It often comes as a surprise for people to discover that the man described as the ‘godfather of shock rock’ is only seven years younger than Bob Dylan. And yet, their outputs couldn’t be more different.
Where Dylan was reserved and literary, Alice Cooper was exuberant and provocative. Where Dylan was meditative, Cooper was chaotic. Through the wild-antics of his alter ego (whose dangerous habits occasionally leaked into Cooper’s own life), the singer bought theatre into rock music, painting a picture of rock ‘n’ roll excess before it got such a bad name. Indeed, Cooper was almost a pastiche of rock, a bouffant clown with a guitar and a microphone — but that in no way lessened the quality of his music. In that regard, he was deadly serious.
His unique brand of glam-rock blended everything from vaudeville and B-movie horror tropes to metal and new-wave, garnering him a huge fanbase and a career that has spanned over 50 years. He even earned the praise of two of music’s most revered songwriters, John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Both spoke of Cooper with a great deal of respect, with the latter going so far as to state that he believed Cooper’s talents as a songwriter were underappreciated. Indeed, Cooper’s taste for stage theatrics often overshadowed the substance of his songs. But Dylan seemed to recognise the nuance in Cooper’s craft.
Recalling Dylan’s praise in an interview, Cooper said: “I had never met Bob Dylan, but he was certainly the poet laureate of America. That was a huge compliment for me.” He went on to note how The Beatles’ John Lennon was also a big fan, adding: “John Lennon’s favourite song was ‘Elected’, which he used to talk about, and that gave us some credibility. I do think that the music was overshadowed by the theatrics, but that didn’t keep us from trying to write great songs.”
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Considering both Bob Dylan and John Lennon are widely regarded as political songwriters, it’s pretty surprising that they resonated with Cooper’s work. The shock-rocker has always stood in stark contrast to the protest song tradition, choosing instead to use his music as a vehicle for escapism. “I don’t like to mix politics and rock ’n’ roll, he said in a 2018 interview.
“I don’t look at Bono, Sting and Bruce Springsteen as political. I look at them as being humanitarian,” he added. “I’ll contribute to anything humanitarian. Helping people who can’t help themselves. But when musicians are telling people who to vote for, I think that’s an abuse of power. You’re telling your fans not to think for themselves, just to think like you. Rock ’n’ roll is about freedom – and that’s not freedom,” Cooper concluded.
But perhaps Lennon and Dylan recognised something in Cooper’s work that was more powerful than political songwriting. In offering an escape from the mundanity of the everyday, Cooper allowed his fans to live a new kind of reality, one that might have made even the impossible seem entirely feasible.
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