Twentysomething years ago, when Brian Warner was thinking about a stage name, he went with Marilyn Manson, a reference to both actress Marilyn Monroe and serial killer Charles Manson. For live performances, he'd dress up in outlandish outfits and use a variety of props. He'd often stand atop a pulpit and rip pages out of Bibles. It turned him into a superstar and seemed to irk veteran shock rocker Alice Cooper who, at the time, felt that Manson had ripped him off.
"I think there was some jealousy in the press," says Cooper when asked about his initial reaction to Manson. "Of course, I saw the humor in it. I said something like, 'Here's a guy with a girl's name and makeup. I wish I would had thought of that.' It was meant as a jest. I wasn't knocking him. He does what he does."
Manson and Cooper finally met for the first time a few years ago at a music festival in Transylvania that took place only a few miles from the original Dracula's castle. The two had a cordial conversation in Cooper's dressing room and during Cooper's set, Manson came onstage to perform the hit "I'm Eighteen;" Cooper returned the favor, sitting in on Manson's set and contributing to his cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." Cooper wouldn't say the two became fast friends, though that's bound to change now that they've put together a co-headlining tour dubbed "Masters of Madness: Shock Therapy." It marks the first time the two have hit the road together and Cooper, who spoke via phone before the tour had actually started, said he didn't know what to expect from the outing.
"I don't know Marilyn very well," he admits. "I understand his show is pretty good. Our differences, well, I try not to ever let politics and religion come into it. Politics is something I don't want to talk about and I've been open about religion and what I believe and that hasn't come up yet. If it does, I am who I am and who he is is who he is. I don't think I will do any songs on his stage because that would ruin the impact of Alice coming out in the second half of the show. It would be hard for me to give up the image right up front. I wouldn't mind him coming out and doing 'School's Out,' which is usually what we close with."
While critics don't necessarily agree on whether Manson is a rock icon who'll be remembered for the ages, Cooper certainly is. Cooper, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in 2011 with the original Alice Cooper Band, started playing talent shows in his Phoenix hometown when he was still in high school in the '60s. After forming the Alice Cooper Band at the end of the '60s, Cooper and the guys moved to Los Angeles where Frank Zappa signed them to his Straight Records. Their stay in L.A. didn't last long.
"Los Angeles was grooving," Cooper explains. "It was trippy sounds. Alice Cooper was this monster that had no problem being A Clockwork Orange before A Clockwork Orange. That scared the hell out of people on LSD, which was the entire population of Los Angeles."
The band moved to Detroit and played a festival there with Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 that went over so well, it confirmed their belief that the Motor City was the place to be.
"They ate it right up and when they realized I was from Detroit, I was the golden son," Cooper says. "Iggy and MC5 were the two bands but then it was like the unholy trilogy with us. There is a new band that's crazier than Iggy and more of a show than MC5. They welcomed us with open arms and we became a Detroit band."
"I'm Eighteen," the single from Cooper's 1970 album Love It to Death, signaled a shift in direction away from psychedelic rock and toward something like glam rock. Eventually, Cooper would be known for inventing "shock rock." But he credits producer Bob Ezrin with the change in musical direction.
"Bob was our George Martin," he says. "He'd come in and go, 'Okay, dumb it down. Take this section and that section out.' We would play it again. He would go, 'Still too smart.' Pretty soon it was just big power chords against that lyric. He said, 'Now, it's powerful.' He was dead right. We always thought powerful was getting as many guitar solos in as we could and trying to sound like the Yardbirds. He was telling us that the power in the song was that line 'I'm eighteen and I'm dumb and I like it.' That's the hook."
Hits such as "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" followed. Ezrin gave the band the thing it lacked: an identity.
"He understood that we were a band with this image and great hooks, but there was no signature," says Cooper. "When you hear a Doors' song, you know it's Jim Morrison and Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek on keyboards. He said, 'When I hear an Alice Cooper song, it could be the Electric Prunes or it could be the Strawberry Alarm Clock.' He gave each guy a signature. When you hear Love It to Death, you know it's Alice Cooper."
Cooper says that while he loves "talking about the things that happened with Keith Moon and John Lennon and Groucho Marx and Salvador Dali and all the insane people," he doesn't "live in the past." Still, the 2011 box set Old School: 1964-1974, provides a terrific document of that and traces the shift in sound. That shift in sound also resulted in a shift in the stage show. And Cooper proceeded to take things completely over the top. He's gone back to a few of his tricks for the current tour, which will find him faking his death not once but twice.
"It's a bit of a Frankenstein," he says of the current stage show. "It's a large piece of the last show and we're stitching in part of an older show. We're adding something, an extra theatrical piece. I doubt if [Manson's fans] have ever seen me do the guillotine. I will throw that in because it works really well with the show. I won't give up the new special effects that we have in the show. The audience will get two Alice deaths. How many people look at their shows in terms of how many deaths they get?"
For Cooper, now 65, the desire to continue to tour and record comes in part because of a quip he made about the Rolling Stones. He said he'd keep going for five years after Mick Jagger retired. At the time he said it, he didn't think Jagger would be still touring in 2013.
"He just keeps doing it," says Cooper. "I'm 65 and I feel pretty darn good. When he retires, I have at least five more years and now he's going to hold me to it. It's fine. It's a goal. But the next time I see him, I'm going to ask him, 'Aren't you tired yet?'"