Sunday, February 28, 2016

Under the Big Top # 9: “A Symphony of Four”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Punk Meets the Godfather”
Album: Quadrophenia
Release Date: October, 1973

If you have ever watched Amadeus, you will recall the sequence where Salieri, gasping in awe as he watches Mozart conduct his opera Marriage of Figaro, spies the Emperor yawning out of the corner of his eye.  Well, this and other scenes from the movie were some of the first thoughts that came to mind this past Sunday, not long after slipping disc one of Quadrophenia into my car’s CD player.  The parallels soon became obvious, and I honed in on this interrelationship with each replay of the Who’s most transcendent album.  And so, interjected into my entry this week will be some of the best Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) lines in Amadeus, all pertaining to Mozart’s music.  Hopefully the intimation will become evident.

Salieri: “And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall!”

I can relate somewhat to the doomed Salieri, as I have often been transfixed by the great music of others, with Quadrophenia being the album that has probably caused this sensation the most (although I must say it is not my favorite Who album; that I will get to soon enough – and no, it’s not Tommy).  However, as was the case with Mozart’s best works at the time of their unveiling, where he would frequently run into public ambivalence (including the nodding-off emperor), Quadrophenia continues to fall short of what I believe to be its proper place in the grand pantheon of musical achievements.  Although the general reception has always been a rather positive one, a plethora of “Top List” snubs abound, including the otherwise exemplary musical reference book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon (no relation to Keith as far as I know). Moon does recognize two Who albums, Tommy and Who’s Next, but the greatest of them all is left off the list. 

Salieri: “I think you overestimate our dear Viennese, my friend (Mozart). You know you didn't even give them a good *bang* at the end of songs, to let them know when to clap”

The Who’s Quadrophenia shares this frequent slight with Pink Floyd’s comparable opus The Wall.  I’ve heard all the criticism: Grandiose, too audacious, over ambitious, a “crisis of concept”.  Ah yes, the concept; as with all of Pete Townshend’s big ideas, it’s a bit complex.  On the surface, the storyline is pretty straightforward:  We are supposed to sympathize with the protagonist Jimmy, a young working class Brit just out of secondary school, with no plans to speak of and a series of monotonous jobs that scream conformity.  It’s a period piece, capturing the mod scene of mid-60s London (and Brighton on the southern coast of England, where Jimmy and his fellow mods would make motor bike forays to on long holiday weekends.  The entirety of sides 3 and 4 play out at this ocean-side resort town – Jimmy alone with his highly charged thoughts - propelling us to the climatic conclusion).  Mods were a subculture of the period and they spent all their money on GS Scooters, pills (uppers), clothes (“Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents 5 inches long”) and “hair cut neat”.   Jimmy is a compromised and lost soul for the most part, but the Who get us to relate to his plight through the music.  We feel his angst, his confusion, and ultimately his longing for something better. 

Mozart:Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!”

But there’s also this concept of four.  Jimmy suffers from “Quadrophenia” or schizophrenia compounded (Townshend later admitted he undermined the seriousness of the mental disorder by attempting to coin a seemingly more severe fictitious one).  Interwoven through the album are theme songs for the four members of the Who, reflecting each of Jimmy’s four “Quadrophenic” personas: Roger Daltrey as tough guy (“Helpless Dancer”), John Entwistle as romantic (“Is it me for a moment”), Keith Moon as bloody lunatic (“Bellboy”), and Pete Townshend as a beggar, a hypocrite (“Love Reign O’er Me”).   (* Side Note: I believe I covered the entire gambit of these personalities in one night at my bachelor party).  Then there was the quadrophonic sound, an early attempt at surround sound, with different acoustics coming out of four corners of the room based on speaker positioning.  There were plenty of sounds too, and not just the Who but also Townshend’s pre-recorded effects that kick in right out of the gate on “I Am the Sea” and connect the listener with the time period and the mood: Tea kettles, ocean, seagulls, rain, wind, train switchyards, a BBC news reporter, etc.

Mozart:In a play if more than one person speaks at the same time, it’s just noise; no one can understand a word. But with opera, with music... with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at the same time, and it's not noise, it's a perfect harmony!”

