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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;....as 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 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7SliN-82P0), 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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqWP7uDsjPo).

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



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