Terror Tracks: Alice Cooper is the Man Behind the Mask

TERROR TRACKS is a column that will have you cranking your volume to 11 and pulling the covers over your head as we lead you through the aisles of pressed wax and spooky tracks, uncovering the gems of horror-themed music!

Abuse. Dependence. Addiction. No matter which way you carve it, suffering from any alcohol (or drug) problem, to put it mildly, IS. THE. WOOOOOORST. It’s hard to put into words that don’t sound banal, but the gnawing voice constantly in your mind, chest, and throat asking you where the next drink is coming from is something that must be felt to be truly understood - and it is a feeling I wish upon no one. But things can, and do, get better. That’s why stories of hope are so important, especially in the recovery community, because they can be the difference between someone taking a drink or not, just like speakers share their stories at support meetings. All that being said, of all the places in the world, I definitely did NOT expect to find a story of hope nestled into Alice Cooper’s 1986 single for Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, “He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)”. Seriously, who would have thought, right?

Between 1981 and 1983, Alice Cooper recorded what he refers to as his “Blackout Albums”. In an interview with The Quietus, Cooper said. “I love the songs – I just don’t remember writing them. My subconscious was writing some pretty good tracks!” In 1977, dealing with his substance issues for the first time head on, Cooper admitted himself to a psychiatric care facility to help him get sober. And it worked! After three months in recovery, Cooper was back, this time with the help of Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin, with his cheeky semi-autobiographical album From The Inside. But by 1981, in Cooper’s own words, with a sip of his wife’s wine, he had fallen off the wagon again. This time harder than before, adding an addiction to cocaine, which resulted in a heavy departure from Cooper’s macabre carnival act to something more “vicious, and hawkish”. This isn’t surprising though, for by the end of Cooper’s initial three month treatment he had concluded that the source of his substance abuse problems stemmed from the on stage character of “Alice Cooper” and not the languid Vincent Furnier. If Alice is the reason Cooper had problems, the solution would be to divorce himself from the character, right?

In 1983, by the time his album DaDa was recorded, after a string of sonic departures, his drug and alcohol abuse caught up with him for the last time. After returning home to Phoenix, dangerously thin and malnourished, Cooper was admitted to a hospital again and diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. But after two and a half weeks drying out, Cooper beat back his demon. Finally sober, which he still is today, Cooper then disappeared from the music industry to focus on not only his career but his family. In January of 1984 his wife Sheryl Cooper had filed for divorce and his contract with Warner Bros. would end the following month. But as 1984 continued, the slow rebuilding of Alice began. Not only would he reconcile with his wife that spring, relocating to Chicago, but in 1984 he would also star in his first film: Claudio Fraggaso’s Monster Dog. He slowly began writing music again, now with guitarist Kane Roberts, and by 1986 he was on the road to his comeback.

Constrictor, AC’s first album since his recovery, was the first time in his decades-spanning career that he finally felt good. He reached back into his past, a strange mixture of his faith-based childhood and general love for horror films, to equalize his personal life which resulted in a positive affect for his dastardly stage persona. After 23 years of recovery and therapy, Cooper said on The Craig Ferguson show, “My therapist, he says, “Well how much do you drink on stage?” I said, “I never drink on stage, well Alice, the character, never drinks.” He said, “Ok so let me get this straight. You're blaming everything on Alice, of course, but Alice never drinks. And I thought, “You're right.” When I'm on stage I never touch a drop, for two hours. It’s the only two hours I don't drink. You see, it was really not The Monster, it was Frankenstein. Doctor Frankenstein, that was the problem. Alice was fine, he was the good guy. It was me.” Alice was stone cold sober, while Cooper was not. And that revelation helped him let go of alcohol’s control over his art. And with that freedom he was able to expand his art, diving back into original loves and capitalizing on what makes him happy. And lucky for us, one of the things that makes him happy is Jason Voorhees.

On August 1st 1986 Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was released, featuring a lead single from Alice Cooper entitled “He’s Back (Man Behind The Mask)". That following September 22nd, the album Constrictor dropped. And one month later, on October 23rd at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, Alice was set for his triumphant first stop on “The Nightmare Returns” tour. But AC had one last hurdle:

How do you return to something that you love, that is so inundated with pain?

“Alice is back with a vengeance. Alice has been pent up for four years now and I haven't really let him out for four years, that’s sorta like not have sex for four years!” he brazenly told MTV before the tour. But backstage, chills were running up and down Cooper’s spine as he paced, now no beer in sight. “I’m either going to be Alice Cooper, or I’m going to be Barney Fife.” he would later tell VH1. “But suddenly this new and improved Alice came out and he was almost unbearable. Just walking around like he owned the place. It was great, I felt so good it was like a surge of power because I finally felt good. The first time I had ever felt good on stage.”

And while “He’s Back (Man Behind The Mask)” was not a major single off of Constrictor, nor was it necessarily a Cooper song that many find synonymous with his work, but the parallels in the chorus lyrics to his recovery and return are hard to ignore.

“Oh, but he’s back
He’s the man behind the mask,

And he’s out of control
He's back
The man behind the mask
And he crawled out of his hole.”

With the title being metaphorical to the duality alcoholism has on someone’s personality, and the usage of the imagery of a hole to describe how he felt when still imbibing, it becomes pretty clear. Yet beyond the state of mind Cooper was in when penning the song, it is also one of the most straightforward horror movie promotional songs that’s ever been recorded. Typically a band will either insert the titular villain into the narrative of a song (Nightmare on My Street) or simply take the title of the film and pad it with unrelated imagery (Dream Warriors). But from the opening of “Behind The Mask” not only did we get an ominous opening chord, but they hit us with the infamous “Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma” (the colloquial “Ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah” pronunciation is used) while Alice tells us a scary story:

“You're swimmin' with your girl
Out on lovers' lake
And the wind blows cold
It chills your bones
But you're still on the make
That's a bad mistake.”

See what I mean? What does this scenario sound like? SOUNDS LIKE A DANG JASON SCENARIO RIGHT? Right. He continues:

“Oh, if you see him comin'
Get away if you can
Just keep on runnin'
Run as fast as you can
He's a dangerous, dangerous man
And he's out tonight
And he's watchin' you
And he knows your house
No, don't turn out the lights.”

The fact that the word “house” doesn’t really work there aside, this is all absolutely fun and that fun is amplified by the screaming guitar of Kane Roberts who, besides looking like a beefy 80s action star, also retrofitted his instrument to shoot flames. The accompanying music video for the song features Cooper as a psychiatrist talking to a patient named Jason, cutting between scenes of Voorhees (played here by C.J. Graham) jumping from a movie screen to attack the audience, and Alice Cooper playing on what can only be described as a reimagining of the final set piece in Ghostbusters.  It’s all amazingly 80’s and WE LOVE IT.

The road Alice Cooper took to get to Constrictor is rough, and as dark as it sounds perhaps cirrhosis of the liver is what saved his life. By 1984 he had seen the end of his road coming far sooner than he wanted and, with the help of family and friends, he was able to create his best work. And he shows no sign of ever stopping:

“I always said that when Mick Jagger retires, I’ve still got four years because I want to go as long as he did.” Cooper told Planet Rock. “He’s four years older than me but then I just saw a thing on TV where he’s doing Pilates and he’s doing like all these exercises and warming up his voice. And I’m thinking, ‘Jeez this guy’s going to keep going until he’s 80 that means I’ve got to go another 14 years!’”