‘A nightmare never has a real definitive storyline,’ claimed Alice Cooper prior to the release of his debut solo album Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975. ‘At the time things seem logical, that you’re walking around on the wall and things like that. Yet then, when you wake up you say how absurd that is!’ Thirty-six years later, when returning to the dream world for its long-anticipated sequel, Cooper further elaborated on the concept. ‘The beauty of it was anything can happen in a nightmare,’ he told Rue Morgue. ‘I think if you took ten people and put them in a room and had them listen to Welcome to My Nightmare and then told them to write down what the story was about, they would give you ten different stories. That’s exactly what I wanted because, to me, that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to provoke and make you use your imagination.’
It had been more than three decades since he had first unleashed his nightmare on the world. In the years since he had struggled with sobriety, reinvented himself as a hair metal icon and reconnected with his faith, offering fans an eclectic mixture of rock ‘n’ roll that catered to the demands of each new generation while retaining his own brand of shock rock theatrics. After indulging in the brief popularity of nu metal during the early years of the twenty-first century, Alice Cooper finally returned to his roots with Welcome 2 My Nightmare, resuming the narrative that had begun in the mid-seventies and bringing it to its shocking conclusion. Cooper was no stranger to the concept album, having flirted with the medium numerous times throughout his career and with his innocent alter ego once again taking centre stage, the nightmare was about to come to an end.
The phenomenal success of Welcome to My Nightmare may have reignited his spark after the demise of his eponymous group but before long the singer found himself pressured by the industry to produce a worthy follow-up. ‘Welcome to My Nightmare was a very tough act to follow and my next few albums became total concept albums,’ he explained in his memoir Golf Monster. ‘The question became, ‘Where do we send Alice for the next album’ Finally we decided let’s send Alice to Hell. Let’s see if he can out hustle the Devil.’ Over the next few years Cooper attempted to recapture the magic, sending his character into a mental institution and even rebranding himself as a sleazy private eye, cut from the same mould as the black-and-white film noir thrillers of the forties.
But eventually his self-destructive nature began to take its toll and Cooper withdrew from the music scene as a new wave of metal bands took his place. Despite the temptation of returning to his nightmare in the eighties, Cooper instead created a succession of hard rock albums that finally launched him back into the charts. But the ghost of Steven was never far behind. ‘I’m currently working on Welcome to My Nightmare Part II,’ he claimed in a 1985 interview with Kerrang! ‘The Alice Cooper character reawakens ten years later and after all this punk and new wave thing’s been here, all these odd-looking people and this is his reaction.’
The narrative of Welcome to My Nightmare was somewhat ambitious and thus open to interpretation but throughout the story Cooper would blend fantasy and reality, much like with a dream, in order to leave his listeners feeling uncertain and on edge as his character Steven invites his audience into his own warped imagination. Is this merely the dreams of a scared child or the fractured mind of a disturbed human being? In turn Steven is portrayed as both the victim and potentially the manipulator, even declaring at one point, ‘Paint on my cruel or happy face and hide behind it,’ For Cooper, the ringmaster of this Grand Guignol circus, the album was ostensibly a cabaret show but one that hides something far more sinister behind its curtain. ‘I think Welcome to My Nightmare was a musical,’ he claimed to HorrorHound in 2012. ‘If we had taken Welcome to My Nightmare in 1976 and put it on Broadway it would have been a musical. It had all the trappings and all the theatrics, it had all the sets. It had everything that a Broadway musical has, except it was a travelling musical.’
The origin of Welcome to My Nightmare can be found in a motion picture concept developed and subsequently abandoned by Cooper and his close friend and producer Bob Ezrin. The project, which had been proposed to Willard director Daniel Mann, dealt with such taboos as cannibalism and whose central premise echoed the true events surrounding the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 three years earlier, later documented in the 1993 drama Alive. ‘Before the album, Alice and I worked on a concept for a movie about this guy Steven. He’s a rock star and he’s having an affair,’ explained Ezrin. ‘They’re going skiing in his private plane and there’s an accident. They’re buried under the snow. When they’re eventually found there’s only him left, she’s gone! This woman had disappeared off the face of the earth. From that point on, he’s transformed and by night he craves flesh. Part of the movie was that Steven didn’t know if he was imagining or if he had really done it. We had this thing in our minds that Steven was having a problem differentiating between reality and imagination. That started the whole thought about the nightmare.’
