Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Alice Cooper - Nightmares and Other Stories

Alice Cooper has written more concept albums than Roger Waters and Pete Townshend combined.  Four of them [Welcome To My Nightmare, The Last Temptation, Along Came a Spider, Welcome 2 My Nightmare] involve a character that’s been very good to Alice.  Alice addresses this character directly in the liner notes of a fifth album [Alice Cooper Goes to Hell]. His name is Steven.  Steven has some very bad karma.  Whatever he did in a previous life, it must have been heinous, because he’s got a pretty crappy life.  In 1975 [Welcome To My Nightmare], Steven had some very scary dreams, and he did something terrible.

Welcome to My Nightmare was a huge landmark in Alice Cooper’s career; it was his first album as a solo artist. The previous seven albums, from 1969 to 1974, had all been offerings by Alice Cooper the band.  Bob Ezrin produced the best of those [Love It To Death, Killer, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies].  Ezrin also produced Lou Reed’s depressing concept album Berlin.  When Alice Cooper singer Vincent Furnier opted to go solo, he legally changed his name to Alice Cooper.  And when he opted to go solo, he wanted to do a concept album. With Bob Ezrin having done a concept album with Lou Reed, it made sense for Alice to team up with him again.  Before going solo, Alice [the singer] had written songs with dark themes [Ballad of Dwight Fry, I Love the Dead, Dead Babies, Raped and Freezin’], so him writing a story about a young boy’s nightmares and subsequent descent into insanity wasn’t a stretch.

Welcome To My Nightmare – The story begins.  Steven hopes you’re not too scared by what you hear about what goes through his demented brain.

Devil’s Food - The theme of prostitution is addressed [‘get ready for the lady, she’s gonna be great’], followed by a monologue by Vincent Price, acting as a tour guide [The Curator] discussing the highly potent venom of the Black Widow spider.  It’s worth printing in full:

“Leaving lepidoptera - please, don't touch the display, little boy, aha cute! Moving to the next aisle we have arachnida, the spiders, our finest collection.  This friendly little devil is the heptothilidi, unfortunately harmless. Next to him, the nasty licosa raptoria, his tiny fangs cause creeping ulcerations of the skin *laugh*. And here, my prize, the Black Widow. Isn't she lovely?  And so deadly. Her kiss is fifteen times as poisonous as that of the rattlesnake.  You see her venom is highly neurotoxic, which is to say that it attacks the central nervous system causing intense pain, profuse sweating, difficulty in breathing, loss of consciousness, violent convulsions and, finally…death. You know what I think I love the most about her is her inborn need to dominate, possess. In fact, immediately after the consummation of her marriage to the smaller and weaker male of the specie she kills and eats him - *laugh* oh, she is delicious, and I hope he was! Such power and dignity - unhampered by sentiment. If I may put forward a slice of personal philosophy, I feel that man has ruled this world as a stumbling demented child-king long enough! And as his empire crumbles, my precious Black Widow shall rise as his most fitting successor!”

The Black Widow – This song suggests we bow down to a mass killer/rapist known as the ‘Black Widow’.  The Black Widow is gleeful at the thought of the many ‘virgins and the children he’s devoured.’  We're all humanary stew if we don't pledge allegiance to the black widow…

Some Folks – This song is done in a cabaret style, which hints at the kinky things certain people like to do behind closed doors. 

Only Women Bleed – Contrary to what the title might suggest, this song is not about menstruation.  It’s about domestic abuse.  This is probably something Steven saw in his own home.

Department of Youth – Ok, this one doesn’t make any sense as far as Steven’s nightmares are concerned, but it is humorous because Donny Osmond is name-checked, much to Alice’s faux-surprise/shock.

Cold Ethyl – A tale of necrophilia.  Ethyl is cold because she’s dead…and because she’s kept in a refrigerator.

Years Ago – Alice sings this one in a tiny, childlike voice since this is from Steven’s point of view.  Steven is/was a lonely child – his friends aren’t allowed to come over and play [perhaps because his dad beats his mom?].  But we find out that he’s a child trapped in a grown-up’s body.  He’s not so young after all.

