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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Under the Big Top # 13: “Poetry in Fluid Motion”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Sea Refuses No River”
Album: All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes
Release Date: June, 1982

At some point in my early college years, rivers gained a prominence in my eyes as outstanding natural features, which has remained the case ever since.  I’m sure it had a lot to do with driving the Mohawk Trail on my way to North Adams State College, nestled in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. The Trail stretch of the drive would take me first along the Millers River, which flows west into the Connecticut River and then, after crossing over a beautiful view of the Connecticut River itself on the impressive cantilever-arch-style French King Bridge, onward along the Deerfield River which flows east into the Connecticut River (early on, all of this confused me:  The Deerfield River and Millers River each have similar boulder-cobble channels, and so I thought it was all one river, but how could this be, since it was flowing with me at first and then against me?).  Those solo drives were contemplative ones, with the rivers playing a major role in my mood.  On the rare occasion when I take that Route 2 trek now, I go right back to that reflective frame of mind (which I wrote about in more detail in my earlier Stepping Stones series, # 14, which can be tracked on this blog site).

If you were to ask me in those collegiate years what it is about rivers that make them so captivating, I would not have been able to explain.  Today, it can still be difficult, but I know now that at least some of it is due to the fact that a river is a conduit in a constant state of flux.  I admit to being a creature of habit, but I’m not a traditionalist per se: I do welcome positive change in the world around me and I’m always ready to adapt.  Analogous to this belief system is that in the natural world, rivers epitomize change and adaptability.  For example, The Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohio, which actually caught fire several times in the 50s and 60s due to astounding amounts of pollution, has, with human intervention, recovered significantly.  The same can be said for the Nashua River here in my back yard, made infamous in the 50s for its multicolor appearance due to industrial dyes being dumped into the watercourse upstream.  River systems also allow for evolution at a faster rate than most any other natural system.  Recent research of fast moving stretches of the Congo River in Africa has revealed that the rapid velocity in the deep center channel (the thalweg) has isolated fish populations on the north and south banks, which over a relatively short amount of time has had scientists bearing witness to these populations diverging significantly in their genetic makeup from one another.  This is all pretty cool stuff, and inspiring for anyone who appreciates adaptation.

I’m a map guy, and long ago made the observation that these sinuous channels can be a bit deceiving as mapped blue-line features, particularly when compared to the depictions of other features such as roads, structures, wetlands, lakes and the terrain.  As with all the other features, the rivers are mapped as static; frozen in time.  But unlike the other features, the blue-line fails to capture the dynamism of rivers, which are ever flowing and have ranges of depth, with shallow riffles, deeper runs and even deeper pools, each of which supports unique niches of life adapted to the particular flow velocity in these microhabitats.  Rivers have flood and drought stages, and every stage in between.  Many river systems are a part of lengthy connected networks in large watersheds, strung together from small upland ‘headwater’ streams, through larger streams and rivers in the lower valleys, and eventually down to huge main stems that meander and finally empty into the ocean.  On their route to the sea, rivers networks are broken up intermittently by ponds and lakes which the network enters and exits.  Put it all together, and these river systems can be viewed much like the dendritic silhouette of a leafless tree, from twig to branch to limb to trunk, with the random knot (suggestive of water bodies) disrupting the idyllic pattern.  In the modern digital map world of GIS, where all these dynamic properties can be automated, rivers can be fascinating features to model. 

With that dendritic perspective, well-honed in my professional life, the real world of rivers is even more fascinating.  I’ve stood on the banks of many renowned rivers, as well as lesser known tributaries, and frequently visualize those locations, not so much from the perspective of the town they are in or the road they abut, but from their path-location on the landscape’s raindrop-to-sea network pattern (I know of at least several other friends receiving these Big Top entries who share this perspective).  On my water-quality-monitoring forays in my hometown of Pepperell, Massachusetts for example, I often form a mental image of the brook I visit as winding its way downstream before feeding the Nissitissit River, which in turn feeds the Nashua River, which feeds the Merrimack River, which feeds the Atlantic Ocean, with each confluence along the way a collection of other tributaries.  I’ve taken this perspective to the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, as well as the Yukon, Saguenay, Missouri, St. Lawrence, Colorado, Hudson, Connecticut, Saskatchewan, Ottawa, Kennebec, Snake, Alleghany, Rainy, Yellowstone, St. John, Potomac, Red, Niagara, Richelieu, Fraser, Delaware, Pembina, Boise, Arkansas, Susquehanna, Rio Grande, Platte, and Tennessee. 

