“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, though not their music, which was and remains so influential. It was more the way they comported themselves and treated people outside their organization when they were on the road — I’m speaking more to their management and road personnel, not the musicians.

Led Zeppelin’s Manager Peter Grant famously dresses down a vendor

The stories are in the book, and some of them aren’t pretty. I ended up having even more respect for Pete Townshend as, by ’73, he became obsessed with trying to keep the Who relevant. He probably over thought that, but he felt the Who really had to reach for greatness with Quadrophenia, as the Stones had done with Exile on Main Street the year before — an album, like Quadrophenia, that people forget initially was not especially well received.

What You Want Is in the Limo is a bittersweet story to me. The bands you profile experience phenomenal success, but you also point out that after 1973, they all experience turmoil, dissolution, and a gradual winnowing away of their creative powers. How did 1973 change Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and the Who for the better and worse?

None of them got out of that year alive — Alice Cooper was, ironically, coming apart throughout their ’73 tour even as they were at their most successful. The band resented Alice’s personal stardom — they felt they’d become a backup band. Glen Buxton, their lead guitarist, was so degraded by booze and drugs and failing health that he could only play part of their repertoire; Mick Mashbir, an old friend of the band’s and an outstanding guitarist, covered many of his parts.

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Zeppelin took an 18-month hiatus from the road after ’73, and followed up with Physical Graffiti in 1975, which has some outstanding material like “Kashmir” and “Ten Years Gone” but is a bit of a mixed bag. The Who never really reached for greatness again after Quadrophenia. So 1973 was really the peak for all three bands. I really wanted to mark that moment in the culture, and especially of what it was like to be young and experiencing it.

What You Want Is in the Limo reminds us that Led Zeppelin were despised by the critics in its day, and yet today the band is revered by and large among rock journalists. (Five of the band’s albums made Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.) To what do you attribute the change in critical perception?

You have to remember what an affront Led Zeppelin was to the critical rock establishment at the time — Peter Grant and Jimmy Page essentially went around the rock press and broke the band through FM radio play and constant touring. The critics weren’t happy that those first two Zeppelin albums became such big hits, despite the drubbing they took from Rolling Stone. Also, Zeppelin was appealing to a new demographic, the late-born Baby Boomers who were too young to experience firsthand Beatlemania and the great San Francisco and Los Angeles bands of the ’60s — they really didn’t care that Rolling Stone hated the band.

Zeppelin never won over the critics when they were active. In retrospect, Zeppelin’s importance is clear — their influence was so far-reaching and continues today. Jimmy Page’s production techniques were so far in advance of the state of the art, especially on the first two Zeppelin albums, which still sound vital and contemporary today. Finally, the sheer quality of some of Zeppelin’s material can’t be ignored, once the critical bias from the early ’70s, which really was a form of rock elitism, is removed.

In the book, you write that 1973 was “a year of cultural schizophrenia that teetered between the sixties and seventies, steeped in both and resolving neither.” How did that cultural schizophrenia manifest itself, and why do you believe it was not resolved?

If you look at the music sales charts from 1973, you can tell the culture is in flux — that’s why it was such an interesting year. It’s hard to imagine, but Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy knocked an Elvis Presley album out of Number 1; so not only were the ’60s lingering, but even the ’50s. Robert Plant’s first verse on “Dancing Days,” which opens Side 2 of Houses of the Holy, is unrepentantly (and unironically) ’60s hippie-dippie: “I’ve got my flower/I’ve got my power/I’ve got a woman who knows.” I remember thinking that that was a bit much the first time I heard it, and I was hardly the most astute judge of rock aesthetics; whereas the playing on the song was just irresistible and in the moment. The ’70s were informed by the ’60s much more than the ’60s were influenced by the ’50s — the ’60s were a decisive cultural break, the end of an era; the early ’70s were more of a continuation of the ’60s.

I also get a sense of a growing rift between fans and musicians in 1973. Even as bands are grossing vast sums of money on tour, they experience a life increasingly cloistered from their fans. In the case of Alice Cooper, the musicians also endure ugly fan violence. Why did the rift develop? Has it gotten worse, improved, or is the rift the same today?

The rift was always there, really. Look at the footage from Woodstock and the audience members stacked up against that stagefront plywood barrier in the mud. Backstage was catered at Woodstock; out front, people were queuing for Quinola while the toilets overflowed.

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When the concert business became big business in the early ’70s, the philosophy was to pack as many people into a hall as possible to maximize the profit, which gave rise to “festival seating,” which translated into standing for two hours on a concrete arena floor instead of the mud. The audience was getting a better show — the staging and especially sound were vastly improved when compared to the late ’60s. But there was little done for the audience’s safety and comfort, whereas the bands were demanding ever more elaborate backstage food and beverage. They arrived and departed the hall by limo and traveled, on Zeppelin’s and Alice Cooper’s tours, by private aircraft. None of this was evident from the front of the house. Zeppelin’s ’73 tour was plagued by audience violence, though it was seldom turned against the band  — Alice Cooper’s show, which was predicated on simulated bloodshed and violence, embolden the audience to attack the band instead of each other.

What You Want Is in the Limo tells a hilarious story of Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg basically talking their way into managing Alice Cooper even though both Gordon and Greenberg lack experience in the music industry. Is it possible for people outside the music industry to break into it today like Gordon and Greenberg did back then?

I’m sure it still happens — but probably a lot less.

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