Steven – Steven is trying to wake up from his nightmare, and he’s hearing somebody call out his name.  He hears somebody screaming and pleads for him/her to stop.  He doesn’t want whomever he’s addressing to die, but if it’s God’s will, he’s okay with it.

The Awakening – Steven woke up in his basement to look for his wife.  He finds a trail of red spots, only to realize those spots are dripping from his own hand.  He’s killed his wife, and this makes him ‘feel like a man’, so he must have enjoyed it. 

Escape – At first I thought this might be about Steven escaping custody after murdering his wife.  Not so – the song addresses the way Steven gets away from it all [behind makeup, crying in his beer, going to a happy place nobody can find].  He knows he’s not normal [‘I'm not like you are/
When I get home from work at night I'm blacker and bluer’].  The ending of this chapter of Steven’s life is very fuzzy.  But with 20/20 hindsight [and a few more albums] this isn’t the end for Steven.

A Bedtime Story – from Alice Cooper Goes to Hell

Lay still, Steven, and I'll tell you a bedtime story.
I'll tell you a bedtime story that's not for all
children. It's a very special story, that only special
children will understand. It's a half-awake story, and
it will be better if you close your eyes. It's a
story that takes place in a dream, like other
nightmares you have known. It's a dream that Alice has
dreamed. You can dream along with him. You can follow
Alice down the staircase, deep, down the stairs to the
pit where he doesn't want to go, but he has to.

If you go to sleep now, Steven, you can go down the
long and endless stairway and sing sweet songs to Alice
and free him. And if you can't get to sleep, Steven,
and in the middle of the night you get out of bed, when
everything is quiet and the trees are still and the
birds are hiding from the dark, you can lie down on
your bedroom floor and press your ear tightly to the
boards. If you listen very carefully you can hear
Alice searching for a way out, forever chasing

Sleep tight, Steven. And have a good night.

After he licked his alcoholism, Alice Cooper recorded some hair-metal albums – Constrictor [1986], Raise Your Fist and Yell [1987], Trash [1989], and Hey Stoopid [1991].  These albums were simply collections of songs.  He survived the scourge of hair metal and in 1994 finally went back to making albums that told stories.  1994 was the year of The Last Temptation.  With the new album came a resumption of the story of Steven.  But this album had much more.  Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli created a graphic novel based on the album.  This is the old good vs. evil story. 

Sideshow – Steven is bored.  Every day is like the next.  Same stuff, different day.  He needs some entertainment.  He says he’s ‘institutional’, bored out of his skull.  He wants to see freaks, circus geeks, see ‘Jeckyll turn to Hyde’, a world of thrills that never ends.  Steven said that ‘they ran the circus out of town’.  Be careful what you ask for Steven, you just might get it.  Steven and some boys from his school happen upon an old theatre.  The Ringmaster is just the guy to make that happen for Steven, who asks him "Boy, you can stick around?"  The Ringmaster talks Steven into seeing the show, a world that is decrepit and scary.  It’s Steven’s choice whether he wants to stay for the show [or not].  The Theatre of the Real is a gruesome show, and Steven is shaken. The Ringmaster knows he’ll be back, and taunts Steven by showing up in Steven’s imagination, as well as his life, offering him the chance to become part of the big finale.

Nothing's Free – Any guesses who The Ringmaster really is?  In the graphic novel, he looks like Alice Cooper.  Yeah, The Ringmaster is Satan, who is ready to offer Steven the Faustian bargain.  He’s trying to get Steven to sign the contract – in his blood and that of The Ringmaster.  Steven will be able to do anything he pleases – he’ll be free from an ‘obedient life’, free to ignore authority, and free to be “the winningest rat in the race” until he dies.  But at the end of it all, on Judgment Day he’ll have to ‘dance in the fire’ – go to Hell with Satan. That’s the price of all this ‘freedom’ The Ringmaster offers because “nothing is free”.  The Ringmaster just leaves out that small detail…

Lost In America – Steven doesn’t have a girl because he doesn’t have a car, and he can’t get a car because he doesn’t have a job.  What he would like is a girl with a job and a car, and cable TV…and a gun.  But now we know why Steven is bored. We see why he is easily tempted.