Pete Townshend gets inspiration from rivers too.  Much of Tommy and Quadrophenia were fleshed out in his mind while sitting and contemplating on the banks of the River Thames in London.  Then there was “Keep Me Turning”, the subject song for Big Top entry # 6, with the opening lyrics “Rivers getting higher, no wood for the fire, they saw the messiah, but I guess I missed him again, that brings my score to a hundred and ten” (I’m surprised I did not mention these lyrics in that write up) as well as the other song discussed heavily in that entry, “Till the Rivers All Run Dry”.  And in 1982, Townshend took that river-network perspective described in my opening salvo to this write-up and made it a metaphor for all of us.  He did this in the exceptional song “The Sea Refuses No River” on his most poetic of albums All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. **Side Note: You will have to research the strange album title for yourself, because it would be a rather lengthy distraction from my focus here if I had to try and explain.  The only thing I will add is that Pete Townshend once stated that if there was an award for worst album title in 1982, he would have won.

As with rivers, it can be hard for me to describe the effect that All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes had on me in the early 80s.  I’ll give it a go thoughFirst off, when I listened this week, three things jumped out right away that linked me to those 80s memories:  1) Pete Townshend knew and communicated the true meaning of love when he produced Chinese Eyes 2) Townshend was soul searching more than ever on this album and 3) Townshend revealed that he understood the image of a river system, which he evokes with grace in “The Sea Refuses No River”.

To the first point, love:  The ability to pen poetry, as Townshend did here, is predicated on knowing love.  The opening track “Stop Hurting People” is enough to convince me of this (with the great play-on-words ending “Without your match there is no flame”).  Pete Townshend had dabbled with love songs on a handful of occasions to that point in his career (yes, songs like “A Little Is Enough” and “Love Reign O’er Me” were a bit more than dabbling, but these were isolated moments on Empty Glass and Quadrophenia respectively).  On Chinese Eyes this emotion of love, if not routinely expressed in lyrics, is poetically all-encompassing, which was the first take-home message for me with this album not long after its release.  That poetic infusion into Townshend’s music hit me hard, and was very likely the key which opened my mind up to the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  

To the second point, soul searching:  I’ll leave it to the following small-sample snippet of lyrics to give a flavor on that angle.  These lyrics are included, not so much as an admission that I am unable or unwilling to explain that soul searching of Pete Townshend’s myself, but rather as a personal need to fit them in somewhere in this series, seeing as All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes lyrics are some of my very favorite in the entire Townshend catalog:

Just like the grub that wriggles to the top of the mass, I’m the first to get hooked” – from “Stardom in Acton”

“I was just thirty four years old and I was still wandering in a haze
Wondering why everyone I met seemed like they were lost in a daze” – from “Slit Skirts”

I don’t know about guardian angels, all I know about is staying alive
I can’t shout about spiritual labels, when little ones die and big ones thrive” – from “Somebody Saved Me”

“Your eyes explain a story that never had a start
Your brow reveals the glory that’s hidden in your heart” – from “Face Dances Part Two”

“Only in the river can I claim a star to call my own
I’m newly born,
in uniform I’m up on the throne” – from “Uniforms” (Corp d’esprit)

Tell me friend – why do you stand aloof from your own heart” – from “Stop Hurting People”

To my third point, well, many of the lyrics that could easily dominate my second point are contained in that singular prior-mentioned metaphorical song “The Sea Refuses No River”.  In it Pete Townshend sings of varied river -and inferred human- qualities; sewer channels that run lime and ‘scag’, rivers that are “stinking and rank, or red from the tank” and others that are pure as a spring.  He sings of muddy rivers, sulfurous streams, those swollen by storms, and still others inhibited by dams.  Townshend even brings us to an origin point of flow with rain filling gutters.  All is flowing, all connected.

The constant refrain, that being the title repeated again and again, is that the sea (God) denies none of them; an unmistakable spiritual outpouring that connotes a yearning for redemption.  Laced in are many other references to redemption.  All in all, “The Sea Refuses No River” is a rock and roll love song of the highest magnitude; a welcome mat at the base of a torrential flow of humanity.

My favorite lyric of them all is one I am still trying to wrap my mind around, even after all these years:

The sea refuses no river
remember that when the beggar buys a round!

I add the exclamation point because this is the way it comes across in song, even in comparison to the other passionately-sung lyrics. Townshend practically shouts that last message out (try as I may in my rides to work all week, I never quite nailed this exclamation to the degree that I would be ready to go public with it).  Although the meaning remains elusive, the compassionate feeling of those words when I listen never fails to move me.

