Shock-rock legend Alice Cooper rose to fame by cultivating a diabolical image, but in real life the singer-songwriter lives a considerably less sinful life than you might have imagined – these days, at least.
While Cooper indulged heavily in the hedonistic rock star lifestyle in his earlier years, he comes from a devoutly Christian background. Once one of the hardest-partying men in music, Cooper credits his return to the faith in the mid-80s with saving his marriage, and miraculously curing him of his addictions.
Torn between church and rock ‘n’ roll
The man who would become Alice Cooper was born Vincent Damon Furnier in Detroit, Michigan on February 4, 1948. Both his father and grandfather were clergymen in the Church of Jesus Christ (a branch of Mormonism, although Cooper is not a Mormon today).
The future Cooper was active in the church in his younger years: he told NBC News in 1996, “I used to go up and do missionary work with [my father] with the Apaches in Arizona,” where his family relocated in the early 60s.
However, as he reached his teens something else emerged to draw the young man away from the faith: rock’n’roll. Young Vincent became the singer in a band he formed with four friends Cortez High School, and after going through a number of names (including The Earwigs, The Spiders and Nazz) they settled on the moniker of Alice Cooper, feeling the wholesome connotations of such a name provided an amusing contrast to their less-innocent look and sound.
As the band’s lead singer, Furnier came to use the name Alice Cooper as his own, and by 1975 – when the original band broke up – he legally changed his name to Alice Cooper, to avoid being sued over continuing to use the name as a solo artist. (Reportedly Cooper has made annual royalty payments to his four former bandmates ever since, due to their original shared ownership of the name.)
Fame and addiction struggles
Following an infamous 1969 incident in which a live chicken was torn apart at one of the band’s concerts, Cooper quickly developed a reputation as one of the scariest, most dangerous men in rock. Cooper threw himself into this, incorporating elaborate, horror movie-inspired stagecraft into his live shows, and writing controversy-courting songs like School’s Out and Elected.
Politicians and parents’ groups (with many outspoken Christians among them) publicly condemned Cooper, but this only helped him sell more records and concert tickets. However, along with this massive commercial success came an ever-increasing dependency on drugs and alcohol, which by the end of the 70s had become a serious problem.
Cooper has dubbed his first four albums of the 80s his “blackout albums,” claiming he has no memory of recording them due to his addiction at the time. Since 1976 he had been married to dancer Sheryl Goddard, but by November 1983 Goddard had filed for divorce, saying her husband’s rampant drinking and drug use made him impossible to live with.
A high-functioning alcoholic, Cooper admits to having consumed “a case of beer a day at least,” yet he was professional enough on stage that few recognised he had a problem. However, the singer explains that “internally my pancreas and liver were being destroyed. I woke up one morning and I threw up blood and that’s how I kind of knew it was over. My wife grabbed my ear and said, ‘Hey, the party’s over.’”
Path back to Christianity
Cooper and Goddard reconciled in 1984, and part of their agreement for giving their marriage another try “was we start going to church… I was a poster boy for everything wrong and then when I got sober and came back to the church I realized that’s where I belonged.” (Goddard also came from a Christian background; like Cooper, she was the child of a pastor.) They went on to have three children: daughters Sonora and Calico, and son Dashiell.
In getting clean and sober, we might assume that like most celebrity addicts Cooper checked into rehab and became a regular at his local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. However, Cooper did not take this path. Despite being by his own admission addicted to alcohol and drugs, he simply made the decision to stop, and he credits God with enabling him to do so.
Cooper remarked in a 2011 BBC interview, “I talk to atheists all the time… [who say] there is no God, there is no miracles. I say, ‘you’re looking at a miracle right now.’ I was the most addicted alcoholic on the planet. You never saw me without a drink.”
“I really believe God just took it away from me”
Cooper’s doctor had told him he would die if he continued to drink, but if he stopped his internal problems would, over time, heal naturally. On leaving hospital, Cooper recalls, “I went right into a bar. I sat down and I ordered a Coca-Cola, waiting for the craving [for alcohol] to come… and nothing happened.
“I had my Coca-Cola, and I left. I thought, by tomorrow this thing’s going to hit me like an avalanche, I’m going to wake up needing a drink. 30 years later, I have never had that craving. Even in the most pressured situation, the thought of having a drink never occurred to me. So I really believe God just took it away from me.”
For many, it may be hard to swallow the notion that one of the most ghoulish rock stars in history is a self-professed born-again Christian. This was not lost on Cooper himself, and the rocker admits he seriously contemplated retiring his stage persona on finding the faith.
“I went to my pastor and I said ‘I think I got to quit being Alice Cooper now,’ and he goes, ‘Really? Do you think God makes mistakes? Look where he put you, he put you in the exact camp of the philistines and you were basically the leader. Now what if you’re Alice Cooper but what if you’re now following Christ, and you’re a rock star but you don’t live the rock star life? Your lifestyle is now your testimony.’”
“I don’t do Christian rock, but I’m a Christian that does rock”
Ultimately, Cooper accepted this, arguing, “If you’re a disciple of Jesus… [it] doesn’t say anywhere in there that I can’t be a performer. It doesn’t say anything in there that I can’t be an artist.” Cooper has not toned down his performances since, nor has he changed his style of music (which includes his work with supergroup Hollywood Vampires, alongside Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and movie star Johnny Depp).
Contrasting his faith with his profession, Cooper states, “I don’t do Christian rock, but I’m a Christian that does rock.”
Cooper has also used his experience in overcoming addiction to help other rockers in the same situation, including Dave Mustaine of Megadeth who has called Cooper his “godfather.” In 2008, he was honoured by charity MusiCares for his efforts in helping recovering addicts, to whom he says, “I don’t think you need to die for your art.”
Nor does Cooper feel his faith in any way undermines his status as a rock icon, proclaiming, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion.” He also declares of Jesus, “you wanna talk about a rebel; he was the ultimate… there was never more of a rebel than Jesus Christ.”