Monday, May 13, 2019

Interview -- Dennis Dunaway (Alice Cooper)

"All that I know 
is all that I think.
Dead feelings are cool,
down lower I sink."
~  Alice Cooper  ~

RnR HoF bassist Dennis Dunaway, an original member of Alice Cooper, is a writer and performer of some unnerving songs.  Some wonderfully wicked, unnerving songs.  Even their famously euphoric anthems, “I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out" have an underlying hint of danger wandering beneath.  A fuzzy shade of darkness that you can almost touch.  But not quite.  Like magician Shin Lim, you can see the smoke coming out of his mouth, but you're not sure how it got there.  It's just there.

Other songs are not as subtle.  No hidden agendas here.  Songs like, "Killer," "Black Juju," "Dead Babies," and "Halo Of Flies."  It is what it is.  Haunting and in your face.  The kind of vibes that throw creepy sugar into the night.  I haven't forgotten about the theatrical pizzazz of Alice, for sure...but the rest of the band definitely knew where the freezer was hidden.  Dennis Dunaway, along with the rest of the original Coop Group, were trailblazers.  They were door-openers.  Authentic spoonbenders.  And many a band have proudly hitched a ride on their coattails.  The original Alice Cooper group made 7 brazen albums together.  And they are a pretty good watermark for remembering to write all your nightmares down in a dream book.  RnR HoFamer Dennis Dunaway.  Go get you some.

 Dennis Dunaway Interview -- May 2019
Dennis Dunaway

Casey Chambers:  One of my favorite songs you've written is "Black Juju" from your "Love It To Death" album. (1971)  Epic atmosphere all over it.  Great headphone song.  How did that song come together?

Dennis Dunaway:  How it began...we were in an old hotel or probably a motel up in...I think it was Rochester, New York or Buffalo or somewhere in upstate New York and the other guys in the band had gone out.  And there was a room, off of the room we were staying in, that had a washing machine and a water heater. (laughs)  That stuff.  I went in there just trying to get in the mood to write a creepy song.  I took the little door off of the water heater and could see the flame inside it.  I had all the lights out.  And I set up this little tiny amp and I had my bass.  And I wrote the riff.  That little amp...the speaker was just about to blow because I was really pushing it for the distortion.  When Glen Buxton got back, I showed it to him and he learned the guitar part.

I had the instrumental part down, but I wanted to wait until another moody environment came along to write some lyrics.  I wanted them to be like...I wasn't thinking necessarily Edgar Allan Poe...but in that sort of direction.  Somehow, the band ended up in Cincinnati and we didn't have a place to stay.  Some guy at a club told us about a frat house that would be empty all summer.  And if we wanted would be fine if we stayed there for free.  And we're like, 'What? Really!?'   When we went to the big frat house, everybody cleaned it up and we claimed our rooms and got settled down.  I was just exploring around the house and I went way up to the attic.  It was very hot in there.  And the windows needed to be cleaned.  They looked kind of orange with the sunlight coming through, but the rest of the room was dark.  You could kind of see some trunks over in the corner and stuff, but it was really dark.  I got my bass and note pad and it was there I wrote the lyrics.  I went down and showed them to Alice and he liked them.

Now, we were going to play at the Cincinnati Midsummer Pop Festival or something like that and it was going to be broadcast nationally.  The Stooges were on the bill. Traffic was on the bill.  Mountain.  Grand Funk Railroad.  It was a big concert at a baseball stadium.  And I think it was NBC.  They had all their sportscasters, so they decided they would announce this rock concert like it was a baseball game.  And I talked the band into doing this song.  We hadn't really even played it.  I just described the arrangement and stuff on the way to the concert and then we ran over it a little bit backstage. (laughs)  But we played that song for the first time ever live on television.

Casey Chambers:  Oh, man.  That's balls and a half.

"Black Juju" - Alice Cooper / "Love It To Death" (1971)

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah.  You can look it up.  And we had stolen all the sheets from the hotel, too, because we were going to cover each band member up...under a sheet...toward the end of "Black Juju."  And Alice did.  He covered each one of us up with a sheet.  Because 'bodies need rest.' (laughs)  But the one thing we hadn't planned out well was...' how are we going to cue the ending?'  Nobody could see each other.  So the ending of it kind of dwindled. (laughs)  But the most famous part of that concert was in the middle of "Black Juju."   Alice was crouched down right in front of the crowd when somebody threw a cake in his face.  Right in the middle of the song.

Casey Chambers:  What did he do?

