INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA
Dennis Dunaway is an American musician, best known as the original bass guitarist for the Alice Cooper Group from 1969–1974. The original band released 7 classic albums, and Dunaway co-wrote some of the band’s most notable songs, including “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out.” Over the years, Dunaway has performed and recorded with various bands, including Billion Dollar Babies, Deadringer and Bouchard, Dunaway, and Smith. In 2011 he served and co-wrote 3 songs on Alice Cooper’s WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE with his former Alice Cooper Groupmates Neal Smith and Michael Bruce. Later on that same year, the Alice Cooper Group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Currently, Dunaway plays with the band Blue Coupe, and he’s releasing a book titled SNAKES! GUILLOTINES ELECTRIC CHAIRS! on June 9th. I met the good-humored Dennis in New York, and we talked about the book Blue Coupe and the good old days.
Dennis, you’re releasing the book SNAKES! GUILLOTINES! ELECTRIC CHAIRS! MY ADVENTURES IN THE ALICE COOPER GROUP on June 9th. When did you first get an idea to start writing your own book, and what was the main reason to start doing it?
My daughters Renee and Chelsea encouraged me to write a book so they wouldn’t have to listen to me correct stories about the Alice Cooper group. And so, on Easter of 1997, when I was in the hospital for serious surgery for Crohn’s Disease, I received snail mail from fans all over the world, and I decided to start writing.
Making a book is an extensive process on many levels. What has been the most challenging part: the writing itself, remembering the things, and decide how or what to say about certain things (how to put your words) or get a book published?
I’m very good at remembering things, but all of those other things were harder than I ever imagined. Alice and I wrote stories for the school paper at Cortez High School in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1964-65, and I knew how to write lyrics, but I had to learn how to write a book. I started over 3 times to get the right style. Meanwhile, it took 10 years to land the right publishing deal. So I kept writing and writing. It was tough to condense it into an affordable book of 304 pages. My co-writer Chris Hodenfield and the team of experts at Thomas Dunne Books/Saint Martin’s Press helped with that.
There are several books about Alice Cooper/Cooper Group out there. What do you think of those other books?
I’ve read “Billion Dollar Baby” by Bob Greene. I like Bob’s writing style, but I think he focused on our troubles and overlooked the fun we were having. “Me Alice” by Steven Gaines was written early enough to have some stories before their legendary enhancements. “No More Mr. Nice guy” by Michael Bruce includes lots of good insights the way I remember them, but some I question. “What You Want Is In The Limo” by Michael Walker makes a valid point about the landmark change in rock shows in the early ’70s, and he seems to have done extensive research. Still, the source of information is from sensationalized interviews. Some people prefer the legendary tales, but I’m more interested in reading about what actually happened. You know, everybody has their own memories, the only thing is… Have you seen “Super Duper Alice Cooper”?
Not yet. But I have learned that it got some criticism from the fans.
Right. But it’s like Neal said, it could have been a lot worse. They don’t mention Cindy, they make it sound like the GTO’s did our costumes, and there are several other glaring omissions, but I love the visual style and the choice of music. It captures the excitement of the original Alice Cooper, so I recommend it. It’s the best thing so far.
Going back to the book, now that you’ve spent a lot of time and effort with this book, what kind of expectations do you have about the book?
I hope Alice Cooper fans enjoy reading it. I hope everybody enjoys reading it. How much should I earn for 18 years of writing? Like the original Alice Cooper group, it’s a labor of love.
You’ve already got some good reviews of the book. How has the feedback been overall so far? Have you got any feedback from your former Alice Cooper Group bandmates?
Michael, Neal, and Alice are all reading it now. I’m sure they’re finding a few things that they recall a bit differently, but I’m sure they’re smiling and laughing a lot. So far, I’ve read about 40 reviews, and they all recommend the book.
BLUE COUPE AND 5’TH AVENUE VAMPIRE
Currently, you are playing in a band called Blue Coupe. Would you tell me something about it because you’re not that well known in Europe?
When festival organizers hear the name Blue Coupe, they don’t quite get it until they see us play, and then they keep inviting us back, like France, for example. They want us back every year, and we’ve been there twice this year. They love us in France. For some reason, they think that I’m a genius. I don’t think they have spoken to my wife about that (Laughs). But right now, we are busily expanding our horizons. Our song, “Hallows Grave,” that Alice Cooper sang on has been submitted for a Grammy consideration.
