Neal Smith's Billion Dollar Beat

Interview by Glenn Leslie

Photos courtesy of Neal Smith

Glenn Leslie has been a rock tour manager, label representative, and entrepreneur over the last thirty years. He recently spoke in depth with ex-Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith regarding the band's early days. Smith spent ten years with the group and has been characterized as a man who could twirl his drumsticks in all of his fingers with rings on each finger. In the 80s he did a stint with Blue Öyster Cult; more recently, he has teamed with fellow Cooper alum Dennis Dunaway and BÖC bassist Joe Bouchard. Exposé would like to thank Leslie for letting us publish this interview under our banner.

Leslie: What type of relationship did the original Alice Cooper Band have with the other bands on Frank Zappa's labels? Did Alice Cooper ever perform with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band?

Smith: Unfortunately, we never performed with Captain Beefheart or hung out to meet up with them. However, Wild Man Fisher we knew well and he was truly one of the craziest people I ever met without a shadow of a doubt. The GTO's: we were good friends with them, we never dated though; and we were friendly with Zappa and the Mothers of course. What took Zappa out of the studio with the original Alice Cooper Band was Jefferson Airplane were recording in the studio next to us. As a token of friendship and congratulations on our record deal, they gave us a couple of joints. We went out into the back alley out and smoked them. It was very potent, very good. We went back into the studio and Zappa could tell we were stoned, so he got pissed and walked out and never came back. We did one other LP with his label and also some gigs with the Mothers but he wasn't in the creative process anymore for Alice Cooper! We really never did pre-production with Zappa. We went in and did our material. I thought Zappa was a great musician and I liked him. When we opened for the Mothers on the west coast, it helped promote us.

Zappa was one of the original snobs against pot.

Alice Cooper Band promotional photo

I think there were many he walked out on and that was that. It was expected of us to do and try everything at that time. We were having fun, but we were not self-destructive! What is different towards the end of the band was that (guitarist) Glen Buxton was drinking too much at that time. It was bad, but he continued to play well.

Yeah, I saw that Glen joined up with a local New Jersey group called Shrapnel. He was in good form at CBGB's; Glen liked to mentor young groups. He was a jazz player and liked to play demented jazz chords. You can hear it on Blue Turk; he had had a distinctive guitar sound that no one else had; it was a ghostly effect that you hear on Eighteen.

In Europe fans are more astute, more knowledgeable, than in the States.

Yeah, they're more loyal over the years in Europe even to Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith out on tour (based on their history). But that's not the case (here). Let's say that touring in the USA and New England, they were like a new band starting out!

It seems that today people don't listen. They can only remember two words of a conversation.

People are conditioned that way in the real estate business. If I gave a seminar, people would only remember two things which are worth while. But it's trouble in that you gave them a ton of information and all they remember was two points.

Well in the USA if I said Who's the Soft Machine? people would say, Who? But in Europe all seem to know this Softs record and that one.

Actually that happened to us. One time the Alice Cooper Band went to hear Jimi Hendrix play and the Soft Machine was the opener at the Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona. We didn't have any money, but we had that rock n' roll look on the street, more so than most bands looked live on stage, so we told them around back of the Coliseum, Hey we're the Soft Machine and they let us in! We walked in and got good seats and we wondered, what the hell happened to Soft Machine when they came to the came to the back stage door? Bands didn't carry ID's! We thought hopefully Soft Machine had an easier time getting in than we did!

Tell me about your experiences with Syd Barrett and the Floyd, and when they stayed with you. Can you confirm that rumor where Glen claimed to pick up telepathic signals from Syd?

We were in Santa Monica and we were the house band at the Cheetah Club. We opened for all the groups that played there. Cher booked the place and we stayed at her house. The Floyd came in to the club and played Piper at the Gates of Dawn live. It was great, but Syd's guitar strings backstage were actually rusted on his old Fender Telecaster, as if the guitar was left out in a rainstorm. The first song of their set started and Rick Wright was really on. Syd went to the mike (a Shure 58), and there's a big spark. He got shocked for sure and he then put his arms down and stood there the rest of the show. He just stood there and never touched his guitar or sang; he just looked out into the oblivion! He was then helped off the stage and we went back to the house. Syd stuck his face off in the corner of the room the whole night. Maybe Glen talked to him, but Syd never talked to me or anyone after he got shocked. The Floyd had a great light show we had never seen in the U.S. before. They had white sheets over the amps used as film screens and lobster strobes with colors in them. Those lights were special for the Floyd, so electric and vibrating. We had a great lighting guy living with us named Charlie who did lights with us. He liked what he saw and took those ideas from the Floyd show after watching just one set! I never saw the Floyd again – after Syd, that was it. I did see the Stones with Brian Jones and later with Ronnie Wood who is a good friend. I also saw him with Small Faces and the Stones, and we stayed at each other's houses. Brian Jones was so cool, he had a great image. The Beatles were great and everything, but Jones was one cool guy as far as I was concerned. The Beatles were cutting edge commercial and that's great, but Brian Jones had longer hair than any of the Beatles; plus he was bad.

