Dennis Dunaway Interview
Dennis Dunaway was the original bass player in Alice Cooper. He has written what promises to be a fascinating look at the rise of Alice Cooper in the early 1970s. Dennis Dunaway is still performing and recording today with his own group. We talked about all of that, and more!
Q - I read, I think it was on your website, that you're working on your autobiography?
A - Yes.
Q - When will that be published?
A - Well, it's ready to be published. I talked to a few publishers, but they wanted to change it and downplay the musicians from the original band and I didn't want to do that. So I continued working on it. I'm now shopping for a publisher and we'll see what happens now that iPad has come out. Things have changed in the world of publishing. So, I'm trying to jump on that bandwagon.
Q - When you say a publisher wanted you to downplay the original musicians, that means what?
A - They wanted me to write less about Michael, Neal and Glen and write more about Alice (Vincent Furnier). I write more about Alice anyway. Those books are all out, so my story I think is the real story. My story is putting the reader in the station wagon with the band as we traveled around, talking about our ideas we were gonna do and insights into the personalities and chemistry and friction and creativity that made that band work.
Q - You probably have read Alice's book, Golf Monster.
A - Actually, I haven't yet.
Q - No doubt you read Bob Greene's book on the band many years ago.
A - Yup.
Q - So let me ask you about some of the information contained in those two books.
A - Alright.
Q - I saw Alice Cooper when it meant The Alice Cooper Group. An album like "Love It To Death" is clearly a group effort. It's not a singer with backing musicians. That is an important point I have to make right out front here.
A - But it wasn't actually called The Alice Cooper Group. It was called Alice Cooper, which was the name of the group.
Q - But again, Alice Cooper wasn't just a singer with a backing band. It was a group effort.
A - That's right.
Q - I saw the group as part of the "Muscle Of Love" tour in 1973. You and Glen and Neal and Michael were all wearing sailor suits. Alice of course was Alice. The following year, 1974, Kiss comes onto the scene. At any time prior to 1974, did anybody say Hey, we all should have an individual look in the band?
A - Well, we varied our look according to the theme of the album which was the theme of the tour. My wife, who is Neal Smith's sister, and I designed the costumes. Almost every original costume the band wore. Our decision to have sailor suits tied in with the "Muscle Of Love" album. So we not only had our own look, we created other band's look indirectly because they picked up on what we were doing and took it somewhere else, which is how music and art progress. But we had many looks. We're not the only band that had many looks. The Beatles did. But our original look for "Pretties For You" was one thing. "Easy Action" was a different thing. Every album was a different look.
Q - What I'm getting at is, in Alice Cooper, Alice (Vince) was the most recognizable in the group. With Kiss, you had all four guys wearing makeup, each with their own identity. That was the first time since The Beatles that the public knew the name of every guy in the group. Would you agree with that?
A - Yeah, except maybe The Stones.
Q - The public may have known Mick and Keith, but not the names of the drummer and bass player.
A - Originally, maybe not. Brian Jones got the most fan mail in the early days.
Q - As well he should have!
A - That's the only time I saw The Stones, when Brian Jones was in the band.
Q - When and where was that?
A - 1966 in Phoenix, Arizona. 1965 or 1966. La Belle opened and The Rockin' Ramrods. (laughs)
Q - That was the era when it was just about the music for The Stones. No props. Logically speaking, you can see why there would be a need for Alice Cooper to then usher in Theatrical Rock. The public had tired of seeing long hair and Rock 'n' Roll musicians. The next step was waiting to be taken. The world was ready for Alice Cooper and David Bowie.
A - We played the Rainbow Theatre in London and I read this interview. Trevor, the bassist from The Spiders Of Mars was saying David Bowie made them come to our show because he wanted them to see how a band could glam out and still look tough. They were just a Blues band from Birmingham and dressed accordingly. (laughs) When we played at The Hollywood Bowl, Elton John, who up until that night always wore just like a suede vest, a fringe vest and dressed pretty modestly, was flipped out about the way we dressed. He started glamming out from then on too. When we got to Detroit, The Stooges, Iggy just 14, as soon as we hit, he started wearing silver lamé gloves. The MC5 started wearing all shiny fabrics. Everybody copied us initially. But it was a trade-off. The MC5 and The Stooges and all of those great, high-energy Detroit bands, we took the energy and that edginess added to our style. We were more Hollywood of a kind of production up until then.
