If aliens exist, thought Alice Cooper, then the eccentric man before him must be one of them. The enigmatic figure had drifted into the room like a phantom emerging from the darkness, his majestic movements and flamboyant mannerisms giving him an otherworldly appearance. Surrounded by his entourage of weird and wonderful characters, he slowly approaches Cooper and his own companions, each awaiting with anticipated frustration. ‘I am the Dalí!’ he announces, pausing long enough to allow his audience to revel in the moment. In the few years since Cooper and his eponymous group had first emerged from the free love scene of the late sixties, they had courted both controversy and acclaim, unleashing an array of Grand Guignol-style horror theatrics on an unsuspecting world and provoking a debate on the corruptive influence of rock ‘n’ roll on the youth of America. But nothing they had experienced could have prepared them for the arrival of Salvador Dalí.
‘As an art major, Salvador Dalí was a huge inspiration for me. He influenced the band in so many ways,’ declared Cooper in 2007 when looking back on his first meeting with the legendary artist more than thirty years earlier. ‘I guess Dalí saw Alice as Surrealistic art. He knew our show and maybe he could relate to the Surrealistic influences; Alice’s crutch, a baby doll, a sword with money on it, a snake, a guillotine, the gallows.’ For Vincent Furnier, the teenage art student that would one day transform into the rock ‘n’ roll antihero Alice Cooper, the discovery of Dalí while in high school would prove to be a significant moment and one that inspired him and classmate Dennis Dunaway to fully immerse themselves in the world of Surrealism. ‘Dalí was a God to Alice and Alice was as close to a Dalí as the rock world had,’ claimed Cooper’s lifelong manager Shep Gordon. ‘Alice was overwhelmed by the experience of working with and just being around his idol.’
By the time that Cooper had first heard the name Salvador Dalí, half a century had passed since the artist had introduced the world to the dreamlike images that populated his mind. ‘I am a very bad painter,’ he insisted a few years before his death at the age of eighty-four. ‘Because I’m too intelligent to be a good painter. To be a good painter, you’ve got to be a bit stupid. With the exception of Velázquez, who is a genius, whose talent surpasses the art of painting. And to life I owe everything, because the day that Dalí paints a picture as good as Velázquez, Vermeer or Raphael, or music like Mozart, the next day he’ll die. So I prefer to paint bad pictures and live longer!’ Initially influenced by the Impressionism movement of the late nineteenth century, the impact that the First World War had on the world of art with the reactionary Dadaism inspired Dalí to explore less conventional subject matters in his work and along with many of his contemporaries during the roaring twenties, he became a leading figure in the burgeoning scene of Surrealism.
Two recurring themes would play a significant role in his art; sexuality and his childhood in the Spanish town of Figueres. ‘The major obsessions which run through Dalí’s work from the beginning stem directly from his Catalan roots,’ explained biographer Gilles Néret. ‘Dalí’s Catalan atavism displays itself not simply in a passion for food, however, but also in the visceral presence in his pictures of his beloved Ampurdán plain. For Dalí, it was the most beautiful landscape in the world and the leitmotif of his early works. His most famous paintings would take their setting from the stretch of Catalonian coast running from Cap de Creus to Estartit, with Cadaqués midway and they would be bathed in its special Mediterranean light.’ Although 1922’s Nude in a Landscape would be his first notable attempt at portraying the naked human body, sexuality became a major aspect of his work with such paintings as The Girl of Ampurdán and Figure on the Rocks, both created in 1926. But it was The Great Masturbator, with its insinuation of fellatio, that caused the greatest controversy upon its unveiling, with the piece representing his emotional and physical reaction to first meeting his future wife and muse Gala.
The surreal, erotic and nightmarish images of Dalí that Vincent Furnier would discover within the pages of art books played a role in the creation of his own performance piece. The son of a pastor, Furnier’s metamorphosis from scrawny youth to pop culture icon had begun in Phoenix, Arizona in the mid-sixties when Cooper and Dunaway formed a band in order to participate in their high school’s talent show, yet his taste for showmanship was salivated and after several line-up and moniker changes, Alice Cooper was born. ‘I just liked the idea of getting all that attention. I was a really bratty little kid,’ he confessed to Disc shortly after the release of their fifth album School’s Out in 1972. ‘Vince had a thin, nasally voice, but he could hit the notes and remember the words,’ recalled Dunaway many years later. ‘His greatest possession, really, was his wonderful, gregarious personality. It made him a natural frontman. He’s just a likeable guy. Did he have charisma? Well, once you look past that skinny body and the big honker, there was a desire to entertain socially that was as deep as the Colorado River.’