If you want to hear what Pete Townshend can sound like with grade-A professional studio musicians, this is the album.  And if you want to hear how it could sound live, there are precious few options. But thankfully, Townshend did perform with a band he dubbed “Deep End” at several venues in England and France in 1985-86, with excerpts of these performances put to album and video (Deep End Live), which has that ephemeral Chinese Eyes aura about it (several musicians performed on both the album and mini tour, as well as Townshend’s White City album, which I will be writing about sooner or later).  It is from this mini-tour that we get to see “The Sea Refuses No River” performed live ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX7v_-QVzS4 ) (and yes, that’s David Gilmour playing the lead guitar bridge).

Thinking about it this week, I may have gotten the germination of my professional-career-path inspiration from this song. I have many people to thank for greasing those skids, but now I just might have to add Pete Townshend to the list.   

I’ll end this entry on a humorous note.  When I listen to All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, I often think of my friend Bouv who I was roommates with my senior year, and who absolutely loved this album (I also think of my brother, Fred who has a strong connection to the disc as well).  In the day, Bouv and I would put this record on the turntable, turn it way up, and proceed to sing along to it in its entirety.  Years later we were tailgating at the 1989 Who “Reunion Tour”, where many friends and family had joined us (easily the biggest crowd of friends I had ever gathered with for a show). Tickets had been purchased by a number of us, which had our crowd scattered throughout the stadium.  I knew up front that my good friend and colleague, Saiping, had ended up with a seat next to Bouv, on the other side of the stadium from Nancy and myself (she had purchased four and gave me two to sell).  To that point, Bouv and Saiping had never met and Bouv was unaware he was sitting next to another friend of mine, seeing as Saiping did not make our tailgate.  So when I bumped into Saiping on my way into the stadium, I thought I would have a little fun with this scenario.

Now, it should go without saying that there was no chance the Who were going to perform “The Sea Refuses No River” that nite (and if they had it would have propelled a small percentage of us, including Bouv, into the stratosphere):  All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes was more for the aficionados of Townshend’s music than for the casual Who fan.  Knowing all of this, I quickly described to Saiping what Bouv looked like and suggested that if she determined the right moment that she should get his attention, look him in the eyes, and say “the sea refuses no river”.  As the show lurched to its conclusion, Saiping found that moment and seized it.  Glancing back at her, Bouv, who was blown away for a moment, recovered and then shot back a reply that was both spontaneous and priceless: “The River is where I am.”

This is the line that closes the song.  It was a perfect response by Bouv and I believe it is the perfect phrase too to close this entry.

Pete

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Under the Big Top # 12: “A Wholesome Set of Thunderfingers”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Old Red Wine”
Album: Originally released on the compilation album Then and Now
Release Date: May, 2004

Funny how long stretches can go by without a certain type of occurrence happening in your life and then bang, within a short span of time it crops up on several occasions.  This was the case for me this week.  It was nothing earth shattering really, just the use of a simple word:  Wholesome.  The first time the word was used was in an old documentary that Nancy and I were watching on Sunday evening about the musical career of, not surprisingly…..The Carpenters.  At one point in the show the producer for their mid-70’s TV specials stated about their success “We all root for wholesome, don’t we?” 

Now, Nancy has always been a fan of wholesome, but my immediate reaction was “Do we?” Knowing already what I was going to write about this week, a chain reaction of thought on this notion had me quickly realizing that I now had a good lead off for this week’s entry; that being expressing my long-term negative reaction to this word, associating it in my mind to a personalized set of synonyms such as ‘bubble gum’, ‘contrived’ and ‘not real’.   I was then going to contrast ‘wholesome’ with the realness of rock and roll, exemplified in the principle subject of this week’s Big Top entry; Mr. John Entwistle.

As the week progressed though, I began to have second thoughts on my introductory premise (a top commandment of creative writing: Never act on your initial impulse).  My first-hit online search for a definition of wholesome was “suggestive of good health and wellbeing”.  This fit with that personal definition of mine, which was originally shaped by a handful of squeaky clean mass-appeal sensations from my youth.  But I had to admit to at least a qualitative openness to wholesomeness.  I mean yes, Donny Osmond and David Cassidy bothered the daylights out of me when I was a kid.  And I did see through the fabrication of a majority of family sitcoms in those formative years, to the degree that they contributed significantly to getting me out of the living room and into the night air with my buddies (sitcoms still drive me batty).  But I did like The Waltons. And I have enjoyed The Sound of Music on more than one occasion.  As for that rock and roll counterpoint, I realized as I thought it through that I never did find this image all that consistently alluring either.  Aerosmith and Van Halen have never done anything for me for example.  Neither has a plethora of heavy metal, country-rock, or other ‘classic hits’ bands, many of whom have made it a point to look and act the part of the anti-authority dreamer and schemer. 

