Superstar

Alice Cooper Escaped Death—Twice—So That He Could Sing to Jesus

The godfather of shock rock recounts the two near-death experiences on his way to starring in Sunday’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ live concert and his own surprising return to faith.

James Dimmock/NBC

Alice Cooper got the text. The text. The text that said he was going to die.

“You never want to see the words ‘imminent, ballistic, and not a drill’ in the same sentence,” the rocker tells me, reliving with disbelief the Jan. 13 text alert warning of a nuclear attack that was mistakenly sent out to people in Hawaii, launching them, Cooper included, into existential panic. “It says, ‘You have 18 minutes to take cover,’” Cooper remembers. “I’m thinking I’m going to go from one paradise to another.”

The missile never arrived, of course. A Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Employee “pushed the wrong button,” triggering the statewide wave of hysteria. But two weeks later while back home in Phoenix, where the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer lives with his family, Cooper found himself narrowly missing a trip to eternal paradise yet again.

He was driving, not fast—45 mph, he estimates—when another driver who wasn’t looking rammed him in a head-on collision. Both vehicles were totaled—“mine looked like an accordion,” he says—but somehow Cooper walked away without a scratch. “So my angel’s working overtime right now. Apparently, they really want me to do this show!”

That show is Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, a live staging of the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that will air Sunday night, Easter Sunday. Cooper joins a cast that includes pop stars John Legend and Sara Bareilles, reviving the role of King Herod that he voiced 20 years earlier in a London cast recording, this time bringing it to life on stage with his dark-lord arena-rock theatrics.

Cooper estimates that it was Sir Andrew’s suggestion that he take on the role alongside the younger generation of music stars, having been pleased with his “subtly threatening” take on Herod’s big Act Two number all those years earlier. It’s a role that suits him kind of perfectly. “It’s not like anyone’s ever going to cast me as the guy untying the girl on the railroad track,” he quips. “But I love playing the villain.”

It’s something he’s been doing for 50 years. Now 70, Cooper broke out with his band “Alice Cooper” in 1969, catapulting to stardom with smash singles “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out” in the early ’70s. His solo career launched in 1975 with the concept album Welcome to My Nightmare, kicking off a career defined by showmanship as much as his music, earning him the designation “The Godfather of Shock Rock.”

During a 1969 show, he famously threw a chicken off the stage into the crowd, who proceeded to tear it to pieces and hurl the bloodied, dismembered bits back at him. His stage shows have encompassed everything from guillotines and electric chairs to venomous snakes and classic horror imagery. “If you say, ‘Welcome to My Nightmare,’ you have to give them that nightmare,” he says. “It’s got to be the most horrific thing you’ve ever seen.”

Telling what is meant to be a heartwarming anecdote about how close he is to his family and how they all share an interest in show business, one about how his wife and their three children have all performed alongside him in his stage show, he says, “I’m singing and I look up and see my daughter playing a Chinese assassin.”

It’s almost full circle that he’s enjoying a wave of press in support of a musical theater role he’s about to take on. His show has been borrowing from the Broadway stage for decades. “I’ve always been fascinated by it,” he says about Broadway’s theatrics. “Like, this is nothing new for me.”

Cooper’s big moment Sunday night will come with “King Herod’s Song,” near the end of the second act. Herod is the King of Galilee, both threatened by and skeptical of this man, Jesus, who calls himself King of the Jews, has attracted a legion of followers, and can perform miracles. In the only truly comedic moment of the musical, Herod sings to Jesus, basically: Prove it.

“He’s a bundle of paranoia and ego,” Cooper says. “I said I’ve got to play him very condescending. He’s got to be very arrogant, very Alan Rickman-like.”

I have a lot of friends who died at 27. Jimmy Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, those guys, they tried to be their characters off-stage. I had to figure out a way to not bring Alice off stage.
Alice Cooper
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Alice Cooper today looks much the same as the one of yore, the one you remember from the “School’s Out” video. The hair is still long, teased, and jet-black. The eyes are still smeared with black eye makeup, his tiny frame wrapped in head-to-toe black leather. It’s all the same look but sort of deflated, melted a little, as it happens when you’re 70 years old but dressing as the same character from when you were 20.

