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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare


ALICE COOPER: WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE (1975)

1) Welcome To My Nightmare; 2) Devil's Food; 3) The Black Widow; 4) Some Folks; 5) Only Women Bleed; 6) Department Of Youth; 7) Cold Ethyl; 8) Years Ago; 9) Steven; 10) The Awakening; 11) Escape.

In 1975, it was not yet obvious that Alice Cooper as a band had already sung their swan song. The idea was to put the thing on hiatus, and let everyone do what they wish to do — a wise deci­sion, perhaps, seeing as how the compromise of Muscle never really satisfied anyone. Unfortu­nately, Alice Furnier just happened to love his newly-found freedom so much that he ditched the band altogether, sending them on their own merry way for good — but not forgetting to take the name for himself. From here onwards, Alice Cooper is a solo artist, not a band.

The change is visible, but not nearly as drastic as some people insist. For his next album, Alice procured the services of twin glam-guitar-gods, Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter (already well known for their work with Lou Reed and other things; they'd also contributed bits and pieces to the Alice Cooper Band's work as well), and also retea­med with Bob Ezrin, always happy to help out his former pal with another theatrical piece of pro­duction. Obviously, Welcome To My Nightmare, on which the Coop had complete creative free­dom, was to be his flashiest, most gro­tesque and image-heavy production yet, a rock-theater extravaganza of an unprecedented stature. Far from the goriest, by the way: the accompanying stage show did not even feature any of the trademark executions, being instead heavy on decora­tions, dancers, giant spiders, cyclops, smoke, and corny gimmicks a-plenty. (All of this can be easily discovered on the video of the live tour — not to be confused with the somewhat less impressive TV special version of the musical).

But what about the music? Alas, the Vegas nature of the ridiculous show has all but wiped out the songs themselves from the public conscience, which is a pity, because, despite all the heavy nods to show-business, and despite Alice's drink problems that were piling up ever higher, there is no way one could accuse the man of dropping quality control standards. Of course, Welcome To My Nightmare should not be approached with the wrong expectations. Back in 1975, people would cautiously ask from around the corner: 'Well... does he still ROCK?' And, upon understanding that he most certainly did not, disappointed, they would leave him to his drink problems. Some­how, someway, public amnesia reached a stage at which nobody remembered that, actually, the last time Alice Cooper was "rocking" was somewhere around 1971, after which the band had almost completely switched to "shocking".

In fact, if we initiate a direct comparison of the amount of heavy riffage, Welcome To My Night­mare "rocks" more than Billion Dollar Babies. 'Black Widow' is heavier than anything on that 1973 classic, and 'Devil's Food', 'Cold Ethyl', 'Department Of Youth', and 'Escape' are all upbeat, rhythmic, guitar-driven tunes that honestly pump out the required amount of adrenaline. It is not a rock'n'roll album per se, but neither were its predecessors. It is only the shock of seeing Alice Cooper prefer the company of Broadway dancers dressed in stupid spider costumes to the compa­ny of Baxter, Bruce, and Dunaway that is responsible for unwarranted claims of "Vincent Furnier betraying the ideals of garage rock and becoming a slick Vegas entertainer".

The spider costumes are stupid, for sure, but the music is not. Welcome To My Nightmare is a concept album about... nightmares. It introduces the character of 'Steven', a mentally un­stable boy (or, alternately, an Anthony Perkins-type character), possibly locked in a sanitarium (for the live show, Alice would incorporate 'The Ballad Of Dwight Frye' into the proceedings), constantly tormented by voices and visions. The first side of the album gives us the visions, the second in­troduces "Steven" in person; intersections provide different subjects, poorly or not at all connec­ted to the main "plotline", the way it usually is on concept albums.

Actually, we begin our journey with a series of B-movie clichés. The title track is all about Alice reveling in his impersonation of the lord of darkness — yes, rather a silly thing to do for a grown up person, but what if the person has simply forgotten to grow up? There is such a great, over­whelming delight in the man's intonations as he tries to spook you with lines like 'welcome to my breakdown, I hope I didn't scare you, that's just the way we are when we come down' that it is impossible not to participate. The song is so perfectly composed to, building up from quiet creepy acoustic guitar to all-out funky jamming, and the laser torch of the Vegasy brass section that cuts its way through guitar and keyboard concrete midway through the tune is the ideal icing. Creepy, but harmless, titillating, but sanitized, Horror-for-Housewives, it is delicious.

B-movie flavor hits with even more force on the 'Devil's Food/Black Widow' segment, where the obvious highlight is Vincent Price's lengthy monolog on the glory of Arachnida: 'this friendly little devil is the heptathelidae... unfortunately, harmless...', and where Alice almost matches his cartoon evil style by demanding that we all 'pledge allegiance to The Black Widow'. How can one resist this demand? I do not see how it is possible. Count me in, even though I hate spiders.

Still, if Nightmare were all just a lengthy sequence of gut-level pleasure flashes, we could suc­cessfully build up a case against it. But every now and then, Alice adds small vials of substance that have acted as superb preservatives over the years. 'Department Of Youth' continues the mean treatment of his teenage audience, initiated with 'Teenage Lament '74' and now reaching a new scale of grandiosity; watch out for the biggest, deadliest blow on the fade-out as a curious Alice asks his young friends where their power source comes from. 'Only Women Bleed' initiates the decidedly strange trend of sugary ballads as Cooper's main candidates for hit singles — and, al­though I personally do not at all find this newly-found sentimentality for the weaker sex con­vincing, it is still an interesting new page in the man's career.

Finally, there is the sprawling Steven Suite on the second side, which also threatens, every now and then, to free itself from the straightjacket clutches of "B-class" material and reach a higher le­vel of conscience. Unless you strongly believe that it is illegal to draw inspiration from pictures of deranged lunatics, it is a masterpiece of the genre — a little overdramatic in places, for sure, but not nearly enough to be officially relocated to the Five-and-Dime area. Plus, there are some beautiful piano passages somewhere out there.

So what is Welcome To My Nightmare? I cannot come up with an easy definition. Its serious­ness and irony, intelligence and stupidity, gritty rock and flashy schmaltz cling to each other so tightly that it is forever bound to be the subject of endless debates — and this is good, because debates ensure longevity, which it certainly deserves. I do not even understand which particular part of myself plays a decisive role in giving it a thumbs up, because neither the brain nor the heart have ever found the courage to confess, and yet here it is — a fairly certain thumbs up if there ever was one. A truly mistifying record, though perhaps not quite in the same way that Alice intended it to be.

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