When Alice Cooper finally awoke from his own nightmare in the mid-eighties he focused on reclaiming his audience and then in 1994, almost two decades after his first concept album, he returned to the story of Steven with the morality-themed The Last Temptation. With Steven now a teenager, he is seduced by a mysterious showman and brought to the Theatre of the Real, an auditorium that offers him Faust-like pleasures in return for his eternal soul. It had been his first concept album in over a decade and his only record to explore his Christian faith and yet despite being accompanied by a graphic novel, penned by The Sandman‘s Neil Gaiman, it failed to match the commercial heights of his most recent offerings. In the summer of 2008 Cooper released Along Came a Spider, his exploration into the mind of a homicidal maniac and following this he began to conceive a follow-up. But it would be at the suggestion of his most trusted collaborator that Cooper decided to return to the nightmare.
Much like Cooper, in the early seventies Bob Ezrin was taking his first steps in the music industry and in 1971 was sent to watch Alice Cooper in concert as a potential client with which to launch his career as a producer. ‘What I saw was the most incredible rock show I’d ever seen,’ he later recalled. ‘It was the theatre of the absurd; it was cock and balls rock, it was high art, it was countercultural, it was sexually confusing, it was so many things wrapped into one show and at the core of it were these songs that everybody in the place knew the words to. Everybody in the joint had spider eyes and spandex on and black fingernail polish and jet black hair. You don’t see that in the streets of New York or anywhere at that time. There was no goth movement. There was no performance art rock happening on that level like there was in England. I thought this could change the approach to rock music altogether and I wanted to be a part of it.’
Despite having already released two albums, the Alice Cooper band lacked a clear sense of direction and while their stage shows were outrageous and gruesome in equal measures, the psychedelic rock songs they they were performing failed to make a significant impact. It was Ezrin who would help to develop their distinct style, stripping back their music in order to capture its essential raw sound. Over the next few years he helped to create four platinum-selling albums before the outfit finally self-destructed following the underwhelming release of Muscle of Love in 1973. For Cooper, who decided to pursue a solo career soon afterwards, Welcome to My Nightmare was his one chance to prove to the world he could survive on his own and there was more to Alice Cooper than mere theatrics. Once again reuniting with Ezrin, the result was an album that finally cemented his status as a true rock ‘n’ roll star. And so perhaps it was inevitable that the two would eventually find their way back to the nightmare.
I wonder what Alice’s nightmare would be now
‘I came to Bob Ezrin with an idea…part two of Along Came a Spider,’ said Cooper on how a sequel to Welcome to My Nightmare was first conceived. ‘I was going to continue that story because where I left off, you didn’t know if the character that I was talking about was really the serial killer. I left a big question mark there. At the very end he says, ‘Well, it couldn’t have been us. I’ve been in this mental institution for twenty-five years.’ And so the audience goes, ‘Well, wait a minute, then who was it?’ And that’s where we leave that off. I had a conclusion to that story and I started talking to Bob and he says, ‘You know, it’s the anniversary of Welcome to My Nightmare.’ It was thirty-five years. And I said, ‘Really? I wonder what Alice’s nightmare would be now.’ We started talking about it and immediately we had four songs written! I said, ‘Let’s just write something for the heck of it.’ And we had seventeen songs within probably two weeks. Bob said, ‘Come to Nashville, I’ve got this kid Tommy Henriksen, he’s a producer and also a writer, let’s put some stuff on tape.’ Bob and I hadn’t worked together for a really long time but this project seemed like the right idea.’
Their creative partnership had originally come to an end with the disappointing reaction to DaDa, the fourth and final of what Cooper has referred to as his ‘blackout’ albums. While Cooper was publicly struggling with alcoholism and freebasing, Ezrin was battling his own demons and by the time Cooper finally resurrected his career in the mid-eighties his former producer was now working with Berlin and David Gilmour. Following the completion of Along Came a Spider in 2008, Cooper reached out to his old friend in the hope of working together once again. It had been decades since the two explored the mind of Steven and so the prospect of creating a sequel to one of his most infamous albums was too exciting to ignore. But who would Steven be all these years later and what new nightmares could he endure? To devise new ways to torture their protagonist they would have to return to the beginning, to revisit the moment when the nightmare began.