Q - I had read that your manager, Shep Gordon and his partner Joel Greenberg, were at a motel where The Chambers Brothers were staying and one of The Chambers Brothers said "Hey, you guys are Jewish, you oughta become managers. In Alice's book, Golf Monster, he has it that Jimi Hendrix was at poolside and said "Hey, why don't you guys become managers?" I have this idea that when Alice was writing Golf Monster, someone came to him and said "Nobody remembers The Chambers Brothers. Use Jimi Hendrix instead."
A - Well, if you want the truth, which is what my book is all about; I find the truth to be more interesting than fabricated stories, personally. Even though Jimi Hendrix is a more interesting name to most people than my wife, but Cindy Smith, Noel's sister is the one who found Joe and Shep Gordon. She's the one that got them to be our managers within a three day deadline we had after Frank Zappa said he would sign us to his label. We had three days to find a manager. Well, she found Joe and Shep. They did live at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood where The Chambers Brothers lived and Hendrix was there a lot. Janis Joplin was there a lot. A lot of recording artists stayed there because it was so unassuming. If you drove by and looked at that hotel, you would never think in a million years that Jimi Hendrix would be staying there. And that's why they stayed there. And we knew Jimi Hendrix back then. And we knew The Chambers Brothers. But Cindy Smith is the one who got them to manage us. I don't even think they were really managers until she told them Frank Zappa was going to sign us if we found a manager. All of a sudden they decided they were managers. (laughs)
Q - In Alice's book, he states that Shep didn't know all that much about Rock music or management.
A - He didn't know anything about it. He wasn't even a manager, but when the opportunity came along, it's hard to explain in certain terms, Joe Greenburg and Shep Gordon were from New York. They would hustle people until they came into the Inside / Outside Boutique in Hollywood where Cindy Smith worked, who is now Cindy Smith-Dunaway, my wife. They came in and they had been in before. They came in to look for groovy clothing. Cindy said "You guys work in the music business, right?" And they said "Oh, yeah, yeah. We do. We're managers." (laughs) She said "Oh yeah, who do you manage?" Joe Greenberg said "The Left Banke." He just threw it out. Cindy's like, "What's going on with them?" He said, "Oh, they're spending all their money on shoes." He's just jiving her, but we needed a manager so bad she said "Well, you should hear my brother's group. They're great!" They said "Oh, what's the name?" She said "Alice Cooper." They said "Oh, does she look as good as you do?" (laughs) But anyway, the next day she brought them over to our house and they listened to our crazy music. All they knew was Frank Zappa was interested. Then they agreed to come to a show, the same show that Zappa came to see us for the very first time. It was the Lenny Bruce Memorial Show at the Cheetah Club out in the Pier in Venice, California. The place was packed. There were bands playing out on the beach. Iron Butterfly and lots of other bands. Then we inside in this great big old ballroom, the same ballroom that was in the movie They Shoot Horses Don't They?, which they restored to its original glory for that movie. But anyway, we went onstage to play for Zappa and our manager. The place was packed and by the third or fourth song the place was almost empty because we were so outrageous, the way we were dressed and the fact it was five guys with a girl's name. We thought we blew it. Zappa left. I saw him laughing, but he also left before we finished. But when we walked down the stairs off the stage, I thought "Oh, man. Well, there went that recording contract." And at one point when the people were leaving, I actually looked behind us thinking there was a fire or something. (laughs) It was just the way we were dressed. It was so outrageous for the time. It's hard to imagine that it was nowadays, but back then it was. And the name was outrageous for the time, even in Hollywood. So, we walked off the stage and Joe Greenberg looked concerned because he just saw the band they were thinking about managing, drive everybody out of the room. But Shep Gordon saw the light. He was like Einstein, thinking that all we have to do is harness this power. He was like "Wow! All we have to do is turn this around." We started advertising "The Band That Drove Everybody Out Of The Room." It was kind of common back then because it was just an over-the-top show. But anyway, they had us come over to the Hollywood Landmark Hotel and Jimi Hendrix was there. We had an on-going, running joke with him as we got to know Joe and Shep. We used to spend a lot of time over there. We got to know The Chambers Brothers as well as Janis Joplin. But, so our running gag with Jimi Hendrix is, we'd always make fun of the way he dressed. But we were dressed as least as crazy as he was.
Q - If Shep Gordon knew nothing about Rock management and the Rock business, how did he know he wasn't going to get cheated when it came time to sign a record deal? He does enjoy the reputation of being a brilliant businessman.
