Love It To Death: An Interview with Alice Cooper Bassist
Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper is a special album to me for many reasons. First of all, it was released on my birthday, February 15th, in 1973, which was a pretty crazy year in general. Secondly, the entire album is fantastic, but Billion Dollar Babies also has my second favorite Alice Cooper song on it, which is “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” That song is the shit. Last but not least, it’s the only vinyl LP I own by the original Alice Cooper group that has the signatures of four out of five original band members (Glen Buxton, RIP) on the sleeve. I have that album framed and hanging on a wall in my apartment. I think I love it, I love it to death.
I have one Alice Cooper story from which all of my other Alice Cooper stories germinate. I’ve told this story in part many times over the years in other articles I’ve written about Alice Cooper (the band and the individual) and various members of the original band, but I don’t think it’s ever been printed in full. Now is definitely the time to do that. All through elementary school I had a best friend named Vicky Francis. Vicky was super badass and I was a total dork, but we were best friends nevertheless. We did everything together. Vicky had two older brothers and an older sister named Wendy, who was probably a year or two ahead of us in school. Wendy smoked cigarettes and wore crop tops and low rise jeans and she scared the shit out of me because she was so cool and dangerous. She looked like the kind of teenage girl who would grow up to knock over a liquor store or something. Wendy also liked all the coolest rock bands and was responsible for turning me on to Cheech & Chong (“Dave’s Not Here”) and Iron Butterfly among many other things. I was just in awe of her.
One day I was over at Vicky’s house and, since she and Wendy shared a bedroom, we walked in on Wendy listening to her new copy of Billion Dollar Babies. It was the number one album at the time and the single, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was all over the radio. Although it was my favorite song to hear on the radio, I didn’t know anything about the band that sang it, because I was so retarded. Well, the song we walked in on was “I Love The Dead” which is a pretty fucked up song to walk in on when the music you’ve been exposed to up to that point is along the lines of The Beatles and the Beach Boys. The segue from “Ticket to Ride” to “I Love the Dead” is, well, a bit of a stretch.
Wendy handed me the album cover and it opened to reveal a collection of trading card sized photos of the members of Alice Cooper. My first reaction was to loudly exclaim, “They’re all so ugly! Except for him!” “Him” was bass player Dennis Dunaway. Dennis looked super foxy with his long hair and hot smile. I fell in love with him in about two seconds.
A year or so later, my crush on Dennis was replaced by a crush on Roger Daltrey. Aquarians can be fickle like that. But even in the years where I was crushing on more flamboyant and much less heterosexual rockers, whenever I’d hear Alice Cooper’s music I’d think about foxy Dennis Dunaway and how much that band had ruled. Dennis Dunaway was always my idea of a rock and roll fantasy boyfriend and, along with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Queen, Alice Cooper’s music is indispensable to me.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. Through a complete accident, I ended up meeting Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith and writing a series of articles on him, one of which appeared in Ink 19. Neal and I keep in touch, and since he and Dennis still play together in a band called Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith, I decided to call in a favor and ask Neal to hook me up with Dennis for an interview. Neal was happy to oblige and that’s how I ended up on the phone for two hours with a rock star I had a crush on when I was 12. He’s also a pretty dame fine bass player.
What made you decide to pick up the bass?
In 1963, I went to see Hercules Unchained at the Phoenix Fox Theater. The opening movie -Â because they had double features in those days – was Disney’s Peter Pan. Between movies, Duane Eddy and the Rebels came out and played three or four songs, and they rocked the house. There were only three or four guys but when they got done playing I said, “That’s what I want to do!” (Laughs).
Wow, how old were you then?
I was 17, I guess. I’m the oldest one from the original band. I was probably a sophomore in high school. That’s right at the time when I met Vince (Furnier, AKA Alice Cooper), because he was a freshman at Cortez High School. Anyway, I said “I’ve gotta do that,” and I told Vince, “Let’s start a band!” [laughs] We did, but it started as a joke. At that point, everybody else decided what instrument they would play in the band. Vince was going to play harmonica and he was good at remembering lyrics, so he was the singer. Glen (Buxton) already played guitar and John Tatum already played guitar, and John Speer decided to take over drums. That’s when we were called The Earwigs.
