Friday, January 1, 2016

Under the Big Top # 1: “A Pete Meet-and-Greet”

(personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Seeker”

Album: Compilation album Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy

Release Date: December, 1971

The young woman handed me the microphone and the spotlight was thrust my way as I stood up from my seat in the front row of the Berklee Performance Center balcony and looked down at the familiar ace face on the stage, he in turn looking up at me.  The nervousness coursing through my veins belied my 50 years of life experience and numerous public speaking engagements to that point.  But then, here I was in a prestigious theatre hall packed to capacity with music connoisseurs, students and academicians on a Boston campus that is world renowned for the study of lyric and melody, gearing up to pose a loosely formulated question to an icon in the business who also happened to be my personal favorite musician, Mr. Pete Townshend.  The fact that my good friend and fellow Who enthusiast, Mac was seated next to me to potentially heckle any slip of the tongue didn’t help matters either.

The event was a book signing (yes, everyone in the 1200 + seat theatre got a signed hardcopy of Pete Townshend’s just published 2012 memoir Who I Am).  A few moments earlier, Townshend wrapped up an engaging interview on stage with a Berklee professor and had now opened the floor to a few questions from the audience (the event would close soon after with a 3-song solo performance).  The two inquiries prior to mine were simple and unimaginative.  Both were brushed aside for the most part.  This immediately brought to mind that, although this rock star could be extremely genial and contemplative when connecting with his fans, he could also be unpredictable and acerbic.

During the interview portion, I had spotted the young lady behind me with the microphone, stepping out into the aisle, and I knew what was coming.  I decided to seize the moment if I got her attention when the time came.  But what was I to ask?  I knew it could be so easy to blow such a moment, and those two professor types who asked questions from up front, prior to my being the lone selection in the peanut gallery, proved this.  Yet I took some comfort in the thought that asking Pete Townshend questions had floated through my mind quite often over the prior 35 years.  I quickly dug into the extensive back catalog of the Who corner of my brain and poked around for something poignant.  There was so much to weave through: Concerts, books, studio albums, bandmates, solo works, movies, radio interviews, articles, songs, lyrics, arrangements, and inspirations. There were punks and godfathers, slip kids and seekers, sell outs and bargains, sea and sand.  There was preaching; through overtures, undertures and on chairs.  There were beggars buying rounds, and words being immobile until you sit down.  There was old red wine well past it’s prime, and being resigned to crashing by design.  Is a little still enough? What happens if you let go the coat?

A thought began to gel that centered on Pete Townshend’s musical relationship with his childhood friend and bandmate, bass man-extraordinaire, John Entwistle, who had passed on 10 years prior.  When the time came however, I had not completely pulled it together, and so I came slowly out of the gate.  I started with a stumbling, mumbling appreciation, which included a Ken Russell quote from my all-time favorite movie The Kids are Alright.  Yes, I introduced myself to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by thanking this man I was now speaking directly to for “rising us out of our decadent ambient state”.  I was trying to be funny while at the same time hoping to keep clear of stale, standard fodder in expressing my admiration.  I succeeded in the latter at least. Not very many got it though, which probably included Pete.  Ouch.

 And yet, at this early stage in my loquacious query I already sensed a kinship with Mr. Townshend, who A) has been accused of similar folly and B) likely had already realized through some gestalt-like recognition (thanks to many years of being patient with fans like me) that I was no Who-ophyte.  He didn’t say a word.  On the contrary, it appeared he leaned forward some to hear me out.  This gave me a bit of confidence which I sorely needed at this point.  I moved on.

I started my question by mentioning that I had recently read Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir Life, and that what I was most intrigued by in the book was what he wrote about how Rolling Stones songs came together in the studio.  There were little nuggets here and there, but these were few and far between.  I was hoping for more.  I wanted to know how a great band made their composer’s original efforts better.  What was that magic touch that put the Stones (and the Who) above the fray when it came to putting a studio album together as a band?  I did not flesh this entirely out, but I was hoping Townshend would understand the intent of this lead-in to the core of my question.  Also, I was hoping that his book had more to tell in this regard (unfortunately it does not, though I do consider it a worthwhile reading for many other reasons, not the least of which is brutal honesty).

Finally, I got to the crux of the matter.   I stated that as far as I could tell, there have been few situations in his career where Pete played a secondary ensemble role for another composer, and that the bulk of these were for John Entwistle.  I wanted to know what this felt like and whether or not he (Townshend) was satisfied with the results of his guitar playing on Entwistle songs, seeing as I did not hear nearly the innovation that I heard on many of his own compositions. I was about to suggest that the Ox (Entwistle) left no room for Pete Townshend to be innovative because his songs are oh so heavy with bass guitar, but I did not get the chance.   “Are you being critical?” Pete asked.  Ouch again!  My one opportunity to converse with the man whose music I had analyzed to borderline ad-nauseam at times appeared to be taken as a slight.  I replied something to the effect of “No, no not at all…..”

That was the end of my ramblings though.  Pete Townshend took over from there.

First he compared/contrasted his and Keith Richards’ song-writing styles, emphasizing the differences by stating that Keith’s approach was to grow a song in the studio with the Stones, where his own approach was to submit an already well-polished song to the Who.  Again, I was hoping for more because I had already known all this (and I am pretty sure most in the crowd did too), but it was still reassuring to get such thoughtful feedback after what happened with the earlier questions.

** Looking back, my thinking was that, although the demoes Pete Townshend brought to the band were indeed well polished, with all instrumentation performed by him alone in his home studio: Drums, bass, guitar, piano, synthesizer…. everything (which we all get to hear on Townshend’s Scoop records) the Who took things to another level entirely.  There is deeper meaning than has been addressed anywhere (Pete Townshend included) regarding the true value of the band when it came to making Who songs together in the studio, which I believe included their talent, mutual respect, faith, patience, a unique kinship and other intangibles.  Without Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle (and his own willingness to be a piece of that puzzle…..a very important point and a fact he has often struggled with), Townshend would likely have been another brilliant musician never to get mass public recognition (for good or ill).  Having followed his career rather closely, I don’t believe Pete Townshend has thought all of that through, probably due to the painfully drawn out process of what it took to make a Who record and also what he likely considered to be his substantial investment beforehand, tilting the scales in his mind.

Next Pete Townshend discussed the Entwistle part of my question.  He lamented that “they never fell under my fingers, his songs”, but if he were to signal out one it would be “Heaven and Hell” (I agree, and to this day wish I had called that one out).  I loved this part of his reply.  It was sincere and seemed to touch a chord.  The Boston Globe writer Marc Hirsh who was there to cover the event, agreed in his review.  So did a DJ on xm radio who was there, and who I luckily tuned into the next day at the right moment on a work trip up to Canada.

So there you have it… opening salvo to this year’s focus on the music of the Who and the memory it evokes within me.  I would like to think I have plenty of ammo to keep this rolling week to week throughout 2016.  This band has touched my soul in many ways, and I don’t just mean in a distant, informal way (other than my Berklee encounter with Pete Townshend and a hand shake with John Entwistle which I will discuss at some point).  I also mean in a personal and interpersonal way...woven into my interactions with friends and family.  Those close to me know this.  It’s a part of Who I am, and is some of what I hope to flesh out here.

When I started this blog series as a 2-year weekly email shout-out to friends and family back in 2008 and 2009 (all of which can be tracked on this blog site), there were a handful of entries that captured the spirit of the Who (and solo Townshend) in my life.  My attempt here is to add to all of that.  As always I add an exclamation to all my entries with a song that helped spur my discussion points for a given week.  The appropriate choice this time around?... why “The Seeker” of course! ( ).

In closing:  By chance, 2016 just so happens to be the year that I will most certainly be catching my final Who show (if not for a Roger Daltrey bout with Viral meningitis it would have been last year):  Pete and Roger see the writing on the wall after a truly amazing career on the road.   I plan to celebrate accordingly with my fellow Who admirers.  I also envision the event (coming up in April) will serve as a deep well for future blog entries.

This should be fun.

- Pete

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