As my thinking was evolving I then heard that word ‘wholesome’ a second time.  On this occasion, it was used by my Dad over breakfast on Thursday.  Dad was describing the abbot, priests, and monks at Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Harvard Massachusetts, along with their tranquil Nashua River Valley setting, where we had just gone to a Lenten Mass earlier that morning.  Dad’s use of the term sent me scrambling for that definition when I got to work (to that point, I had yet to look it up).  And there it was; a secondary meaning of the word, and a perfect fit for Dad’s use that morning: “Conducive to or promoting moral wellbeing”.  Well, that did it:  Wholesome was a noble term after all, and despite my lifelong rock-centric recoil from the word, seems actually worthy of striving for.  It appeared I was back to the old drawing board.  Then again, I do believe all this mental processing did me some good, starting with this blog entry. 

Harkening back to The Carpenters for a moment; despite their PR-fed ‘wholesome’ image, there was clearly real longing and depth-of-soul there.  You could see these elements in Karen Carpenter’s eyes from the beginning of that documentary all the way through to the parts that reflect on her untimely anorexia-induced death. Her smiles were certainly there; always sincere, but never radiant.  As for her brother, Richard, he had his struggles with Quaalude addiction, which he openly discussed.  Was the wholesomeness an illusion all along?  Well, I will say this:  The documentary made The Carpenters much more real than my younger image of them, which was great, and connected them more with that secondary definition Dad had opened me too (and yes, I do admit there is talent there too).   

John Entwistle will never be confused with the commercial PR play on wholesomeness, but he was oh so real as well.  Before I get into the superlatives, let’s get the crap out of the way first.  This musician, who I have seen perform more than any other, died in his sleep of a heart attack at the age of 57 in a Las Vegas casino hotel room the night before the Who were to launch their 2002 tour. A stripper/groupie was in bed with him when he died (she found him unresponsive that next morning).  Cocaine was determined a factor.  I remember vividly when I heard the news.  It was a hard pill to swallow.

Roger Daltrey, devastated, as he was after Keith Moon died 24 years earlier, made it a bit easier on fans by stating something to the effect of “I can think of worse ways to go”.  The Who soldiered on with the tour, scrambling to bring session bass man Pino Paladino on board as a last minute fill in (he is still with them).  I saw the 1st show they performed after John Entwistle’s funeral, which was at Great Woods, Mansfield Massachusetts. The emotions were still visceral, with Pete Townshend pouring his heart out to the crowd on one occasion between songs.  He and Entwistle were childhood friends. There was an immense amount of shared history between the two (so too, with Daltrey).  I look back on that show as one very lengthy eulogy.

The last time I saw John Entwistle was the year before at Harborlights on Boston Harbor as part of the All-star-studded A Walk Down Abbey Road, a show that covered Beatles songs and those of the performers (a la Ringo’s tours).  Along with Entwistle, the musicians included Alan Parsons, the Wilson sisters (Heart) and Todd Rundgren.  The Ox (Entwistle) did not look good, which I commented to Nancy at the time.  He had aged and he looked haggard.  I was also aware that his hearing was pretty bad; even worse than Pete Townshend’s (there’s a common thread here, which has to do with standing in front of Guinness Book record-shattering speaker-stacked walls of sound). 

Along with reading and watching interviews of the band in the year’s prior to John Entwistle’s death, I had made other related observations too while attending the Who’s 2000 tour.  One great thing about the Who is that none of them have ever appeared to be significantly “in it for the money”.   Entwistle came close though during this period.  Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey and the rest of the band were trying to be creative again, fleshing out songs in lengthy jam sessions in an attempt to capture some new sounds.  The Ox came across as not tuned into this quest.  It had been hinted that he was only touring with the Who because he needed the money to support a lavish lifestyle.  And so, the feel at these shows was as if I were watching the Who, with special guest John Entwistle….here to show you his amazing skills through a repeat playing of old hits.  Entwistle was slipping, which was becoming painfully obvious to those of us who followed the band closely.

Some of Pete Townshend’s earliest public comments after John Entwistle’s death bordered on unsympathetic (which angered Entwistle’s Mother, Queenie, who had known Townshend since he was a young teen when he would jam with her son in their home).  I recall a similar reaction though by Terri Irwin, wife of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who for all intents and purposes called her husband an idiot (albeit lovingly) after he was fatally ‘stung’ by a sting ray in the chest while wading vulnerably over it.  Grieving can be an unpredictable process.

Ok, I hope I still have a few of you. Because from here on its all praise.