Bad Place Alone – Gangbangers rule here.  This is not a pleasant place to be.

“I got a gangland name
And a teardrop tattooed eye
They call me Little Caesar in the brotherhood
of crime
I know about the pain
Dyin' in an alley with an
Air-conditioned brain
I know, it's for real
Flatlined in an ambulance
Without a pulse to feel”

You're My Temptation – This song introduces the most powerful and poignant of all temptations, a girl named Mercy.  But Mercy too is also another face of Satan, but Steven is on to the trick:

You fool me with your angel face/Your Master knows where I’m weakest.

Stolen Prayer – This is like Steven telling Satan “you had me fooled for a while, but not anymore”.

“You showed me your paradise
And your carnival of souls
But my heart keeps telling me
That ain't the place to go
Well, I'm not invincible
So I want you to leave
Well, I'm so convincible
But have I been deceived”

Unholy War – This one addresses the good vs. evil conflict within:

“You see my burning fuse
From a mile away
I took your cruel abuse
Lord took away my shame
I learned to bite the hand
That used to pull my chain
We'll fight, cause we ain't on the same side…”

Lullaby – Steven was a good boy when he was younger, but he was tempted by Satan.  But he’s got it figured out - sees Satan for who he really is.

“Get down back
where you started
Get down back into hell
Your black soul, you know you're
black hearted
I smell your sulfurous smell
All of my things that I play with in daylight
You turn into monsters at night
My toys were my friends
Until you taught them all how to bite
You showed me things little boys
shouldn't see
You scared me with visions of fire
You danced on my bed
With the flames on your head dancing higher…”

“I tell ya right now
I don't want your reptile embrace
I don't want to follow you down
to your place
I don't want to be a child of disgrace
You can take your whiskey soaked, foaming
at the mouth, toilet talking, pea soup
spewing, sweating blood demon breath out
of my face…”

It’s Me -This is a song from God to Steven.  It’s a word of reassurance.

“It's me, it's me
What are you searching for
I know you can find my door
It's me, it's me
I know you've sinned every sin
But I'll still take you in
It's me”

Cleansed By Fire –Steven has had a taste of Hell and he doesn’t like it.  He remembers the goodness that is God and challenges Satan on the things about which he knows Satan doesn’t have an answer.  He tells Satan to go back where he belongs – Hell.  Steven wins the fight against Satan – this time. 

“What about truth
What about life
What about glory
What about Christ
What about peace
What about love
What about faith in God above
What about war
What about hell
What if I stumble
What if I fell
What about blood
What about greed
And all of these things you're offering me
Yeah, what about me, little me
You lose and I win
You couldn't suck me in
It's over, you have no power
You're lost
And I'm found
And I'm Heaven bound
Go back to where you belong
To where you fell”

The next chapter in Steven’s chronicle comes in Along Came a Spider [2008]. 

Prologue / I Know Where You Live – This chapter begins with what sounds like a TV reporter:

"We found his diary today.
He wrote in great detail, how cleverly he planned all of the killings.
How precisely he executed his insane fantasies.
It was all so perfect except for one thing...
(one thing, one thing, one thing, one thing)"

The song itself is Alice Cooper’s version of Every Breath You Take – The Spider [as he calls himself - was he The Black Widow from Welcome To My Nightmare?] stalks his victims.  He watches them from his car, he knows where they live, he knows when his victims are at work [and invades their houses when the work], he knows where they spend their nights, when they sleep, what they like – everything.

Vengeance Is Mine – At this point we know The Spider has already been caught, but he’s telling everybody to watch out if he ever gets free. 

Wake The Dead – Here The Spider announces he has no impulse control.  He doesn’t know why he does the things he does.  And he doesn’t know when he’s going to stop.  He’s not picky about his victims – they could be male or female, black, brown or white, blonde, brunette or redhead.  It doesn’t matter because they’re all the same to him. 

“I just do the things I do, it's natural to me
There's no rhyme or reason for my odd insanity
You don't know what's going on inside of me
You don't wanna know what's going through my mind, yeah yeah yeah”

Catch Me If You CanThe stereotypical taunt of serial killers is “catch me if you can”.  The Spider reveals what he does – he saws off selected limbs of his victims, just not all of them.     He wrestles with the Devil and he’ll commit his heinous crimes again, again because he has no self-control.  He won’t finish until his work is done.  What work would that be?  He’s making his own spider with the limbs of his victims.