And then there’s the music itself.  Great music can make any story profound (which has me believing that time will ultimately rectify and override the negative reviews and oversights of the past, which is already playing itself out).  Here we have a parade of individual and collective jaw-dropping contributions.  Quadrophenia gives us some of Pete Townshend’s most virtuoso guitar playing.  Quadrophenia gives us Roger Daltrey’s most majestic vocals.  Quadrophenia gives us some of the best bass (John Entwistle) and drums (Keith Moon) ever recorded.  Quadrophenia gives us this amazingly unique ability of the Who to switch off the lead instrument on a dime, and I’m not just talking lead guitar:  Drums take the lead at times and at other times the bass takes the lead (in both cases, this is pretty much unheard of beyond the realm of the Who).  This is Rock and Roll personified; a symphony of sound (including the Entwistle horns and Townshend strings) and done almost entirely by the four bandmates alone!  To these ears, Quadrophenia is your quintessential “stranded on a desert island” album (or Mars, where the Mark Watney character in The Martian book, which I am reading now, somehow endures despite being straddled with a bad collection of disco music).  Quadrophenia was what Eddie Vedder primarily was referring to when he honored the Who in a Rolling Stone Magazine 2004 article as “leaving rubble and not much else for the rest of us to lay claim to”.

Salieri: “It was clear to me that sound I had heard in the Archbishop's palace had been no accident. Here again was the very voice of God! I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink-strokes at an absolute beauty”

I have loved Quadrophenia since the early 80s, but for well over a decade it was a pipe dream to think I would ever see this album performed live by the band that created it.  The first and only go-around for the Who in terms of a live tour of Quadrophenia was right after its release in 1973, and it was a borderline disaster, with synthesizer backing tapes failing and Pete Townshend railing.  The band eventually scrapped much of the album and replaced the deeper cuts with more standard pre-Quadrophenia fare.  Subsequently, the Who had moved on (and by the time I was enjoying this album they had for all intents and purposes, disbanded).  But for the fans, it was as if the band had given up on their magnum opus as a live act before ever really giving it a chance.  To top off the improbability of a reprise, Keith Moon was now dead!  There was simply no possibility that the Who could ever emulate his contributions in a way that would capture the lightning-in-a bottle aura of the studio effort.  Just no way!  Kenny Jones would not have been up to the task as Moon’s first replacement.  Neither would have Simon Phillips (although I do not want to take away from either of their talents, as each contributed in their own way to make those rarified Who tours in the 80s quite satisfying.  Yet neither had the ability or the hutzpah to pull off the Keith Moon organized-chaos style that would be essential to a live performance of Quadrophenia.  But for goodness sake, who could?). 

Salieri: “That was Mozart. That! That giggling dirty-minded creature I had just seen, crawling on the floor!”

It was this state of mind I was in when in 1996 the Who regrouped for the first time in seven years to perform Quadrophenia in its totality at the Prince’s Trust charity event in Hyde Park, London. Reviews were off the charts and included very promising commentary on the new drummer, Ringo’s boy Zak Starkey, who had his own style but sounded “not like his Dad, but like Keith Moon” (by some strange twist of fate, Zak’s lessons on the drums were taught to him by Moon and not the Fab Four drummer…..or at least the lessons he inherited). Not soon after Hyde Park, a six night residence at Madison Square Garden was announced.  This was exciting; a real happening.  I had to go.  The Manhattan-based Ticketmaster was inundated with calls upon the announcement.  No chance of getting through there.  Working off a little voice in my head (and perhaps a bit of desperation), I called Ticketmaster in Boston.  I got right through and with bated breath, asked if they had Madison Square Garden tickets.  They did!  I purchased 4 (there’s that number again) and quickly relayed the message to good friend Kurt, who did the same.

Salieri: “Through my influence, I saw to it Don Giovanni was played only five times in Vienna. But in secret, I went to every one of those five, worshipping sounds I alone seem to hear.”

Some of my favorite memories of that show were actually the lead up to it.  First off; it started sinking in pretty quickly that I was going to be hearing live rarities. I’ve always had a Who concert wish list: “Slip Kid”, “Daily Records”, “New Song” to name a few (which still remain on the docket).  There was a time when that concert wish list was much more expansive though, and included most of Quadrophenia: “Cut My Hair”, “The Punk Meets the Godfather”, “The Rock”, “Bell Boy”…. the list goes on.  Now we were going to see all these songs live, performed in their original conceptual order by the Who themselves!

Salieri: “The restored third act was bold, brilliant. The fourth... was astounding.”