By 1974 Cooper had become the focal point of the group, with his charismatic personality and wild rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle making him a regular fixture in the American media. He had become friends with the likes of Liza Minnelli and Salvador Dali, had socialised with Elvis Presley and was a key member of a notorious drinking troupe known as the Hollywood Vampires. Alcohol had merely been a distraction to begin with but had slowly become his primary interest and as the stage character of Alice Cooper began to engulf the real man he felt he was beginning to lose his grip on reality.
It could be argued that the journey that Steven took on Welcome to My Nightmare echoed Cooper’s own personal struggles. And as one would expect, the inspiration for the album first came while has sleeping. ‘I had a dream that I was lying naked in the middle of a large blue plate and I kept slipping on the porcelain when I tried to crawl off,’ he revealed to Melody Maker. ‘Suddenly a giant, rusty fork loomed over me and every time I tried to get out of the plate I slipped again. It was terrifying…A giant blob of ketchup fell on me and I began to drown. I remember thinking, ‘But I like ketchup.’ Anyway, I woke up screaming.’
While the first album would be created during a time when Cooper felt he was losing grip of his sanity, the sequel came together when both the singer and producer had conquered their own personal demons and achieved further success independently from one another. It had been a quarter of a century since Cooper had last touched alcohol and with both faith and family his primary concern, music had become enjoyable once again. Now he was able to approach his macabre concepts through his love of splatter movies instead of as a result of a fractured psyche and no sooner had discussions begun on a follow-up that the creative juices were flowing.
‘I don’t know if it’s a sequel. It’s another nightmare,’ he insisted to the Quietus. ‘I was lying down and had a nightmare and thirty-five years later I lay down and had another nightmare, that’s what it was like. We aren’t limited to one nightmare in our life so why not give Alice another nightmare and make it thirty-five years later and see what happens. I think the first one was written from the point-of-view of a seven-year-old little boy. When mom closes the door and shuts the light off the thing in the closet comes alive and the thing under the bed wakes up and his imagination runs totally insane. This album is written thirty-five years later and he’s remembering what a nightmare is like and he doesn’t want to fall asleep.’
The narrative of Welcome 2 My Nightmare would open with I Am Made of You, a piano ballad in the style of a lullaby that signals the impending sleep that Steven is trying to resist. While some would criticise Cooper’s use of auto-tune on the song, a device that had become common among pop stars ever since Cher popularised it with her dance hit Believe in 1998, this was used in part to represent the hatred that his alter ego felt towards technology. This had previously been explored through the post-apocalyptic stage show for his 2000 album Brutal Planet and even after decades of performing Cooper still chose to utilise a guillotine, a medieval method of execution, for his onstage death. ‘Alice hates technology, disco is still a nightmare for him and working in a cubicle from nine-to-five would give him cold sweats,’ he explained to Booomers. ‘At the same time, this is a nightmare so all these normal life things are thrown into this crazy world that’s only logical when you’re in the nightmare. You could have your elephant in your garage and you’re on the lawn in a pink tutu cooking hot dogs. And at the time it’s fine. But when you wake up you go, ‘How insane is that? Where did that come from?”
It doesn’t get any better than this
Despite spending the evening drinking copious amounts of caffeine, Steven eventually succumbs to his sleep and is swept away to the dream world, where he finds himself trapped on a relentless train that is speeding towards its inevitable collision. For Runaway Train, Cooper would finally reunite with his former bandmates Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith, decades after the demise of their group. The seeds of this reunion were first sewn in 2010 when it was announced that they were to be inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ recalled Dunaway when looking back at the event several months later. ‘You look out at the ceremony and there’s Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore and Michael Douglas. Then to be on stage singing with Leon Russell, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Elton John and Darlene Love, singing Da Doo Ron Ron, that was the best moment of my life, besides marrying my wife and becoming a father.’