There are certain images about the original band that made them unique. Today's bands don't seem to offer that musically or artistically. They appear to be too close to each other in style and sound. The Doors had their look and sound, as did Iggy and the Stooges, which was what Alice Cooper was aiming for. Tell me about the science fiction rock.

It was an early term we used to describe ourselves and our mindset. We just had our own version of rock with no categories. That's why we came from Arizona and we all went to Phoenix Junior College. After that, I went to San Francisco with my own band and Dennis, Alice and Glen went on to Los Angeles. They lost their drummer, who was a more straight ahead type of player. I was the better, more creative drummer and improviser at that time so we got together. The main thing was, if the Rolling Stones could have longer hair than the Beatles, we could do much better than that! We let it grow for a couple of years instead of months. We moved to Los Angeles and bought our clothes at Goodwill or Salvation Army stores. They were interesting clothes as we really hated popular fashions! We bought cases of clothes from old movie sets too. I still have some of that stuff from Bud Abbott and Yul Brenner. Maybe Jerry Seinfeld will buy the Bud Abbott stuff from me...? My sister started to make clothes for us out of materials we liked. We were trying something new and we wanted something no one else was doing. We got the right man, Shep Gordon, and we eventually got a great producer, Bob Ezrin. Others didn't but Bob did, he believed in us! I called them The Magnificent Seven – Bob, Shep and the band. If Alice Cooper makes it, it's the death of flower power.

It was (promoter) Bill Graham who said that.

Good. We were glad! Other than the Doors and British bands, the American bands were too bland, homogenized. Going into the 80s, drummers lost their original sounds that great drummers like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, Carl Palmer, and the drummer in the Yardbirds had. Those bands in the 80s had the same drum sound, all of them.

Nowadays kids seem to like Neal Pert in Rush. He seems to me to be powerful, but not as creative as a Bill Bruford or yourself.

I never really liked the band (Rush). I couldn't stand the vocal.

When I first saw Alice Cooper, you guys used ball peen hammers to hit the base of the mike stands at the beginning of the Love It to Death show. There was a difference between these type of theatrics compared to Alice later changing it to skeletons dancing, which is more like choreography. You know, the sheets over the band, hypnotizing the audience or hammering the bottom of the mike stands with hammers and Glen Buxton playing slide with an antique spoon. This to me was the great theatrics, not men in skeleton suits dancing the Halloween dance.

That was later during Welcome to My Nightmare. The original band was gone and we would have never done that! We were all the Alice Cooper Group – Mike, Dennis, Glen, Alice and me, until Alice went solo. We made decisions together up until the end. The music and stage show were all part of the Alice Cooper persona and image together. We created this character as we went along. It was great, but life was a low budget movie so all the stuff we used, hammers and sheets, anything we could find around your home, we used them. So as we made more money, the more elaborate the stage show became!

Jumping back to Washington D.C., Deadheads of that time were in for a shock when the original Alice Cooper Band shared the bill with the Dead at the Medicine Ball Caravan Show where I first saw you. Some Deadheads as I recall were shouting how great this acid was going around! Anyway, the band was traveling to this concert hall and your backline and instruments didn't arrive.

Yeah, they got stolen a couple of times.

And the Grateful Dead were kind enough to allow you guys to use their equipment. You guys went on and wow – awesome tightness and great psychedelic jamming. Glen Buxton was amazing with that antique tablespoon on slide! Everyone was smoking pot or tripping. At the end of the set there was feedback and smoke and you guys were gone! This Deadhead said to me, Hey, what happened to the band? And I said, I don't know, but that was the future of rock music! The Dead then came on played and chugged along as they could.

Bill Graham had something to do with that show, but he hated us. He said, if the Alice Cooper Band makes it, it's the end of everything he tried to create in the 60s. He made a fortune from these San Francisco bands, but he reluctantly started to hire us. Graham would fight with Shep. Graham was a genius who helped change things and music in the 60s but he didn't want to change from that, which is kind of funny.

I thought in retrospect that Bill was too partial to the San Francisco acts. In particular he liked the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Allman Brothers, Hot Tuna. Alice Cooper played the Fillmore only once and the British bands also – Tull, Procol Harum, Traffic, King Crimson, maybe once or twice only. But the Dead, Hot Tuna, Allman Brothers, were there every other week.

