Sunday, February 7, 2016

Under the Big Top # 6: “A Texas Two Step”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Keep Me Turning”
Album: Rough Mix
Release Date: September, 1977

Texas was everything I expected it to be when I first visited the Lone Star State in 1993:  Big, and proud, bold and loud.  Perhaps the image had been imprinted to such a degree beforehand that it was impossible to break out of this stereotypical conclusion; 30 years of a Northern Yankee upbringing could do that to you.  And yet, it’s not like I’d been a local yokel to that point.  Mom and Dad had taken the family on numerous summer vacations outside the region.  I’d already been to Europe a few times too, and spent a year in Canada.  These trips came with preconceived notions on what to expect at the various destinations, and each weighed up to a reputation in one form or another.  But they all threw curve balls at me too.  Not Texas.

From the get go I had done my best to blend in, arriving at San Antonio’s airport sporting my Dad’s impressive vanilla-white Stetson cowboy hat, which I would wear much of my time there.  Dad had purchased the hat 10 years earlier, a memento from Boston College’s Cotton Bowl victory in Dallas during the Doug Flutie glory years; a trip he shares great memories with my brother’s Fred and Joe (all three are BC grads).  In the interim Dad had made the most of that Stetson, wearing it out and about the streets of Franklin, Massachusetts when the fancy took him (which was often in the first year or two).  Now the hat was making the trek back to more familiar countryside.

I had made the short flight in from New Orleans, post work conference, and since my lovely wife Nancy was not due to arrive for an hour or so from home, I set out to find her Uncle on my own, who had planned on meeting us there.  Mario was a native of San Antonio, his latter-year military career stationed on Lackland Air Force Base.  He and his gracious wife Mary would be hosting us for several days before Nancy and I tackled the tail end of our vacation out at Big Bend National Park in the far western part of the state.   At that moment in the airport, I had yet to meet Mario and Mary.   Having watched Tedesco family homemade videos and photos however, I thought I had a pretty good idea what they looked like.  And so when I spotted a tall slender fellow in his 60s, with white hair, side burns and moustache, standing by the baggage claim area with a younger guy whom I presumed to be Nancy’s cousin’s husband, and each of them appearing to be scanning the crowd, I assumed I had my man.  I walked up and said “Mario?”  The imposter stared at me a moment and then, glancing over at his companion, uttered something incoherent (at least for me) in his Texas drawl before letting out a sarcastic cackle.  What the…..?!  He made it sound as if I had asked the stupidest question of all time.  I never got an answer. 

Welcome to Texas!

First impressions can be indelible, and that one unfortunately was a negative one.  As the visit unfolded though, other more positive Texas-style experiences played out that quickly made up for it.  Family-lead tours of the Alamo and other Missions, the River Walk and the Japanese Tea Garden, along with the friendly confines of Mario and Mary, along with Nancy’s cousin Vanessa and her husband John’s homes, all got me back on the right track.  No stone was left unturned on that trip.

One seemingly innocuous memory that has persisted to this day took place at Fiesta Texas (now Six Flags Fiesta Texas) just north of the city; a massive theme park with an inescapable Lone Star theme.  This was evident from the moment we passed through the turnstiles around noontime that weekday all the way through to the evening festivities, reaffirming that no other State puts an emphasis on ‘State’ quite like Texas.  A predictable component of this theme was what was piping through speakers all across the park; that being downhome country music.  After a while, it just kind of settled into the background - elevator ‘muzak’ as far as I was concerned.  This, along with the whole Texas vibe, is likely the reason why it didn’t quite register right off when I heard a familiar song coming out of those speaker; a  Pete Townshend hidden-treasure cover version of the Don Williams song “Till the Rivers all Run Dry”.

As I geared up for this inevitable Who blog series several months back, I recalled my thought process on the Rolling Stones series (“Stepping Stones”) four years ago, when I made the decision early on that none of their solo works would be included in my reflections.  My thinking was that the Stones are an entity unto themselves, and any deviation from that (i.e. Keith Richards marvelous Talk is Cheap solo album) would detract from that singular focus.  Same goes for the Who.  An objective with both (and a future Beatles blog, hopefully) is to marvel over the type of creativity that can come with longstanding collective spirit (in somewhat of a contrast to the Neil Young series two years ago and a future-hopeful Bob Dylan series, which celebrate the individual). 

