Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dead Babies - The Dark Side of All You Need Is Love

Dead Babies - The Dark Side of All You Need Is Love
-by Bill Glahn-

A few years ago a music critic that I converse with frequently had a question. I’ll have to paraphrase because I don't have the emails anymore. Alice Cooper had been nominated for the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. The critic, who had a vote in the outcome, wasn't on the fence yet but seemed to at least have a foot on the rail. "What is the importance/relevance of Alice Cooper? If anyone can explain this it's probably Glahn."
My response went something along the lines of "I assume the nominee is The Alice Cooper Band and not Alice Cooper, the solo artist. Like past [and future] nominee Kiss, Alice Cooper came up with a unique stage presentation involving costumes and props. Unlike Kiss, their tales were imaginative and involved consequences. Whereas Kiss had one story - party all night - without even a hint of consequences. Alice Cooper were the voice of every runaway - every disaffected youth with a sense of abandonment." I made a mental note to expand on that thought, but never did - time restraints and all that. So this may seem like an example of grossly untimely journalism. But, then, maybe not.
It's true. What The Alice Cooper Band presented was rooted in Edgar Alan Poe. What Kiss presented was rooted in Penthouse Forum. Compare the literary importance of the first against the last and you might begin to understand why The Alice Cooper Band belongs in the HoF and Kiss doesn't - without even considering the musical accomplishments involved.
The Alice Cooper Band started out more as a visual arts ensemble that seemed to use their instruments as props for their stage performance rather than as any seriously integrated element. A singer with a grasp of the absurd, two guitar players that were still searching for that third chord needed to play convincing rock music, a drummer sounding like he was wandering around his first full kit - more noise than beat. And a bass player that seemed to be suffering from a severe case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Dennis Dunaway couldn't find a pocket in a pair of Big Smiths. But they had a batch of weird material like "Refrigerator Heaven" and “10 Minutes Before The Worm” (both ideas were once Poe themes). They weren't out of the mainstream enough to land on Frank Zappa's Bizarre Records, but they were weird enough to land on his Straight Records.
Then something happened between the second Straight release and the third (Love It To Death). The Alice Cooper Band learned to play their instruments. Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton would put enough chords together to play simple, but hook-laden rock songs - one, "I'm Eighteen" that would land the band in the charts. And the Neil Smith/Dennis Dunaway rhythm section had jelled into a force to be reckoned with - a dynamo that would drive it all home. This wasn't quite "Louie Louie" (that would come later with "School's Out"), but it DID strike a nerve with America's teen population. Love It to Death didn't supply any answers, but it did ask all the right questions and make all the right pronouncements. "I don't know what I want." "We've still got a long way to go." "Is it my body?" And isn't that what a great rock 'n' roll record is supposed to do?
When Love It to Death came out, the Vietnam War was in full swing. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were fairly recent assassination victims. Charles Manson was dominating the news. And Altamont had blown away the Woodstock myth the winter before. The establishment cry was "America - Love it or leave it." And here comes Alice Cooper with an album called Love It to Death - a most prescient title if there ever was one. Love It to Death contained only one song (actually a medley of three) that seemed tailor made for an "art ensemble" stage presentation, "The Ballad of Dwight Fry." Performed on stage in a straight jacket, Dwight Fry presents a protagonist in a mental institution, sane by most accounts. He escapes to a world where people are choking in the streets and reverts back to the sanity of the asylum. And at that point, disaffected youth in America had a spokesperson. "All you need is love" was false logic. Because the folks running America weren't capable of it - It wasn't in their DNA. The Dwight Fry medley closes on a comparatively optimistic note (if not for people, at least for the planet) with a song that was weird, even by AC standards. "Sun Arise" is an Aborigines folk lyric that pays homage to the sun. Translated to English and put to melody by Australian TV personality Rolf Harris, Alice Cooper rocks it up as possibly the only cover tune to grace an AC album. How they came upon it is a mystery to me - Rolf Harris had one hit in America - the Aussie-speak novelty tune, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down."