As mentioned earlier, I have seen John Entwistle perform more than any other musician.  This includes his solo tours, which I caught every time they made their way through the New England region.  I’ve seen him perform at the old Living Room in Providence, three times at the old Channel in Boston (once with the Rat Race Choir), at the old Sir Morgan’s Cove in Worcester (where I got to shake his hand and exchange pleasantries) at the old Mama Kin’s in Boston, and several other locales I can’t recall the names of (typing in these club names makes me realize just how many of them are now gone).  I’ve seen him perform with Roger Daltrey (“Daltrey Sings Townshend”) on Ringo’s All Star Tour and the aforementioned A Walk Down Abbey Road tour.  And of course, I got to see him with The Who on numerous occasions.  John Entwistle liked to tour, to the satisfaction of many of us.  I had the opportunity to enjoy his talents with many family and friends, including Nancy, Mac, Fred, Jen, Amy, Becca, Dave, Rochey, Bouv, Kurt, Muff, Rover, Callahan, Bruce, Pete, and a number of others. 

The Mama Kin’s show in 1996 was one of the best concerts I have ever seen.  Due to the great reviews of earlier shows, there was a heavy demand for tickets.  Mac and I could have scalped ours for a nice bit of pocket change.  There was no chance that happening.  We waltzed in through the wannabes outside, situated ourselves stage right and got blown away by a great Entwistle-penned Who-heavy set, which included “Heaven and Hell”, “Had Enough”, “Success Story”, “Trick of the Light”, “Boris the Spider” and “My Wife”.  The Ox’s “Thunderfingers” were in grand form that evening. 

John Entwistle was the Who’s anchor, the calm eye at the center of a raging storm.  Pete Townshend has often expressed an admiration for the Ox’s calm-under-pressure demeanor.  The video of “Join Together” which I included in the last entry (Big Top # 11) is telltale in this regard.  As the song progresses through the early stages, Moon then Daltrey and then Townshend wrap up their mouth harp contributions, leaving Entwistle to continue on his own for a short stretch.  When it comes time to add his bass to the mix (the 5th-gear moment of the song when Roger Daltrey sings “Do you reaaaally think I care, what you eat or what you wear….”), he casually saunters a few steps backward to gently place the harmonica down, just in the nick of time to make the switch.  In contrast later in the video, when Pete Townshend has to do the same thing (after switching back to harmonica for a stretch) he ends up tossing the instrument over his shoulder hastily in anticipation of his guitar lines.

John Entwistle can boast quite a discography, be it his own penned songs or those he contributed his considerable talents to for other Who music, but the song that really got my attention the past few days was actually written about him by Pete Townshend, after the Ox died.  It’s my Big Top entry for the week, “Old Red Wine” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9zb8n5Opgg ) and it is an incredible song.  I interpret the lyrics as Townshend’s attempt at imagining Entwistle’s last day (or days), touring California’s wine vineyards and basking in the reflections of yesteryear.  In the song, Townshend mentions several great music venues in the State (“There’s the Bowl and the Fillmore, the Cow and the Greek”, likely referring to the Hollywood Bowl, Fillmore West, Cow Palace and Greek Theater respectively).  Entwistle died at the Hard Rock CafĂ© Hotel, and I believe he had signed off on some memorabilia that last evening.  Perhaps some of the memorabilia was from those spectacular Who shows of the past at the famous haunts just listed (actually one of the Cow Palace shows was when Keith Moon passed out mid show due to the intake of a handful of horse-tranquilizer pills, so likely not as spectacular).  “Old Red Wine’s” lyrics conclude with “Old Red Wine, well past its prime, gonna have to drink it with you, some other time”.   Then after an extended jam (where I often wonder if the Who engineered in an Entwistle riff, because man-o-man it sounds like him near the end) Daltrey closes by singing “Let it Breath!  Breath Life!” He’s likely referring to the wine, but, then again….

Regardless, this is one of the best tribute songs about a fallen friend that I have ever heard.

The night Entwistle died, Mac, Kurt and I went out to have a toast in his memory, and to reminisce about his shows.  It’s the only time I ever did something like that in relation to someone I never knew on a personal level.  One of the places we went to was Bukowski’s Tavern in Boston which at our bequest played Who music. Unlike other locales that evening, however, they went a few steps further, playing the entirety of the extended version of Live at Leeds at an appropriately ratcheted-up volume.  All in all it was a bittersweet evening filled with laughter and loss.

The Ox was a music man, pure and simple; probably more so than any musician I know of except perhaps Van Morrison and Paul McCartney.  Successful musicians travel, and being on the road can be a cruel way to make a living.  It has taken more than its fair share of talent.  Few are immune to its vices (Pete Seeger was one of those rare exceptions).  And yet, he was an exemplary, innovative bass player: The best really.  I firmly believe that you can’t be that good at something without a core of goodness, or better yet, wholesomeness (my new word!).  A few years after John Entwistle’s passing, Pete Townshend talked about getting in a cab and engaging in a conversation with the driver, who recognized Pete and told him that Entwistle was in the same Freemason lodge with him for 30 years. Townshend was shocked: Despite their life together as friends and bandmates, he never knew this.  Entwistle never told him, or anyone in the band for that matter (by the way, Pete Townshend is so eminently quotable when it comes to recognizing the ones he has lost, and there are many).

