly don’t go in not knowing what I’m going to do!
But the Doors were just the opposite – in fact, you know the line in "Roadhouse Blues" that goes, “I woke up this morning, got myself a beer?”
That’s my line. I was sitting there talking to him and Jim says, “What did you do today?”
I said, “I woke up this morning, got myself a beer, duh, duh, duh…”
Next thing I know, I hear it in that song.
We had a session one night in Morgan Studios in London when we were doing "Billion Dollar Babies." So Harry Nilsson walks in, and he’s got Marc Bolan, Ringo, Keith Moon, and Ric Grech from Blind Faith with him. They all came in and took over the studio. To this day, I can't remember who played what on what. I know that Marc Bolan plays somewhere on that album. Harry plays something on the album. Keith is on the album. Ringo’s on the album. It was one of those nights that’s just a blackout.
So Donovan was in the next studio recording with Mickey Most. He had a bunch of kids in there, ya know, that were singing on something. I can’t remember what song it was, but I came in and said, “I need a guy with a real British accent to do a voice over. Donovan, it’s time that you did some real rock ‘n’ roll.”
So Donovan says, “Come into my studio, I’ve got all these kids that I’m conducting for this one vocal part.”
I said, “I’ll conduct ‘em for ya!”
He said OK. I had the make-up on and everything and the kids were terrified, but we got it all done and it was great.
So then I pulled Donovan into my studio, and he just nailed the duet on “Billion Dollar Babies.” He just killed it.
I stayed friends with Donovan. I was at his induction when he became a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. And it was great to see him there. He’s the same guy, exactly the same guy.
I had no idea if Marilyn Manson was gonna be a nightmare or not, co-headlining on the tour we just did. I didn’t know how I was gonna get along with him, but he turned out OK.
It ended up being really fun. I mean he was absolutely on his game. No problems at all. Nobody was late. He was totally professional and he came out and did “I’m Eighteen” with me every night as the last song of the show.
We’d throw the crutch over to him and he would do the second verse and then we’d finish it up. It worked like a charm. So he was not an asshole in the least. He was very respectful of the whole thing. And his band was happy. All the guys in his band told me, “There is an incredible difference in Marilyn when he tours with you then when he tours with anybody else.”
They said, “The difference is just like night and day.”
Isn’t it amazing that people still don’t know it was Donovan singing on “Billion Dollar Babies?” I thought that was common knowledge. Or that on “Under My Wheels,” it’s Rick Derringer playing lead guitar, not Glen Buxton. It’s always funny when you hear, ya know, who played harmonica on “Roadhouse Blues” – it was John Sebastian, he just didn’t want his name on a Doors album because of the thing with Jim Morrison in Miami where he allegedly pulled his pants down and exposed himself. It wasn’t good for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s image to be attached to a Doors record. Isn’t that weird? Now-a-days it would be like, “Oh no, you’ve gotta put my name on the album!”
Or that Robby Krieger wrote music and lyrics for "Light My Fire," cause I always kinda figure that Jim did all the lyrics.
Ya know, when you’re doing a radio show like I’ve been doing for the last ten years, the only way to do it to me is to make it sound like you’re playing records for your friends. I just turn the mic on and start talking. It’s interesting to let people in on a lot of that information.
It gives you one more dimension of what really happens backstage or what really happens in the studio. I think the audience loves that more than anything, cause here’s a guy that was backstage – me!
Alice has a new record coming out next year. It's going to be called either Hollywood Vampires or My Dead Drunk Friends – Alice hasn't decided yet. He'll be on tour starting October 13, and he's got a radio show, "Nights with Alice Cooper," that you can hear five nights a week.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you know even know what that word means. He also wrotePlease Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com. You should also follow him on Twitter: @Legs__McNeil
Previously – An Oral History of Punk by Alan Vega, Suicide's Main Man