To get enough money to buy my bass, I went to Oregon and worked on my grandfather’s farm. Vince and I had corresponded through letters while I was gone, talking about what we were planning to do. Basically it was what Beatles songs we were going to learn first, and that type of thing. When I came back to Phoenix after that summer, Glen went with me to Montgomery Ward and we picked out this bass that was called an Airline bass. I’d go over to Glen’s house and we’d pick out the notes of our favorite songs. In the real early days, we’d listen to Chet Atkins and Les Paul because those were Glen’s favorites. My record player at home was so bad, when I first started playing bass, I couldn’t even pick out the bass notes. I couldn’t distinguish them from a guitar note. I’d go over to Glen’s and he’s the one that taught me the names of the notes and where they fell on the neck and how patterns were set up as well as how to tune and stuff like that.
Who were your early influences?
When the Stones came out, we became big Stones fans, so I really cut my teeth on the blues patterns of Bill Wyman. Then a friend of Glen’s brought over a Yardbirds record, and that was it. The progressive style of Paul Samwell-Smith from the Yardbirds probably influenced my bass playing more than anyone. We even opened for the Yardbirds when they came to Phoenix, Arizona; that was probably in 1965 or ‘66. We opened with all Yardbirds songs [laughs] and they couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t even believe anybody had heard of them in the middle of the desert, let alone played all of their songs. By the time the band had moved to California, we suddenly decided we were going to find our own style. We had mastered being copy cats, so we took a big step back.
What happened in California?
When we moved to LA we found ourselves at a loss for how to play. We could copy the Stones and the Beatles and Yardbirds, but when it came to thinking of what we wanted to do, even Alice went into a slump by turning his back to the audience. What we did, musically, is that we jammed a lot, so we improvised and sort of dropped our focus for writing – just churning out singles, like we had on a couple of recordings we’d done before that – because we were trying to find our own thing. Experimentation took top priority.
Isn’t that about the time Neal Smith joined the band?
Yeah, the drummer we had at that time, John Speer, who was with the Earwigs and the Spiders, didn’t fancy starving. He wanted to write hit songs, so that’s where the musical differences came into play. At that time, we brought in Neal, which was an important thing concerning bass playing. The drummer you play with goes hand-in-hand more than any other instrument with how you play and the patterns that work best. With John Speer it was a heavy-handed, powerful drumming. It reminded me of Buddy Miles in the amount of power and the heavy foot – heavy everything. He would go through drum skins like crazy. Neal had a much lighter touch but he was extremely fast, and also extremely quick to go with the flow of wherever the music went. My bass playing found an original direction as soon as Neal arrived. It was the right time for me to open up and go my own direction.
What guitars are you currently playing? Do you have one favorite bass?
The original bass I had with the mirrors on it was the Gibson EB-0 that I’d spray painted metallic green, because I used to do model cars and that was my favorite color [laughs]. I even used model car paint. But we called it the “Frog” because it’s green. The reason I was associated with frogs is because my wife Cindy used to think I smiled like a frog [laughs]. That’s the frog bass that’s now in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It just went on tour with the Harley Davidson’s Rebels of Rock 100th Anniversary Tour. It went all around the world. I was telling Neal, I wished we were opening for my bass because it’s on a better tour than we could get [laughs]. It was funny because Joe, Neal and I played a set in Cleveland [last year] – Mike Bruce was there as well. This was the night before I loaned the bass to the Hall of Fame. I hadn’t played that bass in quite a while but I got it all adjusted with new strings and played it that night. When I took it to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, this girl opens the case and puts on these white cotton gloves and carefully lifts it out of the case. I said to her, pardon me if you see me smiling but if you’d seen me bashing that thing around on stage last night you would find the humor in that as well [laughs].
