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Remembering the infamous Alice Cooper chicken incident

Most of the time, it is the scheming media that ploys on celebrities, but there are a few instances where celebrities have bamboozled the media by tricking them instead. Alice Cooper was one such notorious performer that positively puzzled the media with such extraordinary stunts, that it left them confused and bewildered, untangling the knot of musical myths through decades and decades of output.

Alice Cooper was first the name of a band consisting of vocalist Vincent Furnier, bassist Dennis Dunaway, lead guitarist Glen Buxton, rhythm guitarist Michael Bruce and drummer Neal Smith became the stage name of Furnier when the band decided to go separate ways. Being the pioneer of shock rock, Alice Cooper’s days together were marked by high theatricality. Donned in illustrious costumes and black eye make-up, their stage routines included guillotines, duelling swords, reptiles, electric chairs and even fighting sequences. In fact, their performances were so dramatic that it made it impossible for the audiences to forget and for other artists to match up to their standard of entertainment.

But the incident by which Alice Cooper, both as a band and solo artist, is most searingly remembered, is the infamous chicken incident. As the story goes, the newly formed band yet to make a breakthrough, got an opportunity to perform in the 1969 Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival. While they were mid-act, a member of the audience threw a chicken on stage which Furnier instinctively threw back at the audience thinking that it would fly off. “It’s a bird, you know. I’m from Detroit. I don’t know if — chickens got wings,” said Furnier in an interview explaining he thought, “It’ll fly”.

Certainly, throwing it back into the highly charged, pulsating crowd wasn’t a good call. The ill-fated chicken was apparently torn apart by the throng, turning it into a KFC bucket. The event hit the newspaper headlines the following day reading, “Alice bites head off a chicken and drinks the blood”, fabricating the incident to another degree and adding some extra audience members t the ensuing tour.

The rumour was so strong that Furnier and the other band members spent 52 years talking about the incident in every single interview they gave. Initially, they just rolled with the gossip taking Frank Zappa’s advice “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone you didn’t do it…Everybody loves it. You are the most notorious character of all time now.” Zappa, who called them after reading the news, asked if it was true and, after getting a negative for the answer, advised the group to play along as it was a great publicity hack.

The members have given out various versions of the story, making the media and the fans more restless to know the truth. An excerpt from They Call Me Supermensch: Untold Stories Of Alice Cooper reads, “We went all out to make an impression at the festival. Alice kicked a football into the crowd, chopped watermelon with a hatchet, and tossed feathers everywhere. In the midst of all that, he remembers, he looked down and an actual chicken was strutting across the stage. He knew nobody in the audience had come to a rock festival with their chicken. It could only have been me. And it was. It was a feral chicken that happened to be roaming around backstage. I just thought We’ve been doing the feathers, why not a whole chicken? So I let it loose on the stage.”

While other sources state that it was a staged act, planned and executed by the entire band, Michael Bruce said in a 1997 interview, “The chicken incident? Do you mean throwing chicken into the audience? Which came first, the chickens or the feathers? When we first started out, we broke open feather pillows stolen from the Holiday Inns, and used them on ‘Black Juju’, spraying them on the audience and all over the stage. As the source of pillows at the Holiday Inns turned to foam rubber, and the club owners were reluctant to have us back before they were picking feathers out of the stage, we thought it would be clever to throw the chicken with the feathers attached.

“We didn’t do it every time, but we threw some doves, chickens, whatever, watermelon, so I guess you could say we repeated it, it’s all a blur.” This makes one wonder if the “blur” is on purpose.

In his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, Dunaway revealed that the band toured with two chickens who were “treated like pets” and named Larry and Pecker. According to him, the story of someone throwing the chicken on stage was made up to get them “off the hook with the animal protection organisations” who started showing up at every Alice Cooper concert after the Toronto incident went viral.

Staged or not, the question remains if the chicken was really murdered. As usual, there are a number of different narratives around this as well. The lines in They Call Me Supermensch read, “Alice bent down, grabbed it, and tossed it out over the heads of the audience. He didn’t know chickens can’t fly. It dropped like a meteor into the crowd. For a second they seemed stunned. And they went wild. It was astounding. This was the height of the peace-love hippie era. But Alice had gotten them so worked up into a frenzy that they ripped that chicken apart, just tore it to pieces, and threw it back at him—wings, legs, the head, all bloody. I had to turn my head. I faint when I see blood.”

While Bruce said, “I don’t know if they ever did, most likely. As Alice tells it, it was always the audience that portrayed the violence, and we were just the parody on stage, which I guess is what most likely happened. Mob violence. Scary. I’m sure it happened more than once.” Though there are many different variations to the story, all of the parties involved seem to agree on one thing, that is, Furnier had nothing to do with the killing.

To say that it is a wild story would be an understatement. The current decade’s readers will mostly find it offensive, and rightly so. But the fervour surrounding the event will stay forever as a moment in rock history.