“You won't have a clue of what is coming next
What I'm gonna do, surely classical in its effect
Which limb will I choose, which one gets sawn in half
Which leg would you lose to an arachnophobic psychopath”

But how is he arachnophobic if he likes spiders?   Hmmm…

(In Touch With) Your Feminine Side – This is filler.  He found a female victim he likes.

“You look so cool, you look so sweet
Come on baby, come on over baby
It's your world, but it's my street
Come on baby, come on over baby
You got stars on your scars
You got surprise in your eyes
You put some bite in the night
You got some sin on your skin
Stop running
Stop hiding
Just wanna get in touch with your feminine side…”

Wrapped In Silk – Here’s what The Spider wants to do with the victim he likes in the previous song:

“You should be wrapped in silk
You should be bathed in white
You should be wrapped in silk
I'll make that dream come true tonight…”

He also wants to know what his victim felt when he killed her:
“How did you see my face
When could you feel the knife
Was it your final thought
The moment I took your life
And just when your heartbeat failed
Were you just filled with fright
Were you in dark despair
Did you see the holy light?”

Killed By Love – This song is a tale of unrequited love.  I’m not sure how this one is germane to the plot.  You can skip this one and not miss the rest of the story.

I'm Hungry – The Spider is hungry, but not hungry for food.  He has to feed the beast and kill again. 

“I got a bed in my basement fit for two
I got some chloroform and handcuffs just for you…”

The One That Got Away – The Spider fell in love with a potential victim.  He let her get away, but perhaps he’ll get her another day.  He introduced himself to the intended victim, but since she got a look at him, he got caught.

I Am The Spider / Epilogue – At the end of this chapter, the identity of The Spider is revealed.  The Spider and Steven are one and the same.  All the pieces have come together.  But Steven has company [in his mind, anyway]:
“Well, they found my diary today.
They were appropriately appalled
at the discovery of the eight victims
They're now putting it all together.
Women wrapped in silk
with one leg missing
Eight legs, one body, silk,
spider, brilliant!"
"We've been in this cell
for 28 years Steven
We couldn't have done all
those horrible things
Yes, I know
I know what you always say
You trap, you kill, you eat
That's what a good spider does
You trap, you kill, you
eat. You trap, you kill, you eat."

Perhaps this whole Spider sequence is just another dream/nightmare.  

Steven’s story resumes on Welcome 2 My Nightmare [2011].  Since Steven/The Spider from Along Came the Spider was incarcerated/institutionalized, he’s been alone with is thoughts/dreams for a very long time.

I Am Made Of You – I’m fairly certain Steven is singing to God here [Alice is a born-again Christian, you know…]
I was shattered, left in pieces
And I felt so cold inside
Then I called you from the darkness
Where I hide…

In the beginning you were revelation
A river of salvation and now I believe
All I wanted, all I needed
Was someone to rescue me
I was drowning, I was dying
Now I'm free…

Here I am now, I can stand now
Cause your love has made me strong
And forever you're the singer
I'm the song…

Caffeine – Plain and simple, Steven needs stimulants [coffee, speed, cold showers] to keep himself awake, lest he fall asleep and ‘the shadows’ come for him.

The Nightmare Returns – It’s too late – Steven has fallen asleep again.  The stimulants didn’t work.  He’s going back to the ugly faces and the awful places he’s been to before.

A Runaway Train – After Steven fell asleep, he heard a train conductor making a last call for the ‘nightmare express’.  Then he found himself in a boxcar, chained to ‘thirteen angry men’.  He claimed to be in someone else’s dream, to which the others replied ‘yeah, brother – so are we.’  Then he realized it – the train crashed and he’s dead [“on the wrong side of the dirt”].

Last Man on Earth – Or is he dead?  He said he woke up in a heaven, a very lonely place where he’s the only one there.  He could do anything he wanted – drink, smoke, break stuff, not bathe.  He wasn’t in any pain, and he was happy.  There was nobody to talk to, but he was okay with that since he didn’t like people anyway.