Where once he was the rebel, the renegade, now that twinkle in his eye doesn’t so much warn of danger as it telegraphs mischief. He’s playful. He was the bad-boy rocker before. It nearly killed him. Now he’s a dad. He’s sober. He’s a Christian. He’s at peace, in a good place—and he knows it.

“Going back, the only thing I didn’t see coming was alcoholism,” he says. “I didn’t see it coming and it hit me like a truck, until I realized it wasn’t just drinking, it was a medicine now. Thirty-seven years later, I don’t miss it.

“I have a lot of friends who died at 27,” he continues. “Jimmy Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, those guys, they tried to be their characters off-stage. I had to figure out a way to not bring Alice off stage. He only belonged up there. I had to coexist with him.”

Fittingly, given the occasion for our conversation, he credits Jesus and embracing his Christian faith after being diagnosed as an alcoholic with saving his life. To continue to be Alice Cooper, the rock star, he had to rebirth Vincent Furnier, his given name. He had to go back to his roots.

“I was a prodigal son,” Cooper tells me. He grew up in a Christian home. His dad was a pastor. His grandfather was an evangelist. Even his wife’s father is a pastor. “I went as far away as you could possibly get,” he says. “I stood for everything wrong, and then I came back.” He has an intensely personal connection to King Herod, but from the other side.

Here’s someone doing everything in his power to make a man abandon his faith, and he doesn’t succeed. Cooper understands that, and because he does, he takes issue with those who think the show—and the decision to stage it on Easter Sunday—is sacrilegious. (Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics, once said of his interpretation: “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.”)

“I think if it was blasphemous, I couldn’t do it,” he says. “But this piece honors Christ, I think. The bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys are the good guys. It’s pretty cut and dried.”

It’s not like anyone’s ever going to cast me as the guy untying the girl on the railroad track. But I love playing the villain.
Alice Cooper

He’s also well aware of the significance of this live staging airing on Easter Sunday. The new trend of live TV musicals are among the few events that viewers watch in real-time. That a story about Jesus and faith might unite families around the TV set, and against the backdrop of a culture that is increasingly jaded and a world that’s increasingly harrowing, is something that Cooper says is rare and special.

He remembers growing up in Arizona and watching Mary Martin’s Peter Pan TV special each year with his family. Every Thanksgiving, it was The Wizard of Oz. “I hope we’re helping get back to that again.”

It might be funny to imagine Alice Cooper as we think of him now delighting in the spectacle of Mary Martin rigged to the rafters and belting “I’m Flying,” but his love for musicals has never gone away. In fact, he’s been trying to ignite his fans’ interest in them his entire rock career.

He recounts with disgust a show he staged in the ’70s that incorporated bits of West Side Story—he starts singing, “When you’re a jet, you’re a jet…” as he remembers the anecdote—and the audience didn’t recognize the song. “Nobody knew it. Half my band didn’t know it. To me it was just common knowledge. West Side Story! Isn’t that as well-known as Christmas?”

He says he was recently in the studio with Dee Snider from Twisted Sister, who is also a big musical theater fan. (Who knew about this subset of Broadway-nerd glam rockers?) They recorded a handful of songs from Guys and Dolls; he starts belting out “Luck Be a Lady,” which is a real trip. They remixed the songs to make them sound more rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, the two have been tinkering with the idea of doing a rock version of Guys and Dolls together for years. “Guy in the band would sit there and listen to us, and say how well done it was.”

“People would be surprised by how many plays I go to,” he says at the end of our conversation. When he’s in New York, he tries to go to as many musicals as he can. On this trip, he’s planning to see the Spongebob Squarepants Broadway musical. “I heard it’s good! You sit there and go, how could this be good? But everybody’s so clever these days. I bet it is.”