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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Under the Big Top # 17: “LOL”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Happy Jack”
Album: A Quick One
Release Date: December, 1966

I’m sure we can all recall incidents when we laughed till it hurt.  I’ve seen it quite often when daughter Charlotte connects with her cousins.  As for me, well, I’ve had my share, several of which happened over these past few weeks, starting on “National Siblings Day” (April 10) when sister Jen posted a classic 30 year-old  photo on Facebook of the six of us (attached).  This image had to take the cake for sib photos that were posted that day, at least the ones I saw.  The snapshot was taken in a professional studio near the end of a photo session after all serious poses had been exhausted; part of a surprise for our parent’s 25th wedding anniversary.  In this shot, we are all mugging it up rather convincingly, but what makes the photo so darn funny, and in turn forever worthy of a revisit, is brother Joe’s expression while holding that large fake rock.  Joe has an exaggerated look of pride on his face, as if to say “Hey, I’ve got my rock, and there’s nothing else that really matters.”  This one moment, captured on camera, is the essence of my brother, and when you know someone as well as I know Joe, and it’s captured as such, you laugh your head off.

My family has been blessed for an abundance of big-ticket reasons including good health and the strength of our kinship, but there are certainly secondary reasons too, one of which has to be Joe’s comedic talents.  Joe has always made laughter come easy to those he meets.  We all have comedic abilities, but to be able to express them in exquisite fashion both physically and emotionally (and at the drop of a hat) as Joe can are rare gifts.  I equate this to the factors that play out in the potential success of a Saturday Night Live skit:  You have your writers, your comedic actors, and your audience to make it all either work or fall flat.  All three are important, but if you don’t have that dynamic personality to put it into action, the potential for where the skit can go is left mostly to the imagination.  If you do have that element, however, you can have truly hysterical moments, and even on occasion make a badly written skit look good.

When it comes to humor, I do think I’ve seen it all:  Joe, as well as Mac, Bouv, Phil, John Miller, Ed, Bruce, heck, all my friends and family to varying degrees, cover the entirety of humor flavors, from anecdotal to burlesque, farcical to slapstick, hyperbolic to self-deprecating.  Belly-laugh memories dance thru my head with each and every one of these great non-professional humorists in my life (Mac did once have aspirations to do stand-up; something not at all difficult for many of us to envision).  I could describe a story or two but good humor can be very difficult to translate into writing.  More often than not, you really did have to be there (or in some cases, maybe not), so I’ll leave those stories to the fireside chatter where it can be a bit easier to interpret. 

Fortunately, aside from our memories and those friends who can act it out, there is plenty of media out there to help us tap into our personal knee-slapping flashbacks, albeit vicariously, including movies, candid moments caught on film, and well-written columns in magazines.  For me, one source of humor has been, believe it or not, the Who, seeing as a great and refreshing component of this band’s aura was their comedic abilities.  This is a rarity for Rock bands.  Other than the Beatles (the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help, along with the ditty “You Know My Name” come to mind), I can’t think of many musicians who could pull this off while maintaining a deep respect from critics and Rock fans.  Most bands are more like the Rolling Stones, who have spent a career trying to reflect the image of the serious, sensual, rebellious artist.  The Who proved you could do these things and be funny at the same time (though perhaps sacrificing the sensual part….I’d have to ask the ladies). 

This ability was most evident when Keith Moon was still alive; he being one of the most renowned public figures of his era due to his comedic charm and eccentric behavior.  Moon helped extract the fun out of those around him, so we get to see and hear John Entwistle’s macabre humor (i.e. “Boris the Spider”, “My Wife”) and Pete Townshend’s sharp wit (i.e. “Magic Bus”, “Bell Boy”) to levels that would likely not have been possible without their frantic drummer in their midst.  Moon played the loon, always ready for madcap moments, and the rest of the band had to be ready for anything.  I want to say it was similar to what John Lennon brought out in the Beatles, but I think that was different.  There was a dark, sarcastic angle to Lennon’s humor which kept those around him on their toes as well.  But that reaction often appeared to be a defensive one.  And with John Lennon there was an insider vs. outsider component to his humor.  Moon on the other hand welcomed all those around him into his world.  Everyone was an insider.  His humor was neither cutting nor bizarre (i.e. Lennon’s play on words).  It was just over-the-top fun, with unfortunate and significant self-abuse elements helping to drive it. 