I read about that, yeah.
So, Alice is excited about that, and so are we. We’re a relatively new band, so it’s a long shot, but a Grammy would let people know about us. We are pronounced Blue Coupe in America. In France, they say coupé. How do you pronounce it?
Coupé, the European way.
Yes, okay. The only foreign language Americans know is English (laughs). We pronounce Coupe like Coop. We spell it like it’s a car, but it’s because I was in Alice Cooper. We took Blue from Blue Oyster Cult because that’s Joe and Albert Bouchard’s history. Joe played bass with BÖC, but he plays guitar with Blue Coupe, and Albert played drums for BÖC and now us. They both sing and play lots of instruments.
How often does Blue Coupe play shows in the US?
Dennis Dunaway: We headlined a festival in upstate New York. We played shows in the Midwest from Chicago on down to Nashville. Joe and Albert are both music teachers. So when school is in, we usually do shows on weekends. July and August is when we get out and do a lot of shows.
How about the brothers, are they still in touch with their former bandmates?
BÖC did a reunion show just before Allan Lanier passed away. Buck Dharma played on our MILLION MILES MORE album on the song “Hellfire Hurry.” I would like to open for Blue Oyster Cult; we’ve opened for Alice about five times. We played our original songs and got warm receptions.
What Blue Coupe has been up to recently, and what will happen in the near future?
Blue Coupe just played at the BB King Blues Club in Times Square and the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash benefit at Webster Hall in New York City. Blue Coupe will play at the “Snakes! Book Launch” at the famous Strand bookstore in NYC on June 9th. This year will be full of special shows. Tish and Snooky will be singing with us live, and Michael Bruce will be joining us for some full Alice Cooper sets. Michael will also join me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a filmed Q&A in the Museum auditorium, and he will join Blue Coupe for an acoustic set. It’s all on the Blue Coupe website at www.bluecoupeband.com.
Are you still a member of the Fifth Avenue Vampires as well?
The 5th Avenue Vampires are continuing without me. I got swept away when I was called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and plans for a tour with the original Alice Cooper group that didn’t happen for reasons unknown to me. Richie Scarlet is playing guitar with Ace Frehley now, but he also has a solo band that Russ Wilson plays drums with. Joe Von T joins them on stage from time to time. Joe Von T has added some elaborate theatrical presentation to the current Vampire’s show.
I went to see Alice Cooper when he played in Madison Square Garden with Motley Crue last November. When was the last time you saw Alice Cooper in concert?CURRENT ALICE COOPER SIGHTINGS
I saw Alice two nights before that in Connecticut. Joe Bouchard and I went. We hung out with Alice and Sheryl, Rob Zombie, and all of the band members afterward.
How do you like the current version of Alice’s band?
It’s a great band. I like them all. I like Glen Sobel because he can play with a swing feel when needed. The Alice Cooper group wrote with a swing feel, and when you try to put a heavy metal bass drum pattern against that, it throws everything off for the original songs. We just met Nita; I like her a lot. Chuck is great. Ryan Roxie and Tommy are great. They are very accomplished musicians and very hard workers, but as young as they are, they all tell me that they have a hard time keeping up with Alice.
What if you compare the current band playing to the original band? For example, how does the bass playing sound in your ears compared to your style?
Chuck is a rock-solid bassist with his own style. He knows his mission. The trick is to apply your own style and still be true enough to the original parts to satisfy what the fans are familiar with. He does that well. I would do the same if I were playing songs that he recorded.
Back in the day, you couldn’t leave the studio until everything was recorded perfectly.
Right. That’s different now. If you record a bass part and hit some bad notes, you can fix it later. We have the capabilities to make every note-perfect, but that can suck the life out of it. In the analog tape days, like on “School’s Out.” We had just finished recording the track, and there was one bass note that I wasn’t happy with, so I re-recorded the whole song. These days, a lot of recordings are made with one musician at a time. The energy is better when everybody is playing together in the same room because musicians play off of each other as a unit. If anyone compliments my bass playing on an Alice Cooper song, they are also complimenting Neal Smith because we worked very hard to complement each other. Blue Coupe lay down the basic tracks together, and then we record our overdubs in our home studios. But we’re experienced enough to get a live feel on everything.
