“What You Want Is in the Limo”: Michael Walker Discusses the Birth of the Modern Rock Star

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The year 1973 was a traumatic one for the world, but it was a great time for rock and roll.

While America wallowed in Watergate and the Yom Kippur War raged in the Middle East, the rock world witnessed an eruption of ground-breaking music that has never since been equaled.  Hard rock, art rock, shock rock and southern rock were among the many rock sub-genres that flourished commercially and artistically. This was the year that future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Queen and Bruce Springsteen released their debut albums. Elton John gave us Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the Who dropped Quadrophenia, David Bowie recorded Aladdin Sane, and Alice Cooper shocked and enthralled us with Billion Dollar Babies. Led Zeppelin released Houses of the Holy and Pink Floyd unveiled The Dark Side of the Moon in the same month.  As Michael Walker asserts in the engrossing What You Want Is in the Limo, 1973 also marked the birth of  the modern rock star.

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What You Want Is in the Limo explores the meaning of 1973 through the lens of three bands that toured the United States throughout the year: Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, all of whom were promoting landmark albums. Walker contends that in 1973, the counterculture values of the 1960s died, and the era of the modern rock star — a creature defined as much by celebrity as by music — was born. Walker focuses on Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the Who because he believes their music and tours of that year did the most to shape rock stardom as we know it today.

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“[The] impact that these three albums and tours have on rock and popular culture reverberates today,” he writes. For instance, the shock rock of Marilyn Manson and Miley Cyrus’s conscious attempts to generate onstage controversy are directly descended form the Alice Cooper’s provocative stage show, which was as much a visual feast as it was a concert. Likewise, Led Zeppelin perfected a level of decadence and swagger that has been emulated but seldom matched by rockers ranging from Guns N’ Roses to Pete Doherty. And the Who created the standard for thoughtful yet loud rock, whose modern-day practitioners include U2 and Arcade Fire.

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In the following interview, Walker delves into the themes of his absorbing and entertaining book, including why 1973 matters to music fans today and his motivations for writing What You Want Is in the Limo. Walker, a noted rock journalist and author, shares his personal experiences growing up during the glory days of the rock counterculture and learning about bands like the Doors and Cream while living in a small town. Those moments shaped his life and profession.

“I really wanted to capture that atmosphere . . . of being young and bombarded by all these songs that were so moving then and which turned out to be indelible, though nobody knew that at the time,” he says in recalling why he wrote What You Want Is in the Limo.

But he also discusses the passing away of the ideals of the 1960s, which is a recurring theme in his book. By 1973, the Beatles had broken up, the Stones were starting to decline, and Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were dead. As he writes in the book, “As the sixties bled into the seventies, the naive counterculturalism that bounds rock bands in generational solidarity to their audience began to fray. A new generation of fans too young for Woodstock inherited the tropes of the sixties minus the boring poli-sci socio-overlay.”

And the post Woodstock generation were vital in shaping our musical tastes today. Learn more about an important cultural shift in music and culture that is still felt among the Millennial generation

What You Want Is in the Limo is your second book about rock music, and you’ve written extensively for publications such as Rolling Stone. How has rock music shaped your life and profession?

I was raised in a small town (population 350), which had its drawbacks, but one of the advantages was I was able to hang out with people who were 17 and 18 when I was 12 — there were so few people the same age that everybody sort of hung out together. So I got to share in the ’60s culture as it entered the ’70s with people much older than me who were legitimately a part of it. It got a little out of hand. One of my friends took some windowpane acid while we were waiting for the school bus one morning — this was, like, 7th grade — and I remember sort of shepherding him through the rest of the day, he was tripping so hard. But along with the drugs we also got the older guys’ music: the Doors, Cream, Hendrix, Spirit, John Mayall — they all had great taste, which was conferred upon us. I remember hearing “Layla” for the first time at a party at this mansion. It was a warm night, the party was outside of this castle-like house and suddenly this amazing song comes wafting over these immense green lawns.

What inspired you to write What You Want Is in the Limo?

I really wanted to capture that atmosphere I just described, of being young and bombarded by all these songs that were so moving then and which turned out to be indelible, though nobody knew that at the time.

Why does 1973 matter to music today? How should music fans who were not alive then view 1973?

Rock music was still evolving quite rapidly back then, and 1973, I think, was a pivotal year. Think of what had just come before: the great ’60s bands had for most part come and gone — the Beatles in particular — or were greatly diminished (though the Who, Rolling Stones, and Kinks carried on and recorded some of their most important music in the early ’70s). In the introduction of the book I list the artists that released albums that year and it’s astonishing just how many classics were released, everything from The Dark Side of the Moon to Lou Reed’s Berlin.

Your book focuses on the adventures of Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and the Who in 1973. What perceptions did you have of those three bands before you wrote What You Want Is in the Limo? How did those perceptions change (if at all) as you wrote the book?

I ended up liking the Alice Cooper guys even better than I had before I interviewed them–despite the band’s image (and people should remember that Alice Cooper was orginally a five-member band; all the classic Alice Cooper hits, “Eighteen,” “School’s Out,” “Elected” and the rest were written and recorded by the original band.) They were really smart and funny guys, especially Alice, who’s a natural star.

Mike Bruce and Neal Smith were both really generous with their time and spoke frankly and honestly, I think, about what happened to them: going from the most hated band in L.A. to having a No. 1 album in the space of five pretty grueling years, when they grew tremendously as musicians and performers. I ended liking Led Zeppelin a little less, Continue reading

Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

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Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:

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Prada and Kenzo: Brands as Entertainers

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Brands often think of content marketing as the art of being useful. Betty Crocker teaches us how to cook through the iconic Betty Crocker Cookbook. Verizon publishes useful ideas about apps through its Recapp blog. But content marketing can also be about entertainment, as demonstrated by two recently released short films from luxury fashion brands Prada and Kenzo. Brands can be film entertainers.