My own aforementioned comedic connections may have a few moments here and there that are captured in snapshot or video form for antiquity, like Joe and his rock, but Keith Moon and the Who have an abundance of such moments.  Many of these are from their recorded concerts:  Moon being dropped to his drum kit from high above the crowd (suspended on wires); crazy banter between members; Townshend once lamenting to the crowd that the Who were nothing but a carnival act (a source comment related to my choice of title for this series by the way, though “Under the Big Top” was chosen out of profound respect) and then Moon and Entwistle spontaneously breaking into appropriate carnival music; Moon setting off his drum kit with explosives; and Moon’s endless animation and facial expressions behind the drums…. are but some of the moments I’ve watched and read about.

Several of my favorite Keith Moon-related footages are from pre MTV-like video clips of the band from the mid-60s (the Who decades ahead of their time).  The first is this week’s Big Top entry, “Happy Jack” video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52cQeFBU2Kw ).  It’s a funny Marx-brothers-like skit; the Who as burglars attempting to break into a safe.  Here we get to see the unique comic relationship that existed between Pete Townshend and Keith Moon.  We also get to see that macabre John Entwistle humor play out. 

“Happy Jack” is a great Who song with several fantastic instrumental bridges that are propelled by Entwistle’s bass and Moon’s drums.  The lyrics tell the story of a childhood memory of Pete Townshend’s about a man who lived on the beach near his parent’s cottage, who was oblivious to taunting from kids.  The refrain includes the line “They couldn’t prevent Jack from being happy”, which is telling.   Many young musicians sing of their defiance in the face of adversity: An “I did it my way” kind-of attitude.  Townshend turns this on its ear, removing the bravado and in the process opening this song up to a feel of innocence, which reflects the general air of the Who in those days.  Tied in with this general air is the very ending of “Happy Jack”, after the music has faded, where Townshend is heard yelling out “I saw ya” after catching Keith Moon popping his head up behind the studio console in an effort to get in on the backing harmony vocals (Moon was a horrible singer).  Who fans have always gotten a kick out of this, and I believe a big reason is because they can relate to the fun and kinship of that moment. 

The second video and accompanying song are knock-your-socks off funny (at least mine), acted out by the Who to a rare Keith Moon-penned song, “Cobwebs and Strange” (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3rckfu ).  I’d like to give a summation of both song and video here.  First the song; an instrumental that can best be described as barely-contained chaos.  An array of brass instruments alternates with manic Keith Moon drumming, each verse getting more and more frantic and hysterical.  As the song reaches a climax, Entwistle’s trumpet blares notes that are akin to screams of surrender, as if it’s about to enter a little padded cell.  I laughed repeatedly all over again as I listened this week. 

The video fits the song so perfectly (it’s amazing that the video was originally set to “Call Me Lightning”, because I can’t picture any song fitting so precisely to this short as does “Cobwebs and Strange”).   It tells a fantastical account of how the band met their final permanent member, Keith Moon, using captions for conversation, like the old silent films.  It begins with Townshend, Entwistle and Daltrey sitting reservedly sipping on their afternoon tea, pre madness, as unbeknownst to them a giant box rolls their way.  Upon spotting it, Townshend utters “Oh no, it’s a bleeding box!”, his tea cup quivering in his hand (just after this moment you can see Entwistle barely holding back his laughter).  After opening the box and pulling out the human-sized windup toy (Moon), they crank it up and away it goes.  From there things dissolve into complete disarray as the three try in vein to corral the un-corral-able (which is pretty much how it played out in real life). Simply put, the video is brilliant.  Side Note: The only footage I could find (above) is a bit grainy.  It’s of a version which was spliced with other Moon footage for The Kids Are Alright movie, and includes a Townshend intro and a great Steve Martin moment as he interviews Keith Moon in a hotel room.  For the full song effect, you will just have to get the album. 

All in all “Cobwebs and Strange” (both song and video) as well as the video for “Happy Jack”, reveals just how much fun the Who could have together. These songs are from the 1966 A Quick One album, released at a time when the band was still experimenting in a lot of ways, including all four members contributing songs to the mix (neither Roger Daltrey nor Keith Moon would do it again).  They had not yet been fully taken over by Pete Townshend’s genius (not that this is a bad thing, as has hopefully been evident by everything I have written thus far).   It’s a fun album which hints that for a short while the Who made us laugh above all else. 

Great comedy is authentic. It’s wonderful when you can make people laugh, because when you pull it off, you know you have shown others a window into your soul.  And their laughter makes a connection also, because it opens a window into their soul.  We all have gifts, but few are as immediately rewarding as great humor.  It slices across barriers that can otherwise be insurmountable and links us to our youth and innocence.