While initially overlooked by the mainstream, it would be upon their introduction to rising producer Bob Ezrin that Cooper and his bandmates finally began to develop the sound that would become his trademark over the subsequent decades. Following the release of their third album Love It to Death and its breakout single I’m Eighteen, Alice Cooper became public enemy number one, with their notoriety soon making its way to British shores. ‘For weeks now Top of the Pops has given gratuitous publicity to a record which can only be described as anti-law and order,’ condemned moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse in a letter to the BBC in August 1972. ‘Because of this, millions of young people are now imbibing a philosophy of violence and anarchy. This is surely utterly irresponsible in a social climate which grows ever more violent.’ By this point their onstage antics had become so outrageous that each night audiences would be subjected to such horrific sights as Cooper being decapitated with a guillotine, something that only served to anger the mainstream media and thus generate notoriety around the band.
For decades, Dalí had revelled in the excitement of both confusing and antagonising the public and in Alice Cooper he saw a kindred spirit, an artist that was not afraid to push the boundaries of taste and decency in the name of entertainment. His discovery of Cooper would coincide with his rising fascination in a revolutionary new technology that allowed Dalí to take his art into another dimension. ‘With its many applications, holography is one of the most interesting developments in modern optics,’ stated authors Gerhard K. Ackermann and Jürgen Eichler in Holography: A Practical Approach. ‘The term ‘holography’ is a compound of the Greek words ‘holes’ (complete) and ‘graphein’ (to write). It denotes a procedure for three-dimensional recordings and displaying images and information without the use of lenses. Therefore, holography opens up completely new possibilities in science, engineering, graphics and arts. Fields of applications are interferometric measurement techniques, image processing, holographic optical elements and memories as well as art holograms.’
Where was the art?
It would be the latter that would have such a profound effect on Dalí when he was first introduced to holography by Selwyn Lissack in 1972. Having formed his company International Holographic Corporation three years earlier in New York City, Lissack had become fascinated with the concept of holography after an associate scientist had attended a university lecture on the scientific and artistic potentials of the technology. ‘The use of holography was in its infancy, mainly produced by industrial companies…In those early days, the holographer was mostly interested in the technical aspects of reproducing a three dimensional image,’ noted Lissack. ‘So here I was, living on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, involved in holography and creating three dimensional images. The idea of taking a picture and playing it back later in three dimensions with light, was an epic breakthrough and totally fascinated me. But from an artistic point-of-view something was missing. Where was the composition? Where was the story? Where was the art?’
Lissack soon came to realise that if holography and art were to merge together into a fantastic new form of artistic expression, then the only man that could bring such an ambitious concept to fruition would be Salvador Dalí. Upon hearing the proposition, Dalí too became fascinated with the potential that this technology promised. ‘When I discovered that a single atom of holographic emulsion contains the complete three-dimensional image, I exclaimed, ‘I want to eat it!’’ recalled Dalí. ‘This astounded everyone else more than usual, especially my friend Dennis Gabor, who received the 1971 Nobel Prize for Physics. In this way, though, I was at least able to realise one of my dearest wishes: to eat my worshipped Gala, to take atoms into me, into my organism, that contained a holographic smiling Gala or Gala swimming off Cap de Creus.’ Dalí had spent decades attempting to transcend the limitations of the canvas and create art in every conceivable form and now through Gabor’s invention and Lissack’s ambition he would be able to explore a new dimension.
Following their first exploration into the world of holographic art with the Crystal Grotto, Dalí and Lissack began to delve further into its technical and artistic possibilities with a series of installations, but holography would break new ground in the first months of 1973 with the 360° Holographic Stereogram. ‘This was a significant milestone in the short history of holography as it meant that landscapes and moving objects could be filmed and transformed into a Stereo Hologram,’ explained Lissack in Dalí in Holographic Space. ‘Another remarkable aspect of a 360° hologram is that it also records time, allowing the artist to work in the fourth dimension. The observer will see the image in different perspectives as they stand in place as the hologram slowly revolves in front of them. The recorded motion in the hologram will be played back over one minute of time. It was very fortunate for Dalí and me that a process became available to extend our collaboration in holography. We were no longer limited to taking objects to the lab. We could now take motion pictures of any subject and reproduce it as holographic stereogram.’