Dennis Dunaway:  Well, you know...this is a great tribute to Alice's ability to recover.  You know, we did a lot of things that were kind of embarrassing in those days. We kind of liked that it kept people's attention.  But that was totally unexpected and it came at exactly the wrong place in the set because Alice was 'hypnotizing' the audience supposedly.  And Alice grabbed a big handful of the cake and you could see that he was thinking about retaliating.  And you could see all the people up front that had nowhere to go getting nervous about who he was going to throw that handful of cake at.  But then Alice smashed it into his own face!

Casey Chambers:  That'd make you take the tater outta your pocket. (laughs)

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah. (laughs)  I don't know how many way up in the stands could see what was going on... they didn't have big screens back then...but they showed it on television.  And then when Alice put the sheet over Neal (Smith) and everybody was covered...Alice flipped his sheet out toward the crowd and they grabbed it and almost pulled him into the crowd.  So he had to let go and run underneath Neal's sheet.  And when the cameraman went under the sheet with him to show a close-up of Neal who had on turquoise makeup...Neal started blowing kisses to the camera.  We found out later that that was the first time they knew of in television history where a lot of the syndicated stations across the country pulled the plug.  Usually, if a station was going to bail on a live performance, they would wait until the next commercial break.  But, no.  They cut us off right after Neal blew kisses to the camera. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  The epic "Black Juju" jam gets better all the time.

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, and ya know, "Black Juju"  was one of the only songs that the Alice Cooper group recorded live in the studio with the vocals and everything all at once.  We recorded it and said, 'We got a take.'  Except Michael (Bruce) had played this dissonant chord on the organ that he said, 'Well, that's not what I wanted to play. That was a mistake.'  So we recorded it again.  But then when we were listening and comparing the two tracks in the studio, the only thing that was different was that dissonant organ note. And we all voted that we liked that better than the proper note. So, we ended up getting it in one take after all.

"Be My Lover" - Alice Cooper / "Killer" (1971)

Casey Chambers:  Happy accidents.  Sometimes mistakes are good.

Dennis Dunaway:  That's right.  We thought of it almost like...if somebody made a mistake and we liked it...that was sort of fate telling us that's what we should do.  Like another one is Neal Smith on the end of "Be My Lover." There's a part in the ending where there's a break and you hear these two clicks.  That's because Neal dropped his drum stick and you hear it landing on the shell of the bass drum.  It goes, 'click click.'  And we could have cut that out of the song, but we liked it.  And to this day, Neal will still click his sticks together right in that part of the song.

Casey Chambers:  Very cool.  Yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about.  I'm sure a lot of fans, myself included, just assumed it was intended all along.

Dennis Dunaway:  Right, well it wasn't. (laughs) Neal was fast though because ya know, he had his little sheaf with his extra drum sticks right there and grabbed another drum stick just in time to finish the song properly.

Casey Chambers:  Cherry-picking as I do, you were responsible for writing "Killer"...the title track of the band's 4th album along with Michael Bruce.  A tasty gem.  Plus it's always bonus when your song becomes the album name.  What was the genesis?

Dennis Dunaway:  When you're traveling a lot through different time zones, up late because of a concert and knowing you have to get up early to get to the next town and all takes a while to wind down.  It was either we'd totally pass out or we just couldn't get completely to sleep.  Sleep was rarely...a deep sleep.  So I had this...I still have it...this pile of notebooks.  I call them dream poems.  And I got in the habit of when I woke up from a dream, I would write it down as fast as I could before it disappeared.  Like dreams do.  "Killer" was a dream poem.

I was floating...kind of like the way the artist (Marc) Chagall had people float in the air. (laughs)  I was floating alongside this guy that was on death row.  He's walking down this hallway to where the electric chair was and I could hear his thoughts.  And the lyrics were his thoughts.  'What did I do to deserve such a fate?'  Y'know, like that.  And then I came up with that bassline.  The Alice Cooper group had a rehearsal at the Pontiac farm outside of Detroit and we would rehearse 10 hours a day.  And when we finished a full day of rehearsal and everybody was packing up, I said, 'Michael, I have this song idea. You want to work on it with me?'  And he went over...he had already put his guitar in his case and I was hoping that he would play guitar... but he went over to the organ.  Even though I had a more sprawling idea for it, Michael kind of did what Bob Ezrin did for, "I'm Eighteen."  Cut out the fat and made it more of a concise thing.  And we knocked it out.  I said, 'Should we record this or we remember it?'  And Michael said, 'We're gonna remember this.'  Then we went up to the house and told the band about it and the next day we all worked the song out.  I still have those lyrics actually that I wrote down.  The dream poem.  That song, by the way, is one of my favorite things that Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton did to compliment each other's playing styles.  The intro, how the guitars intertwine, the two different sounding guitars and how they work together, especially on headphones...I love the intro of that song.

