The moment of truth during Alice Cooper's show Tuesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts came when a pair of assistants rolled in the guillotine from stage right.
Before the concert, I had gotten to talking with a fellow audience member who had seen Cooper live before, and he was eagerly anticipating what method of demise the singer would choose for himself this time.
The "School's Out" auteur has made a shtick over the years of staging real-looking executions, and though hanging and beheading may be the most famous, anything seemed possible: Would it be suffocation this time, or a tank full of piranhas?
Cooper's simulated deaths are one of rock's quirkier traditions — it's hard to imagine Joni Mitchell fans, for example, attending her shows anticipating what means she'll use to off herself onstage — but like any tradition, they seem to satisfy a deep-seated need. When the guillotine emerged Tuesday, the Segerstrom crowd cheered over a long drum roll, and the "executioner" drew even louder applause when he hoisted a latex replica of Cooper's head above the front row.
From the severed head to the Top 40 classics, the singer's debut at Segerstrom served mostly as a greatest-hits retrospective. Most of the staples were there — "No More Mr. Nice Guy," "I'm Eighteen," "Hey Stoopid" — in a pair of opening segments that Cooper, when I interviewed him earlier, dubbed "glam Alice" and "nightmare Alice." (The second one, needless to say, ended with the guillotine.)
And then came grateful Alice, so to speak. After the lights dimmed, they brightened again to show Cooper being wheeled on a gurney into a hellish-looking setting, while a voiceover declared, "Once again, you've cheated death. How fitting that you'd end up in the graveyard of the Hollywood Vampires."
That was the name of the drinking group that Cooper hung out with decades ago, and he launched into tributes to Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon while tombstones displayed their names.
"All of my dead drunk friends!" Cooper shouted after the last notes sounded on the Who's "My Generation." At that moment his stage persona briefly gave way and offered a glimpse of, to borrow one of his song titles Tuesday, "The Man Behind the Mask."
It's a mask that doesn't lift very often, at least in concert — Cooper's conservative personal life and affinity for church and golf are well known — which means that a show like Tuesday's wouldn't fit the bill for anyone seeking introspective, confessional ballads.
The grandfather of shock rock, as he's sometimes called, has gotten mileage out of his character for nearly half a century, and the theatrics at Segerstrom ranged from sparring with a nurse over a straitjacket to bringing out a massive Frankenstein's monster to wander the stage.
I don't have decibel reports handy, but I would guess that the show amounted to the loudest 90 minutes in the history of the venue. As the crowd exited, a fellow journalist looked around and remarked, "Probably 95% of these people are here at Segerstrom for the first time."
Of course, it's all harmless fun, as Cooper noted midway through his closing number. After introducing his bandmates, he declared, "Playing the part of Alice Cooper tonight — me." And then, presumably, it was back to the hotel, back to Mr. Nice Guy and back to the putting green at dawn.