Rocking in Style
John Varvatos and Alice Cooper talk about their musical and fashion influences — and Detroit’s comeback
Photographs by Jenny Risher
Alice Cooper came home in late April to help John Varvatos open his Woodward store.
Cooper grew up in East Detroit but left for Phoenix at age 10. He moved back in 1970, a year before the band’s breakout Love it to Death album.
Varvatos grew up in Allen Park. His first fashion-industry job was at age 16 at Hughes and Hatcher in Dearborn. Before starting his own line, he held positions at Ralph Lauren/Polo and Calvin Klein.
We joined them at Cliff Bell’s before the store’s “black carpet” grand opening.
HD: Talk about the band’s early Los Angeles days.
AC: Out-of-town groups would come in. We’d be like: “Who’s Led Zeppelin?” They walk in and I went: “That guy was in the Yardbirds.” Jimmy Page. So immediately I said: “We open for you.” The next night that we played the Cheetah Club: “Who’s Pink Floyd? A guy [wearing] pink? The barber from Andy Griffith?” [laughs] They ended up moving in with us because they ran out of money.
HD: Re-listening to “Pretties for You” (Cooper’s first album), there’s a lot of Syd Barrett influence.
AC: Our guitar player Glen Buxton couldn’t jam with a blues band. Just couldn’t get it. The only guy Glen wanted to jam with was Syd. They were both taking a lot of acid. [One morning] Syd’s going “heeheehee” watching this box of corn flakes the way I’d be watching Looney Tunes on television. (But) on stage, early Pink Floyd was organized insanity — but it sounded so good. We finally got an audition at Gazzarri’s. Pink Floyd made brownies. I honestly didn’t know they were loaded. … I fell off the stage. They were in the audience laughing their heads off. … We got the gig! We got to eat for two weeks.
JV: I don’t know Gazzarri’s. I know the name but I don’t know any stories.
AC: It was next door to the Whiskey. Van Halen started there. Everybody did.
JV: Did you see Van Halen on Jimmy Kimmel? They sounded amazing. … David Lee Roth was spinning his microphone stand … kind of like you do with the cane? Super, super fast. It hits him in the nose and all the sudden there’s blood. It’s live, [so] he can’t stop. He got 14 stitches.
AC: We did Dave Grohl’s birthday party. I love playing with the Foo Fighters. They’re really the only real hard rock band out there. I always tell young bands, go see the Foo Fighters. They never phone it in.
JV: They were on Jimmy Fallon for a week …. One night they had Rick Nielsen [and] the band dressed up like Cheap Trick.
HD: Speaking of dressed up, who were your early fashion influences?
JV: Jimi Hendrix was a big influence. Jimmy Page, in the ’70s when he was with the Yardbirds … wearing the long military coats. What really clicked with me was “Fun House.” Iggy and the Stooges. Opening up that gatefold, they’re laying on an Oriental rug and Iggy’s wearing skinny flared jeans that are worn out with a rip in the knee, and Asheton’s got on skinny jeans and a black leather motorcycle jacket. … They didn’t look like anybody else. That hit me over the head. I wanted to look exactly like the Stooges.
HD: Did you see them at The Grande?
JV: I was a little young for The Grande. I did see Alice at the Roostertail in 1971. It was not a big place.
AC: It was generally a soul place, more of an R&B place. I wore black leather pants or tights, and I would take my girlfriend’s blouse and rip it up and put blood all over it.
JV: There were a lot of interesting things going on in music ... but there was nobody like the Alice Cooper band. It was like something from another planet. I didn’t know how to describe it. I just thought it was the f***ing coolest thing I ever saw.
HD: What did your family think? Mom saw my “Easy Action” cover (long-haired shirtless guys in women’s clothes) and wondered if I was, like, OK?
AC: That was just pure reference to West Side Story.
HD: Look Ma, I’m not in reform school.
AC: You hit the nail on the head. It’s all about rebellion. We even rebelled against what was considered to be acceptable rock and roll. We said: “That’s not good enough. Let’s take it up a notch. … Let’s scare the Rolling Stones.”
HD: When you tell someone you’re from Detroit, what’s the reaction?
AC: I looked at it as being a bragging point. Other musicians wanted to be from Detroit.