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In November 2013, Prada teamed with vaunted director Wes Anderson to present the short film Castello Cavalcanti. The 7-minute movie stars Jason Schwartzman as the race-car driver who discovers the joys of slowing down after being stranded in a small Italian town. The Prada branding in Castello Cavalcanti occurs as a subtle product placement. When the storyline takes hold, you have to look closely to catch the Prada name appear on the back of the uniform worn by the driver.

Castello Cavalcanti has been a PR boon for Prada, generating strong buzz in publications ranging from Creativity to Rolling Stone along with the more predictable fashion publications. The movie has bolstered Prada’s crossover reach across multiple industries in fashion’s orbit, including media/entertainment. The Hollywood Reporter said that the move “rivals Ron Howard’s Rush for best Formula 1 racing movie of 2013.” And, this is not the first time Prada has joined forces with a legendary director to produce a short film. In 2012, Prada presented A Therapy, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley.

Automobile Waltz

French fashion house Kenzo, founded by Kenzo Takada, has teamed with Hala Matar to present Automobile Waltz. The romantic short, released on Valentine’s Day week, is a more conceptual affair. The plot, which unfolds as a series of vignettes, centers on a young estranged couple rediscovering each other on different southern California locations in a stylish cherry red Mustang convertible. Amid the vignettes, a child drives off in a Continue reading

What Can You Learn From Beatlemania If You’re Not the Beatles?

“Beatles Bomb on TV.”

Those were the words the New York Herald Tribune used in dismissing the historic appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show February 9, 1964. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but the Herald Tribune completely scoffed at one of the most famous moments in television history, which is widely regarded as ground zero for the launch of Beatlemania in the United States. Fifty years later, news media ranging from Rolling Stone to Late Night with David Letterman are celebrating that fabled night when 40 percent of the entire United States was glued to their television sets and willingly acquiesced to the music, charisma, and energy of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But as I noted in a new presentation I’ve uploaded to SlideShare, Five Lessons Musicians Can Learn from Beatlemania, the Beatles had to endure their share of rejection and scorn from the mainstream news media even as the American record-buying public was embracing them. The band’s ability to rise above the critics and win over the influencers is one of the lessons I believe today’s artists can learn from Beatlemania.

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To be sure, by early 1964, the Beatles were already the most popular act in their native United Kingdom and were rapidly ascending in the United States, thanks to the power of their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But  mainstream influencers simply did not understand them — neither their music (which was too different and too loud), their appearance (their hair was just too long), nor their adoring fans (who were too emotional and devoted). After all, only one month before the Beatles arrived, the Number One song in the United States was “Dominique” by the Singing Nun. And then along came the Beatles, brimming with sex appeal, to sing “All My Loving” on Ed Sullivan. The Herald Tribune was not the only doubter. “Visually, they are a nightmare . . . musically, they are a near disaster,” scoffed Newsweek.  “America had better take thought as to how it will deal with the invasion . . . Indeed a restrained ‘Beatles go home’ might be just the thing,” reacted the Baltimore Sun to Beatlemania.

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The Beatles didn’t simply endure critics: they won them over. From the start, they always understood how to charm and wow the influencers who were so critical to building their fan base. In their home country, they famously Continue reading

Bruno Mars Brings His Own Brand of Cool to the Super Bowl

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Is there anything that Bruno Mars cannot do? During a spirited Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show, the Grammy-award winning pop star sang, danced, did the splits, played the drums, and for 12 minutes made us forget we were watching an overhyped, tedious championship game. He also may have provided a blueprint for future Super Bowl halftime shows: a performance by a young, energetic star who evokes curiosity and relies on charisma instead of a predictable catalogue of hits to engage a global audience.

Usually, watching the Super Bowl halftime show is like watching a manic televangelist on late-night cable desperately beg for your attention. In fact, the show is engineered to fail, sandwiched inside a larger rock concert known as the Super Bowl. The big pop stars, who are used to owning the stage, invariably try too hard to make the most of their brief moment, the Black Eyed Peas being an egregious example in Super Bowl XLV (although sometimes the stars don’t bother at all, as we saw with the Who in 2010). To make matters worse, the NFL shoehorns too many performers into a desperate medley of poorly choreographed music. Just when you’re about to warm up to Aerosmith play “Walk This Way,” out pops Britney Spears to throw the moment off kilter.

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To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions, such as U2’s tribute to those killed in the September 11 attacks and Beyoncé’s sensual tour de force in Super Bowl XLVII.

However, for the most part, the NFL plays it safe and trots out classic rockers who perform hits we’ve all heard a million times before, only in a ridiculously amped up setting chock full of useless pyrotechnics. But most certainly in an attempt to court the increasingly important and sizable female audience, this time around the NFL gave us an intriguing star with sex appeal to burn. With Bruno Mars, we got a glimpse at a refreshingly young voice who channeled James Brown with his dazzling bouffant hairdo and evoked the young Michael Jackson with his dance moves and athleticism. He commanded the stage by dint of his smile and energy.  He even managed to integrate the appearance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers into his own natural energy flow — although frankly I would have preferred he fly solo.

The NFL still has a lot of work to do in order to overcome decades of mostly crappy productions. Giving us a hungry young artist with something to prove is a step in the right direction. Bruno Mars has opened the door to many other possibilities — say an adventurous artist like Lorde or perhaps an emerging international artist from Latin America. Meantime, between Beyoncé in 2013 and Bruno Mars, the Super Bowl halftime show is actually showing flashes of cool.