Anyway, that Gibson was my first mirrored bass. Actually the mirrors on that were inspired by Little Richard. We’d played in Toronto and he had on a vest with some mirrors on it. We were, at that time, trying to think of ways to break down the barriers between the band and the audience. Half the time, the barrier went all the way to the back door, because the room would empty out so fast when we played [laughs]. So I thought, when a spotlight hits the bass, the reflection from the mirrors would send rays across the room and break down the barrier. Throwing things into the audience worked as well.
The bass I play now with BDS is my 1970 Fender Jazz Bass. That’s my favorite one, with a three-piece maple neck and black inlaid fret markers.
What’s special about that bass?
It’s been my favorite since 1970, actually. We got to a point where the producers couldn’t get the sound they needed for a particular song, so we had somebody go out and rent a bass. The rental cost ended up being more than the cost of the bass, so I got to keep it. As a band, we had lost a lot of instruments on the road. Glen lost a pink Les Paul guitar right from under the bed in a NYC hotel room with about eight guys sleeping in it. But I had lost a couple of basses. I’d hide them behind the curtain in my room and stuff like that but they’d still come up missing. When I took that Fender on the road, I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I had it for recording, so I bought another 1970 Jazz bass just like it, except in white. I bought third one, also white, and I still have all three of them even though one I’ve painted green. One of them was used on the John Lennon Rock N’ Roll album by a friend of ours, Rockin’ Reggie Vincent. He co-wrote “Billion Dollar Babies.”
That’s really cool.
It seems more like it was fate, in retrospect, but at the time we were just in the studio recording and John Lennon was in the other studio – and he needed a bass. That was when I was working on Neal’s Platinum God album with Jack Douglas producing. He, of course, went on to produce John Lennon’s last album.
During the songwriting process, do you write your bass parts to fit in the song between vocals, guitar, drums, etc.? Or do you write your bass parts to dictate what some of the other instruments, especially the vocals, will do?
The thing that keeps me loving music is that there’s so many different ways to write a song. I’m a bass player, so I think like a bass player. Even when I write on a guitar, I usually have a bass part in mind. As far as writing parts, bass, to me, is a puzzle. Working with the Alice Cooper Group, I had to conform to the bass drum and to the chord changes, the structure. At times I would force the song to go in the direction of the bass part, but usually I was going with how Neal fell into a particular direction. Then I’d make my bass part complement that. Also, if I heard Glen doing a particular guitar line suddenly, I would go that direction. It was very fluid that way. I did that mainly because I didn’t want to be like other bass players.
I wanted to be as different as possible. That’s why I preferred dissonant notes, even though I would usually tame them down so they’d be palatable. I had my chance [to do things completely my way] in the early days, on Pretties For You, because that was the direction I wanted the band to go. I wanted to be as avant-garde as we could possibly be. The band did go that direction, they gave it a good chance, but we got to the point where we decided that, no matter what you play, if nobody’s listening, it’s not doing you any good. Just when Michael had become more prolific at his songwriting and I had become more prolific with my bass parts – the whole band had gotten better across the board – that’s when we met Bob Ezrin. The timing could not have been more perfect. It also couldn’t have been more perfect in the respect that the band was at the point where we didn’t know if we’d be able to go on the way we had been. We’d just spent too many years living out of suitcases and scrounging for food.
Once Alice Cooper hooked up with Bob Ezrin, the band’s whole vibe changed. What kind of an impact did Bob’s production have on your playing?
By the time we met Bob, we’d already written the songs “I’m Eighteen,” “Caught in a Dream,” and quite few of those songs [on Love It To Death], which Bob didn’t do that much to turn around. However, Bob had an incredible focusing element on the whole thing, and we accepted him pretty much as part of the band. He even played on stage with us occasionally. I really loved working with Bob because he was smart enough to recognize the chemistry we had going, as volatile as it seemed from an outside perspective. He was very keen in letting me and Neal do our abstract experimentation. Neal would try every drum part in the world before deciding on what he was going to do, say, going into a bridge. I did the same thing; we were just way, way out there, but Bob would allow us to do that. Then when we hit on something that worked, instead of letting us keep going off in different directions, he’d say, “Wait a minute, Neal, that bass drum cuts it,” or “Dennis, in that bass part, you just need to change a couple of notes and that’s it. So stick with that.” He was very focusing in that he jumped in at the right time.