Another great memory was when I reached out to Becca and Dave; my cousin and great friend.  When I got their voice mail, it popped in my head to leave a Who-type message without saying exactly what I had secured.  I imitated as best I could the entirety of the short opening track, “I Am the Sea”, ocean sound effects and all.  Timing was tricky and important, but I think I nailed it.  Becca called me back the next day at work before I had arrived, and left an ecstatic and moving reply.  I saved that message for years (until our phone system changed), replaying it on the occasion when I wanted to feel the moment again.

Salieri: “On the page it looked like nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!”

And then there was the ride down to Manhattan (what is it about these New York excursions?), Dave driving with Becca in the front, Nancy and I in the back (we would meet the rest of the crew in Greenwich Village).  About half way thru Connecticut as we entered the gravitational pull of the Big Apple, Dave casually reached into a side compartment, slipped disk one of Quadrophenia out of its sleeve, and popped it into the his hi-fi player.  Then he turned up the volume….as in way up.  As in conversation-impossible up!  It was clearly time to get focused on the task at hand.  The remainder of the ride proved to be almost as intense as the real event later that evening.  Dave’s timing was impeccable; we sucked in the riveting sound of Quadrophenia all the way to the city.  The high-volume ride was also a reminder of many of our great road trip over the years, which at that stage in our lives were already beginning to thin out. 

Salieri: “This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling.”

The concert itself was fantastic.  Zak Starkey played up to his billing.  I recall closing my eyes at one moment early in the show and feeling for the first time what a mid-70s Who show must have sounded like.  It was stunning.  John Entwistle’s bass playing was superb.  Roger Daltrey, sporting a mid-60s-style pop-art bull’s-eye eye-patch to cover a bad wound (courtesy of a Gary Glitter swinging microphone stand during rehearsals) was magnificent.  Pete Townshend was omnipresent.  Billy Idol, one of the “guest stars” strutted out to sing “Bell Boy” and, to my surprise, mastered it with the same Cockney-Accent-swagger that Keith Moon had done on the original (which, by the way, was a rare treat for Who fans; that being hearing the caterwauling Keith Moon singing a lead vocal).  Idol’s ad-lib “Fuckkkkkkkk iiiiiitttttttttt!!!” in mid-riff, to emphasize this pathetic moment in the story, hit me to the degree that, well…..that I remember it to this day. 

Mozart: It's unbelievable; the director has actually torn up a huge section of my music. They say I have to rewrite the opera. But it's perfect as it is! I can't rewrite what's perfect!

Other Who albums have been resurrected these past few months, but Quadrophenia was never that far away from the vest.  Like the Basement Tapes, Exile on Main Street, and All Things Must Pass, this album is always within arm’s reach.  It cuts across most of my own period-piece bonds: My “Brother Bouv” friendship, my Kurt friendship, and my Mac friendship; then, now and everywhere in between.  When I listen, it reinforces other more general bonds as well:  Dad’s spiritual quest, friend Bob’s wanderlust, friend Mac’s non-conformity, brother Fred’s soul searching, Nancy’s perfect honesty, friend Kurt’s passion for love, sister Amy’s connection with all that is awe-inspiring, Mom’s wonderful generosity.  It reinforces all of my personal bonds.

Salieri: “I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater; conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable”

I had to pick a song off of Quadrophenia for this week’s Big Top entry.  I thought long and hard and finally settled on “The Punk Meets the Godfather” ( ).  The song is one of many pivotal points in the storyline; keying in on the relationship between the supposedly learned rock star (ok, the Who) and an avid fan (Jimmy – the “Punk”) and it is one of a handful of moments in Quadrophenia where Jimmy reaches a point of disillusionment, recognized here by the rock star (“Godfather”) with Pete Townshend singing the key refrain:

I have to be careful not to preach
I can’t pretend that I can teach,
And yet I lived your future out
By pounding stages like a clown.

And on the dance floor broken glass,
And bloody faces slowly pass,
The numbered seats in empty rows,
It all belongs to me you know.

“The Punk Meets the Godfather” is the Who at their humble best.  It’s a perfect example of what distinguishes them from so many of their contemporaries and continues to send shivers down my spine with every listen.  It’s one of the many all-too critiqued loose ends to Quadrophenia, but that’s fine by me:  This allows us to stitch it all together ourselves.  Mozart himself was likely looking down with pride when this piece was composed. 

Mozart: Forgive me, Majesty. I am a vulgar man! But I assure you, my music is not.”

