Monday, September 22, 2014


Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE THAT THERE WAS A TIME when Vincent Furnier, aka Alice Cooper, was an unsettling, sinister pop culture presence suspected of unspeakable acts that every kid a grade or two ahead of you could list, with the authoritative affirmation that "my brother saw him at the Gardens. It really happened."

Today, Vincent/Alice is an avuncular and revered senior pop icon, restaurateur and keen amateur golfer who occasionally releases an album or headlines a package tour of metal bands. Many people know him as the faintly bemused gentleman who appears in documentaries to attest that, yes, a lot of wild shit went down in the '70s and that some of it involved liquor and drugs. For someone who became famous with songs about dead babies, he projects a likability somewhere on a level with Jimmy Stewart.

I was a child of the '70s, exactly the sort of kid for whom Cooper's sinister antics were a schoolyard rumour, so it was that former Alice who loomed in my mind when I showed up at the Sutton Place hotel on assignment for NOW to photograph Vince/Alice, who was promoting a new album and a hit single - his first top 10 since 1977. I knew that the Billion Dollar Babies tour was a long time ago, but his mystique endured, and I didn't know what to expect.

Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

I watched the new documentary on Cooper, Super Duper Alice Cooper, after I dug these negatives out of the files last week. It ends a few years before I met Alice, mostly because as soon as he kicked his blistering cocaine habit and reunited with his wife, Cooper's life reached a relatively placid plateau that it has, from all appearances, maintained to this day. The man I met was a professional entertainer, an industry veteran who knew what he had to do when he had hits and what to do between them.

He was being handled by a large fellow - exactly the sort of corpulent, balding evil uncle type that seemed to fill the ranks of music industry management - who stayed in the room the whole time, acting as a middleman between me and Cooper. I had brought along lighting - a flash, outboard battery, umbrella and stand - wanting to get something a bit more formal; four years into my photography career, I was feeling ambitious. I had also brought along a medium format camera - probably my Mamiya C330.

There's always a sinking feeling when you survey a hotel room and realize that it's a bit smaller, a bit more cluttered, or a bit more banal looking than you imagined ahead of time - even when you shoot in them all the time. At the end of the '80s you weren't likely to find many sleekly minimal hotels, so when I saw the matching floral broadloom and wallpaper in Cooper's suite, I decided to go with that as a background rather than try and find the three square metres of nonexistent neutral space.

Alice Cooper, Toronto, September 1989

I set up my light and waited for the interview to end, then approached Alice where he was sprawled back on a couch. Before I could finish explaining why I wanted to use the wraparound chintz - something about creating an ironic contrast with his image; I might have thought it was original but Cooper had been doing things like that for years - the fat man hit the veto button, saying that it didn't sound right.

"Oh, no. I like it," said Cooper, affably. "Let's do it."

The fat man looked a bit put out but the artist had spoken, and Alice moved to the next room and the chair I'd set up beneath my light in the corner.

Cooper was more than obliging in front of the camera, running through his repertoire of poses - "throwing shapes" as the British say. There's an art to getting something fresh from somebody whose persona has become bulletproof, but I hadn't learned about it at this point in my career, and I faithfully recorded whatever Alice felt like giving me that day, which was quite a lot, but unfortunately not anything anyone hadn't seen before.

In retrospect, there might have been some unconscious logic to my choice of background. Compositionally, none of my shots are quite "there" yet; I was just pointing my camera at my subject rather than framing him, trying to catch up with what was happening instead of controlling it.

The shot at the top is an obvious echo of Annie Liebovitz' famous photo of a splayed- and drugged-out Keith Richards - unprocessed influences drifting to the surface - while the middle shot would have been just that much better if I'd framed more of Cooper's feet and the chair.

None of this is Alice's fault and all of it is mine. Still, they're serviceable photos, though this is the first time they've seen the light of day since I shot them a quarter century ago. And at least taking them let me in on the worst kept secret in the music industry - that Alice Cooper is a really nice guy.

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