I have devoted a lot of words, more than I am willing to admit, to the fact that Black Sabbath are awesome beyond words. For the simple reason that they codified and set an ISO-like standard for the art form that would eventually be known as doom metal. But whilst they took this art and made it mainstream, they were far from the only or first example of music that was designed from the get-go to disturb the listener. So, in the interests of providing wholeness to my represented view of history, today I am going to talk about one of the other great influences upon my visual art, my limited forays in music, and most importantly my writing. Anyone who has heard the sagas of characters like Kronisk and Linula already know the person I am talking about. Today, we are going to discuss a few points in the musical career of one Vincent Damon Furnier, or as he has been signing things since shortly after he achieved fame under this alias, Alice Cooper.
Rather than go into how Alice Cooper‘s stage persona and act have evolved in stages that came to a bit of a halt since his “comeback” in 1989, I am just going to talk about a handful of his albums. Most of them are good ones that should be in the collection of any person who wants to understand or make art about the grimier, dirtier, more disturbing side of life.
Alice Cooper‘s fifth album is also the source of one of the songs that is most inextricably associated with him. Titled School’s Out, the album itself is a loose concept album concerning itself with a delinquent in his final year of compulsory schooling. Most of the album can be dismissed as furtive, meaningless rock, but the song School’s Out, which opens the album, has remained a regular part of Alice Cooper‘s stage act ever since the album was released. And for good reason. Although the song itself is a basic anthem concerning how the formalised education system of Western society is failing its constituents, it is also a superb example of how different stimuli can affect different beholders differently.
Put a hundred people in a room and make them listen to School’s Out a couple of times. Then ask them what they thought of whilst listening to the song. Chances are that ninety-nine or even a hundred of them will tell you that it is a basic “school sucks” anthem designed to sell records through shock value, and nothing more. But if the hundredth person in the group is me, or resembles me to a sufficient degree, that person will tell you quite a different story.
Recently, I posted an entry into which I meticulously copied, formatted, and clarified the text of a short story I wrote. This story concerns itself with the interactions of four individuals who start the arc as students in their final year of secondary schooling, and has so far followed them into their second or third year of tertiary schooling. Being that one of them has made up their mind that they want to be a healer who helps to build emotionally strong children and repair broken men, she has a lot of school ahead of her. But the salient point here is that for reasons neither can help, the two women in this foursome come under the attention of the one-man Mage police force known as Kronisk. The response of the young Mage who resembles Kronisk more than she would like to admit is as one would expect. She makes as much effort as she possibly can to avoid him, even when he is trying help her. Ruby‘s response is more professional in that sense, merely asking him what she needs to do, doing it, and letting him get on with his tasks. But in spite of her efforts to avoid Kronisk, Linula finds herself interacting with him more as she discovers that she can work out and release the internal torment she experiences through things like film and music.
School’s Out is a candidate for one of the songs that Kronisk passes on to Linula in order to learn and perform for an audience. This is because when Kronisk hears the song, he thinks of every child that was abused during the compulsory phase of the schooling system, the ones who could not carry on in spite of that, and how justice will cause them to drag the teachers that abused them to hell. Or variations upon that theme. Do you see what I mean now about how different people respond to the same stimuli very differently?
But School’s Out is not going to be the only Alice Cooper song associated with Linula, either. One of the reasons that Linula will be able to find a coping mechanism in music, film, or the combinations of the two, is because Kronisk shares with her the true secret of the doom metal and black metal that is associated with the Dwarrow and Elves of Kali-Yuga. The music is not meant to make the audience feel happy or even nice. The music is meant to entertain audience and performer alike by disturbing the hell out of the former. Hence, when Alice Cooper sings during Hello Hooray that he has been waiting so long to sing his song, he is speaking for Kronisk in a way that I do not believe Vincent Furnier would feel entirely comfortable with. And when Alice Cooper sings to an unnamed character in Billion Dollar Babies (the song) to tell him if he is being too rough, for he is so scared that their little head will come off in his hands, let us just say he is giving people like Kronisk and Linula a lot of images that they will twist into shapes to disturb the audience or their enemies with.
In fact, as I listen to Billion Dollar Babies (the song) whilst writing this nonsense, I picture Linula singing the Alice Cooper parts and Kronisk singing the Donovan parts. I am pretty sure that is Donovan singing the request that the unnamed doll referred to in this part to let him know if he is too rough, for he is scared that their little head may well come off in his hands. That is a Kronisk line, through and through. Kronisk‘s ability to make his enemy visualise, feel, smell, and hear what he wants them to visualise, feel, smell, and hear means he will approach someone who has done wrong to him or someone he cares about, warning them that he is scared their head might just come off in his hands. And the pitches of both voices match the characters to a great degree, especially the contrast between them. Alice Cooper is not the most masculine-sounding vocalist in the world. Do not get me wrong, he is no Michael Jackson, but his screechy, high-pitched delivery often puts me in mind of Julie Christmas. Donovan, on the other hand, achieves the sort of false higher pitch that I often take on when I am singing words like “if I’m too rough, tell me, I’m so scared your little head will come off in my hands”. My normal speaking voice is about the same pitch, maybe lower, as Michael Ironside‘s if that tells you anything.
Kronisk‘s sarcasm about the transparently false choice given by electoral systems like Australia’s is also perfectly reflected in songs like Elected. Like the man that partly mentored him through the early stages of his career (Frank Zappa for those who do not know) did, Alice Cooper should have run for Presidential nomination. Given how the great unwashed insist they should not restrict important positions like Presidency or the decision-making over how disability and chronic illness is addressed to highly educated “elites”, as they might put it if they had the brainpower, why the hell not.