A - Well, not only Shep, but in the early days Joe Greenberg was the one who took the bull by the horns. He was the one who called all the record company execs and called all the people to find out advice about management and landed all of the television shows. We took advantage of making them think it was going to be a girl Folk singer or letting them think that. We didn't lie. We just let them think that. Then when we'd show up, people would go, "Who are you? You're not playing!" (laughs) Joe Greenberg was the initial one who really did most of the footwork to keep the band going. However, Shep Gordon was very shrewd. He knew how to make negative things into positive things. So, over and over we would do things that would get negative press and use it to our advantage.
Q - You see, that gets to the heart of Shep Gordon's brilliance. Most people would see a band that drove everybody out of the room as a bad band. He thought to himself, I can make these guys stars! I guess that's why Shep Gordon is living in Hawaii these days.
A - That's right, but also keep in perspective that if Frank Zappa had bailed on signing us, Shep wouldn't have been there either. (laughs) I can't say 100%, but it's unlikely that if that record deal fell through that they would stay onboard.
Q - Quoting from Bob Greene's book, Billion Dollar Baby, "Shep (Gordon) was aware that without his constant control and direction, the band might still be floundering on the West Coast playing clubs for a hundred dollars a night." So, without Shep Gordon, the world would never have heard of Alice Cooper? If he could do that for Alice Cooper, could he have done it for another group?
A - Well, he's got a lot of successes. He worked with Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray. He had a lot of successful groups and not just groups, he managed chefs like Wolfgang Puck, those superstar chefs. He even managed the Dali Lama.
Q - I didn't know that.
A - I just saw posters in the New York City subway of the Dali Lama going to be at Carnegie Hall. (laughs) That's Shep Gordon.
Q - And doesn't he sit on the board of the Beverly Hills Bank?
A - I don' know about that. I know he mostly sits on the beach at Maui. (laughs) Shep is absolutely a very shrewd businessman who has a lot of P.T. Barnum in him, which was perfect for The Alice Cooper Group 'cause him and Joe Greenberg were every bit as creative and willing to go out on a limb as the band was. For instance, when we played in England, we played at Wembley Pool and we were very concerned about not having to start over there. We were big in America, but we didn't know about over there. Even though our association with Frank Zappa, we didn't know it until we got there it was a shoe-in. We were gigantic over there. He was just a mega-star. We were concerned, so we planned this thing; we had this giant billboard of this photograph that Richard Avedon took of Alice. Alice was laying down nude. His private parts are hidden by a giant boa constrictor. So we had a billboard on a flatbed truck. I mean a big, gigantic picture of that. The truck drove into Piccadilly Square, which is their Wall Street, during rush hour and jack-knifed in the busiest intersection in England and broke down. It caused such a stir there were helicopters flying over. It was on every news channel. Wembley sold out. That's Shep Gordon. He loved P.T. Barnum, but mostly he loved Elvis' manager, the Colonel.
Q - He probably met the Colonel, didn't he?
A - I don't know, but we used to always get postcards from Elvis every Christmas. Of course, it was rubber stamped, but it was from Elvis. (laughs)
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - I didn't. I think Neal did. Neal saw him in Vegas. But I've always been a big Elvis fan 'cause I'm 63, so I was born at a really good time for catching Doo Wop and Rock 'n' Roll and I remember my babysitters would come over and they'd have the latest Elvis platter and they'd put it on the record player and bop all over the house. It was exciting.
Q - No wonder you joined a Rock 'n' Roll group.
A - Yeah. That was getting my interest. But the day that I really got the bug to become a Rock musician was in 1963 and I just had a new friend who was this skinny little kid named Vince Furnier, who later became Alice. I was a junior in high school and he was a sophomore. Anyway, I went to see a double feature movie in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. It was Hercules Unchained and the opening movie was a Disney animated movie, Peter Pan. But between movies, when everybody would go to the concession stand and normally they would show news clips and cartoons, out came Duane Eddy And The Rockin' Rebels. They played three or four songs with Boots Randolph, the "Yakety Sax" guy in the band and oh, man I said "That's what I want to do!" So I went back to school and told Alice we gotta start a band. Then The Beatles came out. I didn't have any money, so I had to go off to Oregon to my grandfather's farm to work for the Summer to get money to buy my first bass. As soon as I got back, Glen Buxton and I went to Montgomery Ward and bought a bass. He helped me pick out a bass. Then we were off and running.
Q - I've heard that towards the end of his time with the group, Glen Buxton was unable to play. His guitar would be plugged into the amp, but the amp would be turned down. Behind the curtain would be a second guitarist playing his guitar parts. Is that true?
