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” ( ) 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 Café 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

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