When I purchased Quadrophenia all those years ago and began to realize its brilliance, I took all of it in, including the cover, the booklet, and the lengthy liner notes.  As I read those notes, I found myself just slightly off kilter with one aspect: The parental angle.  In contrast to Jimmy, I had a wonderful upbringing.  Would this be an irreconcilable breach in terms of my connecting with the concept?  When I reached the end, I got my answer:  “No one in this story is meant to represent anyone either living or dead, particularly not the Mum and Dad.  Our Mums and Dad are all very nice and live in bungalows which we bought for them in the Outer Hebrides)”. 

Just another fascinating piece of my relation to this album.

Replicating Mozart symphonies can be a challenge but because all notes are put to sheet in precise fashion, it’s proved to be doable.  Rock is different.  The best rock music is unrepeatable:  At least in this day and age.  Perhaps someone will figure it out another couple of hundred years down the road.  Replicating the spectacle of Quadrophenia will be a major challenge though.  Can it be done?  

I’m thinking that only Mozart (and maybe even Salieri) knows for sure.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

Under the Big Top # 8: “Access Who-llywood”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “You Better You Bet”
Album: Face Dances
Release Date: March, 1981

Hang around Boston long enough and you’re bound to run into Peter Wolf.  The former WBCN disc jockey and one-time lead singer for the J. Geils band is ubiquitous; a man of the streets.  And he stands out, usually dressed head to toe in black, including his long dark hair and derby hat.  On the three or four occasions that I’ve seen Wolf in the Hub, he was alone, which had me thinking then (and now) that he was observing, taking in the hustle and bustle, with the hopes it would all set off a creative spark.  Despite the fact that he came across as amiable and approachable, however, I let him be, aside from a nod and smile of recognition.  I did not want to interrupt wherever he was in that mental process. 

The Who have always come across in this open-door manner, particularly Keith Moon and Pete Townshend.  Many stories and anecdotes have been written about their accessibility.  Moon, who was regularly out and about, would more often than not have an entourage with him, but still had a reputation as approachable.  As for Townshend, he’s typically been viewed (and reviewed) as more erratic in regards to his public appearances (which he also utilizes for inspiration).  But there was a period in the late 70s and early 80s where he was an uptown London fixture, frequently alone and relatively easy to connect with if you were in the right place at the right time.  This was also the case when he was on the road with the Who during this stretch.  Unlike Peter Wolf, however, Pete Townshend’s forays in those days were more along the lines of the desperate and binging variety. 

Accessibility (or lack thereof) is part of the human condition.  We all put up walls throughout our lives, in both the literal and figurative sense.  There are big walls and small walls and any size wall in between, masking this, that, or the other thing; a fundamental need to maintain some level of privacy.  This is normal, to a degree.  It’s more telling when those walls are either built so high as to make us virtually unrecognizable or alternatively, stripped down to the point where we are willing to bare our soul without inhibition, or at least somewhere close to it.  There are numerous reasons that can lead to these extremes, mostly of traumatic nature.  One of these is the process of grieving. 

When Keith Moon died tragically in 1978 of a drug overdose (more specifically - and ironically - an overdose of anti-drug medication to combat his addictions) his bandmates struggled mightily.  Moon was a one of a kind drummer and a force of nature.  He was also renowned for his endearing qualities.  John Entwistle, Pete Townshend, and Roger Daltrey - three dramatically different (and strong) personalities with dramatically different convictions - all had one indisputable thing in common:  A love for Keith Moon.  Moon brought out the friend in John, the fun in Pete and the fidelity in Roger.  His death was a major blow to the band and despite a common will to carry on; their extremely unique and fragile chemistry had been tainted. It would take but a handful of years for it to all play out, but the die had been cast: Keith Moon’s death was the beginning of the end for the Who as a mass-appeal creative entity (although they would continue to have their magical moments on stage). 

For the young Who fan (I was still a teenager at the time), it was fascinating in a solemn sort of way to see how the grieving process played out on record.  Public figures can be revealing when it comes to our own private lives, particularly in times of personal crisis.  Yet, until Roger Daltrey sang “Under a Raging Moon” on his 1985 solo album of the same name, there was nothing overt about Moon’s death in Who-related lyrics.  But it was there in a big way if you were willing to read the tea leaves, starting with Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass album in 1980, and carrying through several other efforts, including the first post-Moon Who album, Face Dances.  This was the period that gained Townshend the reputation as being at his prolific best when he was struggling. 