Which brings me to the other Alice Cooper album I was introduced to during my childhood, and rocks the face off the vast majority of its imitators at a rate that increases the more I grok it. Welcome To My Nightmare is the one Alice Cooper album that follows the idea of the concept album more than any other, and it benefits in a big way. Of course, it also helps a bunch that the concept is an incredibly strong one.
Welcome To My Nightmare follows the nightmare of a child named Steven. As we begin, Steven metaphorically struggles with both adulthood and a great evil within him. The album falters slightly in the middle, with a song called Cold Ethyl that, if present-day me were putting together an album like this, would be binned. But it recovers. Oh boy, does the album recover. First, we get a nearly three-minute segue through the feelings and consciousness of Steven, in the form of a mournful song titled Years Ago. Towards the end, we hear Alice Cooper sing in a more harmonic version of his usual high-pitched growl, “I’m a little boy…”. And then it hits the consciousness of a clued-in listener like a tank shell. Whomever the deeper-pitched vocalist singing on this song is, they immediately follow with, “No, I’m a great big man…”.
After these two voices duel for a brief moment about the child’s desire to stay a child and the man’s concern with the fact that childhood has been over for some time now, ending with them alerting the listener to Steven’s mother calling, we get an earful of the piece de resistance of the album. Steven is a near to six minute viewing of the horrible moment in which the one positive in life that could save the narrating character from a life of torment is cut out like a cancer. Forever. Although we do not learn it until after the song is over, this song essentially describes Steven murdering his wife, the one person who has loved him for all of this time in spite of what he is.
The ultimate tragedy of child abuse, you see, is that eventually the abused is going to lash out at someone. The “victim” in this lashing out might turn out to be the abuser. But more often than not, it turns out to be someone completely unconnected to either. In essence, Steven’s wife has doomed herself by loving someone who could have been saved if only things had gone right.
In terms of my fictional universe, there is no pretty way to explain this. Steven is, after a fashion, the story of Linula and Kronisk. The Raven And The Ruby has already dealt with how Linula has dealt with a childhood punctuated with abuse in various violent (and at times sexual, too) manners. I might just start posting the story here, who knows… but Kronisk‘s back story involves abuse culminating in the end of all life on his homeworld. And let’s face it, any song in which the swirling note pattern on the guitar can be used and timed so brilliantly is automatically awesome.
Unfortunately, whilst there is a substantial gap in the Alice Cooper albums that I have listened to, I cannot honestly say I have heard of an Alice Cooper album that postdates my birth and does not stink to the heavens. And when I say this, I especially mean Alice Cooper‘s last two albums. Along Came A Spider, the earlier of the two, was released in 2008. Whilst it starts out well, and it had a strong concept behind it, the sad fact is that it sucks harder than a Hoover showroom. Part of the problem, I believe is similar to the massive disparity in quality between A Nightmare On Elm Street, its first two sequels, and the watered-down, meant-for-babies episodes that followed until Wes Craven decided he was not going to let the character he created go out like that. Essentially, Alice Cooper is trying to recreate the same feel as on Welcome To My Nightmare, but without the chaotic conditions in his own life, personal or professional, that accompanied it. The songs that do work on Along Came A Spider are the ones that start to build a story and a character that is not tied in to any other album. Not helping matters is that unlike Welcome To My Nightmare, where we see Steven make an easily-followed journey from innocent child to murderous adult, Along Came A Spider sounds like a randomly-assembled collection of studio offcuts that, if one tries really hard, one can imagine being about a serial killer with a weird fetish.
Which brings me to Welcome 2 My Nightmare. If one looks at the Wikipedia entry, the Reception section states that it received “generally positive” reviews. Folks, this is why people in the great unwashed out there have so little faith in professional reviewers. The first hint that I had that something was amiss with this album was when the single I’ll Bite Your Face Off was posted on various video sites. I will be blunt here. I’ll Bite Your Face Off sucks. All it adds up to is three minutes of Alice Cooper singing about how he meets some mystery woman who repeatedly tells him that she will bite his face off. When we are children, we are told how a good poem or song consists of rhyming verses and choruses and such. Bollocks. The best songs tell a story, either through instrumentation or through some well-chosen poetry, that put strong images and thoughts in the listener’s mind. Mike Patton is a genius at this. Right now, I am listening to him hoarsely hiss way through Midlife Crisis. Patton has gone on record many times as saying that he chooses words not for their meanings or how they fit together, but rather for how they sound in context of the music. I could go on all day about the results of these two approaches, but I will sum up my position as quickly I possibly can. When I hear the English word “injustice”, in any flavouring, my auditory and cognitive sectors react a little, but they do nothing that might resemble a reaction. When I hear the Latin word “inuria” (which means exactly the same fukking thing, by the way) growled out like the vocalist is a bear who has cornered a bunch of trappers she has earlier witnessed hurting her son, I feel pulses rip through my skin. All I think when I hear the entirety of Welcome 2 My Nightmare is “why am I bothering to listen to this shit?”. Then the answer comes in the form of hearing how Alice Cooper will fukk up next in terms of trying to shock the listener.
I am pretty certain that even in 1980, people were calling on Alice Cooper to at least retire with some dignity. Although I am not sure how the royalties would have worked out, a bit of careful management would have seen him able to coast along whilst gathering together material for a new, good album.
This, incidentally, is why when I feel stuck for ideas or inspirations, my writing, especially my fiction work, slows almost to a halt. An essay is late until it is delivered, but once you deliver something that flat-out sucks, it flat-out sucks forever.
If you have not heard Billion Dollar Babies or Welcome To My Nightmare yet, go and do so. It is worth the effort. If you have only heard Welcome 2 My Nightmare and wondered why this idiotic old has-been called Alice Cooper was ever tolerated in the music industry, those two albums will clue you in. If you found this writing enlightening, then thanks for taking the time to read it.