Pollstar Live! coverage: Alice Cooper and manager Shep Gordon have had the kind of relationship that even many married couples might envy – and it’s certainly lasted longer, at 47 years.
Phoenix concert promoter Danny Zelisko, who served as “interpreter” of a raucous conversation between the two legends Feb. 2 in the J.W. Marriott’s Platinum Ballroom, has been part of their rock ‘n’ roll circus since 1973.
Danny Zelisko, Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper
“In May, 1973, Flo and Eddie were going to open Alice’s Billion Dollar Baby tour for Bill Graham Presents. I went to the show to do security,” Zelisko recalled in his introductory remarks. “I found my way into thinking, ‘I’m gonna have a beer with Alice Cooper!’” Zelisko said, with Cooper interjecting the story of that fateful night.
“Danny was down in the front, and back then I used to wave a sword with dollar bills stuck on it over the audience,” Cooper said. “All those kids lunged for those bills and there was Danny, right in the middle of that mob,” he said, laughing.
Later, they had that beer.
Zelisko said that Graham was none too thrilled with a bunch of Los Angeles hippies bringing along props like guillotines, baby dolls and copious amounts of fake blood.
“You can do music, or you can do Broadway, but you can’t do both!” Graham told the artist. Of course, they did.
The Billion Dollar Babies tour and album were Cooper’s most lucrative to date, and proved Gordon’s earliest theory about artist development correct: Make the parents hate you, and the kids will beat a path to your door.
Gordon was the subject of a 2014 documentary produced by comedian Mike Myers called “Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon,” and followed that by writing a memoir last year, “They Call Me Supermensch.”
“I went to college in Buffalo, N.Y, and came out to Los Angeles after finishing to take a job. I quit the first day,” Gordon began. “I booked a motel in Hollywood. I dabbled in pharmaceuticals. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Chambers Brothers were all there. As a pharmaceutical salesman, I had found my target audience!
“Eventually, Hendrix said to me, ‘If the police ask where you get your money, you need a front.”
Cooper added, “We were like every other act trying to make it. We were living in the Chambers Brothers basement. We met Shep, and decided ‘This is our manager!’ I love this guy.”
The day before signing with Gordon, the band Alice Cooper – Alice was not yet Alice – auditioned for Frank Zappa at his famed log cabin in Laurel Canyon. Gordon immediately turned down Zappa's offer until the deal was substantially sweetened.
During that time, L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood was churning out stars-to-be like The Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and James Taylor.
Gordon and Cooper knew they had to do something different in order to stand apart.
“I was thinking of that moment we first did something together that told me we were going to stay together,” Gordon said.
“It was a ‘coming out’ party at the Ambassador Hotel. We sort of hit on the concept that it would be really easy to get parents to hate us, which would get kids to love us.”
So they rented the Ambassador.
“All the wealthy families had these parties for debutantes back in those days,” Gordon continued. “So we made up invitations for this debutante party on acid for Alice Cooper, and invited all these blue bloods. We had The Cockettes (a theatrical art/glam/drag troupe) perform. Alice jumped out of a cake. L.A. society was outraged! And we were getting noticed in the papers.”
Video screenshots of Alice’s debutante ball invitations and party photos flashed on a giant video screen, followed by press clips of Cooper’s similar publicity campaign in London’s Piccadilly Square.
Cooper was being somewhat ignored by the British press, until Gordon latched on to the idea of rolling billboards of Alice – nude, save for a strategically placed snake – on the back of a flatbed truck and arranging for it to “break down” in London’s Piccadilly Square at rush hour, surrounded by scantily clad go-go dancers.
It worked, landing front-page photos and banner headlines in newspapers the next day.
But the event that may have provided Cooper with the longest-lasting legacy was the Toronto Peace Festival. Gordon somehow managed to talk organizers into putting Alice Cooper onstage in between sets from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were headlining, and The Doors.
“We brought out feather pillows and CO2 canisters, and blew feathers all over the audience,” Gordon said. “They loved it, and it was chaos! Then the chicken showed up.”
The chicken of Alice Cooper lore made its first and only stage entrance. Invoking a scene from “WKRP In Cincinnati,” Cooper said, “It’s a bird. It should fly!
“So I picked it up and threw it into the audience. The audience tore it to pieces. At the Peace Festival! The first six rows were all people in wheelchairs and they were the ones who tore up the chicken and threw the parts back.”
The Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was outraged and dogged the band the rest of its tour and beyond. As for any part he unwittingly played in the history of animal cruelty, Cooper said, “You want to see animal cruelty, KFC is a mass murderer. But the SPCA checked on the show everywhere we went from then on.”
At that point, the hits were coming for Alice and Shep. They continued to attempt to top their previous, and hugely successful, publicity ploys, though the execution was sometimes wanting. A floating Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade-style balloon of Alice’s face over the Thames River, in an attempt to draw fire from England’s Royal Air Force, flopped when the balloon did. Putting the band in see-through vinyl pants wasn’t quite as scandalous as hoped when the pants fogged up.
“You are in danger of becoming Spinal Tap” when the stunts fail, Cooper admitted. “If the balloon falls in the water, we have to say that’s what it was supposed to do – it was Alice drowning. But Brits understood the Hollywood publicity stunt. They loved that we were actually going through these things and making them work.”
“We killed Alice every way we could,” Cooper said. “So Shep says, ‘Let's shoot Alice out of a cannon!' This was at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh.”
“The circus used to fire clowns out of cannons,” Shep said, obviously bemused at the memory. “So we ordered a cannon. ‘What period cannon?’ the guy said. He didn’t even blink! I figured this guy has it down.”
The cannon failed to shoot a dummy over the field as planned, but yet Alice came out of the tunnel on the other side, no worse for “wear.” The upshot of that story was now Cooper and Gordon were stuck with a cannon they no longer needed.
“Somehow, Shep sold it to The Rolling Stones,” Cooper said, laughing.
“Now, Rammstein has it,” Zelisko added.
Cooper’s and Gordon’s career wasn’t all publicity stunts, of course. Gordon managed other artists, including Groucho Marx before he died. There’s another famous story of Anne Murray, Canada’s squeaky clean pop goddess, being photographed at L.A.’s Troubadour club surrounded by the original Hollywood Vampires – John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Cooper, and Micky Dolenz. It was part of a strategy Gordon calls “guilt by association.”
Put someone next to somebody else who is cool, and they become cool, too. Suddenly, Anne Murray was hip. Zelisko expanded on that theory when it came to Cooper.
“To us, Alice was a different person than the Alice character. It became important to define that person by the person he was standing next to. Like Salvador Dali,” Zelisko said. “Dali wanted me to do the first 3D hologram,” Cooper continued. “It would be something you could put your hand through. Our meeting with Dali really caught us off guard. You thought we were nuts!”
Over the years, Gordon moved on from rock ‘n’ roll artist management, but remains with Cooper.
“I never did a contract,” Gordon said. “Alice and I almost don't exist without each other.
“For 48 years, I don’t think I asked Shep one question about money,” Cooper said. “I don’t care, and I’m lucky enough to make things work.
“If something goes wrong, we figure out to make things work rather than sit there and go, ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.’”