"Killer" - Alice Cooper / "Killer" (1971)

Casey Chambers:  Yeah, absolutely. Me too.  The entire band is credited with writing one of the most anthemic songs ever..."School's Out."  It captures the euphoria of the last day of school, yet still retains the Alice Cooper undercurrent of shadows.  When did you first get to put your bass on that song?

Dennis Dunaway:  Well, almost every song that the Alice Cooper group did was done together in the studio.  Somebody would hit on some idea.  Anyway, "I'm Eighteen" really targeted the record buying age.   But "Be My Lover" and "Under My Wheels" didn't quite hit that same group in the way "I'm Eighteen" we thought, 'Well, let's target the teenagers again.' (laughs)

And of course, everybody in the Alice Cooper group went to school in Phoenix, Arizona at the same time.  Alice and Glen and I went to Cortez High School, and you could practically throw a rock and hit Camelback where Neal went to school.  And Mike went to school at North High. So we were all on the same page.  It was easy for us to relate to each other's memories of being in school. It was a natural.

Once we decided we were going to do a song about school, Neal and I decided it should be militant. It should be very aggressive because we're all really happy to be out of school.  So the bassline was written with that in mind.  And the drums...the middle kind of a bolero part.  We wanted the song to be more militant, but when it comes to the 'no more teachers' part, I wanted the bass to sound like a little kid, so I lightened it up there.

Casey Chambers:  And the song went sick.

"School's Out" - Alice Cooper / "School's Out" (1972)

Dennis Dunaway:  Y'know, out of all the songs we did, with maybe the exception of "Elected"..."School's Out" was the one song everybody knew right from the beginning when we were writing it, that it was going to be a hit.  Everything just fell into place so perfectly.  By the time "I'm Eighteen" came out...we already had our first two albums..."Pretties For You" and "Easy Action"...under our belts and we thought both of those albums were going to set the world on fire...and they didn't.  So we were gun shy at that point as far as opening any champagne before anything happened. (laughs)  But with "School's Out" we just knew it.  You always try to make every song the greatest song you ever wrote, but sometimes the creative gods are kinder to you. (laughs)  Sometimes writing a song is like pulling "You Drive Me Nervous."  That one we kept shelving over the years and coming at it from different directions.  That song was a lot of work.  The same with "Elected."  It began as "Reflected" and went through all of these different versions until it turned into "Elected."  But "School's Out" kind of fell in our laps.  It was just so easy.  And I think the best songs are like that.

Casey Chambers:  And the song lives on forever in tons of movies.  "Scream" jumps to my mind.

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, that was cool.  And I was also really proud that it was in The Ramones movie.

Casey Chambers:  Sure.  "Rock! Rock!  Rock 'N' Roll High School."

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, I was especially happy that they chose it for that.  It's always a big compliment anytime that happens.  Or when bands cover our songs.  It's just a big compliment.  I'm in a band called Blue Coupe with Joe and Albert (Bouchard) of Blue Oyster Cult.  And they have a very solid following as well.   No matter where we play, usually the crowd is about 50/50 Alice Cooper fans and Blue Oyster Cult fans.  And they're like, 'Wow, there's like an Alice Cooper Tribute Band in every town.'   And I'll say, 'Yeah, well there must be Blue Oyster Cult Tribute Bands.'   And they'll say, 'Well, we've never heard of one.' (laughs)  But of course, it's always a big compliment.

"You (Like Vampires)" - Blue Coupe / "Tornado on the Tracks" (2010)

Casey Chambers:  I'd read somewhere about an all-star jam session that involved the Alice Cooper group.  I believe that Marc Bolan put it together.  I'm not a hundred percent sure on that...

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, it happened.  We had been doing some touring in England and we still needed a couple more songs for the "Billion Dollar Babies" album. So the band flew to the Canary Islands and stayed at this brand new hotel where they were still constructing the upper rooms up on the roof.  We were the first people to ever stay there and we had the roadies bring up amps and drums.  We wrote "Generation Landslide" there.  After that, we flew back to the Morgan Studios outside of London.  Donovan was working there and Marc BolanHarry Nilsson was there.  And Keith Moon, who had had way too much to drink.  And they kept busting into our session...knocking stuff over and falling down and being loud and we had to keep kicking them out.