It would only be by chance that Dalí and Lissack’s experiments with holography would lead them to Alice Cooper. A few years earlier, the band’s co-manager Joe Greenberg had reached out to the Dalí estate to seek permission for the use of the artist’s painting Geopoliticus Child for Cooper’s debut album Pretties for You. While negotiations had fallen through due to budgetary restrictions, prompting the label to adorn the front cover with a piece created by American painter Ed Beardsley, Cooper had made a suitable impression on Dalí and with the recent progress that they had made through their experiments with holography, Dalí decided that he wanted to incorporate the twenty-five-year-old rock star into his next project. ‘He had contacted us about me being the subject of a moving hologram, the First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain,’ said Cooper in his second memoir Golf Monster. ‘He wanted to meet, so we booked a table at the Hotel St. Moritz in New York. Shep and I got there early. I was so excited because this would be the first time I would get to meet my idol.’
Arriving at the hotel that was situated close to Central Park, Cooper and Gordon were accompanied by Dunaway and his wife Cindy, each of them silently speculating over what kind of eccentric madman they were about to meet. ‘He said that Alice and he were ‘the world’s greatest artists,’’ detailed Dunaway in his autobiography Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! ‘As we nervously waited for Dalí at the hotel bar, Cindy laughed and nudged me. ‘Why are you so nervous? You’re as crazy as he is.’ The wait wasn’t long.’ Gordon also recalled this initial meeting, ‘Gala swept into the room first. She was everything you’d expect Salvador Dalí’s wife-manager-muse to be: a gaunt, striking, middle-aged lady in a black tuxedo, black silk scarf wrapped around her head, a black walking cane, trailing in her wake a half-dozen cherubic young boys in black silk outfits. They never spoke, just glided around the room like shadows. Gala set the ground rules: ‘He is to be addressed always as the Dalí. Money is not to be discussed at any time with him. When I say it is over, you leave.’’
For Cooper, this moment was like a dream, akin to a child meeting Willie Wonka for the first time. ‘First, five or six guys and girls would show up, strange androgynous creatures. Then Gala would arrive with her entourage,’ he described. ‘She was the businessperson, the brains behind Dalí’s enterprises, so she spoke to Shep because she realised he was my business guy. Then, finally, Dalí made his entrance. There were ten people at our table. He looked around. He wore the famous upturned moustache, giraffe-skin pants, a zebra jacket, Aladdin shoes that curled at the toes, purple socks that Elvis gave him (that he frequently wore) and a dandy cane. ‘I am the Dalí.’ He sat down and ordered everyone a Scorpion. A Scorpion was a drink with brandy, rum and gin, with an orchid floating in it. After one Scorpion, you’re gone. Dalí ordered himself a glass of hot water. Shep and I took all this in. When his hot water arrived, the Dalí reached into his pocket and pulled out a jar of honey and poured a long, thick stream into his hot water. While he was doing that, he put his other hand into his pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors and then he cut the ribbon of honey.’
Despite both Cooper and Dunaway finally meeting one of their idols, it was clear from the very first moment that the language barrier between the American musicians and Spanish artist would prove somewhat problematic. ‘Dalí made our heads spin with a multi-language explanation of his vision,’ commented Dunaway, echoing a similar criticism that chat show host Dick Cavett had made when Dalí was a guest on his show in 1971. ‘When he did land on English, it would be in fragmented sentences involving flaming giraffes and such. He seemed exuberantly sincere. With the tips of his moustache curled behind his spectacles, his giraffe-hide vest, some pungent odour that had to be international and a fancy cane topped with a gargoyle’s head, he was every bit as surrealistic as his paintings… Dalí summoned applause and got it. Cindy and I went back to Galesi Hotel that night with high hopes. For our second meeting, Charlie Carnal and Joe Greenberg came along. This time we met in Dalí’s apartment. It was all friendly until Charlie made a move to sit down in a wheelchair with an open umbrella attached to it. ‘No! No!’ Gala shouted. ‘You can’t sit down there.’ While Charlie apologised, she explained, ‘If you sit there, rain will come pouring out of the umbrella and make a big mess.’’
For Cooper, the difficulties that they would experience with communication may have been problematic but he felt a genuine connection with the veteran artist. ‘He saw us as Surrealism. Salvador Dalí would come to the show and go, ‘Crutches, blood, snakes, guillotine…I get it!’ And he saw his influence in our show,’ he told Classic Rock in 2011. ‘So a lot of Dalí did seep into our show, visually. Salvador Dalí saw us as Surrealism, Groucho Marx saw us as Vaudeville. I let people interpret Alice as whatever they wanted to interpret it as. He was either a great con man, totally insane or such a brilliant artist that he didn’t live in the world you were living in; he was just passing through and you were just part of his dream. When he spoke, every fifth word would be English. So you would catch in a full sentence maybe three words. And on top of that he was speaking in Surrealism, in some other land that he was in.’