HD: Did the fashion world have the same reaction?
JV: No. The fashion world is snobby and it’s New York and L.A. really, or London or Paris. They don’t know from Detroit. But I’m very much like Alice; I was always wearing my “D” on my chest. I started a show on Sirius XM … “Born in Detroit.” I wanted to play all the great music from Detroit. When my life changed a little bit and I become friendly with so many of my music icons , the minute you talk about Detroit, they have amazing stories; they light up.
AC: [Detroit] was the target audience. You could not do a half-assed show in Detroit. You always had to do your best show. Everybody knew that.
JV: A number of employees from my team [are] cra-zy about Detroit. They love the grit, the earthiness, and the industrial part of it but also the energy happening. [One] said: “I want to move to Detroit.” She experienced something that’s hard to write on a piece of paper … the people she met, going to museums, little clubs, restaurants ... little discovery places. I loved hearing this from somebody who’s been a New Yorker for 30 years. I think Detroiters’ perception of what Detroit is, maybe … they don’t realize what happens when [someone] comes here.
HD: An inferiority complex.
AC: We were the butt of the joke for a long time … then going bankrupt even made us more the butt. I think that fueled the underdog part of us.
JV: [Alice] said it best. The best way to win is when you’re knocked down.
AC: You get knocked down twice, you have twice the fight in you. There’s something about the Midwest itself … it’s the real American people. Sort of unaffected. If you look at the bands that are still working, they’re all from the late ’60s and ’70s … it’s a different work ethic. There was no such thing as any easy way. You had to rehearse eight hours a day ... do two albums a year, then tour between that, then find time to write those albums and then be in the studio. Now it’s sort of like: [whining] “Oh man, I had to do a show last night … and then I had to do an interview.” We did 25 interviews a day!
JV: We see that in general both in the music industry and [from] a lot of people that come out of college. They have a different perception of what work life is like, and what’s entitled to them.
AC: If you think rock and roll is [easy], the bigger you get, the more work you do.
HD: It’s strenuous. You were a jock — a track guy?
JV: There are some great pictures of him in short pants [laughs]. Those little skinny legs.
AC: We were all four-year lettermen. I had the state record for 24 months when I was 17.
HD: You’ve said Mick Jagger is five or six years older than you, so you’re not retiring until after he does.
AC: Every time I see him going on tour I go [laughs and shakes head].
JV: They both have similar stamina. [Mick] on this tour … the rest of the band’s pretty much standing there — he’s dancing and jumping the whole time.
AC: He does a three-hour show, and a half-hour on the treadmill before the show. That guy’s still the prototype.
HD: You’ve both done radio. Memorable interviews?
AC: The worst was Jerry Lee Lewis. … He was on meds or something. I couldn’t get him to say anything. A great one was Ted Nugent. I happened to say “Iraq.” He went on for an hour. We cut it up into one-minute segments. “The Wit and Wisdom of Ted Nugent.” Just a rant!
JV: Wayne Kramer [of the MC5] telling about the FBI coming in, and him pulling a gun … [they] could have killed him and he goes to prison.
AC: Politically heavy times. The White Panthers.
HD: You’ve met a lot of people. Ever have a Wayne’s World moment? A “we’re not worthy?”
AC: Any Beatle. Paul McCartney. He’s now become a real good friend. But the first time was like [jaw drops]. I’ve met Dylan, Elvis, Sinatra … I’m getting ready to tee off at Oakland Hills and someone says “Hey, Al Kaline’s behind us.” I was star struck!
HD: McCartney’s on your next album?
AC: Johnny Depp [and] Joe Perry are on guitar. McCartney walks in [and] says, “You want me to play bass?” And I went: “No Paul, we have a better bass player than you.” [Laughs.] He opens the bass and it’s the Höfner left-handed … I swear! We’re standing around like in Indiana Jones where the guy’s face melts. …. [McCartney] goes “It’s a piece of wood.” Are you kidding? That’s the bass I saw on Ed Sullivan. The thing about McCartney, he’s just a band guy. If he wasn’t in the Beatles, he’d be in a pub band.
HD: We’re out of time. You have a rooftop photo shoot?
JV: Do the rooftop concert, speaking of the Beatles, right? [Laughs.]