Face Dances was Pete Townshend’s last concerted effort at making a quality Who album, perhaps done partly out of foolish pride to prove to the world that he and the rest of the band (including newcomer Kenny Jones) could do it without Keith Moon.  On the album we get to hear how each band member grieves.  John Entwistle’s lyrics are angry.  Pete Townshend’s lyrics are harum-scarum.  Roger Daltrey comes across as gravely concerned, like a doting parent (particularly for Townshend, who was on a fast track to join Moon in the hereafter).  Daltrey ordinarily had final say on what songs would end up on a Who album and some of the Townshend songs (and in turn lyrics) he chooses to include (and in turn sing) on Face Dances were atypical of him (for example “Cache Cache”, is about a homeless evening for Pete Townshend where he ends up sleeping in a London zoo – not standard Daltrey fare).  Roger Daltrey was, for all intents and purposes, compromising; likely in an attempt to empathize with Townshend’s grieving plight.  He seems and sounds anxious not to lose another friend and bandmate. 

Some of my favorite Who tracks are on Face Dances, including “Don’t Let Go the Coat” (at its core a spiritual longing), “Daily Records” (about the absurdity of adult life as a rock star) and “Another Tricky Day” (an apropos title after you take in the lyrics).  There is accessibility throughout this album, at least in the Townshend tracks.  It’s almost as if he’s reaching out to the fans:  “I’m a schlep like you, and by the way, I’ll be in your neck of the woods at some point.  Look me up, and be prepared to get deep and personal.  No pussy-footin here.  Oh, and we are pulling an all-nighter” This is what Face Dances feels like when you give it a good listen:  Another honest-days effort from this legendary band. 

What if the Who had just ended it with Keith Moon’s death, like Led Zeppelin did when John Bonham died?  Well, it would have been an amazing gesture.  After all, they were on top of the world in 1978 with the release of a masterful album (Who Are You), two movies (The Kids are Alright and Quadrophenia) and an ever-expanding fan base (even the punks loved them).  A decision to call it quits would probably have been better for their legacy.  But such a decision would have left many people longing, including that huge contingent that were just starting to get into them (like myself) and I don’t believe the Who wanted that.  Some say it was money or other egocentric reasons that they carried on, but I think it was way more complex than that.  First of all the Who saw the charitable possibilities in what they had (in music circles, Pete Townshend, like Neil Young, is very well known for his almsgiving).   I also believe they had come to the realization that this spectacle they had created was far bigger than themselves, and who were they to tear it all down?  Townshend actually tried a few times, but out of what appears to be a sheer sense of duty (and maybe even a calling, as is the case with Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour”), he could never leave it for good. 

Another big piece of this “keep on keepin’ on” effort was that the Who had reached a point where you got the sense that this band needed their fans as much as their fans needed them.  I can personally attest that this is the case, as it has always been a palpable feeling I get when I attend Who concerts (which is one of the factors that makes this band so fantastic).  One particular Great Woods show in Mansfield in July, 2000, I had one of those rare cathartic concert moments that resonated in this way.  It was during the performance of the catchy first track on Face Dances, “You Better You Bet” ( ).  (Side Note: Friends and family who are not all that familiar with the Who find it surprising when they come to the realization that “You Better You Bet” is a Who song.  I agree that it doesn’t really sound like the Who in the ‘traditional’ sense). 

I had always liked “You Better You Bet”, but I had never loved it.  Usually at a concert, be it any band, you grin and bear it in regards to a “ho-hum” song; a chance to hit the restroom perhaps. For whatever reason, I sat back and took it in.  I’m telling you, it paid off.  As Roger Daltrey sang “When I say I love you, you say you better” I suddenly got an overwhelming sense that this was an appeal to the crowd.  And not only that, but it was an appeal with a specific purpose: A need by the Who to reach out to the fans to help properly eulogize Keith Moon’s passing (and no, I was not in an altered state).  Folks, let me tell you: THIS IS WHY YOU ATTEND CONCERTS! …. when you can make a dramatic connection that hits you like a ton of bricks! 