During these initial meetings Dalí explained his concept for the First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain to the group: Cooper was to be photographed on a rotating platform, similar to a large turntable, draped in two million dollars’ worth of jewellery, exposing his naked torso. ‘Several days before filming, security people arrived from the famous jeweller Harry Winston, who was supplying the diamond tiara and diamond necklace Alice was to wear,’ said Lissack. ‘They wanted to inspect the premises to make sure that it would be a safe location for the million dollar jewels. After careful inspection of all the stairwells and entrances, they decided to block off the floor for the day of filming. This, however, changed on the day of the shoot, as they merely hovered around the precious jewels for the entire day. When Alice arrive with a gathering of several people on the day of filming, he quietly retreated into the central control booth. A car was sent to the St. Regis hotel to pick up Dalí, but he refused to ride in anything other than a limousine. After the arrangements were made for the limo, Dalí finally arrived at the studio with a rather large entourage.’
The jewels had their own entourage
For the shoot, Dalí and Lissack had recruited the talents of Bob Gruen, a photographer whose work had consisted of such renowned artists as Tina and Ike Turner, Led Zeppelin and the New York Dolls. Yet despite his association with an eclectic group of musicians, perhaps his closest relationship was with former Beatles icon John Lennon, who had moved to New York during the early seventies, during which Gruen had been recruited as his personal photographer. After Dalí had positioned Cooper to his liking and had adorned him with the jewellery, Gruen was then tasked with capturing the image on film. ‘Those diamonds would be worth $30 million today,’ Gruen told Spin in 2009. ‘So there’s this guy in a bowler hat with an attaché case and a very beautiful woman and a rather thuggish-looking guy with a machine gun standing guard by the door. The man in the bowler hat opens the attaché case to reveal the diamonds on a red velvet pillow and the woman walks them over to present to Dalí and Alice. The jewels had their own entourage.’
Yet there would be one more surprise in store for Cooper as Dalí had something that he wanted to unveil for his new friend. ‘For the second day of shooting, the Dalí walked in with his hands behind his back,’ explained Cooper. ‘Then he revealed his surprise. ‘This is the Alice Cooper brain!’ It was a ceramic sculpture of my brain with a chocolate éclair running down the back, with painted ants crawling on the brain that spelled out Dali and Alice. ‘That’s great! Can I have it?’ ‘Of course not,’ the Dalí sneered. ‘It’s worth millions.’ Nobody can tell me where my brain is now. It is not listed in any museum. I have a picture of him holding it, pointing to it as I nobly sit. If I could find the Alice brain, I’d be willing to invest the money to buy it back, but to this day, it’s never reappeared. The First Cylindric Chromo-Hologram Portrait of Alice Cooper’s Brain lives in the Museum of Dalí in Figueres, Spain.’
The creation of this work of art would test the patience and imagination of all involved. ‘The next step was for the cinema photographer to record Alice singing into the dissected Venus de Milo microphone onto 35mm motion picture film, as he rotated one revolution on the turntable,’ recalled Lissack. ‘Once the filming was complete, the 35mm motion film was then processed and converted on an Integral Holographic Printer. The Integral Printer converts one frame at a time, to a cylindrical format for the final 360° display. The integral printer changes the 16mm or 35mm film into a 9” x 1/16” line. When all the frames have been changed to the line exposure, 1/16” apart, they make up all the information needed to play back the stereo hologram which appears at the centre of the cylinder. The stereo hologram is printed on a 56.5” long x 10” wide film, which is wrapped around a clear cylinder and mounted in place. The cylinder is then placed on a designated display stand and lit with a white light bulb that was built into the base. As the cylinder rotates, the image of Alice Cooper signing into the segmented Venus de Milo microphone, with his brain floating behind him, appears in three dimensions in the centre of the cylinder.’
Gordon watched the proceedings with child-like enthusiasm as Cooper was commanded by the enthusiastic Dalí. ‘Alice had to be photographed meticulously from every angle for the 360° hologram to work,’ he said. ‘Remember, we were just a couple of kids in our twenties and this was one of the greatest living artists in the world. What was most awe-inspiring for us was that the Dalí didn’t seem to make art when he was painting or sculpting; he seemed to make it his entire life, every moment of it, every word and gesture, art. Once I went up to the apartment in the St. Regis, rang the bell and the Dalí answered the door in a wheelchair, even though he could walk perfectly. He was wearing the skin of an entire bear, from head to claws and tail, holding an umbrella. Another living Dalí painting.’
