By the mid-1970s Alice Cooper had enjoyed phenomenal success as the most loved and hated rock ‘n’ roll act in America. Between the Platinum-selling albums and hit singles, they had toured the country with their outrageous Grand Guignol stage act that would shock and excite in equal measures, subjecting audiences to an array of horrific set pieces that would culminate in the onstage decapitation of their eponymous frontman. But following the mediocre release of their seventh album Muscle of Love in 1973, Cooper had joined forces with a new group of musicians and embarked on a solo career launched by the critical acclaim of the horror-themed concept album Welcome to My Nightmare two years later.
But as the public became obsessed with the character of Alice Cooper the artist himself struggled to disconnect himself from his rock star persona and as he ventured into his late twenties he became consumed by alcoholism and self-destruction. Yet despite the positive reception to his first solo album, the underwhelming performance of his next two records would cast a shadow over his longevity and willingness to move with the times and so if Alice was to survive both emotionally and artistically he would be forced to finally face his demons.
A regular of the notorious Los Angeles venue Rainbow Bar and Grill, Cooper had become the ringleader in an unofficial drinking troupe that had become known as the Hollywood Vampires, a collection of rock stars who pushed the boundaries of excess to their very limits. Among his fellow members were singer Harry Nilsson, Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin and The Who‘s Keith Moon, while ex-Beatles John Lennon and Ringo Starr would also participate in their many drunken escapades. Cooper would also remain intoxicated while on the road and despite always turning up to his shows, offstage his health and mental wellbeing were slowly starting to suffer.
It would take the support of both his wife Sheryl and manager Shep Gordon to save Cooper before it was too late. ‘By October 1977, I was totally out of control with my drinking,’ he confessed in his memoir Golf Monster. ‘Everybody knew I drank. The drinking had become a dominant part of my personality. Shep and I were both young when we started, so neither of us really knew where the road to fame was headed. We had no experience with alcoholism, its symptoms and its treatments. Drinking was an everyday part of my life in the fast lane. It was a symptom of the times, the late 1970s when we all get immortal and invincible.’
Cooper had worked with producer and co-writer Bob Ezrin on his first three solo albums, as well as four successful records with his former band, but by the time his first live album Alice Cooper Show was released in December 1977 Cooper had been forced to take a long hard look at what he had become. His hit singles were now few and far between and some critics had begun to write him off as a has-been, but it would be his personal life that would suffer the most. By the time he was ready to admit he had a serious problem many of his hard-living peers, from Jim Morrison to Jimi Hendrix, had already passed away. Cooper’s poison was beer and Canadian rye and while his lifestyle was not quite as extreme as Moon he knew that if he did not conquer his demons he would suffer a similar fate to his friends.
It would be during the touring of Lace and Whiskey, which had been released in mid-1977, that Cooper’s health forced those around him to take action. Having woken in his hotel room, Cooper soon found himself kneeling over the toilet and throwing up blood into the bowl. At the behest of Gordon, he was admitted to the Cornell Medical Center in Westchester County, New York. With the support from both Gordon and Sheryl, he faced the arduous task of turning his back on his dependency to alcohol and re-emerging as a sober and wiser individual. Predictably, it would be the first two or three days that would be the most intense for Cooper, as his system attempted to replenish itself and he tried to rediscover his true inner self.
‘Taking alcohol away from an alcoholic is like cutting off his oxygen supply. It’s so much a part of you,’ explained Cooper to Classic Rock in 2011. The facility that would serve as his rehabilitation was suggested by Gordon, who had become concerned that his close friend may become the latest casualty of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. ‘I had a house in upstate New York, so we found a hospital right by the house,’ recalled Gordon in the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper. ‘It was a lock-up place for people with real mental disorders. And the people were really scary. And everybody was whacked. It was tough, my best friend in this place with lunatics. And I put him there!’
When looking back on his time at the hospital thirty years later he recalled many of the disturbing people that he was locked away with. ‘One girl murdered her brother, or maybe it was her boyfriend and chopped him into bits. To me, she seemed like the sweetest girl in the world. Another girl saw CIA agents hiding and creeping behind the trees. Every once in a while she’d run to the window. ‘Can’t you see them? Can’t you see them?’ Eventually she freaked out, ran towards the radio, picked it up and smashed it into a million little pieces. I guess she didn’t realise she was living in a community. We had only one radio and now it was gone.’
Despite receiving regular counselling, the most positive aspect of the experience for Cooper would be his observations of his fellow patients, many of whom suffered delusions, hallucinations and violent outbursts. While Cooper was merely exhausted and locked in a self-destructive pattern, he was surrounded by patients who were quite literally insane. Over his the course of his stay at the facility he became fascinated with each of their offbeat personalities and mannerisms and by the time he finally emerged from the institute the seed for his next record had been planted.