- Pete

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Under the Big Top # 16: “The Exquisite Tune in My Silver Spoon”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Long Live Rock”
Album: Odds and Sods
Release Date: October, 1974

Last month before the Boston Who concert (see Big Top # 11:  “A Who Concert Review: The Last Who-rah”), Dave and I briefly discussed the Who’s first four studio albums, My Generation, A Quick One, The Who Sell Out and Tommy, marveling at the rapid evolution of the band’s sound from album to album.  Ours ears hear no repetition from disc to disc, and no overlap (even Bob Dylan overlaps his music, although I think it’s intentional).  I’ve pondered our discussion since then, and decided that this evolution of sound should also be projected through their next four studio albums as well:  Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, Who by Numbers and Who Are You (and if someone wanted to make the case for their ninth studio effort, Face Dances - at least parts of it - I’d hear them out).  Which begs the question: What accounts for this?  After all, that’s quite a stretch of albums and time (15 years) to continually evolve your sound. 

Aside from the fact that they were one of the all-time great bands, the answer lies on the cutting room floor as well as in the intervals between albums.  For every great song the Who released on their studio albums, they either rejected another, or released it as a non-album single.  With the exception of Bob Dylan, no other rock act I can think of did this to the degree that the Who did.  The Rolling Stones did release the occasional non-album single:  “Dandelion”, “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” come to mind (and they did have an abundance of extra material for Exile on Main Street).  So did the Beatles with songs like “Penny Lane”, “All You Need Is Love” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”.  But a vast majority of the songs of both these band’s made it onto their studio albums, with a precious few left on the shelf.  Same goes for Neil Young, the Kinks, R.E.M., U2, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen.

Compare this to the Who’s non-studio-album output: “Anyway Anyhow, Anywhere”, “I Can’t Explain”, “The Kids Are Alright”, “I’m a Boy”, “Substitute”, “Disguises”, “Picture of Lily”, “Magic Bus”, “Pure and Easy”, “Long Live Rock”, “The Seeker”, “Join Together”, “Put the Money Down”, “Water”, “Faith in Something Bigger”, “Naked Eye”, “Let’s See Action”, “Heaven and Hell”, “Relay”…..and on and on.  This is a treasure trove of songs, upon which the Who could have rested their laurels on alone. It is a significant and unique aspect to this band’s story.  ** Side Note: This fact has also made it a bit harder for me to prepare for some of these Big Top entries, seeing as many of my thoughts come together by listening to album-oriented music.  I’ve had to break from that routine this year as I absolutely cannot ignore at least a handful of these singular gems for this series (including this week’s choice), and the only way to do that is by listening to compilation albums, which don’t have the potential for profundity that studio albums have.

The 1974 compilation album Odds and Sods was one of the first Who efforts to dive back into their scrap heap (one big reason they did this was to thwart bootleg releases at the time).  Odds and Sods is a classic cross section of the band’s back-catalog to that date.  Prior to this album’s release, none of the songs on it had seen the light of day.  Some of the most memorable are “I’m the Face” (an ode to Mods from 1964 when the band called themselves “The Detours”); “Little Billy” (which would have been the perfect FDA advertisement against the perils of smoking); “Postcard” (a John Entwistle real-life narrative about touring, which has nice in-the-mix musical touches for each country - for example the Oom-pah tuba effect for Germany); and “Pure and Easy” (amazingly left off of Who’s Next).

Aside from this week, there were only a couple of other times in my life where I really got into this album.  One of them just happened to be right at the time when I met my wife-to-be Nancy.  Many of you have heard the story, but for the sake of this entry it bears a nutshell repeating:

If you have ever watched the half-baked comedy, What’s up, Doc?, starring Barbara Streisand, Ryan O’Neil, and multiple identical briefcases, you have a good analogy as to how Nancy and I met.  College buddy Kurt had invited me to a Halloween Party in Winchester.  I decided last minute to go, but had no idea what to go as.  Mom came up with the idea of a Mad Scientist, and helped me put together a makeshift, elaborate costume.  It was great.  I packed the costume in a bag and tossed it in the back seat of my car for the one hour drive north though Boston.  Before leaving, Mom asked me to drop younger brother Pat off at the school down the road, where he would be helping to scare little kids in a Halloween maze.  Pat’s costume (a monster mask, yellow wig, and a ripped sheet) was packed in a bag and tossed in the back seat next to my identical bag (you can guess where this is going?).  I drove down the road and pulled up to the Pat’s Halloween event.  He grabbed his bag (or so he thought) and ran off.

