When Artists Lead an Audience

“Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?”

With those caustic words, Roger Waters introduced “Run Like Hell” in concert in 1980. Waters continues to taunt and provoke his audience 37 years later when he performs music from his Pink Floyd catalog and solo career, often by injecting venomous statements against President Elect Donald Trump from the stage.

When he taunts an audience and redefines his music in a political context, he leads them into a different relationship between performer and audience, one characterized by confrontation, stimulation, and discussion. I live in a family of artists. We often have conversations about the role of the artist to make an audience uncomfortable — to confront, to reveal, and to invoke anger even. It’s sometimes necessary to create discomfort if you’re going to lead an audience.

There is a time and place for leading an audience by challenging them, and consequences to be paid for doing so (as Jim Morrison demonstrated in 1969 at the infamous Miami concert that led to his arrest for public indecency). And, there is a time and place to make an audience feel warm, uplifted, and comfortable. I want to uplift people and make them feel comfortable when I act each year in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. But I don’t want to uplift necessarily when I write fiction, and neither does my wife, Janice Deal, in her short stories. We both want to lead an audience in our writing, as does our daughter, Marion Deal, in her writing and public speaking. Leading an audience means looking deep inside yourself and taking a risk. You know you’re succeeding when you evoke a reaction. It just might not be a happy reaction.

Case in point: back in the 1970s, Alice Cooper made popular shock rock by putting on concerts that featured imagery and theater that some might consider grotesque, such as a decapitated baby dolls and guillotines. Critics hated Alice Cooper and thought his concerts to be stupid and gimmicky. And even their audience sometimes recoiled in horror. But Vincent Furnier, who headed the band and adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo act, knew what they were doing.

The band’s onstage behavior was intended to create an audience reaction by synthesizing forms of horror and fantasy, burlesque and rock and roll, shaped by Furnier’s own passion for movies and visual storytelling. He satirized the then-noble notion of rock star as poet and social change agent by creating a villain who sang hit songs only to be executed onstage. He made an artistic statement and was leading the audience in another direction toward a glam rock movement would propel artists such as David Bowie to fame.

In the book What You Want Is in the Limo, an excellent narrative about rock and roll in 1973, Michael Walker discusses Alice Cooper’s rise to fame. Alice Cooper tells Walker, “We never went onstage with the attitude of, ‘Gosh, I hope you like us tonight.’ We’d take them by the throat and shake them and never, ever give them a chance to breathe.”

During one concert in 1969, the band’s in-your-face style so offended an auditorium full of 3,000 people that they all fled the show within about 15 minutes. But one man in the crowd, Shep Gordon, stuck around, mesmerized by Alice Cooper’s ability to move an audience. He went on to manage the band. As Alice Cooper told Michael Walker in What You Want Is in the Limo, Gordon was “clapping like a seal. ‘You cleared the auditorium in fifteen minutes!” he marveled. “Three thousand people in fifteen minutes . . . I don’t care if they fucking hated you. It’s mass movement. There’s power and money in that.'”

Gordon also recalled, “I had never seen such a strong negative reaction. People hated Alice, and I knew that anyone who could generate such a strong negative energy had the potential to be a star, if the handling of the situation was right.”

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


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.


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.


“[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.


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