The Congregation – Steven is given the guided tour through Hell.  Although he had plans to go to Heaven after he dies, the tour guide knows better.  He told Steven he was supposed to be in Hell all along [his “application” for Heaven was denied].  Here Steven found others consigned to Hell – Wall Street folks, lawyers, telemarketers, and a defrocked priest. The tour guide thanks Steven for dropping by, but he knows Steven isn’t going anywhere, because he’s going to ‘fry’.

I’ll Bite Your Face Off – There are zombies in Steven’s version of Hell.

Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever – When he’s trying not to get eaten by zombies, disco rules in Steven’s version of Hell.  I know it would in mine – I hate disco [I’m sure Alice isn’t too fond of it, either].  But while he drinks champagne in the club, somebody come in and kills everybody [“Face the wall, count to ten, we mow you down, reload again…”].  And this is a recurring thing:
“Bodies here, bodies there, piles of bodies everywhere
On the chairs, on the door, disco bloodbath on the floor
Hear them yell, hear them scream, just like someone's scary dream
Dig a hole, push 'em in, tomorrow they'll be back again”

Ghouls Gone Wild – I thought this was a pun on the phrase from the notorious Girls Gone Wild videos, but this has nothing to do with girls.  It sounds like the zombies from I’ll Bite Your Face Off like disco clubs, and they’re hungry. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from seven seasons of The Walking Dead, zombies are always hungry.  They’re going to raise hell because they’re already in Hell.  These zombies like to dance, but they’ve gotta eat:

“We're gonna have a bash and we're glad you finally got here
Coz we're already trashed and the band is really hot here
We're gonna dance our heads off and we're gonna keep it tight
If we keep ourselves together we might make it through the night
Ghouls gone wild, wilder than before
We had a little taste and now we need a little more
Ghouls gone wild, screaming in the night
We're feeling kinda hungry and we came in for a bite”

Like Kenny from South Park, Steven watches the same people get killed every night in the disco, but then he has to avoid getting eaten by the dancing zombies.  It is Hell, after all…

When Hell Comes Home – This nightmare is all too real for Steven.  He has an abusive father who drinks a lot.  He likes to take Steven for drives when he’s drunk, and he routinely beats the crap out of Steven’s mother.  Tired of being scared, Steven plans to kill his dad and write his last goodbyes in his dad’s blood.  But that’s ok because Dad can’t bother Steven and his mom when he’s dead…

Something To Remember Me By – I have no idea how this song fits in the story.

What Baby Wants – Satan is a femme fatale named “Baby” [sung by Ke$ha].  What Baby wants, Baby gets…
[The Devil:] I gotta pretty face
[Steven:] Yeah but I've seen what's hiding underneath
[The Devil:] You like my pretty mouth
[Steven:] But you got razor blades instead of teeth
[The Devil:] And now it’s too too late for you
[Steven:] Oh yeah tell me what you gonna do
[The Devil:] I'm gonna drain your veins and bathe in your blood
[Steven:] Honey I seen worse then you
[The Devil:] I'll make you sit, beg, roll over, play dead
[Steven:] Ain't gonna be your little pet
[The Devil:] Oh really...

I Gotta Get Outta Here – Steven has been the last man on Earth, survived [or so he thought] the crash of a runaway train, saw people get killed night after night in a disco, avoided getting eaten by zombies, killed his father, and spent the night with Satan, who is really a She.  He doesn’t know why he’s in Hell, but he’d like to go home now.  However, he forgot the small detail about being dead.

[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "Nah.. excuse me?!?"
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "whoa whoa whoa wwait
a minute"
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "I'm sorry, are you talking to me?"
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "Hey I signed on for a nightmare.."
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "Really. I mean that's a little drastic don`t you think?"
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "I don't.. I.. I.. hey.. whoa..."
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "I get it.. but, but I don`t get it.."
[Choir:] "What part of dead don`t you get?"
[Alice:] "I'm sinking here.. Hello?"
[Choir:] "Yeah yeah yeah"

Steven is still dead, he’s in Hell, and he isn’t going anywhere.