40 Years Ago: Alice Cooper Brings ‘From the Inside’ Out of the Sanitarium
It’s hardly surprising that, after checking himself in to a sanitarium to face down his alcoholism, Alice Cooper found an entire album’s worth of inspiration. It’s also hardly surprising that, having lived through such a life-changing experience, he returned to the studio with a different approach to his work. Of course, it therefore follows that Cooper fans who hadn't gone through that experience were surprised and put off by From the Inside, his 11th studio album, which arrived on Nov. 17, 1978.
Over a year earlier, he’d checked into a New York sanitarium – not a rehab center, but a place where people with severe mental illness were cared for. Rumored to have built up an extreme drinking addiction over the previous decade, he was said to have been coughing up blood every morning before downing 24 beers during the course of each day.
“I wasn’t a drunk drunk… I was never falling down, nobody had to carry me home,” he reflected in 2017. “I was always on this golden buzz. Kinda this Dean Martin thing.”
In a separate interview he recalled a meeting with his doctor. “He told me that if I stopped drinking, I could probably record 20 more albums, but if I didn’t, in two weeks I’d be playing with my friends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix up in Heaven.” He admitted, “I didn’t realize that I was an alcoholic until I realized that the alcohol was not for fun anymore. It was medicine."
As he dealt with his addiction over a period of months, the artist in him couldn’t fail to be impacted by the fellow patients he encountered. “Every single character [I met was] a song,” he told the Quietus in 2009.
On his release, he quickly made contact with Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist. “Bernie was my best friend before I went into the hospital,” he continued. “[S]o when I came out I said, ‘Bernie, I’ve got a wealth of material. We have to sit down and write this.’” He recalled the process as “fun,” noting, “it was sort of like dueling with each other. And we’d always try to leave the other guy with one unrhymable last word, you know? So Bernie and I would sit there and I’d tell him about characters like Jackknife Johnny, a Vietnam vet and I’d say, ‘Ok, here’s the story – he married a girl, he came home, everybody rejected him and then on top of it they rejected him because he brought home a Vietnamese girl,’ and so it just started right there. And pretty soon we’d written a whole album like that.”
Along with “Jackknife Johnny,” (“You still carry the shrapnel / You're shell-shocked and dazed”), lead characters included “Nurse Rozetta” ( “She's got the Devil's light”), “Millie and Billie” (“God made love crazy so he wouldn't feel alone”) and Veronica, while others featured in “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills,” “The Quiet Room” and “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)."
David Foster was recruited to produce and co-write, while Cooper’s guitarist Dick Wagner and Toto's Steve Lukather were also involved. The stops were pulled all-out when it came to studio collaborators – as well as those three musicians, Cooper brought in a wide range of well-known session names, and also Elton John band guitarist Davey Johnstone and Dee Murray. “I really did have everybody in the world on it,” Cooper reflected later.
With the work completed, lead track “How You Gonna See Me Now” achieved promising chart success on its release a month before the LP. An early example of what came to be known as the power ballad, it was written for Cooper’s wife – who, since getting together with him four years previously, had never seen him sober. Yet it could also be a message to his audience: “How you gonna see me now / Since we've been on our own / Are you gonna love the man / When the man gets home?”
Listen to Alice Cooper's "How You Gonna See Me Now"
Despite the new sheen and the clever lyrics, the album release was not a success, reaching only No. 60 on the Pop Albums chart; while the title track was a flop as a single. Critical responses suggest two main reasons why it didn’t land with fans – firstly, the studio band’s proficiency didn’t set well against Cooper’s push-and-pull sleaze rock vibe; and secondly, his trademark black comedy angle appeared to have been set aside in favor of a straight-on approach. “‘I just can’t get these damn wrists to bleed’ is a great line – sending up every phony suicide attempt you’ve ever known,” Rolling Stone said in a review. “[Y]et Cooper sings it as a tragic howl from the depths and thereby misses his own point.”
It’s many years since any of the tracks appeared in his set list, with even “How You Gonna See Me Now” having last been performed in 1980. Yet Cooper himself remains proud of the LP. Perhaps, for him, it marks the moment he felt able to continue dealing with his creativity and success without having to rely on alcohol to see him through. “[I]t was musically one of the best albums I ever did,” he stated in 2009, three decades after its release.
Listen to Alice Cooper's "From the Inside"