Saturday, January 30, 2016

Under the Big Top # 5: “Of Wit and War”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “I Can See For Miles”
Album: The Who Sell Out
Release Date: December, 1967

In the weeks prior to the 2016 New Year, I began jotting down notes in preparation for this blog series on the Who.  One note read “Woodstock, that heavy sound”.  As with several other pieces of chicken scratch, I did not have much to work with.  My only thoughts at the time I jotted those words down were related to the first few times I watched The Kids Are Alright (see Big Top # 2), a film which captured my fascination in all aspects excepting for the highlight footage of the Who’s set at Woodstock.  Those first viewings of that footage the music felt too intense, too over the top.  But eventually I came around to recognizing both brilliance and artistry, and just this week, what I see as an underlying meaning of that performance in the early twilight hours on the 3rd day of that big event on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969.  Coming at the time it did, the insight caught me by surprise, because this week I found myself listening to The Who Sell Out, a 1967 studio offering by the Who which, at face value, appeared light years from the intensity of Woodstock.

The Who will likely go down in history as a serious, powerful, force-of-nature of a band.  And yet, like the Beatles, they also knew how to have fun and could charm their fans with tremendous wit.  A great showcase of this was The Who Sell Out, an album which included commercial “jingles” in between songs (as such, “Sell Out” is referring to the alternate definition of the term; “a betrayal of a cause for personal advancement”, and not “the selling of an entire stock of tickets to an event”.  Needless to say, this was all done tongue in cheek).  The jingles, which included splendid self-made promos for products like guitar strings, deodorant, baked beans, and acne cream (“Henry Pond had no fun; he had a face like a currant bun”), were done in grateful tribute to off-shore “pirate radio” stations, especially Wonderful Radio London, which gave the Who a tremendous boost in their early years through routine airplay of their songs, but had been forced off the air in 1967 by a new law passed in Parliament that effectively wiped them out.

  • Side Note: As a young adult growing up in the Boston area in the late 70s and early 80s, I could appreciate good radio, having listened incessantly to WBCN, 104.1 FM; a very entertaining and enlightening radio station which I have talked about before in this blog.  The DJ with the most clout on BCN was, Charles Laquidara, who was a force in the region in all things activist and charitable (though occasionally done off color) during his 30 years on the local airways.  Laquidara included The Who Sell Out as a top-ten favorite album in a Boston Globe article around that period, which makes sense considering the radio tie-in.  Not long after his public endorsement, I bought the album. 

The Who Sell Out as a whole is a solid affair and could be viewed as the band’s lone offering to the psychedelic gods.  There are several standout tracks, including “Tattoo” (which turned out to be a great live staple for the Who for many years), “Maryanne with the Shaky Hand”, “Our Love Was, Is” and one of the few top-10 hits in the Who’s career, “I Can See for Miles” - this week’s Big Top entry, which I will get to later.  There is also an intriguing number at albums end, “Rael”, a lengthy multi-part song, which got me rolling with this week’s focus on Woodstock. 

“Rael” was the remnant of an aborted concept (later fleshed out more on the Who’s 2006 album Endless Wire), a fictional Pete Townshend narrative, with the setting being modern-day Israel (hence the title), which at the time of the making of The Who Sellout was under siege by its neighbors, culminating in the “Six-Day War”.  The anxieties of pending war and the patriotism of this one character are captured in “Rael”.  Pieces of the music, specifically those from the more zealous parts of the storyline, were later used on the Tommy song “Sparks”, which was performed by the Who at Woodstock and which is a part of their set that is captured on The Kids Are Alright (I did some research…. it turns out, Townshend grew up with Jewish tenants in his parents’ home, who took him under their wing during his parent’s tumultuous relationship.  Later, Pete Townshend found himself relating with Zionism).

This was my first real hint to where I wanted to go with that “heavy” Woodstock sound.

Keith Richards and Pete Townshend approached their respective biographies, Life (2010) and Who I Am (2012), in very different ways, but one commonality was their early impressions on post-war London; the chaos, the rubble, and the struggles of everyday life.  As an American who never had to experience anything so close to home as this, it can be hard to relate.  But for Brit, German, French, Russian, and any other number of European youth growing up in the late 40s, who may have read these or any number of others books written about this period, it must have sounded all too real. 

I was a history major in college though, and since I found the world wars and their aftershocks to be of particular fascination, I loaded up on courses that focused on these time periods, and read quite a bit on my own time as well.  One course I took my sophomore year that had a lasting impression, was a Post War Literature course, which contrasted European literature and cinema, primarily from the late 40s and 50s, with that of the USA.  The course was taught by Dr. Ellen Schiff, who was Jewish, and whose family had experienced personal tragedies during the Holocaust.  The syllabus included heavy European works of realism such as Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947), Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959), Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960), and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), and matched these against the a world of American optimism - bordering on fantasy; think It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  The drive-home message for us American students was just how weighted down and tangled up Europe had become by these wars, having taken place on their home turf.  It worked, at least for me.

