Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Alice Cooper, "The Strange Case of Alice Cooper"

Though certainly not the wildest of Alice Cooper’s live shows, the performance captured on The Strange Case of Alice Cooper is definitely one of his most interesting.

Originally released on VHS in 1979 and out of print for decades, the show has recently been re-issued on DVD by Shout Factory. It was recorded shortly after his famous stay in a mental hospital, and features a healthy dose of songs from his 1978 record From the Inside, which documented that experience.

It opens with a spoken bit from Vincent Price – in the guise here of a strange-looking Cyclops in a doctor’s outfit that I can’t explain, and listening to the commentary, apparently Alice can’t either. From there, he launches into a few energetic rockers in “From the Inside,” “Serious” and “Nurse Rozetta.”

The strangeness begins early with dancing bottles of Scotch, tequila, Southern Comfort and vodka, all complete with their own individual theme music on “From the Inside.” “Nurse Rozetta,” of course, has four heavily-costumed nurses, two are women – one Alice ’s wife Sheryl – the other two men in drag. One of those guys, who has a big role in the show, was an African-American dancer who went by the stage name of Martin Luther Queen, and lived up to it. Only at an Alice Cooper show.

Then things slow down for the crazy ballad “The Quiet Room.” It’s an incredibly intense and disturbing performance by Alice, who truly appears dangerously unbalanced – and maybe he was.

“This scares even me,” Alice says in his commentary on the song, and indeed it’s one of the best moments of the show.

One of the interesting aspects here is that even though the first seven songs on this DVD are not among the most well-known in the Cooper catalog, the performances are still compelling. 

After the setup of lesser-known tunes, Vincent Price’s voice comes back, asking Alice to go back to the beginning and tell the story of how he got here. After a dose of truth serum out of a huge needle, the band launches into a string of Alice ’s biggest numbers – “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Billion Dollar Babies,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “I’m Eighteen” and “Black Widow.” Alice plays a little fast and loose with most of them, riffing off the original lyrics and taking them in different directions. They remain entertaining, though.

For “Black Widow,” Alice even leaves the stage completely allowing the band to jam. It’s a little disappointing to me since that’s one of my favorite tunes, but it is a great band, featuring guitarist Davey Johnstone of Elton John’s band, guitarist Steve Hunter, keyboard player Fred Mandel who went on to play with Queen and Elton John, bassist Prakash John who played with guys like George Clinton and James Brown and drummer Pentti Glan who played with Lou Reed.

After the run of favorites, he returns to From the Inside for the weird performance “Wish I Was Born in Beverly Hills,” which features a fold out Rolls Royce and a simulated three-way sex act with Sheryl and Martin Luther Queen.

One of the most iconic moments of any Alice Cooper show is “The Ballad of Dwight Fry,” when Alice performs alone in the spotlight in a straightjacket, thrashing around, throwing his body and neck at weird angles and, ultimately, breaking free by the end of the song. The version here is a great one.

A solid performance of “Go to Hell” and another ballad in a ballad-heavy set, “How You Gonna See Me Now,” set up the big finale. It starts with one of the most manic performances, “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)” which features every freaky thing that’s happened earlier in the show and then some. It ends with Alice and Co. wailing “We’re All Crazy” for a while.

“I think this was our ‘Hey Jude’,” Alice quips as the song plays.

Finally, the biggest surprise of the set may be a little glimpse of Vincent Furnier during the last song, “School’s Out.” He comes out in jeans and a T-shirt, wipes the makeup off, loses a little of the intensity, but not much of the crazy, and introduces the band, giving each member another few moments to show their stuff.

I’m not a very big fan of commentary on movies and rarely listen to it, but in the case of Alice Cooper, I couldn’t resist. A lot of it is standard stuff – background info on the band, etc. – but there are a few funny quips and interesting stories that make it worth watching at least once with the commentary on.

This is a rare glimpse at Alice in his prime and at a pivotal point in his career, when he was just beginning to bring himself back from a complete crash. As entertaining as he is even today when he puts the Alice Cooper persona on, it goes much deeper in this show. Maybe there was still a little part of Vincent Furnier at this point that still actually believed he was Alice Cooper, and that makes it all the more compelling.

It’s not perhaps as dramatic as Welcome to My Nightmare and certainly not as gizmo and prop driven as some of the early 1980s stuff, but it’s still an outstanding performance and one that every Alice Cooper fan should have in the library.

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