Well, one day they came in and Harry Nilsson just went into the control room and fell right across the control board that had all of the settings.  We'd spent hours getting the settings to record this song.  So Bob Ezrin said, 'We're not gonna get anything done today. You know, we can't start over on this today. So, let's just let'em play and have a jam.'  (laughs)

So yeah, it was an off the wall jam, totally.  It was Harry Nilsson who couldn't walk, but he could sit down with a piano and play these beautiful songs.  And Keith Moon, who could barely stay on the drum stool, let alone keep a beat.  Ric Grech of Blind Faith was playing bass.  I jammed for a little bit and then I just handed him my bass.  Flo and Eddie were there...Mark and Howard from The Turtles.  And at that point, Flo and Eddie...were touring with us.  Donovan and Alice were there and the rest of the Coops.  And, then Marc Bolan showed up with his guitar.  He walked in with his guitar ready to jam.  He plugged into a Marshall and started playing, "Bang A Gong" and for the first time of the night, all of a sudden...something kind of sounded like a real song. (laughs)  Especially with those incredible harmonies.  Not only Flo and Eddie but Harry Nilsson.  The next day we started listening back to the recording and said, 'Well...oh my God...this is terrible.' (laughs)  I actually have some of the recordings and it just sounds like a crazy wild party.  It doesn't sound that musical.

Casey Chambers:  You were living in a totally different world!  Thank you for sharing.  You came out with your own book not too long ago. Tell us a bit about that.

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, it came out in 2015.  I decided to write the book in 1997 when I was in the hospital.  I have Crohn's disease and at the time, I had to stay in the hospital for a month to build up my strength...enough that I would be able to survive the surgery.  And all of this fan mail started coming in from all over the world.  I was thinking, 'Wow, fans really remember me.  That's very cool.'  Plus that tied together with my daughters both hearing me correct every interview about Alice Cooper that was incorrect.  They'd hear me and say, 'Dad, shut up and write the book.' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  "Nip it in the bud!"  So was the book hard to write?

Dennis Dunaway:  I started writing the book in '97 and I didn't have the book in my hand until 2015.  It took more years for me to write about it, than the actual events of the original Alice Cooper group. (laughs)  But it came out in 2015 and it's still going strong.  It's amazing.  It went through its third printing.  It's been released in paperback with a new introduction by Alice...which is so flattering.  I told Alice I read it and now I'm not worthy of myself. (laughs)

There's also a documentary about a book signing event we did at Good Records in Dallas.  The owner, Chris Penn did most of the work helping me organize it.  We had the original group, including Alice, do a surprise concert at his record store and they filmed it.   The film is called, "Live From The Astroturf: Alice Cooper" and it looks and sounds great.  Bob Ezrin mixed it.  The reason it's called "Live From The Astroturf" is the stage where they'd have musicians play is made of green astroturf.  But because the front of my book has pink panties on it, he got pink astroturf. (laughs)  The film has also received a few awards.  Best Documentary Short at the Phoenix Film Festival.  And Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Dallas International Film Festival.  It was shown at the Film Festival in Detroit, too and received a very warm reception there.  It's just been amazing.  Hopefully, Netflix or another will pick it up.

Casey Chambers:  I hope so.  I'd really like to watch that.  Big congrats!

"Live from the Astroturf Trailer" (2015)

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, one thing leads to another. There's so many hours and so much hard work behind everything that happens.  And that's what I do.  I'm my own paparazzi. (laughs)  If you're an artist and you sit back waiting for somebody to discover you, it's very unlikely that it will ever happen.  You have to make things happen for yourself.  This is an extreme, but the Alice Cooper group once showed up at Frank Zappa's house.  Frank and his wife were asleep in the bedroom and we set up our equipment outside their bedroom and started playing.  And that's how we got our first record deal with Frank Zappa.

Casey Chambers:  Had you met Zappa before?

Dennis Dunaway:  We had.  The GTOs, who were like...I don't know...six or eight girls...kind of fluctuated sometimes...included Pamela Des Barres, a friend of ours who wrote the book, "I'm With The Band: Confessions Of A Groupie."  And also Miss Christine.  The GTOs lived downstairs at the log cabin that Frank Zappa owned in Laurel Canyon.  It used to belong to the cowboy star, Tom Mix.

"Permanent Damage" - GTO's (1969)

Anyway, Alice and Miss Christine had a handholding relationship going on and Miss Christine was the babysitter for Moon Unit.  And we would go over and hang out and watch baby Moon Unit crawl across the floor and keep her pointed in the right direction while Alice would try to convince Miss Christine to talk Zappa into coming to hear us play.  Because we knew he had a new record label and we wanted to be on it.  She'd say, 'Oh, okay. Frank said he's going to come and see you at a particular gig.'  And then he couldn't show up.  And this happened like three times. So we were getting really desperate and Miss Christine made the mistake of saying, 'Well, Frank's going to be home tomorrow.'