‘While I was in the hospital I called Bernie Taupin. I still wanted to work with him on an album project,’ said Cooper in 2007. ‘I ended it with, ‘Bernie, I’ll catch you later but first I have to fix myself here.’ The weirdest part about being inside was that I wasn’t treated as special. I was Alice Cooper, but nobody seemed to care – they were far too involved in their own problems, fantasies, insanity. They didn’t care about a rock star. They didn’t have time for me.’
While Welcome to My Nightmare would indulge in the horrifying dreams of a young child, his new concept would explore both the bizarre characters that he had encountered while at Cornell and how he was forced to face his own demons and re-evaluate himself as a human being. ‘One of the things the doctors said was that I could leave Alice onstage,’ he told Circus Weekly in December 1978. ‘They said, ‘Now that you’re straight, just call on Alice when you need him. When you get into a fight, turn into Alice because that’s the person who’ll win.’
Alice Cooper was released back out into the world some weeks later with a renewed energy and focus and, as promised, contacted Taupin with the suggestion of writing an album based on his experiences at Cornell. By this point Taupin had parted ways with John, having relocated to the United States while John remained primarily in England, joining forces with songwriter Gary Osborne for his first album without his longtime lyricist, A Single Man. ‘I wanted to write From the Inside, which would take place inside a mental institution, based on my time inside the Cornell Medical Center,’ he explained in his autobiography. ‘If you listen to the songs on From the Inside, you can see that everybody on that album is a composite of the characters who were inside the ward.’
Over the previous decade Taupin had proven himself as one of the most sincere and imaginative lyricists in the industry, having been responsible for co-writing all of Elton John’s acclaimed classics, from Your Song to Candle in the Wind. His résumé, coupled with their close friendship, was enough to convince Cooper that Taupin would be the perfect collaborator on a project such as From the Inside. The album would see Cooper at his most vulnerable and confessional, stripping away the monster that he had depicted onstage and instead presenting a broken man locked inside an asylum, away from both his family and friends.
‘I started telling him about the characters and when we started writing the lyrics I would do one and he’d fire one back at me, it was like a ping-pong match of lyrics,’ described Cooper in an interview with Quietus. ‘So Bernie and I would sit there and I’d tell him about characters like Jacknife Johnny, a Vietnam vet and I’d say, ‘Okay, here’s the story – he married a girl, he came home, everybody rejected him and then on top of it they rejected him because he brought home a Vietnamese girl.’ And so it just started right there. And pretty soon we’d written a whole album like that.’
Arguably his most honest moment came with How You Gonna See Me Now, a piano ballad that would not have sounded out of place on one of Elton John’s albums, in which Cooper expressed his fear of returning home following his treatment. ‘Based on an actual letter I wrote to my wife,’ he explained in the liner notes to the 1999 box-set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper. ‘She had never really known me as a sober person. Once I had dried out, she didn’t know what kind of a person I was going to be and I didn’t know how she would react to me. Now more than twenty years later, we’re still married.’
Another track, Millie and Billie, detailed the recollections of an inmate who had murdered the husband of his lover and then placed his dismembered body parts in the boot of their Oldsmobile, before travelling out into the middle of nowhere to dispose of the evidence. The Quiet Room, meanwhile, would be where the unruly patients were isolated so they would not disrupt the harmony of the facility and be allowed to calm down by themselves. ‘Quiet Room contained many chilling images: the sterilised white room that resembled a tomb; the place where they could keep me from hurting myself; its haunting atmosphere with just a mattress on the floor,’ he would later recall.
Throughout his decade-long career, Cooper had never worked with another writer as closely as he would with Taupin during the development of the album, the two almost inseparable. ‘Working with Alice is a totally different experience than working with Elton,’ admitted Taupin at the time of the album’s release. ‘Alice and I go everywhere together – we’re pals. Elton and I were a little more distant. Also, I wrote the lyrics alone for Elton, while Alice and I worked together; it’s a close relationship. We work well under pressure – writing early in the morning in order to have a song ready to go into the studio that night.’
Cooper would also enjoy the experience of bouncing ideas back and forth with another writer. ‘I think I may be one of the only lyricists that ever collaborated with Bernie,’ he said in a 1997 issue of Billboard. ‘He was one of my blood brothers during the L.A. years. We wrote one of my albums, From the Inside, about an insane asylum. We were qualified for that!’ Yet while they wrote the words Cooper’s regular guitarist Dick Wagner, a close collaborator since Welcome to My Nightmare, would be responsible for the music. ‘Bernie Taupin and Alice brought me lyrics and I wrote songs,’ Wagner would later tell Classic Rock Revisited. ‘I never got into it with them whether these were real characters, or not. Alice creates such great characters that I didn’t even think of it.’
