Welcome to His Nightmare

Michael Bruce: Hasn't been the same since Alice left.
Troy Fields

"Generation Landslide" [4:31]
(A. Cooper/M. Bruce/D. Dunaway/N. Smith/G. Buxton)

When Dan Tuttle was ten, his brother bought him his first Alice Cooper album. Back then, in the early '70s, Alice Cooper was still a snot-rock, shock-your-parents band, not yet a snot-rock, shock-your-parents solo artist. The group sang about dead babies and masturbation and having sex with rubber dolls or dead bodies. In the days when other rockers performed in tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans, the band flaunted its glam style: gold Lurex pants, over-the-knee python boots, black eye makeup that made the lead singer (Alice Cooper, né Vincent Furnier) look like a satanic clown. The group's blood-splattered shows were as much about shock theater as music, and they always climaxed with Alice's execution. Depending on the tour, the band might zap him in an electric chair or hang him from a gallows or lop off his head with a guillotine. Excess, bombast, gore: Dan loved it all.

Naturally, he hid his precious album from his parents, and naturally, they were appalled when they found it. His dad was scandalized when the TV news reported that Alice Cooper had trashed a hotel room. It wasn't the rock-band cliché that rankled him. It was the disrespect for adult order and rules.

Now, three decades after he hid that album, Dan is a grown-up himself, and we are sitting in the very grown-up Four Seasons bar. Businessmen discuss deals; a pianist tinkles lounge music; a beautiful waitress fetches drinks and olives. Dan tells me his day job is with an airline, but he's talking now, this evening, in his other capacity: as manager for one of his old heroes, Michael Bruce, the Alice Cooper group's rhythm guitarist and main songwriter.

After Alice Cooper, the singer, left Alice Cooper, the band, Michael's career never recovered. He's 54 now and resides in League City, where he lives mainly off his songwriting royalties. Sometimes he plays an oldies show, and sometimes he travels to places like Cleveland, where he signs autographs at nostalgia expos involving science-fiction characters, Penthouse models and the actors from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

But when Dan looks at Michael, he still sees the dark hero he worshiped in junior high, the rock star he never dreamed he'd meet. "It was kind of weird bumping into Michael here in Houston," Dan said, awkward and earnest as a teenager. "We became really… good… friends." He shook his head, awestruck by his good fortune.

"I'm Eighteen" [2:55]
(M. Bruce/G. Buxton/A. Cooper/D. Dunaway/N. Smith)

In Phoenix, in the mid-'60s, a bunch of long-haired high-schoolers called themselves the Spiders and played Rolling Stones covers. Their redneck-and-Indian audiences threw beer bottles, carried knives and guns, and at least once lay in wait outside the auditorium in hopes of beating up the band. It was show business, and Michael loved it.

He and his bandmates began writing their own songs, rechristened themselves The Nazz, and moved to Hollywood to make it big. But Todd Rundgren already had a band called The Nazz, so they had to change yet again. This time, they chose the name that a Ouija board said had belonged to Vincent in a previous life. For better or worse, the five collectively became Alice Cooper.

Los Angeles was a small psychedelic place in 1968. The band hung out with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and David Crosby. After a club manager urged the members of Pink Floyd to see Alice Cooper, Vincent was so excited that he ate marijuana brownies to loosen up, then passed out on stage. Everyone thought it was part of the show.

Alice Cooper was that kind of band, shamelessly theatrical, willing to do whatever it took to be remembered -- even if it caused audiences to revile them. Their music still sounded like the Beatles and the Stones, but their stage show wallowed in glitz and outrage. Michael might wear clear vinyl pants on stage, or Vincent might sing an entire song while holding a screen door in front of himself, or their "fire machine" might accidentally melt down and (whoops) ignite the stage. The band members joked that people bought tickets just so they could say they had walked out on the show -- but that would have required name recognition. More often, people expected "Alice Cooper" to be a lank-haired folk songstress.

At Christmas, the group played a Lenny Bruce festival. When the band started, 3,000 comedy fans crowded the hall. After two songs, only five were left. One was Frank Zappa, who thought clearing a room was a sign of talent. He offered them a deal with his label, Straight Records, which specialized in freaky, up-yours acts. Michael Bruce wasn't yet 21, so his parents had to sign the contract.  

More and more, Vincent began to inhabit the Alice Cooper persona. At first he was tentative, referring to "Alice" in the third person, but he soon reveled in the role. In a way, he was hogging the spotlight; it was as if a member of Pink Floyd had suddenly renamed himself Mr. Floyd. But because the audience seemed to approve -- a rare occurrence -- the rest of the group didn't complain.

The band members discovered they were better received (or at least less reviled) in the Midwest, so they moved to a farmhouse outside Detroit. Zappa sold his label to Warner Bros., and suddenly, Alice Cooper was no longer an L.A. cult band but a major-label act from the Midwest.

The band acquired a hot-shot producer, boy wonder Bob Ezrin. Ezrin and Vincent-cum-Alice wanted to heighten the group's theatricality still more, to make the concerts a kind of blood-and-bombast Broadway show. Michael, a meat-and-potatoes rock guy, thought the trappings and orchestral flourishes got in the way of the music, and he made sure the producer knew it. Ezrin thought Michael wasn't much of a guitar player.