One assignment near the end of the course was to give an oral presentation on the ramifications beyond those early post-war years, in both Europe and America.  I chose to focus on the turmoil of the late 60’s, with a particular emphasis on the music and musicians of that period.  A premise was that a far greater percentage than the norm of this music was uniquely timeless.  I explained that the reason for this was what appeared to be an almost desperate search for truth beyond the trauma, shame, secrecy, denial and fantasy in the decades preceding it, especially in Europe.  The artists that searched for this truth in the 50s, those European authors and playwrights on that syllabus for example, were being usurped by young rock musicians.  And the generation doing this was the children of those who fought in the war, who seemed to be trying, whether knowingly or not, to overcome their parents and their own trauma. 

Some of the musicians who lead this effort were John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Ray Davies, Roger Waters and Bob Dylan.  There were some big differences in their passions, ideologies, backgrounds, and motivations, but each seemed to be striving for truth through their music, which during periods in their respective careers, centered on the effects of war.  Pete Townshend was no pacifist.  Neither was he a war monger.  However, he confronted the topic head on, and this is what unfolds so masterfully at Woodstock in the opening “Sparks” ( and through to the very end of their set.  On the album, Tommy, “Sparks” takes place near the beginning of the “rock opera”; a story that plays out like a post-World War II Shakespearian tragedy, revolving around an English family and its self-and-society-inflicted mental and spiritual wounds. The entire album builds on that burden (with the son Tommy ultimately overcoming it all).  It’s what you hear in the live renditions of Tommy.  And the original ideas look to have been germinated with “Rael”.

Woodstock meant many things to many people, but I think the Who got it right more than anyone.  They were one of a small handful of British acts that were well outnumbered by North American ones.  Americans were dealing with Vietnam at the time.  Those in attendance were a bit beyond the flower power of the years prior, and now facing a stark reality as friends and family members were coming home in traumatized states of mind and body bags. The Brits had already been through all of this (and then some) a quarter century earlier.  The Who tapped into the mood at Woodstock seamlessly because they were on that ride from the beginning.  Even their early stuff; instrument destruction and songs of desperate odd-balls, teen angst and the like could be seen as a lead-up to the reason behind that “that heavy sound”.  And yes, even that effortless clear-headed English wit, seen and heard in Technicolor on The Who Sell Out, could be.

When I think of the Who concerts I attended over the years, I realize now that I got to see this mood on a handful of occasions.  The band went back to that Woodstock sound for parts of their sets in the years before Entwistle died in 2002, and now I believe what they were doing was resurrecting that old musical personification of war and it’s after effects.  It really showed at the ‘Concert for New York’ after 911, where the Who were head and shoulders beyond everyone else.  The band was in the moment, and the firefighters and police officers in the front rows knew this:  You could almost feel their amazement through the television (and they would show their appreciation years later, serenading Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey through a rendition of “Baba O’Riley” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008).

Put it all together, and this week’s Big Top entry, “I Can See for Miles” ( ) takes on new meaning.  Yes, the Who could indeed see through the miles, as well as the decades and the generations.  They were able to do this because they stuck to their ideals, which played out so vividly in front of half a million wet and muddy souls in the Catskills of Upper State New York on that early summer morning of 1969.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Under the Big Top # 4: “Connecting the Dots”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Blue, Red and Grey”
Album: The Who by Numbers
Release Date: October, 1975

It’s a one-of-a-kind record jacket, The Who by Numbers.  As it was John Entwistle’s turn at choosing the cover, and with a side interest in sketching murals of rock stars, he decided to depict it himself.   He came up with a neat little concept:  Partially draw caricatures of the Who, post-concert carnage, and allow the record-buying-public to flesh it all out by connecting dots by number.  Pulling out the vinyl this week, I confirmed that I did just that.  The tracing starts on a perplexed Entwistle, shrugging his shoulders at the chaos around him, moves on to Keith Moon standing inside his caved-in bass drum, then over to a flailing Pete Townshend, a guitar strapped to him with half a neck, and finally Roger Daltrey with a dismembered microphone. 

Connecting dots.  Hmmm…..

My introduction to this phenomenal album came eight years after its release, at a house party in North Adams, Massachusetts.   Most of the time one would equate such a memory to actually listening to the record.  That would come soon enough, but it’s not the part of the story I recall with as much perspective-altering clarity.  No, the moment was a tip-off from a Who sage, setting in motion the inevitability of a collision course between this fan and that record. 

The Who by Numbers is a 3rd tier Who album.   What I mean by this is it’s not where someone typically starts their journey into this band’s music, or even catches it on the second wave.  Most if not all of the songs on it are deep cuts, with few if any ever getting regular airplay on classic-rock radio stations.  And so, more often, a potential fan starts out with the world-renowned Who’s Next or any one of a number of compilation albums.  Those persistent enough graduate on to Tommy and Quadrophenia, maybe even Who Are You or Live at Leeds.  By this time, they have covered most of the big ticket items.  But there’s still a diamond in the rough that can easily slip through the cracks. 

This was the point I was at when I ran into an old friend, Craig, at that house party my senior year.  I had connected with Craig off and on my first couple years in North Adams before heading to Canada for a year on an exchange program.  He and I had gone through freshman orientation together, and that first year I would occasionally visit him and his roommates in the Glengarry dorms.  Their combined record collection was mind-numbingly huge, taking up a majority of the floor space in their dorm room, and their knowledge of the music, particularly Craig’s, was vast.  They were a fun bunch too, and invited me to join their floor’s intramural basketball team which they dubbed “The” (I had not thought about that in a long while and laughed at the memory earlier this week….could not resist adding it in).

Craig was a serious guy, and despite this being our first conversation since my return to North Adams, we got right into it.  After discussing a very intriguing graphic poster on his wall of cavemen around a fire near a cliff (he asked me to look closer at the cavemen, at which point I realized they were the Rolling Stones) we started talking about my still-evolving taste in Who music.  He quickly discerned the 2nd tier point I was at, and asked if I had ever listened to The Who By Numbers.  “No” I replied, “not all the way through anyhow”.  He stared me in the eyes: “You need to do this”.  For whatever reason, his endorsement caught my imagination.  I began thinking of The Who By Numbers as a treasure chest that needed unearthing; as an elusive riddle that needed to be solved; a set of dots that needed connecting. 

The Who By Numbers is far from a riddle, however.  On the contrary, it’s an open book; a deeply personal narrative on Pete Townshend’s emotional state at that stage in his life.  This marked a new trend for the Who.  At first there had been manic declarations and distortion (“My Generation, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, “I Can’t Explain”), then fun loving pop music (“Happy Jack”, “Pictures of Lily”, “Magic Bus”, “Tattoo”, The Who Sellout) followed by heavy sound (Woodstock, Live at Leeds) concepts (Lifehouse, Tommy, Quadrophenia) and spiritual reflections (“Bargain”, “See Me, Feel Me” Who Came First).  This new music and accompanying lyrics on The Who by Numbers would be yet another shift; a raw, unadulterated self-analysis that often bordered on self-loathing.  It was a period which would end up covering a handful of other Who albums and Pete Townshend solo efforts.  But since these follow-up albums have other unique qualities, none would be as all-encompassing and brutally honest on a range of personal emotions - from tormented to quite beautiful - as The Who by Numbers (excepting perhaps Empty Glass).

What is amazing about this album is how well it holds up despite what appears to be, from a critical viewpoint, a reeking of self-pity.  How does this record stand the test of time?  Well, a key underlying reason for the Who’s success throughout most of their career, including the making of The Who By Numbers was that, despite Pete Townshend’s domination in the songwriting department, The band was a democracy in a number of other ways.  Townshend is a tortured artist, often the first to criticize his own works (he’s the only musician I really enjoy listening to who seems to have this affliction) and there were times when the rest of the band needed to step it up and rally for him.  This was one of them.  Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon each overcame their own inner bravado to connect with Pete Townshend’s unguarded offerings.  The result is that the Who as a foursome (along with Glyn Johns, the producer) masterfully hurdle any semblance of syrupy pretense and make The Who by Numbers real.  They honor the true intentions, preserving the meaning - the art if you will - in the process, showing us yet again where a group can take something that an individual simply cannot do on his/her own (first discussed in Under the Big Top # 2). 

Dots connecting.

To further point out the depth of Pete Townshend’s mental state during that period (and what the rest of the band had to deal with), below are samplings of some of the heavier lyrics and a comment or two on the songs these lines are excerpted from (Note: The song lyrics were not listed on the album sleeve upon The Who by Numbers release, and only brought to full light when the internet allowed for it much later):

Keep away old man you won’t fool me
You and your history won’t rule me
You might have been a fighter but admit you failed
I’m not affected by your blackmail
You won’t blackmail me
         “Slip Kid” (These lines are likely about a hypothetical young punk rocker confronting and rebuffing Pete Townshend.  As for the music, I love how Keith Moon shows the ability to be uncharacteristically subtle and in the groove on the drums in this song, while the rest of the band struts their stuff.  There will definitely be more to say on this top-tier song in its own future Big Top entry.)

I see myself on TV I’m a faker, a paper clown
It’s clear to all my friends that I habitually lie I just bring them down"
          “However Much I Booze” (A tune so personal that Roger Daltrey refused to sing it.  Good thing, as I cannot imagine a better, more haunting rendition then Townshend’s.  There is a moment near the songs conclusion where he murmurs “give me the key… opp! ... there ain’t no way out of here!  - as if he quickly tried but the key doesn’t fit - that is so remarkably ad-lib.  The song brought Moon to tears when he first heard the demo.)

Hey goodbye all you punks stay young and stay high
Hand me my checkbook and I’ll crawl off to die
            “They Are All in Love” (the lyrics are Pete Townshend expressing his belief at the time that his contributions to Rock music had run its course.  Guest musician, Nicky Hopkin’s keyboard playing in this song is exquisite, matching his contributions to the Rolling Stones “She’s a Rainbow”.)

I’m so juiced that the whorey ladies sad, sad story has be quietly weeping
But here comes the morning
Here comes the yawning, demented clown
           “Dreaming from the Waist” (A song about aging, and losing one’s focus and drive.  John Entwistle’s bass playing nearly steals the show.)

When I first signed a contract
It was more than a handshake then
I know it still is
But there’s a plain fact
We talk so much shit behind each other’s backs
I get the willies
             “How Many Friends” (….. ”have I really got, you can count them on one hand”.  Daltrey alone propels this song beyond that before-mentioned risk of sounding like self-pity.  Townshend’s guitar playing, which captures the emotion, is some of his very best.)

There’s a man going through your dust bin
Only this time he’s looking for food
There’s a tear in his eye you don’t know him
Oh but you know what he’s going through
Ain’t it funny that you can’t seem to help him
Feelin’ sick as he staggers away
Is it weird that you hate a stranger
Can a detail correct your dismay
              “In A Hand or Face” (Moon’s drums are indescribable on every track, though none better than here.)

Imagine a man
Not a child of any revolt
But a plain man tied up in life
Imagine the sand
Running out as he struts
Parading and fading, ignoring his wife
           “Imagine a Man” (yet another hidden gem on an album full of them.)

Just when you think Pete Townshend is ready to jump off a ledge, however, arising out of the ashes of these morose emotions is this lovely song, “Blue, Red and Grey”.  It’s a simple tune for a Who cut (, with Pete Townshend singing and playing ukulele without accompaniment for the entirety of it, save for a light sprinkling of John Entwistle brass (inclusion of  the ‘r’ is not a typo).  The story goes that Glyn Johns heard it on the demo tapes, loved it, and found a way to slip the song on to the album in spite of Townshend’s protestations, who thought it a throwaway and out of place. 

“Blue, Red and Grey” is about connecting with all walks of life by connecting with all facets of the day – sunrise, high noon, sunset, and late night.  It’s insightful and empathetic on a number of fronts, and on its own this The Who by Numbers track reassures the listener that there is longevity in this man, Pete Townshend, and that he will overcome those troubles personified on virtually every other track on the album.  It took a while, but I think he eventually did.  He even came around to accepting “Blue, Red and Grey” as his own, as seen in this rare solo performance of the song in 2006, when Townshend may have finally realized he had something special (

I’d be willing to bet the house that I’m the only son to have danced with his Mom to the Who’s “Blue Red and Grey” for a mother-son dance at his wedding.  Mom had grown fond of the song a few years earlier when I compiled a homemade tape for her, which included this track.  Turns out she identified the lyrics with me.  I suppose I’ve been known to burn the candle at both ends, as well as connect with the denizens of each part of a day.  It just may be something I have in common with the man who put it all to words and melody. 

But there’s another angle on this as well.  As I listened to The Who by Numbers all week, and in particular “Blue, Red, and Grey”, I thought about that dance with Mom at my wedding, surrounded by friends and family, and could not help but make the connection that this was another group effort, the culmination of many years of love and devotion, with Mom at the epicenter.  Without it all, there is no way I get the type of insights to enjoy an album like The Who by Numbers, or the endurance to live a full life in the blue, the red and the grey.  There's no way I connect all those dots.

There are a total of 151 dots to connect on John Entwistle’s The Who by Numbers cover art.   In hindsight, I think my Mom, Dot Steeves, came close to completing that dot connecting for me - which had begun all those years earlier at a house party in North Adams - by recognizing that personal twist.  I say “came close” because just this week I spotted a shortcoming in my ‘homework’ when I first bought the album:  Dots 150 and 151 along Roger Daltrey’s caricature of an arm were not connected. 

With that done, I now submit this entry for closure.

- Pete

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Under the Big Top # 3: “Goodbye - Hello”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Eminence Front”
Album: It’s Hard
Release Date: August, 1982

For a late September day near the shores of Lake Erie, it was hot, as in dog days hot.  The jam-packed crowd down front at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium was getting a continual afternoon wetdown to keep them from overheating, courtesy of two fire hoses to the left and right of the stage.  I was high above them, my assigned seat along the front railing of the upper deck, stage right.   Not bad.  I could have cared less where I was though, as long as I was in that stadium (in hindsight I believe that seat was the perfect vantage point for taking it all in).  This was after all the Who’s 1982 “Farewell Tour” *, and even more importantly, my first time witnessing this spectacle:  A “you say goodbye and I say hello” moment for me if there ever was one.
*A quick side note on the “Farewell Tour”: A number of critics poked fun at this pronouncement after the Who first reneged on it in 1989.  Personally, I never had a problem with it, and believe the feeling of resignation that declaration instilled in me actually enhanced my Buffalo experience.  Looking back, I truly believe the Who were convinced this was it (at least Pete Townshend was).  I was well aware of the reasons - thanks to a variety of media sources - and felt the writing was on the wall.  So I took it all in as if this was the end.  How was I to know I’d be seeing the Who, along with their various solo efforts, at least 20 more times over the next 30 years? (the real farewell for me is in 2 months).

What lead to this moment? Well, quite a bit, which I hope all plays out in this blog series.  But in simple chronological terms of events leading up to it, I was not yet a month into my school year at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, on an exchange program.  Following a lead from a dorm mate shortly after my arrival, I secured a ticket, and soon found myself on a six hour trek to Buffalo in a three-bus caravan full to the brim with rowdy Canadian fans singing Who songs.  It was an enlightening pilgrimage dominated with rock-and-roll discourse. The border crossing was memorable for several reasons; including having to watch as two unfortunate girls from Jamaica were being taken off the bus for lack of documentation (they somehow reunited with their friends at the show later on). 

The authenticity of the event was there even earlier for me, however, back to the purchase of that  ticket two weeks prior:  Before handing me my golden pass, the ticket booth employee pulled out a pen and drew a customary pop-art arrow in the northeasterly direction out of the “O” ” in “WHO” on my stub.  What a gesture.  These fans north of the border were no slouches when it came to identifying with this greatest of rock and roll bands:  “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour young man, step right this way!”  The ticket itself was a rather large colorful artsy affair, the likes of which you just do not see anymore.  That was treasure which I slipped into my pocket that day.

Flash forward back to the show.  In front of me, a massive “W H O” was spelled out with the sound system, the bottom half of the “H” representing the very impressive stage.  This sheer quantity of stacked amplification gave an early indication of what I and the other 82,000 souls in attendance were in for: The type of volume that this band had set a world record for a few tours earlier.   Right off we were to learn we would not to be disappointed; the heavy sound offered up by the two excellent backup band’s - David Johansen and the Clash – was quick, reliable proof.  By the time the Who came roaring on to the stage with the one-two punch of “Substitute” and “I Can’t Explain”, the atmosphere was already palpable.  

I was the only representative on my campus floor that was there.  I tried talking a few of my new found friends, Steve Vance and Bob Mainguy, into joining me, but it was very early into our friendship, and my powers of persuasion had not quite kicked in with them yet.  The guys I was sitting with were short term acquaintances, and several of them had popped pills of the hallucinogenic variety in the parking lot before the show (I politely declined).  Glancing over at them it appeared the effect was now kicking in, and one of them who was sitting next to me leaned in and said: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.  The Who’s necks are extending to my face and they are singing right in front of me”.  Yow!

The show continued along a sharp upward arc of satisfaction, including highlight reel renditions of “Sister Disco”, “Naked Eye”, “The Punk and the Godfather”, and “Long Live Rock” (the one time I ever got to see this song live). The lead singing and 3-part harmonies were flawless, the bass overpowering, the stage presence almost perfect (Kenny Jones did the best he could, but paled in comparison to what the recently deceased Keith Moon brought to the table).  Near the end of the set, the event hit an astounding climax when the band broke into “Love, Reign O’er Me”.  A minute or so into the song, the sky opened up and rain came pouring down on the sweltering crowd.  No shit.  And not soon after the songs concluding drum barrage, the rain stopped. Roger Daltrey said something to the effect “How’d you like that one? Bet even the Stones couldn’t pull that off”.  The place erupted into what I can only describe as pure ecstasy.

Yes, for me and many others in the crowd, this was an initiation event with a capital “E”.  The Who however, were on the other end of that spectrum.  Their amazing journey had been playing out for going on 20 years.  Roger Daltrey remained upbeat, but Pete Townshend was cooked, and felt the band was spent as a creative force.  He was also on the wagon, playing video games incessantly while on tour to keep distracted.  These bulky video games were ported by the roadies from one venue to another.  Daltrey felt the games were too much of a distraction (these days I can certainly relate to that) and was granted a request to personally destroy them near the tours end.  Still, despite Townshend’s jaded emotions, the Who were as solid and professional as one would hope.  Perhaps they were feeding off the manifested sea of enthusiasm in front of them.

The band had just released It’s Hard, the last studio album they were to produce until Endless Wire twenty-four years later (the cover is reflective of Townshend’s video game obsession at the time).  They played five songs from the new album that day; “Eminence Front”, “Cry If You Want”, “Dangerous”, “A Man Is A Man” and the title track (it’s amazing, but all I had to do to track that factoid was to go on Google and type “The Who, Buffalo, 1982” to get the set list).  I was already quite familiar with these brand new songs and there was one particularly big reason why. 

The summer leading up to my first Who show, I had a job out of South Boston delivering the smaller parcel loads for a trucking company, Kent’s Trucking (a client of my Dad’s), which primarily dealt with larger 18-wheeler shipments.  My deliveries were basically Fedex size (in a pre-Fedex time) and I prepared for the job by freeing my parents’ old Chevy Van of its back seats.  Anyhow, a good number of my routine deliveries were to wholesale record stores, and one day near the very end of my summer vacation, I found myself delivering the very first shipment of the It’s Hard album to the Boston area. 

Being a Who messenger of sorts that day was exciting since the employees at several of the record stores knew what was coming.  One of the first places I stopped at was in Dedham.  Several of the workers ran out and helped me unload their shipment.  The group of us then rushed inside and someone immediately opened one of the packages, and pulled out the new album.  We gave it a quick overview and then placed it on a turntable in the backroom, listening intently for that Who sound.  I’m guessing that it was the very first playing of It’s Hard in the region, if not North America.  I purchased a copy on the spot.

All in all It’s Hard was a tricky, disjointed album to get into when it was first came out, and it still is.  Just this past week, I realized I had probably not listened to it from beginning to end in over 30 years, and so, since I only had the vinyl (that release-date purchase all those years ago remains in my possession), I went out to Newbury Comics and picked up a copy of the cd in the hopes that I could tease something new out of it.  After popping it into the car player, the old feeling of disappointment crept back in as I listened.  And yet, as the week went on, I picked up on a concept woven among a handful cuts, some solid, some not so, that I had not picked up on before.

The general theme that runs thru the core songs of It’s Hard is about the loss of who we really are, that heart of us hidden somewhere in the idealism of our younger, more innocent selves. The title of the album, and the song it was named after, directly address this.  “Dangerous”, the best of John Entwistle’s 3 tracks, fits well into the concept.  As does Pete Townshend’s penned “Cook’s County” “One Life’s Enough”, “Why Did I Fall For That” and “A Man Is A Man”.  Several other songs, “Cry if You Want”, “I’ve Known No War” and “It’s Your Turn” are solid efforts (the latter a particularly good vocal by Roger Daltrey for an Entwistle song).  All three in fact are better than all but one of the theme songs (which I’m getting to), but they detract from this undercurrent concept.  This is what happened to me out of the gate back in the late summer of ’82 (of the final 2 songs, the opening cut, “Athena”, was a complete loss of the bread-crumb trail,  and “One At a Time” is a borderline embarrassment for the Ox (Entwistle), as he would later admit). 

The highlight for sure - in concept, listenability, and effort - the one real keeper in terms of the highest of standards that the Who had set for themselves, is “Eminence Front”, this week’s Big Top entry ( ). Pete Townshend builds the song on top of a catchy, synthesizer beat, with ominous tones of bass and guitar gradually building up the atmosphere.  This tune gets to the root of the problem regarding the message in It’s Hard; there is fa├žade, there is short term memory, and there is a reluctance to do something about it due to our fears and insecurities.  “Come and join the party.  Dress to kill” Townshend sings (a premonition on the then still-young cocaine-fueled 80s). 

Earlier this week, I read an old quote from Mother Teresa, who when asked by a journalist several decades ago “What has to change in the church?” her response was “You and I”.  I thought about this quite often all week while listening to It’s Hard, since a very similar message runs through much of the album, of which the central essence is “Eminence Front”. I believe these were the emotions consuming the Who when I first saw them play live.  I was light years behind them in my life experience, simply enjoying a magnificent show for the most part. 

But I understand now:  Nothing like a visit back in time to flesh that out.

Below is me at the Buffalo, New York show, back when it was a lot easier to hold back that eminence front.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Under the Big Top # 2: “The Awakening”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “A Quick One”
Album: A Quick One
Release Date: December, 1966

As mentioned in last week’s first “Under the Big Top” entry, The Who has been a major source of entertainment for me for over 35 years.  The closest analogous word I can think of to describe this band is “circus”....  a four-ring circus…..a perfect circus (hence the choice of title for this series).  Pete Townshend, lead songwriter, has throughout his career balanced nicely his pop-culture instincts with his deep convictions, his extroversion with his introversion.  Townshend’s commitment to the Who has always fascinated me because early on this musician had pretty much convinced himself  that he would be better off creatively by going it alone (think Clapton, Young, Bowie).  However, every time Pete Townshend pushed them the rest of the band rose to the occasion.  In return Townshend remained loyal (he was the last member of the band to release a solo album).  And so, despite the odds on a range of fronts, this extraordinary circus act survived….and then thrived; their original incomparable lineup intact for 15 years.  Lucky for many.

My true appreciation for this band goes back to 1980, my first year at North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).  Before this, I had scattered fragments of insights related to the Who.  I believe what threw me off in terms of bringing it all together was the diversity of their sound.  As such, I knew many of the songs, but never equated it all to one band.  Pre-MTV videos like “You Better You Bet” and Roger Daltrey’s “Free Me” helped to put a few fissures in my mental wall, but that was about it.  The real breakthrough played out in a movie theater.

A bit of background: Early on in North Adams, I was not in a particularly good position for meeting people, living in an off-campus house with the landlady (an elderly strong-willed woman, Ma Betti) and four roommates who were destined to be minor footnotes in my life.  However, one of these roommates introduced me to a group of characters who lived on campus in Townhouse # 1 ("TH1").  I was welcomed into the fold for a handful of reasons, including that I played a good game of both 8-ball pool and darts in those days.  Also the ringleader, John “Jocko” Miller, was impressed with the fact I could go toe to toe with him eating hot peppers. 

If my hometown buddies, Phil and Mac, kept me on my toes in my high school years with their quick wit and sarcasm, this motley crew brought things to another level when it came to my having to stay alert.  There was no sympathy for naive comments, which were responded to with a resounding "BAHHHHHHHH!!!!” (think a loud, obnoxious sheep). Most everyone referred to each other by last name only (Swanna, Kershaw, B-Lee, McCabe, Pierce and Miller).  Kurt (Ellis) was the only one who kept his first name intact (as did I).   It was a friendship devoid of the innocence of my younger days, but at that point I was ready for it.  I settled into this atmosphere rather comfortably for a couple of years (with an eye on my grades, I declined a sophomore-year offer to move in to TH1) before heading up to Ottawa, Canada on an exchange program my junior year (others from the townhouse also moved on, though not as voluntarily; victims of Blutarsky-esque grade point averages).

One evening we all headed to the old Mohawk Theater in downtown North Adams to watch the then 1-year old Who rocumentary The Kids are Alright.  I had no idea what I was in for. The film started off with a bang (literally).  As I watched the smoke clear off the stage after the Who performed “My Generation” in a clip off the late 60’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (this is the opening salvo in the movie,, where it's said another guest that evening, Betty Davis, fainted while watching Keith Moon’s drums explode) I leaned over to Kurt, the only TH1-er I could trust to ask the occasional naive question.  I somewhat knew Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and the imposing presence each of them could display.  But now, seeing that the bass player and drummer each had his own unique aura that put the two of them on equal footing with their bandmates (in both cases, I had not until that moment picked up on the importance or distinguishing possibilities of their respective instruments in a band), I absolutely needed to know more.  The exchange went something like this:

Me: <leaning in so as not to be heard by the others> "ok, that's Pete Townshend and that's Roger Daltrey.....but who's that playing the bass guitar again?"

Kurt: <looking at me in utter disbelief, and responding loudly> "PETE.... THAT'S THE OX! BAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!"

The rest of TH1: "BAHHHHHHHH!!!!!

Me: <turning back to the screen> "uh, oh, ok"

I sat back for the long haul, and did not utter another word for the remainder of the show. I figured Keith Moon out on my own.

The movie continued at a torrid pace, each preserved concert footage, music video, and interview leaving in ashes the one before.  I had never seen anything like it, and this was not even a live event.  Then about halfway thru, the song "A Quick One" unfolded on the screen.  This was a live concert version from the 1968 Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus show, which was ultimately scrapped as a movie.  Now, most of the songs in the The Kids are Alright I had already heard many times on the radio, but this 10-minute 'mini opera' was new to my ears.  Typically songs take a few listens to settle into the psyche.  Not this time.  This was instant karma.  The performance was over-the-top astounding!  I was hooked. 

** I recall hearing that the main reason the Rolling Stones abandoned the “Rock and Roll Circus” movie was because the Who out performed them (the film was finally released in the 90's).  And because it was abandoned, few had ever seen this footage until The Kids Are Alright rockumentary was released (the Stones gave the Who permission). 

Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, my atypical and yet honest response is The Kids are Alright.  A big reason is that this is the film that had the most effect on me (it was produced by an American fan, Jeff Stein, who was utterly inexperienced in movie making, but who was somehow able to convince the Who he could do it, which is probably something I subliminally connected with).  What was it that grabbed my imagination (and continues to do so) with that movie?  This is the question I have been asking myself all week.  I found the answer in “A Quick One”, this week’s Big Top entry ( This one song encapsulates the movie, which in itself encapsulates the Who, revealing much of what I love about this band.

First off, I believe that when a number of people work together to pull off a common goal, there can be infinitely more variables in the mix than when someone tries to accomplish something on their own.  Therefore, a wider pendulum swing exists between the potential lows and highs in the outcome.  With all those variables, the possibility of a group of people attaining the highest range of high is rare, but possible (and more often fleeting than lasting).  It can happen in sport.  It can happen in governing.  It can happen in battle.  It can happen in science.  And it can happen in music. 

What the Who had, which is captured oh so magically in the “A Quick One” clip, is this wonderful organized chaos, as well as a musical equilibrium of the highest caliber between members (if anyone took a back seat, it was Roger Daltrey, and he was the band’s ‘golden god’ front man for goodness sake... what other group could make such a claim?).  I loved how they could flail around, discarding instruments, and still have this impeccable sense of timing; from the bass being in precise synch with the guitar, in turn in synch with the drums, playing off the vocals.  Mixed in were impromptu utterances (including whoever yells “Hey!” at the end) and improbable recoveries (there’s a moment near the beginning of the song where Townshend gets whiplashed by Keith Moon’s microphone.  He growls at Moon, but never misses a beat).  This was like watching four house cats get spun head over heels in the air and still land on their feet, one on top of the other, time and time again.  

I loved that this group did not seem all that impressed with each other, despite the fact that the entire musician-heavy audience was obviously blown away, including Brian Jones and the short-in-stature clown caught on film at the very end of the clip: “That was marvelous!” the clown gushes while Jones whistles in agreement.  Tell me about it.  Also, no one in the band appeared pretentious in any way.  On the contrary, as I was to learn later, there was quite a bit of self-criticism, both toward each other and themselves.

I loved the improvisation.  Midway through “A Quick One” for example the Who chant “cello, cello, cello……”.  What was this all about?  Subsequent viewings of The Kids Are Alright, I was in the know as to why.  Along with his bass playing, John Entwistle (the Ox) also played a multitude of brass and string instruments on Who songs.  When the Who gathered to perform the studio version of "A Quick One", Entwistle forgot to bring his cello, and so the band sang the word “cello” at the point it was supposed to be played:  A classic Who improv that played out in many other ways in their history.

Another revelation for me, in terms of something I had not seen before, was the multi-part aspect to the song.  “A Quick One” is a storyline, with each piece of the story having a signature anthem: A young man leaves his home and his sweetheart for a year and is overdue to return; the young woman grieves and in her weakness has a one-night dalliance with “Ivor the engine driver”; the young man comes home; the young woman tells all and … forgiven).  The last few minutes are a crescendo of song and story.  John Entwistle’s wonderful, high countertenor (an extreme of his vocal range that he would lose later in life), repetitious singing of the word “forgiven” plays off Townshend and Daltrey’s baritone response of this declaration of absolution.  This is followed by an instrumental stretch where I swear the Who must hold some kind of record for most notes to come out of 3 instruments in a ten-second span.  Townshend’s “Your ALL Forgiven!” is an exquisite final exclamation: Wow, you mean all of us, me too?

Many years later, not soon after John Entwistle died, I recall reading a Pete Townshend interview that had me laughing.  He was discussing a moment in a Who show between songs where Roger Daltrey shuffled over to him and complained, yet again, that Entwistle’s bass was too loud, and that he could not hear himself, and that the Ox would not turn down the volume. Townshend commiserated but stated that if this were an ordinary band (as in every other band in the world) he would agree.  But this was The Who, which had long ago become something else entirely, and that there was no taming it.  The cat had been let out of the bag. 

I believe the seeds for this 4-headed beast were germinated in that 1968 performance of “A Quick One”. 

As for me, watching that performance was the beginning of a long, fun process of album purchases, books, articles, lyric interpretations, volume, and air guitar.

- Pete