A colleague of mine who lives near Memphis Tennessee was recently joking that when she wants to get her husband flustered she tells him Elvis was nothing but a drug addict.  I laughed and then responded that we all have our heroes and villains and that each of us chooses to weed out the parts of a famous person’s story that does not fit our preconceived notions.  Mom for example was always a fan of Dean Martin and loved Glenn Campbell, despite each of their well-documented transgressions.  Who knows the full suite of reasons why we empathize with one persona and brush aside another?  What I do know is that I’ll be ready to go to wholesome bat for John Entwistle and The Who any day.

- Pete


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Under the Big Top # 11: “A Who Concert Review: The Last Who-rah”


(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Join Together”
Album: Non-album single
Release Date: June, 1972

It was about two years ago now when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey sat with a reporter and talked about their pending 2015 “The Who hits 50” Anniversary Tour (which Townshend amended, pointing out a dormancy period in the 80s and 90s by stating “for 13 years the Who didn’t really exist, so we are really only 37”).  In the interview, Daltrey referred to the tour as the beginning of a long goodbye, insisting that this was it for world tours by emphasizing the physical toll it takes to do them.  I took this statement to heart.  And so when tickets went on sale and Mac snatched up six for a core group of us, I began to gear up for my final Who show, which was supposed to have happened last October at the Boston Garden (I remain in corporate-extension-name denial, so that’s what I still call the place).  It did not: A Roger Daltrey bout with Viral Meningitis being the culprit which, due to its severity, nearly turned my upcoming ‘Last Who-Rah’ experience into a chimera. 

In the end, it simply delayed what I now believe was the inevitable, which worked out nicely with this Big Top series as I was not quite ready to roll it out until this past January, several months after the original scheduled Boston event.  I say ‘worked out nicely’, because these past 10 weeks have been all I would have hoped for in regards to re-stirring those Who juices in my soul.  My thinking with all these blog series is that there are no guarantees that I will recapture my youthful fascination for any of the music I re-immerse myself into; at least to the degree that I can passionately write about it all, which to date includes year-long weekly-entry series on the Rolling Stones (2012), Neil Young (2014), and now the Who (not to mention the original 100-entry “Gem Video” series in 2007-08, which covered the gambit in terms of musicians).  Thankfully it all continues to click, making for ideal preparation for that Who show this past Monday evening.

Before I get into the actual concert review, I have to back up a tad to the beginning of my self-proclaimed ‘Last Who-Rah’ weekend.  I was getting ready to settle in for my typical Friday flexi-place work day at home when a monkey wrench was tossed into that plan.  A pickup truck careened off the road in front of the neighbor’s yard, took out the telephone poll (knocking out power in the neighborhood for the day), weaved across their yard and then ours, and finally crashed into a 25 foot blue spruce tree which Nancy and I had decorated all these years with Christmas lights.

The driver, whose truck was totaled, ended up without a scratch (thank goodness).  The spruce tree; well that was another matter.  At first it looked like the leaning Tower of Pisa (as the week progressed we got to see what will eventually happen to that Italian campanile, as the tree inched ever closer to the ground and now just about rests there).  When I arrived at the scene from a quick errand a few minutes after the accident (if it was a bit earlier, I would have seen it all play out before my eyes), I could not figure for the life of me how the pickup truck ended up where it did.  There were other trees between the spruce tree and the road that should have acted as a buffer, and the lilac bush directly behind it was unscathed too.  One of the emergency respondents later showed me what happened:  That amazing trail down deeper into our yard and then up again into the tree. 

We had decorated that blue spruce for 12 years.  After the first year I gave up taking down the upper lights and just left them there.  Every year we would add the lower lights and then I would close my eyes, plug in, and raise my head skyward.  Opening my eyes would unfailingly lead to the exclamation: “A Christmas Miracle!”  The upper lights remained working year after year. 

The tree was on its way out though.  The lower branches were dying annually by the bundle.  I tried to reassure the poor lady who hit it that this was meant to be; she had plenty of other things to worry about and I did not want to heap on that pile.

The most fascinating part of the event though was when I glanced up the yard after talking with the driver I saw what looked like a miniature spruce tree sticking out of the front lawn.  I put two-two together, and after glancing up at the top of the leaning Tower of Tree-sa, confirmed that it was the crown itself, which got lopped off the tree upon impact!  This was too much to ignore.  There was symbolism here.  I picked up the crown and brought it into our home, where we decorated it with Christmas lights for one last time.  Then I began to contemplate.