After arriving at the party, and going inside for a few pops, I said to Kurt, ‘get a load of my costume’.  We headed back to my car and I opened the bag.  I was shocked.  There was nothing in it but a yellow wig, monster mask, and ripped sheet (until then, I was unaware of what Pat had in his bag).  I was high and dry and feeling bad, knowing how much effort Mom had put into that costume (I was also wondering what Pat did when he made the bag-switch discovery on his end, and later found out he was utterly confused too). 

Now, I was never the most forthcoming of guys when it came to meeting ladies, but at that moment, all inhibitions were out the window.  I put Pat’s costume on and transformed into a yellow-wigged alter ego of myself.  Nancy was the innocent victim, unaware she was sitting in my seat near the dance floor.  She was dressed up as an Indian girl, looking very pretty, and sitting with one of her best friends, Madeline (who, like Kurt, remains close to us to this day).  I walked up to her and quite out of character, insisted she dance with me.  We talked and danced the rest of the evening, yellow wig and all (Nancy did not know my true hair color until our first date the following weekend).  The rest is history. 

At one point during that evening we drove to another venue together.  I had Odds and Sods in the tape player and unbeknownst to me, Nancy was doing a bit of interpretation of my personality as she listened to the music.  Her biggest take-home was the rarity “Now I’m A Farmer”, which, not surprisingly, she had never heard before.  Like many Who songs, there are varieties of meaning in this song, but Nancy took the oft-repeated title-words literally.  I’d already told her I was from the Rte 495 belt-town of Franklin (which Nancy also was not familiar with) and, like Kurt when I first met him, she assumed it was just another name for ‘Hicksville’ (Winchester and Woburn, Kurt and Nancy’s neighboring hometowns, are inside the Rte 128 belt, much closer to Boston, so from their perspective Franklin was in the sticks.  Indeed, Kurt used to introduce me to his hometown friends thusly: “This is Pete from Frank-land, next town over from PLAINville” ** which is all true by the way; aside from the intentionally mispronounced twist on Franklin **). 

“Now I’m a Farmer” had apparently tipped the scales for Nancy.  In other words, I must be a real country hick, ‘looking after the pigs’, along with my other farm chores.  Two weeks later, when she made the drive out to Franklin to meet my family, Nancy missed the Rte 495 exit, and kept heading West on the Mass Pike a ways before finally pulling over at a rest area, calling from a pay phone, and being guided to turn around.  I believe she was subconsciously on her way to the old Pioneer Valley tobacco-farming region on the Connecticut, Westfield and Farmington Rivers.

Years later, when we got married, I had another rare Odds and Sods moment.  Our excellent reception band, (which it must be said for posterity, had learned an additional dozen songs at our request) were winding down and, well knowing my taste for Who music, put the great Odds and Sods song “Long Live Rock” on their turntable.  Andy, the lead singer, handed me the microphone, and I proceeded to sing, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend offering backing vocals.  All was fine and dandy until I went into Daltrey mic-twirl mode.  When I turned to Andy he looked ashen, presumably consumed by the image of watching his lead-vocal instrument colliding with the floor or ceiling; so I stopped.

It most definitely was appropriate that the first songs Nancy heard on my car player were Who songs.  In the intervening years (and since) my wife has had to endure more Who music than any spouse (of considerable and diverse interest in music herself I must add) should probably have to.  This would include countless repeat playing of their albums on our stereo; attending their concerts with me; cohosting pay-per-view gatherings of Who shows at our first home in Waltham; listening to my vocal interpretations on hikes and car rides (often replete with stage imitations); watching their videos; or simply putting up with my general rock and roll sensibilities.  I must say, it helps that Nancy has these sensibilities too, but being married to a guy who can rattle off Rock & Roll memories the way I have in this blog series must on occasion have the feel of rock-sensory-overload. 

This past week Nancy and I celebrated our 25th silver wedding anniversary.  Seeing how great of a ride it has been, I can only conclude that our mutual Rock & Roll experience has to have been a positive contribution to our life together thus far.  Along with the Who and all their solo permutations, we have enjoyed many other incredible shows together, including the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Arlo Guthrie, The Band, Jonathan Richman, Rick Danko, Dave Davies, Charlie Watts, Southside Johnny, Richard Thompson, Richie Havens, Pure Prairie League, Shawn Colvin, the English Beat, and a great Roy Orbison tribute in Los Angeles with numerous musicians, including Bob Dylan and the Byrds.  I am sure I am missing a ton.  Last night we added to that list, attending the Bob Dylan 75th birthday tribute at the Bull Run in Shirley MA with a number of great friends.  Needless to say we plan to continue this trend in the years ahead. 