Later, in a 2012 New Yorker article (“Pete Townshend’s War”) I got a glimpse of this connection.  In it, Townshend laments “I never properly mourned for Keith”.  Well I’m not sure about that:  One of the spot-on obituaries of all time from my perspective was from Townshend where he included the comment “we still have his music”, which was huge considering 1) the fact that Keith Moon did not write any of the Who’s music and yet Townshend was willing to concede his exceptional effect and 2) the quantity of music the Who were able to produce with the manic and ultimately fleeting Moon. However, I get his point.  Pete Townshend did everything he could to drown out Moon’s death. In the long run he finally succumbed to true grief.  It took a gazillion real faces dancing elatedly in front of him, but he finally faced it.  So did Roger Daltrey for that matter, and John Entwistle, as well as “the lot of us” fans.  We did it together.

Face Dances actually had a title track which did not make it on to the final album (ending up on Pete Townshend’s phenomenal 1982 solo album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes).  It’s a song about isolation, being alone with no one to turn to.  The “face dancing” is Pete Townshend looking in a mirror, trying to reassure himself that he’s got what it takes to make a difference with those close to him.  I think that cathartic moment for me watching the Who perform “You Better You Bet” was related:  “Well, in times of trouble, let it be known that your ceaseless touring and performing in front of large crowds is not in vein because at least you got us dancing faces to turn to.  You better you bet!”

Listening to Face Dances now, after years of leaving it on the shelf, it’s interesting pondering over the dichotomy of how I heard it then and now.  Back then when I was 19 years old, I was naïve to the ways of the world in particular, and specifically what the Who were dealing with at that time with Keith Moon’s passing.  I only knew that I heard a tiny angle of the truth, and when you hear quality in music, any music, you just know it.  Now when I listen, I can relate to grieving, as can everyone I send this blog series out to on a regular basis.  This entry is in recognition to all those we have lost and is also a reminder that when we face dance in the mirror, we are not alone.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Under the Big Top # 7: “A Change of Plans”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Song is Over”
Album: Who’s Next
Release Date: August, 1971

 Part 1

A multitude of Who’s Who reference books have recognized the Who for their many contributions to the music world.  Up there on the short list of most frequently mentioned Who-biography topics would be the making of two monumental concept double albums, Tommy and Quadrophenia, each a product of the mind of Pete Townshend (I’ll get around to both of these sooner or later).  However, tucked smack dab in the middle of these 1969 (Tommy) and 1973 (Quadrophenia) master-achievements was a 3rd Who concept double album that never saw the light of day.  It was Lifehouse and it was the most ambitious of them all. 

I am not even going to attempt to explain Lifehouse here (I may try later, seeing as light bulbs have occasionally flickered in that Who corner of my brain when it comes to comprehending this concept), other than to say that at its core, this is a futuristic story about a polluted, Orwellian world where Rock music is used by a small minority of liberated people in the still-intact countryside to try and free the subjugated, quasi-brainwashed people in the cities.  There is much more to it than that however, involving life suits and fan participation, and finding your musical note, and test tubes and something Pete Townshend called “the Grid” (yes, along with Al Gore, Townshend can make a case for having created the internet). 

Unfortunately, nobody got it, including the rest of the band (after one particularly confusing stretch, an exacerbated Roger Daltrey told Pete Townshend that he did not have enough rope).  And so, after an extraordinary effort which took a heavy monetary and mental toll (including a Townshend nervous breakdown), the concept was abandoned.  In its place - after considerable cajoling from their new dynamic producer Glynn Johns - the Who ended up releasing a single album of the best tracks from the scrapped concept album, which became the critically-acclaimed, consumer-proclaimed Who’s Next.  The band would never be the same again.  This album catapulted them into the stratosphere in terms of their sound, which included a stretch from 1971 (the year the album was released) up to Keith Moon’s death in 1978, where the Who would be positively incomparable. 

Most rock fans never looked back.  But like Pete Townshend, I’ve seen myself as more of a purist holdout who would have preferred the finished product.  Don’t get me wrong: Who’s Next is a phenomenal album.  But when it comes to these kind of close-but-no-cigar stories, I’m usually of the mindset “oh, what could have been”.  This thought lingers whenever I hear any song from what was to be Lifehouse (which includes Who’s Next songs and other songs that eventually made their way onto several compilation albums). But after thinking through it more all of this week as I listened to Who’s Next,  I’ve had a change of heart:  Sometimes when you are willing to take a journey into the unknown, you end up somewhere completely unexpected and seemingly unfortunate, but when you look back later you realize it really could not have worked out any better.   