As the buildup to the ‘Last Who-Rah’ intensified thru Saturday and into Sunday, I could not shake the thought: Was all of this in any way symbolic of the pending show?  Well, I think so.  First off, like the Who concert I was about to see, this majestic tree went out with a bang after a longer-than-expected run.  During that run it glowed bright.  And, despite that bang of an ending, it landed on its feet.

The Who have always landed on their feet; the Pete Townshend leaps regularly ending upright; the Roger Daltrey microphone spins and Keith Moon drum-stick tosses routinely finding their way back into their deliverer’s hands.  But all great things must come to an end.  I mean, how long could I expect this to last anyway?  These shows are high octane and the remaining founding-members of the Who are now in their 70s.  Many of their fans, like myself, are in our 50s or older.  Forty years ago we would have all found this 50-year celebration a bit ludicrous, in similar fashion to what Mick Jagger was thinking in 1975 when he stated “I’d rather be dead than sing Satisfaction when I’m 45”.  45?  How about 72!

And yet, as with so many great Who-related shows I have attended over the years, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert I witnessed earlier this week, which reinvigorated me to continue to immerse myself into Who music for the remainder of 2016 with the intent of encapsulating the effect it has.  Still, as was the case when I first took in that fatally-struck spruce tree in my front yard last weekend, I’m ready for the end game.  Monday nite made this all plainly evident to me.

Ok, so the night itself.  It started at The Fours sports bar (upstairs), same locale where my bachelor party launched 25 years ago.  A great aspect of Who shows, as is the case with most any concert, is being surrounded by like-minded fans; a chance to get pumped up.  Occasionally there’s a surprise in the mix; an opportunity to talk to an enlightened stranger about his/her take on a given song or album, consequently expanding my Who horizons.  This was not to be this time around as there was simply too much of a need on my part to catch up with old friends who I have ventured to these concerts with on a regular basis. That personal ‘Who Crew’ on Monday evening, as with most Who shows, included cousin Becca, along with great friends Dave, Mac, and Kurt.  For this show we also had in our circle newcomer Mike Carney, a fellow Pepperellian whom I jam with in a “band” on occasion (“hackers” may be a more apt description, but hey, I speak for myself).  Mike fit right in as our group talked about all things Who, including past memories of shows.

When we got to our seats, I spotted a ~ 10-year old boy sitting with his Dad.  I leaned in and said “in twenty years you are going to look back and say to yourself ‘I got to see the Who!’ “.  His Dad smiled and enthusiastically shook my hand as the boy looked at me in awe.  I think I got him.  During the show I would occasionally glance over to see how he was enjoying the spectacle.  Based on those observations, I have no doubt he was.

Right off, there was definitely a warm-embrace feel from the men on the stage.  Boston has been an automatic destination for the Who over their many years of touring (including the old Boston Tea Party venue which they performed at in the late 60s), and as they looked out on the capacity crowd in front of them, you could just tell that this was a special city for the band.  There were a few comments made by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend along these lines, but these were not needed really.  The emotion in the arena said everything.

I knew this concert was going to cover the breadth of the Who’s catalog; not a greatest hits thing per-se, but an attempt to touch on a bit of everything.  And so the familiar tunes were rolled out before us, cascading one to another, and in turn throwing that Who corner of my brain into overdrive.  What follows is the set list, one song at a time, along with that given songs date of release (always important for this History Major), and in parenthesis a handful of thoughts that were floating through my mind as I listened:

First up “Who Are You” - 1978 (“I just wrote about this one in Big Top # 10:  There’s enough written there to reflect on for the entire show, never mind one song. The ‘ooh wa ooh wa ooh wa ooh wa’…. interlude always evokes images of surf/beach-party films of the early 60s”).  Next up “The Seeker” – 1971 (“hey, I wrote about this one too – Big Top # 1.  As brother Fred pointed out in his feedback to that entry, the 2-3 second break in the middle of the song after ‘I’m a really desperate man’ is poignant.  They nailed it.  The band brought this one back from the dead on their last few tours”).   The Kids are Alright” – 1965 (“This one reflects a 50 year celebration all on its own.  Zak Starkey sounds great, but the original extended recording is a true testament to the utter uniqueness of Keith Moon’s drumming.   Recall talking to Kurt before the show about the classic Who movie of the same name we watched together in that North Adams movie theater all those years ago, which had such an effect on me.  I've still got the poster from the broken glass case in front of the theatre").  I Can See For Miles” - 1967 (“not sure if I have ever seen this song performed live; maybe a Daltrey solo show.  Never has been one of my favorites, but hey, not bad here! Wait, I wrote about this one too – Big Top # 5.  That’s 3 of 4 so far.   Recalling Townshend saying one time that this was the best pop songs he ever wrote”). 

