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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” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1tFRmQuYWE ).  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.

Pete

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