A - No. That's not true. I stood next to Glen every night. I don't know why people say that. We had nobody behind any curtain. The only people behind the curtain was Alice when he was changing costumes or my wife Cindy, who was the Dancing Tube, who would do her thing and go back. Watch the Billion Dollar Babies show. We had another guitar player, but he wasn't even wearing the same thing we were. He was right onstage with us. There was nobody behind a curtain. It was because we had started adding so many different guitar overdubs that we wanted the stage presentation to sound like the album. We didn't want to give up playing those extra parts just because we only had two guitars. There were occasions when my microphone would be turned down or there were even nights when Alice's mic was turned down because we drank a lot. When you're on the road month after month and late night after late night and early mornings to catch a flight, there are nights when you may not be as tight as you should be. And it wasn't a matter of Glen couldn't play. Glen could play fine. You can hear in Good To See You Again Alice Cooper. That movie was made toward the end of the original band's career. He's playing fine. He sounds great on it. I really liked the way Glen played. I think he was a real, one-of-a-kind guitar player and I think he was very much the inspiration, the fire in the chemistry of the Alice Cooper group. Michael was very solid and Michael was very structured and that was the basis of a lot of our music. I was the artistic crusader for making everything as unique as we could. I was relentless at that, and Alice was as well. But Glen was just the fire of the band. Neal was very fiery too, but if we were like stumped when we were writing a song and we weren't quite sure what we wanted to do with it, Glen would just start playing a guitar part and all of a sudden it would just get this direction and everything would fall together.
Q - I was listening to Alice's radio show a few months back and he was talking about The Doors. He said something like "On this date, Universal Studios gave The Doors $500,000 to develop a comedy show or series." He then said "I knew all the guys in The Doors. Who was the comedian in The Doors?" I couldn't believe what I just heard. Why is he asking his listening audience that question? Why didn't he do the obvious and pick up the phone and call Universal Studios and ask them? Is Alice saying that The Doors never cracked a joke or smiled or laughed? That's like saying Alice is the same guy offstage as he is on. I was surprised at that comment coming from Alice. I thought it was a rather strange thing to say.
A - Well, the Jim Morrison that I knew was a very serious, brooding type of character, like you would expect.
Q - I would have thought his onstage antics were all an act.
A - Well, if it was an act, he did it when he was out at clubs, sitting in the audience. He did it when he was just walking down the street. (laughs) I knew him as an interesting, nice guy, but I didn't know him as a comedian at all. He was serious. Glen Buxton and him used to go out drinking a lot. As a matter of fact, they stayed up all night drinking at a Mexican restaurant. Then Jim Morrison flipped out because he remembered he had a photo shoot for the album cover "Waiting For The Sun". They had set up a shoot so they could have the sun coming up behind the band. He freaked out because he didn't have anything to wear, so Glen took his black sweater off and gave it to him and that's what he's wearing in that picture. I have another band called Blue Coupe with Joe and Albert Bouchare of Blue Oyster Cult that wrote and played on a lot of BOC's hits. It's a trio, them and myself. We're halfway through a new album and Robbie Krieger plays on it. He's pretty funny actually. (laughs) Maybe he was the comedian.
Q - Will you be telling these types of stories in your autobiography?
A - Yeah. Everything's in there. I was very vocal in the rehearsal room. I was a very strong, passionate artist. Not that anybody else wasn't. I was very vocal during rehearsals, but I was much an introvert outside of the rehearsal room. Therefore, when we were traveling all those hundreds of thousands of miles in the back of a station wagon, everybody else would be talking. Everybody was very witty. Glen was the wittiest. Alice was right up there. Neal and Michael were both very funny too. A lot of entertainment offstage. But I was just the quiet one sitting in the back of the station wagon, facing down where we had come from. Nobody else liked to sit backwards. I always ended up back there. I just had a bunch of notes. Every time somebody would say something that I thought was worth remembering, I would write it all down. By the time I'd get home from a trip on the road, I'd have piles of these notes in my suitcases that I saved all these years. Plus, I was more into listening to what they were saying than thinking of what I would be saying to be clever, to join in. Therefore, I have a lot of memories that I know nobody else in the band remembers what happened. That's what the book is. But the book ends with the Hollywood Bowl, because that's the night that I finally had to admit that we had made it. The early days up 'til then, that's what the book covers. The next book will cover the arena years.
Q - I can almost see a movie being made from your book.