For Cooper, the opportunity of bringing the band back together lent the sessions an old school feel. While he had started his solo career alongside guitarist Dick Wagner before progressing to Kane Roberts for his hair metal revival, throughout the years Cooper has collaborated with an array of talented musicians that have included Slash, Joe Satriani, Derek Sheridan and Joe Perry, but bringing in his original line-up was a dream come true. While guitarist Glen Buxton had tragically passed away in 1997 at the age of forty-nine, the three surviving members wasted no time in joining Cooper in the studio. ‘Neal Smith understood the concept of pop star more than any human being on the planet,’ he told Metal Edge in 1999. ‘Neal would find out how many drums Keith Moon had and then got one more. Then he would call up Keith and say, ‘Keith?’ ‘Yes Neal, how are you doing, old boy?’ Neal says, ‘How many drums you playing now?’ Keith says, ‘Thirty-two.’ ‘Well, I have thirty-three.’ So Keith would go out and buy another one. It was a total battle.’
With Steven climbing from the wreckage of the train crash he discovers that there is no other living soul and that he is all alone, but soon he is approached by a mysterious stranger who offers to show him around the dream land. Eventually he comes to realise that he has been taken to an asylum where he fears he may be trapped for eternity. It is at this point in the proceedings that Cooper would invite another close friend into the story. Rob Zombie, the former frontman of the horror-themed metal act White Zombie, first collaborate with Cooper on the X-Files soundtrack Songs in the Key of X and was invited the following year to appear on the live album A Fistful of Alice. ‘I have known Alice for about twenty years,’ he told Fangoria in 2014. ‘Doing a tour with Alice was one of the best tours. Because usually you’re on tour with people and they might be your friends but musically they’re not compatible. That was the first time I remember being on tour and I felt like what I thought touring should be.’
Steven’s tour of this weird and wonderful world continues as a beautiful woman leads him to a disco which he perceives as some kind of gruesome massacre. From there he witnesses sexy, semi-naked zombie girls dancing on the beach as random limbs begin to drop onto the sand, much to the young boy’s horror. After witnessing the abuse of a woman and her child at the hands of a violent husband, during which Steven feels powerless to intercede, the adventure culminates with the woman revealing her true identity, that she is the Devil and has come to seduce him. While Cooper has often surrounded himself with noted rock musicians, for the role of the evil woman he cast rising pop star Ke$ha, fresh from her recent success with the hit Die Young. ‘I hunted him down at the Grammys,’ she confessed to the Guardian. ‘I’m not a submissive, perfect pop princes, that’s for pretty damn sure. I do think I have a rebellious, metal-loving rock chick inside of me. This song is the world’s first look at the evolution of that. I’ve always loved rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about subversion. I’m talking to millions of people around the world about having sex freely, getting hammered and partying. It’s fun for me to be riding that line of appropriateness.’
The truth behind the woman’s real identity was not the only shocking reveal, however, as the story comes to a conclusion with the realisation that he is not trapped in a nightmare. As the ghouls surround him they begin to chant that he is dead, that this adventure has been his journey into the afterlife and that he will never awake from this sleep. In true Alice Cooper fashion he refuses to give a definitive answer, much as he had with Along Came a Spider, instead leaving it to the listener to decide his fate. ‘At the every end of the song they’re going, ‘Isn’t it clear to you yet? What part of dead don’t you get?” he explained to Classic Rock. ‘He goes, ‘What?’ They go, ‘What part of dead don’t you get? It’s not a nightmare, you’re dead.’ And he goes, ‘I’m not dead, this is a nightmare.’ And they’re going, ‘No, you’re dead!’ Now he can’t decide if he’s dead or if he’s in a nightmare, if it’s part of the nightmare. And we kind of leave you with that. You know, is he in the nightmare or is he dead? It’s a great punchline. It’s a choir, it’s the congregation going, ‘What part of dead don’t you get?”
