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From his emergence as the father of "shock rock" in the early 1970s to his disappearance into alcoholism and audience indifference a decade later, Alice Cooper was Public Enemy No. 1 among defenders of community standards. Both on record and on stage, he dramatized the Seven Deadly Sins (or at least the more lurid of them) so lustily that many observers mistook the act for reality.
These days, having long been superseded in shock value by everything from hip-hop to Columbine to 9/11, Cooper's act attracts neither censure nor censorship. Well, almost none. The owners of a venue in Finland, fearing that Cooper might "incite evil and the power of darkness," recently changed their minds about hosting his "Theater of Death Tour" in December. And someone with a sign accusing Cooper of Satanism protested the tour in York, Pa., last September.
But on the whole the migration of the 61-year-old Cooper from the pop-culture fringe to its mainstream is a fait accompli. Since overcoming alcoholism 25 years ago, he has not only reestablished his hit-making credentials ("Poison" reached the top 10 in 1989) but also spoken out against politically sycophantic liberal rock stars and on behalf of the pleasures of golf: His 2007 book Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock 'n' Roller's 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict, is now available in paperback.
At the root of Cooper's transformation was his becoming a Christian sometime before he recorded 1994's The Last Temptation, his last recording for a major label (Epic) and his first to leaven the macabre with a biblical understanding of spiritual warfare. It's a mindset that has continued to affect his work, particularly Brutal Planet (2000) and Dragontown (2001).
Even Along Came a Spider (2008), a concept album that plays out like a cross between The Silence of the Lambs and Arachnophobia, contains "Salvation," which besides being the latest in Cooper's list of uncharacteristically mellow songs also finds the murderer pondering the meaning of Christ's sacrifice. "Someone died for me," he muses. "Washed in blood, he cared enough to pity me. / [. . .] I feel my heavy burden lifted."
Not many of Cooper's recent songs are included in the "Theater of Death" show, which United States fans can see and judge for themselves until the conclusion of its three-month domestic run on, appropriately enough, Halloween (after which it travels to the United Kingdom). Of the 26 numbers, exactly half can be found on 2001's Mascara and Monsters: The Best of Alice Cooper.
The special effects will be familiar, too. In just 90 minutes, Cooper simulates murder, gets straitjacketed for real, and undergoes four different mock executions. (He sings his hit 1976 ballad "I Never Cry" from a gallows and is promptly hanged at song's end.) Somehow, whether because of the presentation's clockwork precision or its obviously theatrical nature, the overall effect is (to cite Cooper's own favorite comparison) more vaudevillian than shocking.
There is, however, one moment that might catch even longtime Cooper fans by surprise. Near the middle of the show, at the conclusion of "Devil's Food," the music suddenly stops, and Cooper shouts, "Repent!" Then he and his four-man band launch into the title cut of his 2005 album Dirty Diamonds, a hard-rock disquisition on the perils of trusting in earthly riches.
From that point on, the spectacle seems like one of those evangelical haunted houses known as a "hell house," the goal of which is to terrify unregenerate sinners with visions of eternal damnation. The performance, in other words, may very well be Cooper's way of sowing seed where once he sowed wild oats.