He was also great in producing the bass, even though I usually thought it could have had more bottom end. He did have a great point in that you could hear every note I ever played. I never played a note on any recording that you can’t hear, which is unusual. How many bands from that era can you say that about? There’s a few, but in a lot of them the bass parts would get lost.
I sort of put you in a category of three: John Entwistle, Chris Squire and you, for being the three bassists I can name who played the bass like a lead instrument.
That’s very flattering. I see myself as different from them, technically. I mean, John Entwistle was impeccable technically, as is Chris Squire. I do take it as a compliment because I see both of them as innovative bass players. I think if I’d have a little bit of an influence it would be comparable to Paul McCartney as well, in that I liked to write parts that were counter-melodies – or at least a little bit different feel than the lead melody. Unlike Paul McCartney, though, I would have a problem singing while I’m playing, because of that. My bass part would be a little bit off with the flow of the singing. Now, when I play guitar I have no problem at all because the rhythm is in touch with the meter of the vocals. This sounds crazy, but I think if people didn’t know Paul McCartney’s image, if he didn’t sing so great and write such great songs, people would cite him as one of the greatest bass players of all time. His bass playing always seems to be overshadowed by his other abilities.
I totally agree, because anything he could do on any instrument will always be overshadowed by the fact that he was a member of the Beatles. And he just happened to play the bass.
Following that, your bass parts in Alice Cooper were extremely unique, especially on pieces where you, Glenn and Michael worked out individual counterpoints that intertwined and yet retained a garage feel, such as “You Drive Me Nervous,” “Second Coming-Ballad of Dwight Fry,” “Halo of Flies,” and so many more. Your tone was also a bit more guitar-like to facilitate the line playing. “Gutter Cat Versus the Jets” is a great example of this. Do you have any thoughts or comments on that observation?
As far as using all of the instruments together, I think we were doing that even way back when we lived in LA (late ’60s). If you listen to “Fields of Regret” (off Pretties For You, 1969) at the middle break, you can hear a part where Glen strokes the strings behind the bridge and then Michael plays his part and then I play my bass part and it keeps moving like that. I used to always try to make parts like that happen, providing it fit the song. Alice sometimes was the catalyst, but his approach was more like coming from a Burt Bacharach point of view. He would orchestrate us in the rehearsal room when we’re writing a song. He liked to point to Michael, then point to me, then point to Glen, that type of thing [laughs]. It also had a lot to do with Michael and Glen having completely different guitar tones and guitar styles, yet still being able to complement each other. I think they were one of the greatest guitar teams that have ever come around. I’m not sure who else was as complementary. There were times I had parts that I thought were too overpowering to what the pocket of the song was going for. I would think, “Perhaps I shouldn’t play this bass line that jumps out way up the neck.” But then I’d usually tell myself, “I’m going to do it anyway,” because that’s what I like to do [laughs]. I didn’t do it to be a stand out, lead bass player. I was just a bass player that wasn’t afraid to play up the neck.
School’s Out is the album for me where your lines seem to be leading the songs, more than on any other Alice Cooper album.
I can see how people would say that. Like I said, I never looked at myself as a lead bass player. When it came to production, Bob Ezrin was the driving force. When it came to songwriting, Michael Bruce was the driving force Â- as was Alice, lyrically Â- and when it came to feel, Glen was the driving force. Glen actually influenced our songs far more than people give him credit for, even within the group, I think. Glen could change the direction of a song just with one note, because the feel would be that radical. I always saw myself, artistically and creatively Â- and as far as always striving for something unique -Â as the driving force of the band, and I was relentless. The other guys kind of looked at me as a workaholic, but I don’t look at it as work because it was fun! [Laughs] It’s really all I thought about day and night. I would wake up from a dream and write a song, as I did on “Killer.” “Killer” was actually a dream that I had where I was floating down death row with a killer. I worked it up and I took it to Michael Bruce and we nailed the song in one evening.
Part II of this interview will run on Friday, May 14, 2004 ◼