There’s no reason rock & roll can’t incorporate elements of theater without being cloying. But at some point between The Wall and Whitesnake, practitioners forgot there was a difference between the onstage persona and the person. This isn’t a problem in proper theater—I don’t believe Sir Laurence Olivier ever pissed off hotel room service by repeatedly calling up and being unable to make up his mind during a West End run of Hamlet. But as Keith Richards argued in his autobiography, rock fans expect their heroes to live out the part full-time. And half-realized theatrical elements, designed to cover up the (lack of) musical content rather than enhance it, made the This Is Spinal Tap parody possible, in which onstage pods hilariously malfunction and, of course, an undersized model of Stonehenge risks “being trod upon by a dwarf.”
The guilty joy in an Alice Cooper concert, as I discovered last week at the Palace Theatre, is that the artifice is readily acknowledged. A multigenerational audience was on hand; many fans were dressed in black with raccoon eye makeup (and the last known male survivors decked in shoulder-length curly hair and jean jackets were on hand), but there was no illusion that anything legitimately dangerous or, say, sadomasochistic was going to occur.
A painted backdrop covered the stage to start, depicting Cooper as if he were the bad guy in a low-budget horror movie. As his muscular band later tore its way through songs from throughout his career, Cooper worked his way through frequent wardrobe changes and innumerable props—at one point handily removing a crucifix from a hip holster and attaching it to the black poker he was waving around, for one verse of a song. It was always clear that these were set pieces, that what Cooper has referred to in interviews as “the Alice character” was a fictional creation, a slyly humorous caricature of a persona that many less artful pretenders have tried to portray as their genuinely twisted selves.
Most of the songs were key numbers from the catalog—“No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out” all made their expected appearances—and when it was time for “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” from the recently released album Welcome 2 My Nightmare, Cooper danced around in a billowy white shirt with the words “New Song” on the back. (It fit in perfectly well with most of the classics, by the way.)
Cooper was generous with his talented band, leaving solo spots for most players (including bassist Chuck Garric, who skillfully held attention while romping about the stage) and giving comely guitarist Orianthi, with red makeup simulating blood around her mouth and neck, free range to slash out her metal-inspired solos.
Most of the theatricality came from costume, props, lighting design and a lot of stage smoke for much of the show, until the big guns came out. For “Feed My Frankenstein,” the singer stashed a dummy version of himself in a rather cheesy-looking contraption; after an explosion and some smoke, Cooper had disappeared but an enormous, monster-ized puppet version (perhaps cloaking a stilt-walker?) emerged to “sing” the rest of the song. In a truly weird sequence, Cooper serenaded a life-sized female doll during “Cold Ethyl,” finally cresting a tender moment by miming a makeout session. I was fussy enough to be genuinely offended (and boo briefly) when he later threw the doll around the stage, simulating sex and physical abuse—but only minutes later, as the climax to “Wicked Young Man,” he was “executed” by guillotine, which perhaps was the point.
The newly inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member chose to trust his audience was adult enough to know the difference between merely demonstrating the behavior and endorsing it—but still, that’s a rather subtle distinction when you’re talking about thousands of people cheering for someone onstage. But when dark-cloaked minions appear to batter the guitar players in the head with oversized balloons, it’s hard to take anything too seriously.
“And playing the part of Alice Cooper tonight . . . me!” the singer exclaimed at the end of the night. He may be typecast at this point, but he’s got the role nailed.