I’m a bass player by myself, so I know what you’re talking about (Laughs).
As you know, Neal is an amazing drummer, but it goes beyond his technical abilities; it goes to his willingness to experiment. We both experimented wildly. Bob Ezrin was very good at letting us fly to the moon before he would say, Okay, now you’ve got it. Let’s nail that down.
THE EARLY DAYS
Going back to the early days of the Alice Cooper Group. How did the songwriting and working process overall changed and develop over the years? I mean, there’s a huge difference and evolution between the first and the third album?
An artist must grow, and Alice Cooper’s collective frame of mind was forever growing. PRETTIES FOR YOU was designed to outrage the world. Easy Action was designed to win over half the world and outrage the rest. LOVE IT TO DEATH was designed to win the whole world over then outrage them. To do that, we knew we needed a hit single, and Bob Ezrin helped us arrange “I’m Eighteen,” which went through the roof. When we walked back into the studio on KILLER, we knew hit singles would draw people into our web.
So, what was the turning point, I mean, when and why things started to change?
The turning point was a success when suddenly this lure of potential wealth entered the picture. Art had dictated most of our decisions, but suddenly, it was profit.
Did the problems start right after the success of KILLER?
I would say probably more like after SCHOOL’S OUT.
Bob Ezrin always preferred to use his own “trusted men” on his albums. Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner were no strangers in Ezrin’s studio, and they also appeared on several tracks on early Cooper albums.
But it wasn’t good for the band spirit to use outside players, right?
It wasn’t great for the band spirit, but we liked those guys, so we were okay with it. Glen’s ability to play consistently wasn’t what it once was, and we had been releasing a new album and a new theatrical show every 6 months, so deadlines were fierce. And we got swallowed up in a sea of fans, so there were a lot of distractions.
And the girls…(Laughs).
The girls were always around. They were very supportive, and they knew when to clear out. Band discussions were passionate and loud, even when we were in restaurants out on the road. But when BILLION DOLLAR BABIES went to number one, that was all over. We couldn’t go anywhere without a lot of people.
THE BREAKUP AND BILLION DOLLAR BABIES
Let’s go briefly back to the time when the original band broke up in 1974. Was the band decomposition a surprise for you, or was it something that was expected for a long time?
It was gradual and crept up from the shadows because there were always many laughs, even during the bleakest times. But by the end of the Billion Dollar Babies Tour, the band’s exhaustion level was such that we couldn’t continue. We voted to take a year off and then continue, but Alice went solo, and we were left stranded.
Did you have legal matters with Alice at the time?
The original band owned the name, which is everything in this business. Neal, Michael, and I spent tons of money on a lawyer, but then we decided not to sue because we valued our friendships over wealth and fame. Alice and I were 16 years old when we met.
I have always been wondering if there’s an official CD version of BATTLE AXE?
Dennis Dunaway: Not an official one. There was a limited edition release that Michael Bruce was involved with. It had three CDs, including the original album, a live show, and then a bunch of extras. It’s hard to find.
I have learned that you have a good relationship with Alice nowadays, but how do you get along with Neal and Michael?
We are family. You can yell at your brother, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love him. Right?
Neal and I are really a family because I married his sister.
So, in the ’90s, you worked together with Neal?
Are you still doing something together?
He just released a new KILL$MITH CD… well, you’re on your way to see him after this, so I’ll let him tell you about it.
How about Michael?
Michael is a good friend, too, yeah.
But he is living on the other side of the country?
He’s in Arizona and Mexico a lot lately. He’s going back over to visit Spain, so he travels a lot. But musicians tend to do that (laughs). He’s not as hard to get a hold of as people think.
You’re talking’ about ALICE COOPER, SUPER DUPER?
They’re not the only ones that have said that. When I want to talk to Michael, I call him. I could call him right now.
How close were you with Steve Hunter and the late Dick Wagner?
I’m closer with Steve Hunter because of his sense of humor. I admire Dick Wagner, but he was very serious all the time. We were all serious about music, but we had fun with it. Steve has fun. That’s what I like about Blue Coupe too.