Despite the friction, or maybe because of it, the band suddenly clicked, insinuating itself into the consciousness of kids like Dan Tuttle. "I'm Eighteen," from Love It to Death, landed on the singles charts in the summer of '71. The next album, Killer, was released only a few months later and went gold. In Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs pronounced it one of the year's finest.

The guys scored hit after hit: "School's Out," "Hello, Hooray" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy." The shows grew ever more elaborate and gruesome. Alice stabbed baby dolls and smeared fake blood on his face. Alice canoodled with a live snake. Michael and Alice pretended to fight with knives. A magician, The Amazing Randi, rigged the grand finales: Alice's bloody fake head rolling into a basket, Alice being fired from a cannon.

They had a band mansion and a private jet. They had gorgeous groupies. They were hated by parents everywhere. Michael loved show business.

"Raped and Freezin'" [3:15]
(M. Bruce/A. Cooper)

The band fell apart in '73, mainly because Alice Cooper, the lead singer, abandoned Alice Cooper, the group. The old fans complained that Alice alone lacked the chemistry of the band, but at least the solo Alice scored hits. The other band members saw their careers fizzle, and most eventually gave up on the music business. Glen Buxton, the pretty-boy guitar hero, checked into rehab and later moved to an Iowa farm and found religion. Bassist Dennis Dunaway started an antiques business. Born-to-be-glam drummer Neal Smith got a suit and a conservative haircut and made a career of selling mansions in Connecticut. On his Web site, he now calls himself the "Rock'n'Realtor."

Michael, though, never gave up on music, even if the music world wasn't interested in him. He formed bands here and there to play the old Alice Cooper tunes to the faithful. He got married and had three kids; he got divorced; he abused substances. "I got into some things I shouldn't have," he writes in his book, No More Mr. Nice Guy, "and it really screwed me up."

He hit bottom when his second wife left him for an unemployed vacuum-cleaner salesman. "That," he says, "really sucked."

Since then, there have been bright spots. In '97 he came to Houston to play with an Alice Cooper tribute band. Its manager, an old fan who ran a computer business, wanted to revive Michael's career. Michael moved here, and things seemed headed in the right direction. That October, when Glen and Neal were in Houston for a record convention, Michael played two gigs with them: a radio simulcast at 7:30 on a Friday morning, and a Sunday-night gig at Area 51. It was a sweet, faint echo of their nasty youth. A great weekend, Michael thought.

A week later Glen Buxton died of pneumonia and a heart attack.

"Under My Wheels" [2:47]
(M. Bruce/D. Dunaway/B. Ezrin)

Michael looks perfectly at home in the Four Seasons bar. His hair still dips below his shoulders, but now it hits a nicely tailored jacket. Sipping Dewar's, he looks like a slightly hip professional: a software entrepreneur, maybe, or a booking agent. When a nearby businessman asks his party who wants another drink, Michael raises his hand and says, "I do." The business guys laugh. They don't see him as a freaky outsider. They see him as one of them.

Famously, Alice Cooper, the singer, has also remade himself as a normal-joe business guy, eager for the world to know that his stage persona is just an act, a joke, a commentary on the world's perversions. He's a golf fanatic, and the Alice Cooper annual celebrity pro-am attracts sponsors such as Izod. In Phoenix, he owns Alice Cooper'stown, a theme restaurant that mixes rock and sports memorabilia.  

Michael and Neal showed up for the restaurant's grand opening in '98, and at the last minute, Alice summoned them on stage. They played six of the old hits. "I think it healed a few wounds," Michael wrote hopefully. Now, all the remaining band members plan to reconvene every other year for a Glen Buxton memorial performance.

In the band's loyal Internet chat rooms, fans debate whether Michael's old manager ripped him off or saved him, and they note hopefully that Alice's and Michael's new bands are separately scheduled to play in the same European cities on two of the same dates. Possibly (or not) Alice will come to his shows in London and Scotland, and they can once again recapture a little of their gory glory.

At the Four Seasons, Michael is waiting to hook up with an acquaintance, Joe Elliott, the lead singer for Def Leppard. The '80s hair-metal band is one of the Alice Cooper group's spiritual descendants, a show-bizzy outfit fond of pyrotechnics. You could see Def Leppard as a sad story: They haven't had a hit in years, and they've endured enough tragedy to fuel several VH-1 Behind the Music specials: A guitarist died from mixing painkillers with alcohol, and the drummer lost an arm in a car accident. But at least they're still together -- a nostalgia act for people in their thirties.

From the bar, Michael spots the band, checking in. In 24 hours, they'll play RodeoHouston. Michael gets up to chat.

When he returns, he tells Dan and me, wonderingly, that Joe said the rodeo had sold more than 50,000 tickets -- which means that this would be one of Def Leppard's biggest concerts ever. He asks Dan what Alice Cooper, the solo act, drew last time he played in Houston -- 3,000 people? If that?

Michael looks out at the hotel lobby, out toward the group that is still together, still playing in arenas. He sips his drink, and doesn't say a word.

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