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 ( ) (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.



  1. Pete

    Another great write up and thanks for the shout out this time. Yes, the album had a strong influence on me…one of the first that I listened to repeatedly and found that next layer of meaning in each song (and the next, etc.). We MUST sit and conjugate some of these lyrics more (when the beggar buys the round in particular).

    Was at an awe-inspiring baptism on Saturday night Easter Vigil. Makes this, with its water reference, very apropos.

  2. Thanks, Fred. Much appreciated. And yes we will talk beggars buying rounds! - Pete

  3. I really like the game. And some levels seem


Please feel free to comment: