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 façade, 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.


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