Gary Graff was 12 years old when he heard Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” on the radio and fell in love with his brash attitude.
Fifty years later, the song still resonates. And Graff is still following Cooper’s career, as the longtime Detroit rock journalist is now the author of “Alice Cooper at 75,” a new unauthorized biography of Cooper, the Detroit-bred rock and roller who died Saturday 75 years young.
“Music wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t been for Alice Cooper,” Graff says, on the phone from his home in Beverly Hills (that’s Metro Detroit’s Beverly Hills, not Southern California’s). “There were showmen before, but he put real vaudevillian showmanship in rock and roll. It’s not going to be jeans and T-shirts anymore: we’re going to put on a show, we’re going to tell a story on stage.
“When he did that and was successful with it, I think all the other bands were like, ‘OK, we’ve got to up our game a little bit,'” Graff says. “The clothes got flashier, the special effects got more interesting. It really got the rock world to look at showmanship as something that wasn’t just hype, it was entertainment. And that’s what the audience wanted.”
The shock rocker made noise by pushing boundaries on stage, making snakes and guillotines part of his routine. But behind the flash, there was — and still is — substance to back it up, Graff says.
“The music stops,” he says. “It’s not just the dead baby dolls and the beheadings and the killing of the chickens and everything that got him the headlines. The music keeps it going.”
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Graff, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and moved to Detroit in 1982, was approached to author “Alice Cooper at 75” by publisher Motorbooks, whose “at 75” series also includes books about David Bowie and Elton John.
The former Detroit Free Press contributor, who now covers the Metro Detroit music scene for the Oakland Press, has previously written books on Neil Young and Bob Seger, and he edited a book on Bruce Springsteen.
He took the Cooper assignment at the end of 2021 and worked on it over the course of about five months, researching old stories about Cooper and interviews with the rocker (born Vincent Furnier), including his own. Graff has interviewed Cooper several times over the years, starting in 1986, and last year he held a conversation with him at Motor City Comic Con. He even played 18 holes with the avid golfer.
The book has 75 chapters, mostly a page or two in length, covering Cooper’s life and career, from his upbringing in Detroit to his 2011 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and everything in between. “It’s meant to be an emergency drop,” says Graff. “The reader opens it and they get an independent chapter, but in the same way if you read it from cover to cover, it reads like a linear story.”
The book covers all 28 of Cooper’s studio albums, and to determine the mood, Graff listened to each album as he wrote about them. “I took my vinyl out and piled it next to the desk, just for some juju that would provide,” he says.
Graff, 62, first saw Cooper in concert in 1982 and has seen him live many times over the years. He estimates that he has seen a total of about 6,000 concerts in his lifetime, and as artists like Cooper reach their retirement years and other rock icons graduate to the sold-out arena in the sky, a huge piece of music history is on the precipice of be lost forever, he says.
“We took their presence for granted for a long time,” says Graff, who says a shift began to happen because Bowie died in 2016, which was followed shortly after by the deaths of Glenn Frey and Prince .
“I think this has been a metaphysical slap in the head for people to appreciate these musicians while they’re still around, to take that opportunity to see them, because we’re reminded, almost weekly, they’re not going to always be with us,” he says. “The music will, and the art and creativity will. But they will not be. And I think it has created a different kind of appreciation for people and a real feeling that we should take a chance to see them while they are alive, so that we can enjoy them and we can appreciate the music more because they are with us, and it’s not just a piece of memory.”
‘Alice Cooper at 75’
By Gary Graff
Motorbooks / The Quarto Group
Now in bookstores
Book signing event
Gary Graff will sign copies of “Alice Cooper at 75” at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on Saturday at 7 p.m., and will discuss Cooper and the book with WDET’s Rob Reinhart, leading up to a screening of the 2014 documentary , “Super”. Duper Alice Cooper.” For tickets and information visit the Michigan Theater website.