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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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgYudFmmOl4) 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. 

                                                            Conclusion

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

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