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.


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