A - Well, thank-you. I hope so. My whole goal was to really capture the essence of the band during the fun years, during our rise. I wanted to capture everybody's complexity of personalities, good and bad, including myself. I don't gloss everything over and I also give plenty of credit where it's due. At this point it almost seems like people would rather believe all of the enhanced stories that they've heard over so many years rather than the truth. Me, I've always liked the truth. I hate it when I go to see a movie about Beethoven and I find they changed the story for entertainment value. That annoys me. I'd rather know exactly what happened to Beethoven. (laughs) I find the boring reality to be way more interesting than the prefabrication.
Q - I recall reading an article in, I think it was Circus magazine some years back, where the band was traveling across the country in that station wagon you mention, living on $15 a week. Next scene, Ethel Kennedy was backstage waiting to meet Alice and the band. From struggling to meeting Ethel Kennedy. That must have blown your mind.
A - That was the ironic thing about it, we were famous, yet for every person that liked us that there were ten people that hated us because of our name and because of the way we dressed with our androgynous presentation. So, the good thing about that is, it certainly kept egos in check. (laughs) But it was great. You never knew what was going to happen next. You never knew if somebody was going to be waiting outside with tire irons or if it was going to be the mayor of the city with a key to the city. (laughs) And that's how it went. We flew on a plane once to Milwaukee and on the plane we met the mayor. He's saying "Oh, my daughter is a big fan." We're like, have her come to the concert. We'll get her in and everything. When we got to the concert, the fire marshals were there, the Humane Society, Animal Rights, everybody in the world was there to stop us from performing. They were afraid we killed chickens, which we never did, but that was the rumor in the press that catapulted us to notoriety, but it wasn't a true event. Alice threw the chicken in the audience. He didn't rip it apart like the news believed. So now everybody shows up to stop us from doing our show. It looked like they were going to stop us. The promoter was already to throw in the towel and then we get a phone call and it's the mayor of the city telling us he's going to give us a key to the city, which was a big, giant, gold-glittered can opener because it was Milwaukee. They drank beer. (laughs) So all of a sudden all of the red carpets came out and the seas parted and it turned out to be a great show. So that's how it was. It was always a very positive negative wherever we went, all the time. It was never too far one way or too far the other. It was a roller coaster. The best shoe-in that we had that Shep took advantage of and all of us did was that Alice was and still is such a congenial guy. He could talk to anybody and he was just always so likeable. Now, people pay to play golf with him. Give me a break. But back then the best thing to do to settle down people's worries was just to have 'em come and meet Alice and the band. All of a sudden they saw we were far different from the image projected.
Q - In Bob Greene's book, Shep Gordon supposedly organized that "Muscle Of Love" tour so that every guy in the group would be financially set for life. I guess every guy had enough money from the tour to invest in an apartment building and therefore collect rent from each apartment for life. Was that true or was that hype?
A - Well, everything is hype. I don't know why you keep quoting Bob Greene' book. I think he's a great writer, but that book was total entertainment. What Bob did, because it makes interesting reading, is he took everything positive that was going on and eliminated it and took everything negative and magnified it and that's exactly what that book is. All it is, is we're gonna make it look like there's all kinds of problems going on because that's more interesting to read. He's a good writer. I like the book and I like him a lot as a writer, but that book is so annoying because people take it as gospel. It has very little truth in it. It was basically just designed to make the band look bad so that people wouldn't blame Alice for taking the ball and running with it. OK? He makes Shep sound like a genius because Shep's the one who hired him to serve that purpose. But it worked. It worked on you. It worked on a lot of people.
Q - I believed it because there was no other book on the market at that time about the story of the history of Alice Cooper.
A - Yeah, OK, that's because nobody wanted to hear our side of the story. They only wanted to hear Alice's, OK?
Q - So, bring us up to date. What is Dennis Dunaway doing these days?
A - I work with Richie Scarlet now, who worked with Ace (Frehley) for quite a few years.
Q - And you're part of a group called Fifth Avenue Vampires. What label are you on?
A - It's on our own label. If you go to the website www.fifthavenuevampires.com, you can see where it's available. You can either buy the disc or you can download the music as usual.
Q - Are you going to tour behind this CD?
A - Yeah. Well, actually we've already opened for Alice five shows. And we're going to be playing two gigs in New Jersey this month (April 2010) and one in New York City.
Q - How many guys in the band?
A - Four. We have Richie Scarlet on guitar. He played guitar with Ace. Sebastian Bach, Peter Criss and played bass for Mountain for ten years. And then we have Russ Wilson, who was in my band, The Dennis Dunaway Project, our critically acclaimed album "Bones From The Yard". He's on this. Our singer we call Joe Von T because he's the head vampire. (laughs)
Official Website: alicecooper.com
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