Living on the edge: Tales from Detroit’s rock and roll scene

Detroit-born Vincent Furnier (a.k.a Alice Cooper) left Michigan in the late ’60s for Los Angeles hoping to hit it big on the city’s music scene. But he brought his burgeoning band back to the Motor City in the early ’70s when he realized its theatrical hard rock might fit in well with a scene that included the Stooges, MC5 and Ted Nugent. Initially, the group’s members lived in hotel on Gratiot, but then moved to a farmhouse in Pontiac — which became the scene of more than its share of mayhem.

Alice Cooper: We never lived anywhere, let alone a house, so this house we got on Brown Road north of Detroit was quite a treat. At that time — 1970, 1971 — you’d play the Eastown. It would be Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the Stooges, and the Who, for $4. The next weekend at the Grande it was MC5, Brownsville Station, and Fleetwood Mac, or Savoy Brown or the Small Faces. You couldn’t be a soft-rock band or you’d get your ass kicked. We knew how good the Stooges and MC5 were, and if we had all just stayed in Detroit, that would have been fine with everybody, I think. When we started breaking nationally, you almost hated to leave Detroit. I loved that house. I think we had 10 acres.

Dennis Dunaway (Alice Cooper bassist): Before we got our house in Detroit, we were staying at this dive motel on Gratiot Avenue, and all I remember is there was this Big Boy across the street and I was always wishing I could afford to eat something there. But instead of us hearing about Detroit and migrating there, it was more like we were going anywhere we could get a gig, and the Detroit area and the Midwest liked us a lot better than the rest of the country did.

Bob Ezrin (producer, Alice Cooper, Detroit): I had to go to meet the band there when we started getting ready to do “Love It to Death.” First of all, I drove past it about four times because it was boarded up from the outside. It looked like a derelict farmhouse that no one had been in for fifty years. After traveling this road four or five times and realizing there was no other house, I finally pulled around the back, and then I saw that there were vehicles and there was a three-legged dog and the screen door was open to the house, so I let myself in.

The practice hall was a big barn on the property — this was a big farm. It could have been hundreds of acres for all I know. In the practice barn they had some of their props; they had a whole stage back-line set up and there was also a shooting gallery where they used to put up bottles and cans and shoot them with BB guns to let off steam. No one was awake when I first walked into the house, and I came in through the kitchen, which looked like a science experiment. There were filthy dishes that had been piled there forever. There were dishes of casserole that had been there for so long that things were growing in it. I wandered through the kitchen into the next room, which was totally dark, through a beaded curtain into the room … As my eyes adjusted, I saw that and kind of leapt back, and then there was clothes rack with falsies on the other wall — you know I backed into that. I realized there was a bed in the middle of the room, and on that bed were two creatures of indeterminate sex, both wearing Dr. Denton’s, with the button back. The only way I could tell that one was a guy was because one of them had mutton chops. Everything else was identical. They both had long blonde hair, they both had nail polish, they both had Dr. Denton’s on, lots of jewelry, and they were dead to the world — they did not notice me.

Neal Smith (Alice Cooper drummer): That was Glen’s room (guitarist Glen Buxton), which was the living room. It was Glen and his girlfriend. Alice and I had the two bedrooms upstairs, and Glen and Mike and Dennis were downstairs.

Bob Ezrin: So then I tried to leave the room by the other door. There was another beaded curtain, which I thought might lead out to civilization. As I parted the curtain, standing in the doorway was a 6½-foot frog. There was a guy with a frog’s head on, which later I learned was Dennis Dunaway, but he was just standing there with a frog’s head on and I parted the curtain and bumped into him, and he looked at me and said, “Ribbit” and then turned and walked away.

Dennis Dunaway: I didn’t know Bob Ezrin was coming over. It was kind of dark in the living room. He comes in, you know, and I said, “Ribbit” and he’s like, “Oh hello, Mr. Frog,” and you can tell he was really nervous. Because he just didn’t know what to do. He was already apprehensive. He was just a kid. We called him the Boy Wonder because he really was just a boy.

Bob Ezrin: Then I heard this kind of — what would be a good word to describe it? — chattering sound beside me to the left of me, and I turned around and there was a green monkey looking at me and masturbating.

Alice Cooper: We had a bunch of pets. We had a raccoon that was the most horrible thing ever, and it would wad up its crap and fling it at people. It was a horrible little animal. And the monkey, if a girl walked in, the monkey would immediately start masturbating. It was so embarrassing. My mom or my sister would come in, and the monkey would start.

