Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A Is For Alice (Among Other Things)

ALICE COOPER Billion Dollar Babies (Rhino Records deluxe edition)

[Written over a decade ago when I was writing regularly and my pencil was sharper. Published in the 2003 edition of Alt. Culture Guide (Anthem Pop/Culture Publishing, Nashville). Thanks to Editor Keith A. Gordon for including it.]

The early ‘70s were a weird time to grow up in Trenton, NJ. The ‘60s had ended right on schedule when Art Holland regained the mayor’s post in 1970 after a 4-year hiatus. Holland, an affirmed bigot, would spend the next couple of decades trying to maintain an invisible wall to keep Blacks in “their” part of the city – out of Chambersburg (a predominantly Italian/white neighborhood on the south side) and the St. Hedwig’s area (Polish northern enclave). In Mr. Holland’s neighborhood “A” stood for “all white.”

But for the youth of Trenton and its surrounding townships, “A” stood for a few other things. For starters, “A” was for “acid.” And there was plenty of it making the rounds in those days. Most of it was a variety called Orange Sunshine that wasn’t as hallucinogenic as blotter acid, but contained a healthy dose of amphetamine that would keep you buzzing long hours after the trip was over. LSD for the working man. And like Baltimore, the city of my birth, Trenton defined working class.

A typical night involved eating acid to “My Stars” and “Halo of Flies” at a non-alcoholic club called The Time Machine (no curfew due to no alcohol). Youthful dopers would usually end up the following noon at The Edgewood Tavern, downing some brews to quench the pastiness in their mouths and curb the frantic electricity in their brains.  And in 1973 the most played tune on the Edgewood jukebox was “Generation Landslide.” “A” was for “Alice.”

I ran into Michael Bruce in Houston this past week. Although the early ‘70s Alice Cooper albums are still no strangers to my CD player, I haven’t really kept up with the re-releases. So I was surprised to find out from Bruce that Billion Dollar Babies had received a deluxe remastering last year that included a second disc made up almost entirely of concert material recorded in Dallas and Houston in 1973. I had seen that tour at the Philadelphia Spectrum and knew that it was pretty much a shambles. But curiosity got the best of me, so I just had to pick one up. Talk about flashbacks!

When most people think of acid in a musical context, they think of The Grateful Dead. Not Alice Cooper. But I can’t think of any of my peers from the Trenton area in those days that were into the Dead. You certainly couldn’t find “Casey Jones” or “Sugar Magnolia” on the Edgewood jukebox. Both of those tunes were released as 45s, so that wasn’t the reason. I grew up in Ewing Township (where The Edgewood was located), a racially mixed suburb just over the North Trenton line and outside of the “protective” segregationist policies of Art Holland. For the most part, we viewed ourselves more in terms of class than race. White, Black, Puerto Rican… it didn’t matter. For most of us, a bright future meant an assembly line job at the General Motors Fisher Auto Body plant, the largest employer in our neck of the woods. We didn’t have the luxury of viewing ourselves as a small communal center of the universe. There was a hard world out there that we would have to deal with, and we knew it. We identified with Alice, not Jerry.

In retrospect, Alice was the perfect primer. Mixed in there among the buzzing flies (“Halo”) and majestic piano parts (“My Stars”) that sounded so righteous to a brain on acid, were the catch phrases. “I’ve got the answers to all of your questions, if you’ve got the money to pay me in gold.” We knew where we stood on that one. The dark humor of “all I need is a holocaust to make my day complete”… we found that laughing at our situation made it more tolerable. And as we were coming down to the sounds of “Generation Landslide” we knew that “decadent brains were at work to destroy” was a warning worth heeding. Let the privileged Ivy Leaguers at Princeton (a bastion of Deadheads in the early ‘70s) live in their illusion that they could go “Truckin’” off to a life of constant bliss. We had to go to work the next day. And besides. The dead were boring. Alice was so much smarter and meaner. “Smart” and “maen” were the tools we needed to get by.

So here I am in 2002 with my brand new copy of Billion Dollar babies, listening closer than I have in years. It starts off with Alice’s amusement at being the object of idol worship (“Hello Hooray”). And it finally dawns on me after almost 30 years that it closes with a mockery of idol worship gone amuck (“I Love The Dead”). Was Alice taking his own shots at the Dead and their legions, disguising it as a sort of Vincent Price B-movie? “I never even knew your rotting face.” Am I giving Alice too much credit here? Probably. But taken in this context, “I Love The Dead” is Cooper at his smartest and meanest. And in my mind, that just moved Billion Dollar Babies from a “B” grade to an “A.” (Bill Glahn)