Alice Cooper went on to phenomenal success with their follow-ups: Killer, School's Out (where Dunaway puts his ADD bass to spectacular use), and the sometimes brilliant, sometimes dismal Billion Dollar Babies. The band's final album, Muscle of Love was a mish-mash of ideas that didn't add up to much but still produced the band's most balls-out (and dicks out) rocker, the title track. Kiss fans take note: Stack up your top ten Kiss celebrations of the male anatomy against this one and it would still be like comparing one of those little weinie hor'd’oeurves to John Holmes' junk. The missing ingredient is humor. When Alice Cooper spews jism they hit the bathroom door. When Kiss does it, they don't even reach the toilet rim.

Muscle of Love would also produce, arguably, the band's best sung and arranged song, the lamentably titled "Hard Hearted Alice." Muscle of Love closed the book on The Alice Cooper Band and "Hard Hearted Alice" should have been the closing song
But it's the Killer album that registers among all the Alice Cooper albums in my psyche these days. In particularly the song, "Dead Babies." If Alice Cooper took aim at the naiveté of The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" in the title of Love It To Death, they fire all cannons on Killer. And there are Beatles references that creep into the story if you look and listen close enough. The audacity of utilizing a trademark phrase of the early Beatles as a song title ("Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"). Then including a harp solo in that song that starts out (maybe too closely) resembling the one in "I Should Have Known Better" before collapsing into chaos. "You can be the devil, you can be the savior, I really can't tell by the way that you behave," sings Alice. Charles Manson and his Beatles fantasies are in the room. The follow-up tune is "Dead Babies." Like the Beatles psychedelic era, the band uses a phase shifter - but only under the lines "we didn't want/love/need you anyway." And like "All You Need Is Love" AC uses a horn section - one that doesn't end triumphantly - but rather with a Mariachi funeral march.

As a 15-year-old kid, I latched onto "Dead Babies" for different reasons than I do now. I was an adolescent holding onto the childish notion that I was the center of the universe. I was acting out - a chaotic rebellion that involved a lot of drugs and a lot of illegal activity. I wasn't thinking past a child’s idea that if I throw my half-full milk cup on the floor I can get a full cup in return. With no thought that there might not be a grown-up in the room that would care to complete the task at hand (something I was not able to do). "Dead Babies" spoke to my sense of abandonment - real or perceived.
As a 60 year-old grandfather, I hear it differently. 
When we were growing up, my mother always made a big deal about being of "strong German stock." Hard working. Abiding by the rules. Stern. These were things she was proud of and my brothers and sisters should be too. Of course, she always avoided the obvious.
It seems to be a fairly common perception that before WW2, Germany consisted of two very distinct kinds of people, Arians and Jews. From what I've read the reality was quite different. By the time the Nazis arrived, Jewish people had long been integrated into German society. As love and babies would have it, the blood lines were highly integrated as well. To such an extent that Nazis had to establish "maximum permissive levels" of Jewish ancestry to determine a "true Arian." My mom's maiden name is "Pfeffer," the (real) surname shared by the Jewish dentist in The Diary of Anne Frank. My grandmother was a Miller. Stories of Miller cousins sending letters in the '30s to family members urging them to return to the Fatherland and support the Reich had long circulated. When my Grandmother died, pictures of German cousins in full Nazi uniform were found in her belongings. Try wrapping your head around the very real possibility that one side of the (maternal) family murdered members of the other side. Instead of teaching my own kids the arrogance of "German superiority" I took them to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam to see the horror of it all for themselves.
Imagine what the world would look like if German school children had been encouraged to say "I PROTEST" instead of "SIEG HEIL." To get there, it is not enough for people of Jewish ancestry to adopt the phrase, "Never again." The rest of the world has to as well. I teach my grandchildren to say "I PROTEST," even at the expense of being disruptive. An "A" in obedience is not something to strive for.
There is a difference between being a brat (farting on purpose in a restaurant) and questioning authority (saying "I PROTEST"). "Dead Babies" is all about the ultimate consequence. If we neglect our children, our children will die. And not just American children. All children. This is not drama anymore - it's the reality of the world we live in. It's the reality of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's the reality of Ferguson, Mo. We can love our children and grandchildren, but if we don't teach them that it can be appropriate to act up, we will end up loving them to death.
Alice Cooper painted the consequences. And the great tragedy is that all those dead babies that have occurred since are unnecessary. Some songs are meant to be remembered throughout generations. Name one by Kiss.

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