Despite Alice Cooper having been a group since its inception, the media had often focused on its charismatic frontman and so when it came to promote the photo session, it would be a bone of contention for some members that only the singer was invited to participate. ‘When the photo shoot finally happened, Alice was draped in a couple million bucks’ worth of borrowed diamonds,’ concurred Dunaway. ‘They had a revolving stage just large enough for Alice to sit on cross-legged. The stage would turn slowly for the 360° shot. Dalí was there to orchestrate, but he looked completely exhausted. Afterward, rock ‘n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen took photos of everyone with Dalí, but I passed because my hero looked so weary. I told him to go get some rest and he shook his head in appreciation. The project took a disappointing turn when the big, official unveiling of the hologram happened and I wasn’t invited. While Alice went, the rest of the band was left behind in the Midwest, between tour stops. That hit me hard.’
Dunaway would not be the only member of the group to feel frustrated at being omitted from the Dalí project. ‘With Dalí’s love of anything kitsch or over-the-top, he was no doubt amused by Alice’s increasingly bizarre stunts and love for celebrity. The end result was that Alice and Dalí struck up a friendship of sorts which seemed based mostly on confusion,’ claimed rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce in his own autobiography No More Mr. Nice Guy. ‘I never got to meet Dalí, or go to the unveiling of the artist’s hologram of Alice at Knoedler Gallery in New York. I was out of town at the time. Dalí’s pronouncement on the whole piece was that he had produced ‘a perfect reproduction of the brain of the Alice Cooper pop star.’ I do remember we all had to pay $500 to build the thing. I guess it must still be stored in some warehouse somewhere. I’d love to see it now. But we invested in quite a few projects at the time.’
With the ambitious installation having finally been completed, in early April 1973, Dalí and Cooper made a public appearance to promote their collaboration. ‘We arranged a major press conference in New York for Alice and the Dalí to unveil it,’ recalled Gordon. ‘We got all the print there, but we were really interested in TV for this one. This was 1973 and there weren’t a lot of TV news outlets. No cable to speak of, no YouTube, just three major networks, their local affiliates and a handful of prestigious TV ‘news magazines,’ like 60 Minutes. We were very excited when 60 Minutes and all three networks said they’d come. The print reporters and the 60 Minutes crew arrived. Then we were told there’d been a fire or shooting somewhere in the city. The network and local news crews wanted us to delay the conference forty-five minutes so they could go cover that and then come to us. I had a choice to make. Do I let 60 Minutes leave, or do I try and stall them until the others arrive? I figured there was only one thing I could do that 60 Minutes could not walk out on: have the Dalí speak!’
For Cooper, the press conference turned out to be as surreal as every other encounter he had experienced with Dalí. ‘One of the reporters asked, ‘What is it like working with Dalí?’’ he explained. ‘‘Well,’ I confessed, ‘I gotta be honest with you, I can’t understand a word he says.’ Dalí jumped up and blurted out, ‘Perfect! The best form of communication is confusion.’ As it turned out, Dalí understood everything. He was well aware of what was happening around him. He spoke perfect English.’ Confusion, it would seem, was the cornerstone of their relationship. ‘I love the idea of confusion. I think a valid point of art is chaos,’ claimed Cooper in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone. ‘He told me the reason he wanted to do the hologram with us was because we were the most confusing people he’d ever met. That’s the only thing we have in common: confusion. We don’t make sense at all to each other in a conversation. He speaks five different languages at once and you’re supposed to understand what he’s talking about! We just sat there and then I’ll say something that has nothing to do with what he’s talking about. And then he’ll say something back that has nothing to do with what I was talking about. We just go on like that.’
During the brief time that Dalí was in Cooper’s life, every meeting or conversation proved to be as surreal as his art. ‘Whenever he called up Shep, he would say, ‘Hello, Mr. Blemmings.’ ‘My name is Shep Gordon.’ ‘Yes, Mr. Blemmings.’ For some unknown reason, he always called Shep Mr. Blemmings,’ recalled Cooper on Dalí’s bizarre sense of humour. ‘After the hologram exhibit, every once in a while we would get a call. I’d pick up the phone in Shep’s office. ‘Mr. Blemmings!’ ‘Hello, Salvador. It’s Alice.’ He’d go on and on with his multi-lingual gibberish. ‘Mr. Blemmings is right here.’ Then I’d hand over the phone to Shep and shrug. On another night, we were out to dinner with the Dalí, the bill came to a couple thousand dollars. Dalí took the bill and signed his name. I guess he figured his signature was worth the price of the dinner. I asked, ‘Should I leave the tip?’ So I signed Alice Cooper!’