                                                                  Part 2

During the summer of 2009, Nancy and I took the family on a three-week cross country trip.  In terms of lodging, camping and the like, we winged it; never planning a single night’s stay until that given day.  We simply did not want reservations to dictate our pace, our direction, or our schedule (I credit Nancy for being my accomplice and having the faith to let this trip and many of our other excursions play out this way).  After the journey, my sister Jen asked how that approach worked.  I answered by summarizing the trip in general, telling her that 90% of it was exhilarating, with significant aspects above and beyond what I believe would have happened if everything had been planned out.  The other 10% of the time I described as painful:  A couple of long night drives in search of a place to stay; memories of pouring rain, lightning and detours; a truck-stop wee-hours nap in the parking lot side by side with 18 wheelers; the worst of sites to choose from in a few campgrounds; and a couple of shady motels.  This is clearly not an approach for everyone, but I’ll say this:  A majority of our stays were magnificent, and virtually all of our memories of this trip are great ones; even strangely enough, those 10% moments of hardship that we needed to battle through.

I had been down this irregular road before, which included two trips across Europe (one with great friend Bob Mainguy, the other with Nancy), and a handful of regional road trips with friends and family.  Dad was known to wing it as well, which just may be where I got this affliction.  All these memories are wonderful, despite the fact that they share an element of surprise, suspense, and the occasional struggle.  I guess I like to hang out with people who are co-conspirators when it comes to leaving open the possibilities.

One memory that epitomizes what a curve ball can do to your original notion of how things should go, played out in New York City in the early part of 1983.  It was part of a winter-break road trip that started in Ottawa, Canada (where I was going to school at the time) and along with me, included college chum’s Steve Vance, Tom Murphy and the aforementioned Bob Mainguy, all Canadians (although calling Bob a Canuck is stretching it, but he always liked that distinction, so I will oblige).  After hitting Winooski, Vermont (St Michael’s College, longtime friend Mac, and ‘Winterfest’), Cape Cod, Boston, and Franklin (the last 3 thanks to Mom and Dad who hosted 4 grubs for 3 nights) we rolled into the Big Apple to hook up with another group of Canadians who had holed up there for the entire week at the Milford Plaza Hotel on W 45th Street.  We had all planned on the four of us to crash on the floors in their hotel rooms that evening, and with that in mind the entire group of us went out for a night on the town, catching some great comedy at a night club. 

When we got back to the hotel to spend the night however, a bouncer at the elevators had other ideas.  Checking for reservations, he refused to let us room-crashers go up the elevator (this is the only time I have ever seen security at an elevator in all the years I’ve stayed at hotels).  We pleaded our case, emphasizing that we had no money or credit cards on us (these were the days when bank machines were few and far between too) and that our car was locked up in a gated-garage for the night.  Our plea went for naught.  We wandered out into the streets at 2 am.  The lone guy  in the Milford Plaza Hotel crowd we hooked up with, “Chicago Jim”, came down to the alley where we were regrouping and handed us a bottle of Canadian Rye to help keep us warm in the winter air.  The bottle was housed in a brown paper bag.  We were now officially nomadic denizens of the city streets.  Someone yelled at us from a 3rd story window.  A prostitute passed by with a proposition.  Tom asked for her student rates.

The all-nighter ended in a bus terminal on 42nd Street.  I spent most of the time there talking to a homeless guy.  Believe it or not, a night stay at the Trump Towers down the road would have paled in comparison.  We greeted the dapples of early morning light along with other downtrodden souls in our midst.  Something about the experience immediately resonated with me though.  We wandered into Central Park and eventually headed toward “The Lake” on the West side.  This was by the Dakota Apartments where John Lennon lived and where he had been shot and killed two years earlier (this area in the park has since been named Strawberry Fields in Lennon’s honor, and is where he had done several videos with Yoko for songs on their Double Fantasy album).  There, in front of the Dakota, we found an old abandoned row boat with a hole in it, which we quickly figured out we could temporarily plug up with a tight fitting glove (as the saying goes, if the glove don’t fit, you must jump ship!).  Three of us rowed that boat across The Lake.  The 4th among us, Steve, took a picture from a foot bridge using Bob’s camera.  It’s a picture that captures an amazing memory for me (I would have to say that in relation to the John Lennon murder, I needed this). 

My favorite of Bob’s photos of that early morning, however, is linked with this entry.  It’s actually one of my all-time favorite pictures partly because it has an “album cover” feel about it.  It shows Steve (sitting bottom), Tom (standing middle) and me (on the pillar top) at the Southwest entry to Central Park.  A little touch up, a few liner notes and credits, and we’d be ready to roll for the record stores (oh, I suppose some music would help too).