Bob Ezrin: As I backed away from that I bumped into my first real human being, who was Mike Roswell, the road manager with the band. He was sleepy-eyed, had just come out of his bedroom, which was just off of this main room that I was in, and he said, “Oh yeah, the guys are just getting up. We played last night. Yeah, sorry, you know. Sit down here and we’ll all be there in a minute.” Finally, everybody finally assembled; we went back into the room with the thing with falsies that turned out to have been the living room. So then we all sat in there and had a meeting, and we started playing material off of cassettes. We picked “I’m Eighteen” as the first thing; I think actually it might have been “Is It My Body?” was the first thing that we worked on, then “I’m Eighteen.”

Alice Cooper: He said, “I’ll produce the album, but we have to relearn everything.” And it was like what? He said, “Everyone likes you guys, but you don’t have a signature,” and we didn’t know what that meant. He said, “When you hear the Doors, you know it’s the Doors, and when you hear the Beatles, you know it’s the Beatles. When you hear Alice Cooper, you could be any psychedelic band. There’s no signature to anything.”

So Bob came in and we went out to the barn every day, rehearsed for 10 hours a day.

Dennis Dunaway: There was a hospital for the criminally insane across the road from us. You could throw a rock and hit it practically. On a decent day, we’d open up these big gigantic doors to the barn we practiced in, which was part of the deal we got for the house. They didn’t clap at everything. But when we played something that we really nailed, you’d hear them at the prison farm cheering. The song “Dead Babies” never would have happened if that prison farm hadn’t cheered for it. The verse was from a song that had kind of a crappy chorus. And so even though it was a good verse, the song fell by the wayside. I was trying to talk the guys into putting the good verse with the good chorus, and they weren’t going for it at all. I wrote a bass part to tie it all together, and I finally got it. We had a rule that you couldn’t throw out anything until you actually tried to play it, so the doors were open and I got them to play it, and the prison farm cheered like crazy, so that was it. That was the stamp of approval.

Alice Cooper: We pretty much were the entertainment for this hospital for the criminally insane. Perfect for us. We would rehearse 10 hours a day, and they would sit and listen to us rehearse all day.

From the book “Detroit Rock City” by Steve Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

(Source: Detroit Free Press)

10 thoughts on “Living on the edge: Tales from Detroit’s rock and roll scene

  1. This is freakin hilarious. LMAO. Dennis is so funny, “ribbit”. Rehearsing 10 hours a day for the criminally insane. What could be better ‘Alice Cooper’ than that? I hope there will be more cool stories like this one in either Dennis’ or Neal’s book.

  2. I NOW UNDERSTAND HOW ALICE GOT HIS VISION FOR HIS MUSIC. NOTHING LIKE PRACTICING ACROSS THE STREET FROM A HOSPITAL FOR THE CRIMINALLY INSANE!! I WONDER IF THAT’S HOW HE CAME UP WITH “FROM THE INSIDE” AND OTHER PERSONALITIES FROM HIS MUSIC. BRILLIANT!!!!!

  3. Awesome! I saw the Billion Dollar Babies concert in Detroit. I was 12 or 13. (1972 or 1973?) One of my mom’s friends couldn’t make it so I got the ticket! It was so Amazing! I remember so much of it still 🙂 xo Love you Alice!

    • that is really cool Vicki. You saw them during the best of their early days. I didn’t see the original band. My first AC experience was mid 70’s, and was quite disappointed. Love this article, might have to buy the book.

  4. Wow Alice! You have come such a long ways since then; but, what a nostalgic past! Your past is so instrumental to where you are today where you have been longer than where you have been in your past.

  5. I grew up on Jamm rd which was close to the farm house on Brown Rd that the band was in. We could hear them practicing. My older brothers would help them out with taking care of their animals. I can remember going with them to the farm. Can also remember gathering around the t.v. to watch them on a local channel when they were just hitting it big.

  6. as a N. Oakland County resident I can all but 100% assure that it was not a hospital for the criminally insane. It was an Oakland County Sheriff’s Dept. boot camp. The ‘hospital for the criminally insane’ would have been Clinton Valley Center, on the south side of Pontiac. If those guys were to visit the Brown Road area now they’d not even recognize much. It was way more rural in the early 70’s.

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