From the Inside would mark Cooper’s first solo effort to not feature any kind of contribution from Ezrin, instead opting to work with a new producer, David Foster. Almost two years younger than Cooper, Foster had worked as a session keyboardist and pianist for a host of artists, including former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well as Bobby Womack, Neil Sedaka and Rod Stewart. While Foster’s background would add a new element to Cooper’s sound, it would be his choice of songwriter and musicians that would play the most significant role in the direction that From the Inside would take.
From their association with Taupin, Cooper would be joined by guitarist Davey Johnstone and bassist Dee Murray, both regular collaborators of Elton John, having performed on such classic albums as Honky Château and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Other musicians to contribute during the sessions would include Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, Toto‘s Steve Lukather and David Hungate, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire and twenty-six-year old singer Marcy Levy. Following her duet with Cooper on Millie and Billie, Levy would later find success under the name Marcella Detroit as one half of the successful project Shakespears Sister.
It would be somewhat ironic that after spending some time locked away from the outside world in Cornell, Cooper would then subject himself to a similar isolation while writing and recording the album. ‘We lived, slept and breathed the project,’ laughed Taupin at the time. ‘So much so that one night in the studio David Foster’s wife Becky came in with some food and said, casually, ‘Pope’s dead.’ We fell down laughing because we knew he’d just been named. Only later did we realise she wasn’t kidding.’ Despite the death of Pope John Paul I on 28 September passing him by, Cooper finally re-emerged from the studio with a collection of ten songs developed with both Taupin and Wagner that would document the last twelve months of his life, both during and after his incarceration.
‘After the songs were written and recorded, Shep and I put together a road show idea for the album,’ Cooper would later explain. ‘Sheryl choreographed it. She’d take a song like From the Inside and figure out where the tequila bottle wearing the sombrero would come dancing onstage. Or a whiskey bottle dressed as a cowboy. It was an alcoholic nightmare of bottles dancing inside Alice’s head – my nightmare after having just gotten out of a mental hospital. We had to make funny out of scary.’
With Warner Bros. still willing to take a chance on Cooper, From the Inside was released in November 1978, two months after the death of Keith Moon at the age of thirty-two. Commercially, the album was Cooper’s least successful solo effort, climbing to number sixty in the US album charts, his lowest entry since Easy Action in 1970. While the title track failed to generate much interest, How You Gonna See Me Now – which continued the tradition set out by Only Women Bleed three years earlier, in which Cooper would release a ballad to promote his album – charted at number twelve in the US. This would be his highest-charting single until Poison reached reached number seven over a decade later.
Some critics had grown tired of Alice Cooper after his earlier superstardom and recent failure with Lace and Whiskey and felt that, despite the personal aspect to the album, he had little new to offer. ‘If anyone could pull off a concept album about life in a sanitarium, it’s Alice Cooper,’ stated Tom Carson in his review for Rolling Stone. ‘Then why does everything sound so forced and overwrought? Because, despite the autobiographical nature of the material (Cooper hospitalised himself for alcoholism last year), the artist has apparently been trapped by his own concept. He’s working too hard and not having a good time at all.’
While the press may not have been as excited at his latest concept album as Cooper had hoped, what would happen next was unexpected yet, in hindsight, rather inspired. In October 1979, almost a year after its release, Marvel issued a comic adaptation of the album’s narrative entitled Alice Cooper: Tales From the Inside. An exaggerated account of his experience in a mental institution, Cooper would develop the story alongside Marvel regulars Jim Salicrup and Roger Stern, while the artwork would be created by Tom Sutton and Terry Austin. ‘Alice has always been fascinated by the various media – by movies, TV…and Marvel Comics!’ declared the introduction. ‘In fact, over the past few years, the possibility of Alice’s appearance in a Marvel magazine was continually planned and discussed.’
While the protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would have the authority figure of Nurse Ratched to rebel against, with Tales From the Inside it would be Nurse Rozetta, whose reaction to Cooper’s violent outbursts would often involve either sedation or the quiet room. One of his fellow inmates inspired by songs from the album was Jackknife Johnny, a gun-toting psychopath with a strange fondness for the new arrival. Yet while Cooper’s real account of the experience was mostly positive, Marvel’s adaptation would sensationalise both the concept of a character such as Alice Cooper being institutionalised and how such a monster would react to those keeping him locked away.
But his time at Cornell would only prove to be a minor distraction from his personal demons as no sooner had he completed work on From the Inside that he once again turned to the bottle and began to indulge in the dark side of Alice. ‘I stayed sober for a couple of years – didn’t even touch a drop. I wish I could tell you I rode the entire eighties decade on a wave of sobriety,’ he recalled in Golf Monster. ‘My relapse put me back in the fog. As a result, I made four albums I hardly remember writing, recording or touring on…By the summer of 1983 I was drinking hard, rail, thin, malnourished and knocking on heaven’s door. Again.’