The night Alice Cooper's gallows stunt nearly killed him
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There’s a reason Alice Cooper nearly died hanging himself by a noose onstage during rehearsals at Wembley Stadium in 1988: he wanted to put on a good show.
“When I go to the circus and there’s a guy in a cage with 12 tigers, there’s always a chance that one of the tigers didn’t get the message,” the 70-year-old rock legend and Jesus Christ Superstar Live! actortells EW. “When you see a guy on a tight wire, you know that there may be a second you witness a tragedy. I always wanted that in our show: What they’re seeing could be the last night of Alice Cooper.”
With an innate flair for the dramatic, Cooper enlisted magician James Randi to come up with the new stunt (“I can tell you this because people know that I don’t get hung every night,” Cooper says, not wanting to defy the magician’s code of secrecy). In the middle of the show, there would be a gallows set up so Cooper could pretend to be executed via hanging. He’d wear a harness tethered to the rafters by a thick piano wire that kept the noose an inch above his neck. It worked perfectly for years — until that night in England.
“Everything has its stress limit and after doing so many shows, I never thought about changing the wire. You know, I figured it’ll last forever,” he says. “The wire snaps. I could hear the rope hit my chin and in an instant I flipped my head back. That must’ve been a fraction of a second because if it caught my chin it would have been a different result. It went over my neck and gave me a pretty good burn. I went down to the floor and pretty much blacked out.”
Ever the professional, Cooper still played the gig and continued with a new, stronger piano wire for his hangings because he didn’t want to abandon a routine that popped with his audiences (The new guillotine now stops six inches above his head instead of 12, but could still kill him if the failsafe doesn’t kick in.)
Though Cooper knows when a bit takes too long — an electric chair segment was once abandoned because he sensed that the audience was getting bored — he’s never scrapped a stunt because of the danger. In fact, when the band was younger, they’d reenact West Side Story fight scenes with real switchblades. Why not use props? “That would be treason,” he says. “It would not be Alice Cooper to use a rubber knife.”
It’s not necessarily a creed, but Cooper always has a message to his new bandmates: “You’re going to get paid, you’re going to see the world, and you’re going to get stitches,” he says, which ties into the inherent comedy of a live rock show. “I have one guy who says, ‘I’m clumsy. What if I fall over my amp?’ I say, ‘No such thing as a mistake on stage. If you fall over the amp, get up. Four songs later, fall over your amp again, then five or six songs later, fall over your amp again. The audience thinks all of that’s rehearsed. Now it’s not a mistake. These are Vaudeville tricks. They work.”