Next on the docket was “My Generation” – 1965. (“this song is also 50 years old.  Pete Townshend could have died on stage if he was a bit closer to Moon’s exploding drum kit on the Smothers Brothers show.  Perhaps that’s what is planned here?  Man, what a way to go…. nope, not happening.”). “The Real Me” – 1973 (“thinking of the way I let Bec and Dave know that I secured Madison Square Garden tickets to see Quadrophenia in’96 - see Big Top # 9.  Nice Brighton England imagery on the big screen. The Who sound great”). “Pictures of Lily” - 1967 (“more great imagery on the big screen.  This song needs John Entwistle’s French horn for the ‘climax’ moment.  It’s too much of a key to leave it out.  Oh well.  Still, it’s a very nice chestnut to pull out of the war chest”).  Behind Blue Eyes” - 1971 (“the crowd can never resist singing the refrain.  Neither can I.  I wonder how many of them know it’s an appeal to God?  I wonder how many of them know a lot of Townshend's songs are about faith and God?”).  Bargain” - 1971 (“nice intro by Pete Townshend, stating this is one of his all-time favorites.  I am not surprised, though the Who don’t play it live as frequently as some of their more familiar hits.  The entire song is an open appeal to God. It sounds magnificent”).

Next up, “Join Together” - 1972 (“ok, I think I’m going to use this one for this week’s Big Top selection.  Yes, we are joining together with this band for one last time here. The Who are primarily known for their album oriented music, but their discography is flush with a multitude of singles that never made it onto original studio albums.  This is one of many.  Hmmm, I will have to roll out the excellent video that came out with the song for the blog - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HDMCCLlGl4 -   which showcases that the band members were multi-instrumental, much like The Band.  I’ll also have to point out that I love in the video how Townshend, Daltrey, and Entwistle all roam out into the crowd near the end of the song.  Wonder if they will do it here <nope>”).

The Who then launched into “You Better You Bet” – 1981 (“I also covered this one – Big Top # 8; which in part recalls a cathartic moment at a Great Woods show years ago.  This song is one of many examples of how diverse the Who’s sound could be”). “I’m One” – 1973 (“a highlight of the evening’s festivities, despite the fact that it was a stripped down acoustic number sung by Townshend, who is carrying the show tonight.  He sounds better than he did 20 years ago”).  The Rock” – 1973 (“wow, back to back highlights.  The most professional of musicians know how to build up a show.  Three keyboard players are paying off here.  I don’t want this song to end, but then again, I have to hit the head. In fact, I’ve had to hit the head for a while now. I’ll go right when the last chord it struck”).  Love Reign O’er Me” – 1973 (“shoot, I should have known this song would follow on the heels of ‘The Rock’.  Gonna have to make this quick: Too many wonderful memories of this song to be staring at a urinal.  Glad to catch half the song in this runway.”).  Eminence Front” – 1982 (“Yet another Big Top entry - # 3.  Pete is back singing lead and sounding great.  In fact, the whole band sounds great.  I forgot how well Simon Townshend – Pete’s biological brother, 15 years his younger – fits in.  Also, always have respected how bass man Pino Palladino, does not try to emulate The Ox’s sound.  Pino’s style works very well here.  Zak Starkey, as always, sounds sweet”). 

The Who wound down with a Tommy medley, including “Amazing Journey”, “Sparks”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “See Me, Feel Me” – 1969 (“I wonder if the Bird Man will come out ** back when the Who performed Tommy in 1969, Townshend would stick his arms out like a bird and hover over his reverb.  He stopped doing this for quite some time until more recently**.  Wait; there’s Bird Man!  Some of my favorite Entwistle backing vocals ever are on the live Woodstock version of “See Me, Feel Me”.  That’s not happening here.  I’ll have to try and cover it myself”).  The Who closed with two classics off of Who’s Next: “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – 1971 (“Strobe lights in full bloom to great effect.  Still amazed at how the Who morphed into their super-band form in 1971.  It must have been from all that touring of Tommy – which works as a nice little insight here, having just heard that Tommy mini set”).

The band thanked the crowd and Roger Daltrey closed it all off with the declaration “Be Lucky!”  And then off they were, and off we were.  As was the case with the Rolling Stones two years ago (which was my 2nd favorite Stones show of at least 8), I was both floored and inspired by what men can achieve in their 70s (which goes without saying for my Dad as well). 

A thank you to the Who, as well as my fellow Who fans and friends for a very memorable evening.

 - Pete