Welcome 2 My Nightmare not only served as the long-awaited successor to his 1975 masterpiece but finally allowed Cooper and Ezrin to reunite after twenty-eight years. While DaDa remains one of Cooper’s most underrated and misunderstood albums, both would struggle through several commercial and critical failures during the early eighties. Ezrin had followed the disappointment of DaDa with another ambitious-yet-reviled record, the KISSconcept album Music from The Elder. Whatever mistakes were made during this time, a sequel to Welcome to My Nightmare finally allowed them to make amends for their last collaboration.
‘Getting Alice into a character, for me, is not that hard because I know them all very well. I know them personally,’ stated Ezrin. ‘I can call them up and appeal to them. He can slip in and out of those characters at will. Unlike people who may not have had that much experience with him, I know when he’s really nailing it and when he needs to try it again. He trusts me so he lets himself go a lot when I’m there…I feel like Siamese twins in a certain way. We were really joined at the hip at one point and we came up together at the same time. I really love that man. I feel very connected to him and very much in sync with him and have since the very first day we met.’
He knows Alice better than anyone
The relationship between Cooper and Ezrin has long been a key element to the success of the former and without the influence of his producer he would not have become the rock ‘n’ roll superstar he was in the seventies. ‘He knows Alice better than anyone,’ admitted Cooper. ‘He is a vital part of what Alice sounds like today and what Alice was in the beginning. When he first met us, we were this band that was scattered all over the place. Alice didn’t have a voice. Glen didn’t have a guitar sound. Neal didn’t have a drum sound. He put us together and said, ‘Okay Alice, you’ve got about six different voices, let’s shake each one of those so that I can say, ‘Let’s use the Alice punk voice, let’s use the Alice ballad voice, let’s use the clear Alice, let’s use the threatening voices and now when he says, ‘Go ‘stage’ on us on the third verse,’ that means I don’t sing from here, I sing it from here. On the ballads, Bob will go, ‘I need you to go real high through your throat. I don’t want you to growl at all. I want you to sing this pure.’ So I know I gotta sing it from up in here rather than down here. That’s all Bob Ezrin. I’ll sing something and go, ‘That sounds perfect.’ He goes, ‘It sounded perfect but it didn’t sound like you mean it.’ So we’ll run something fifty times until he’s like, ‘That was it. Hold that one, mark that one, boom!”
The career of Alice Cooper could be separated into several distinct sections, each one representative of the era in which it was created: 1980’s Flush the Fashion was predominantly new wave, 1989’s Trash owed a debt to hair metal and 2000’s Brutal Planet was his attempt to capitalise on nu metal. Welcome 2 My Nightmare, however, broke this tradition by sharing a similar sensibility to its mid-seventies counterpart. Perhaps this was due to the participation of his former collaborators but despite the use of modern technology it was a record out of time. Or, as Cooper himself had described it, it was a brand new nightmare from the same old mind.
‘You could play Welcome to My Nightmare and then play this album and it would sound like a continuation,’ explained Cooper on the progression of the sequel from its predecessor. ‘I honestly feel that music has not changed much in forty years. Hard rock is still hard rock. Cold Ethyl and a song like I’ll Bite Your Face Off could have been written right next to each other. But the thing that really holds it all together is the Alice voice and the sense of humour and the Alice style of lyric writing. Bob Ezrin is the one that makes it scary when he comes in and starts doing the little classical pieces.’
In 1975 Alice Coper invited the world into his nightmare, one that alluded to visions of necrophilia and domestic violence, all told through the vivid night-time imagination of a young child. While this particular nightmare may have been explicitly told, terrifying dreams are something that everyone can relate to, especially when recalling childhood fears. For Cooper, the character of Steven was a conduit with which he could explore such themes, the kind of horrors that his onstage persona would have inflicted on his unsuspecting victims. But is this a character that Cooper will ever return or has Steven’s story come to an end? After all, it had been told over three concept albums and in many ways represents the lost innocence of Alice Cooper. ‘I realise that Steven is sort of the seven-year-old boy that lives inside of us all,’ he told Vive le Rock. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re seven-years-old or not, you still have that seven-year-old living inside you that wants to go on the scary ride and wants to see the scary movie. In this case, it was written from this point-of-view that everything was scary; what was living under the bed at night and in the closet. I just let the imagination run wild as a little boy.’