                                                               Part 3

Album covers.  This is one of the positive consequences of the aborted Lifehouse concept.  It is without doubt that something grandiose would have been schemed up if Lifehouse had been seen to its completion. Instead, we have a shot of the Who taking a leak on an obelisk; a cover that has been often credited as one of the greatest of all time.  This was not planned.  It was a spur of the moment Keith Moon idea as the Who were driving through an old English mining town. What is captured is a wasteland, and in some ways it encapsulates the Lifehouse plot now that I think about it.

Another positive consequence is the inclusion of a John Entwistle song on Who’s Next, “My Wife”, which would become a staple on Who tours for years to come.  There is no way this gets included in Lifehouse.  My thinking now is that the Who needed this contribution to keep things more democratic:  Pete Townshend was running away with the songwriting show.  “My Wife” may not fit into Lifehouse, but it sure works on the loosely constructed (yet musically tight) Who’s Next.  (Side Note: “My Wife”, which is a hilarious take on what happens when a husband gets in trouble, contains the lyrics “All I did was have a bit too much to drink and I picked the wrong precinct”.  I used to think Entwistle sang “and I picked the wrong clichés”.  I kinda like my interpretation better).

Another consequence was the humbling of Pete Townshend. Without the failure of Lifehouse, I don’t believe we would have seen Who By Numbers or Who Are You or Face Dances or Empty Glass or All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes or White City, or a handful of other releases.  At least not in the contrite form that Who fans know and love.

Most importantly is what is left to the imagination.  Townshend’s Lifehouse intentions were a movie first, and if Who’s Next retains anything from the original concept it is a visceral visual effect.  When I listened to these songs this week, they came soaring at me like the opening scene in The Sound of Music.  The beauty of Who’s Next is not the scrapings of a concept; that’s secondary.  The real beauty is the music and how it can make you feel.

I believe the ambition of Lifehouse unleashed a creative spirit in the Who that would not have occurred otherwise, showing us that there can be positive results that come out of the Icarus Factor.  This is showcased throughout Who’s Next, but the tune that brings it all together for me is “The Song is Over” (I just discovered this week that this was supposed to be the closer to the movie).  Pete Townshend’s vocal sections of the song sound like a solo acoustic number.  This contrasts with the Roger Daltrey vocal sections, which includes the Who in full glory (Townshend passes the torch to Daltrey with the lyrics “I’m gonna sing out” whereby Daltrey kicks in with a skyrocketing “I’ll sing my song to the wide open spaces.  I sing my heart out to the infinite sea”).

Who’s Next was Daltrey’s real coming out party: He had now risen to the level of his bandmates – Who Level - joining Townshend, Entwistle and Moon in the ether.  His vocals in this song are otherworldly. The 4-ring Big Top Circus was now in full swing.  As for those other 2 guys (Entwistle and Moon), the closing 25 seconds to “The Song is Over” (starting at 5:26 of is likely the most-oft repeated stretch of music I’ve ever rewound to hear over again (including a number of times this week).  It’s an Ox/Moon roller coaster performance done in astounding synchronization. Whenever I hear it, and the rest of “The Song is Over”,  I can immerse myself into that visual cinematic world that has been left to the imagination. 

There is so much more to Who’s Next, including three of the Who’s most beloved hits, and of course, “Bargain”.  But I’ll leave it at that for now.  These songs will need to be covered in their own Big Top entries at a later date. 


In the lead up to that transcendent road trip with Bob, Steve and Tom all those years ago, there was quite a bit of discussion in the dorm halls about what everyone was going to do for their break.  I recall a roommate who was comparing our plans to the plans that were unfolding with four other dorm-mates.  This foursome was an organized bunch, and they had everything ironed out for their trip to Miami Beach, right down, we presumed, to their pillow cases.  Our roommate, a rather tidy, structured fellow himself, envisioned pending disaster and discord for us, tranquility and harmony for them. 

It turned out the opposite. 

I want to close with a note of gratitude to Bob for sending a digital copy of the Central Park ‘album cover’ photo this week.  I had not seen it in many a year.  This blog entry is tribute to Bob’s understanding that those times needed to be captured for posterity sake, when none of the rest of us had the foresight.

- Pete