And we're like...' Okay, we're coming over.'  She said, 'No, no he doesn't like for people to just come over.  How 'bout if I say nine o'clock or seven o'clock?  How about if I say seven o'clock and I'll call you if it's not okay?'  So Alice and I walked all the way back from Laurel Canyon to Topanga Canyon, which, because we were both long-distance runners in high school, wasn't as big of a deal as people make.  Most people in L.A. wouldn't believe that you could do that.  But anyway, by the time we got back to our band house in Topanga, Alice had turned it into...' We have to be at Zappa's house at 7:00 in the morning!' (laughs)  And we did.  We showed up at seven and knocked on the cabin door until Miss Christine opened it with the expression of shock on her face.  And we barged in, set up our equipment right outside his door and played so loud that the picture on the wall went crooked. (laughs)  His door cracked open and Frank's hand reached out and motioned for us to stop.  Then he stuck his head out and said, ' Well, let me have some coffee and then I'll listen.'  And that's how we got our record deal.

Casey Chambers:  Wow, that's one of those...rock-n-roll...stars-in-alignment...stories.

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, well if someone did that to me, I would not be very happy. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Oh, no doubt!  But it turned out to be the right move back then.  And you guys did it.  Let me change course and ask about a few of your favorite albums.

Dennis Dunaway:  Oh, man, there's so many.  I love "Astral Weeks" by Van Morrison.  I'm looking at tons of vinyl records right now and I could tell ya hundreds of them.  I love The Yardbirds.  Most anything the Yardbirds did.  Bob Dylan.  I love the "Crown Of Creation" album from Jefferson Airplane.  I love the bass sound on that, especially on the title song, "Crown Of Creation."  "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits."  Even though he's in prison and I don't like any of the reasons that he's there.  I love a lot of The Byrds.  For current stuff, I like what Ian Hunter is still putting out.  He still puts out great albums that most people don't realize he's doing.  Even though he just finished a tour, a Mott The Hoople Tour.  Check out his solo albums.  I love Free.  My wife turned me on to them. "Free At Last." (1972)  I love that album.  So it goes on and on.  Even though I listen to newer music, like most people, my heart is with stuff from the era when I was a teenager.

My daughters, when they were little and Cindy (Smith Dunaway) would be making dinner, I would turn into the DJ.  I'd go to the turntable and just play all kinds of different songs. 45s. Classical. Jazz. Whatever.  And now they thank me for giving them a wide exposure to different styles of music.  And I think Cindy and Neal Smith had the same thing.  Their mom, if you looked through her record collection...would have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Glenn Miller.  And then the Yardbirds! (laughs)  Her apartment in Phoenix was where a lot of the musicians would hang out.  She wouldn't let you get away with much, but you could talk about anything in front of her.  Ron Wood would come over.  And The Tubes.  And you would flip through her record collection and go, 'Wow, this is pretty hip for a mom.' (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  It's always great to have a friend with cool folks, right?

Dennis Dunaway:  Yeah, Alice's father was like that too.  You could bring up some British Invasion group and he would know all the details.  Whereas, Glen Buxton's father was... We did an early gig when we were The Spiders.  We were the house band at the most popular teen club in Arizona.  We even had a hit song in Tucson on the AM radio station.  It went to #11.  It was called, "Don't Blow Your Mind." (1966)

"Don't Blow Your Mind" - The Spiders / single (1966) 

So we were a pretty big deal then. And we're playing at this club and Glen's father was there and Glen went down on one knee in front of his amp so that he could get feedback.  After the show, Glen's father was like, 'Why were you down on your knee in front of the amp?' And Glen said, 'To get feedback!'  And his father said, 'Well if you don't get down in front of the speaker, that won't happen.' (laughs)  Y'know, he just didn't get that we wanted that to happen.  We thought that was hilarious!

Casey Chambers:  Yeah. (laughs)  I'm hearing Hank from "King of the Hill" telling Bobby, 'Get away from the front of the speaker, son.  Nobody'll be able to hear anything!'  (laughs)  Those are the good memories.  Thanks so much for sharing your time and stories.  This has been so much fun.  And thank you for all the great music you've given us.

Dennis Dunaway:  Thanks for listening.  Very cool.  I enjoyed it.

Official Dennis Dunaway
Official Blue Coupe

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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