There’s something different here, however, that is unavoidable to me.  All these series are partly about a return to and goodbye (in terms of in-depth listening) to these musicians I have truly enjoyed by immersing myself in their music for a full solid year - no distractions with public radio or sports talk or other music - and dedicating my writing for that year to what their music has done for me.  For this series, I’ve decided that I would be remiss to not include Pete Townshend’s solo works.  There are a number of reasons why.  First of all, Townshend’s solo albums are a huge part of the equation for me.  Secondly they are excellent.  Thirdly, they are interwoven into the Who story.  Fourthly, they are interwoven into my story.  And finally, it makes it all a bit more challenging and fun.  In turn, I see this as an overlap of the collective and the individual that I can identify with.

Side Note:  I think Pete Townshend should be considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist:  If Ringo can do it for goodness sake, why not Pete?

“Till the Rivers All Run Dry” is a cut off the Pete Townshend/Ronnie Lane 1977 collaborative album Rough Mix.  It was Townshend’s first real public musical foray from the Who, and he did it at the bequest of Lane, who was originally just looking for a loan.  PT’s offering instead was a joint venture.  Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend had several things in common.  Lane was the bass player for the Small Faces in the 60s.  If any other band besides the Who associated themselves with the “mod” scene in London in the mid-60s, it was the Small Faces.  The two bands also hit the road together, which included an infamous 1968 Australian tour (let me put it this way, the Who would not go back to Australia for 40 years).  

Their strongest connection though was faith based.  Both were devoted to the teachings of Meher Baba (who may be best known in pop culture for coining the term “don’t worry, be happy” and of course occupying half the song title “Baba O’Riley”).  Similar to the Beatles, Pete Townshend turned to India for spiritual guidance.  For three of the Beatles it was a short-lived fab fad (George Harrison being the exception).  Not so Townshend, who remains a follower to this day (Ronnie Lane, who was suffering from the early stages of multiple sclerosis when Rough Mix was produced also remained devoted to Baba.  He would eventually succumb to the disease in 1997).

Meher Baba ties are everywhere in Pete Townshend’s music, from “Bargain” to Tommy (“Listening to You”) to “Don’t Let Go the Coat” to “Empty Glass” to the “Who Are You” chorus to the middle section in “Behind Blue Eyes” to “Faith in Something Bigger”.  These are some of Townshend’s best compositions, so I’ve always been under the belief that there has to be something there; an added force that makes them shine.  With a general focus on what is good and right, Pete Townshend’s faith through his music has helped me with my own Catholic faith. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to Rough Mix this week.  Much of it is faith based, but far from an in-your-face way.  As with most great artists, Pete Townshend (and Ronnie Lane) leaves wiggle room for self-interpretation.  And there’s enough variety on the album with other topics to keep the album fresh from beginning to end.  “My Baby Gives it Away”, the opening number, is about as upbeat of a tempo as you are ever going to hear on a pop song (Charlie Watts on drums).  “Nowhere to Run” climbed my personal song-ladder this week (the lyrics “Michael’s rowing?  Where’s he going?” > a reference to the “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” civil war negro spiritual perhaps?).  “Heart to Hang Onto” is a touching shout-out to those wandering souls among us.  “Street in the City” is a classy orchestral score with Townshend’s father in law Ted Astley. 

My Big Top entry is one of those Meher Baba inspired numbers, “Keep Me Turning” (  To turn means to repent.  Don’t you leave me to the very last!” Pete Townshend sings in his magnificent angelic falsetto.  Over the upcoming decade Townshend would roll out a litany of songs with an “Amazing Grace”, Prodigal Son theme to them.  “Keep Me Turning” was an early indication of this direction in his song writing. 

So, why was hearing “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” (which also has “Amazing Grace” connotations) on those Fiesta Texas speakers stuck with me all this time?  It is after all a country song (which I did not even think about until that moment; I just considered it a great tune).  Thinking about it now, I believe I would have been equally charmed if I’d heard it in any theme park around the country.  But I heard it deep in the heart of Texas, a place I probably needed a little reassurance from in terms of common humanity.  In hindsight, that moment just may have helped to remove a measure of inner bias toward all humanity.

   - Pete

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