I never had a chance to meet Dick, but I interviewed Steve when he re-joined Alice’s band a few years ago. He’s a great guy and an amazing guitar player.
Yeah, absolutely. Last year he released the MANHATTAN BLUES PROJECT, and then he has another one, Sound Poems. It just came out, a DVD. Tony Levin plays bass on it.
BITS AND PIECES
In the early days, you spent a lot of time, money, and effort to create those amazing looking album packages. But who actually designed those? I mean, there are so many different stories out there on that subject?
It’s funny how people take credit for things, but for example, I thought of the school desk, then the whole band brainstormed the idea, then Alice passed it on to our management. But it was the talents at Pacific Eye and Ear that made it shine.
Who designed the dollar for BILLION DOLLAR BABIES?
We had the idea to make it a wallet, but Pacific Eye and Ear came up with the cool green snakeskin and the bill. We wanted real crystal rhinestones for that circle around the baby medallion, but we were told that it would have been too expensive. We said, too expensive for the BILLION DOLLAR BABIES? We paid extra for the stain on the MUSCLE OF LOVE album cover. Lots of record stores returned it because they thought it was a real strain. The text on the cover of KILLER, I wrote with my left hand. I’m right-handed, but I wrote it with my left hand to make it look like a ransom note from some demented killer.
I always thought that some four-year-old child wrote it, “Laughs.”
Well, sort of (laughs). I was sitting on a chair in the living room watching TV, and Alice handed me a piece of paper and said, write “Alice Cooper, Killer” on here.
How about the cover photo of EASY ACTION?
My wife Cindy loves that album cover. She says it’s sexy.
I understand that she likes it, but I won’t say that (laughs).
No, neither would I. But that was Neal’s idea.
How about ALICE COOPER’S GREATEST HITS (1974)? It’s a great looking painted picture of the band?
Drew Struzan of Pacific Eye and Ear created that cover picture. Have you seen his documentary?
The documentary is called “Drew Struzan: The Man Behind the Poster.” Drew designed the posters for “Raiders of The Lost Ark.” He did most of the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas things. He’s the most collected poster artist in the world.
WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE AND CURRENT ALICE SIGHTINGS
So, it’s a time for the last questions, I think. WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE. How did you like working with Alice, Michael, and Neal, after all of these years?
We really had a blast. We knocked out those songs in two days. We felt so good that I’m sure we could have written and recorded a whole album in two weeks.
You should have done that (Laughs).
Yeah. Bob Ezrin was fun to work with again too. Of course, we all missed the fire that Glen Buxton would have brought to it, but we set up a shrine. I had brought Glen’s old amp, I think it’s a 1956 Fender Harvard, to the studio, and we set it on the piano with a dozen red roses and a bottle of whisky. Okay, Glen is with us now (Laughs).
The album has some good songs on it, especially the ones you wrote with the original guys, but as a whole, it is really confusing album if you ask me.
When Alice explains what his albums are about, it always sounds like, Wow! That’s a great idea! And then I listen to the album, and I find myself searching for the concept. When I stop thinking about that, I enjoy the album.
One of the most recent Alice Cooper Group things was the Grammy notification of “School’s Out.” How does it feel to get such an important notification of the song released over 40 years ago?
It’s a wonderful feeling, of course. Especially when I look at the list of amazing songs that have been inducted, it’s also great to hear all of the kids that tell me their school played “School’s Out” over the intercom on the last day of school.
Alice is set to release his long-awaited Hollywood Vampires inspired covers album sometime soon. Are you involved with that album?
I played on a track with Alice, Neal Smith, Joe Perry, Brian Johnson, Slash, and Johnny Depp. It’s dedicated to Alice’s first drinking buddy, the late great Glen Buxton.
It’s the time of the last question, and it goes like this… Do you have any other news in mind about your future activities?
I’m just hoping that Alice Cooper fans will help me spread the word about Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures In The Alice Cooper Group, and I’ve got a lot of new music in the works. But mostly, I’m just feeling grateful that so many people care about what I’m doing.
That’s about it, Dennis. Thanks for your time!
Thanks, Marko. Keep rockin’.