The reason is that they were in his hip pocket. It was what he liked and that's what he worked with.

Me and my friends wanted to see Procol Harum but to no avail at the time.

Some time later Alice Cooper played with Procol Harum and they were great!

Yeah, another great drummer, B.J. Wilson, played really well on tracks like The Devil Came from Kansas. He had a simple solo like Ringo or Charlie Watts, but all class, subtle and sweet.

Yeah, another great drummer.

Let's talk about your current act. What approach does Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith use from the classic bands they came from?

Well, the songwriting for one. Dennis and I have always collaborated. We've written by ourselves or collaborated with the whole band. In fact, Joe and myself worked on Shadows of California on a Blue Öyster Cult LP (The Revolution by Night) in the 80s. I wrote with Joe and on a Buck Dharma solo LP, Flat-out (1982). I wrote and played Born to Rock. And it was an MTV hit too. So we are about songwriting and showmanship and we like to have fun on stage! We've been getting e-mail from fans all over Europe who thought they would never see us again! That's why I always wanted to do an Alice Cooper reunion. It's sad that there are fans of ours who never saw the band! We have may have played live in their cities and fans learned of us after 1975. I feel bad for fans that never really saw the band at its peak; they'll never get to see it really because Glen Buxton is gone. However, if it could ever work out that myself, Dennis and Alice and Mike Bruce could pick a good lead guitarist, Slash maybe, who knows all the songs...

You know Kiss and Marilyn Manson use a lot of the same image you used to.

I know the guys in Kiss: Ace, Gene and Paul. They're nice guys, but my feeling is, if they have a greatest hits record and compare it to ours, it's just no contest really! Part of the challenge for us was to be a commercial success so we could get what we were doing across. That's why Bob Ezrin became involved, then when Kiss got Bob it was just for the same exact reason, but they had no huge hit like School's Out. So for Kiss a hit ballad was there, but that's a little pathetic. But by the same token, they did have a big hit with I Wanna Rock n' Roll All Night.* They're not in the same league as our songs but their show is great. I can't take anything from them – they had a comeback that we didn't. Another parallel is why do Alice Cooper fans come to the show – for the stage act or the music? Kiss had this same problem. No one knew what to expect so we tried to find new ways to kill Alice: electrocute him, hang him, guillotine and decapitate him. So as far as Marilyn Manson goes, I am not that familiar with that band. I think it's great. The important thing is I think it's good that there are bands who still challenge what's socially accepted. Alice Cooper walked that line. There was a real fear factor! I don't think Kiss really threatened anybody though. To the youth of America, Alice Cooper had gender benders. That question was never an issue with Kiss. They are guys for sure, and their make-up was real mask heavy. But when we were first starting as the name Alice Cooper, the fact that we were socially unacceptable (being gay or out of the closet) was just another social statement we could make without really making it! And a lot of people used to criticize us about that. They really didn't know what to think about us the first year we were out. Gender benders were a lot in Canada. They said the Alice Cooper had a girl for a drummer. I took it as a compliment! But I didn't have big breasts.

Now I see Marilyn Manson and the band is pretty tight and sharp but the songs, vocals and writing doesn't always warm up to me. I get a kick out of his image, but the tunes don't stick to your ribs the way your old band did. The psychedelic jamming you did was the best ever and then you guys became a great hard rock and roll band.

Yeah, that came from the jams we did out of the desert with Dennis before we were in the band. As great a lyricist and onstage performer Alice Cooper is, it can't overshadow the fact that Mike Bruce wrote the big hits. Mike was our Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Glen Buxton and the band wrote School's Out but we collaborated well together and the majority of the music was Mike, but Mike doesn't do music all the time now. He's supposed to go over to Europe soon when we go with Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith. But you never know.

So Mike Bruce is not doing much music now? He has a new live CD called Halo of Ice recorded in Iceland and performs the hits.

Mike has a great band in Iceland that has never played in the USA.

Tell me the story about you guys and Kiss...

When BÖC was opening for Kiss in the 80s, Gene Simmons was there with a gorgeous girl and some great costumes. Gene said he saw the band in 1971 at the Fillmore and after sound check, he got backstage when my drum set was still being set up. It was my chrome set and each of them took turns: Gene, Ace and Paul each sitting behind the kit and imitated my long, over-the-cymbal stretch! I said, Oh yeah? Hey motherfucker! No one sits by my kit. You got that? How dare you go near my kit! I'll kick your ass! Gene at the time said, Oh god, what? I'm so sorry man. I said, I'm just kidding, man! I wasn't thrilled about it at the time. To hear Gene who is now a millionaire twenty times over telling this story was great. It was good for Gene to respect and give credit to the original Alice Cooper Band. Well, Ace first and foremost always said that Alice Cooper had a lead singer who wore make-up so we wanted to have the whole group wear make-up, all four of us. Ace said, that was the deal, all four wearing make-up. Some of the clothes Kiss had early on were influenced by ours that my sister designed for us and then the rhinestones of course. We must have inspired them in this way.

When the guys in Kiss sat behind your kit at the Fillmore East, were they a band already?

Yes, they were a bar band at the time.

When you guys played Gaelic Park in the Bronx with Cactus and Black Oak Arkansas, do you remember when Alice had all the policemen clapping in time during Black Juju? The collaboration between the police and the band was unique, and I saw it the first time in that Cincinnati mid-summer rock show as well. That was the first simulcast on radio and TV at the same time. The cops were nodding their heads to the music and they put on the show to raise money for a youth program.

We always had a good thing with the local police departments in each city!

Tell me about the first show where you put sheets over each member and you played under each sheet.

Yeah, at the hotel we came up with that, practicing with the sheets over us. When we did it live, everyone was waiting for my usual signal to end the song but they couldn't see me because of the sheets over us and I just stopped and then they followed. It was pure stupid genius!

Talking about the police... when we moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, the first thing we did was call the police department. Anybody ever wants to come up here give us a call and come on over to make sure someone here is home because of situations with runaways, people can't find kids whatever. A New Jersey parent was concerned about these girls coming up to see Mike Bruce so we told the detectives to come up and search the mansion and they did it. It took a long while, but they were nice and appreciative because they didn't have to get a search warrant. They were always very cool with us. The Cooper mansion was owned by a Great Gatsby actor. His picture was in the house, Dennis can tell you his name. It's called the Glicia Estate at this point.

You also played with the Plasmatics on their second LP, right?

When Flying Tigers (Neal and Dennis' band after Billion Dollar Babies) played up in Connecticut, I liked the Plasmatics for years. We ran into them when Flying Tigers played and I wanted to work with them and eventually I did. Wendy (Williams) was very professional, a vegetarian and all business. There was no bull with rehearsing or recording; it was very straight and a treat to do that record.

So you, your sister, and Dennis Dunaway lived together in Connecticut?

Yeah, in the Glicia Estate, then we sold it and we all got our own homes. Dennis and my sister got married, and me and my ex-wife in 1973-1974. In 75-76 we moved from Greenwich to Old Greenwich and then I moved to Westport and have been there ever since. Eartha Kitt just bought my house I had in 76 in fact. Yeah, she still gets her royalties and is able to buy a house like that, she's great! Alice and I actually met Eartha Kitt a long time ago at Studio 54. She's also one of the wildest people I've ever met.

Now you work in real estate as well. Do you find there's as much cut-throat behavior in the real estate business as there is in the music business?

That's a great question! I don't think there's anything more sleazy than the music business. I really don't. I'm still looking for a code of ethics book for the music business. Every other business has one, but I don't think it'll happen! Anything can happen and artists and management have to be aware at all times. It's a crazy and rough business.

There's no one monitoring. It's like boxing. There's no real governing body to make sure there's an ambulance available or a pension plan for fighters.

That's a good analogy. In real estate the code of ethics is real big, so you deal in million dollar homes like Rose and I do. And believe me, it has to be on the up and up, or you do not stay in this business too long. I've been doing this since 85 and that's the reality of it! If people can't trust you – goodbye! So much of your business is reputation and contacts, so if they don't want to work with you... Everyone expects perfection in real estate, but if you don't do that, they'll never forget.

Tell me about your other band, Cinematik.

It's mellow, emotional music. It's great for looking out over the ocean or having a glass of wine or when you're sitting watching the sunset or nice backyard music.

It's a little improvised?

It's spontaneously written, based on jamming and with a little pre-production. It's tight and there are some spacey things. Maybe it's like Pretties for You. We use a singer-songwriter approach with a world, middle-eastern feeling and Brazilian, Eskimo and African percussion.

Bill Bruford did a drum instructional video called Bruford and the Beat. Have you considered doing one as well?

I've thought about that. But I don't have a lot of patience to work with students. If the student has a rough time learning the drums, I'd tell them to learn another instrument, and of course I don't have time, between all the rock and real estate.



* School's Out hit number 7 in the US charts; Kiss topped out at 12 with Rock 'n' Roll All Nite. Their ballad Beth made the Top Ten.