With that said, I think it apropos that I submit “Long Live Rock” as my 16th Big Top entry (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6VSSSbY0Pc), if for the title alone (I considered “Now I’m a Farmer”, but after gaging son Peter on it decided the song was….an acquired taste).  I fell in love with this song all over again this week.  I believe it to be Pete Townshend’s best lead-vocal effort on a Who recording.  At the end of the bridge, Roger Daltrey sounds very convincingly like he is giving a eulogy when he repeats “Rock is Dead” three times (Rock rebounds later in the song).  The lyrics tell the story of a Who show in 1966, including events leading up to it.  The lyrics are tremendous, including the opening “Down at the Astoria the scene was changing; bingo and rock were pushing out X-rated” (music and bingo replacing promiscuous theater at the old Astoria in Finsbury Park, north London) and “People walk in sideways pretending that they’re leaving” as well as “Jack is in the alley selling tickets made in Hong Kong”.  For a video link, I searched high and low for the end credits to The Kids Are Alright, which runs this song in the background as we get to watch the Who backstage after their final concert together with Keith Moon; mugging for the camera and generally acting out the song’s lyrics.  I’ll just have to pop the movie in and enjoy that finale on my own.  I recommend fellow Who fans to do the same, as I always pick up on something new when I watch that movie.

In closing, I would like to dedicate this entry to my lovely wife.  Happy 25th Anniversary Nancy!  May the music always be a magical ingredient of our life together. 

Pete

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Under the Big Top # 15: “Stoked”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “After the Fire”
Album: Under a Raging Moon
Release Date: September, 1985

In the 1980s the Who still garnered significant mainstream attention.  Only problem was, they were not doing anything.  Between their 1982 “Farewell Tour” and 1989 “Reunion Tour”, the Who had for all intents and purposes disbanded.  In interviews around this period, when the subject of a reunion was inevitably broached, Pete Townshend would reply in very John Lennon-esque fashion, leaving little room for interpretation.  In other words, it appeared extremely unlikely we would ever see this band together again.

And so, fans of the Who had pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that it was indeed over.  However, there were degrees of resignation which could probably be graphed with a trend-line in the positive direction depending on how long someone was a follower, with the more recent fan base remaining the most hopeful.  I tend to break Who fandom up into three waves.  The first wave occurred strictly in England during the mid-60s, and was made up mostly of British Mods (see Big Top # 9: “A Symphony of Four”).  The second wave was anyone else old enough to have seen the band in their heyday with Keith Moon. 

I was thirteen years old during Moon’s last tour with the Who, putting me into the third wave; a wave which, regardless of having missed out on the “you should have seen them when” period, happened to be a pretty sizeable camp.  The reason for this latter-day resurgence was that by the late 70s, the Who had already reached legendary status.  Once that type of reputation kicks in, it does not matter if its heyday, post heyday or postmortem; you will continue to gain admirers.  Just ask the Mozart connoisseurs in our midst. 

It was primarily this third wave that had been yearning for more during that dormant 80s period (and which would eventually be one of the most compelling factors in the Who reuniting in ‘89).  The earlier waves had been spoiled, having been satiated with the belief that they had beared witness to the best the Who could ever offer.  But not the third wavers.  For us there remained much on the table.  Three of the four founding members of the Who were not only still alive, but thriving.  And unlike the Beatles, who by this time had lost their leader, the Who remained an extremely viable entity, which could only have been the case with the unique type of balance between members that this band had forged.  These factors at least allowed for the possibility of a reunion, and as long as that prospect existed, there was no quenching that third-waver thirst. 

This was the backdrop in 1985 when it was announced that the Who were reforming for a one-off to perform at Live Aid, the Bob Geldof-inspired concert for famine-relief in Africa, which would turn out to be the biggest live music event since Woodstock.  The simultaneous shows in London and Philadelphia (alternating sets would be simulcast on the big screen at each event as the respective stages were being prepped for the next local act) would include another earth-shaking reunion, Led Zeppelin, along with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Queen, Keith Richards, Dire Straits, Elton John, Elvis Costello, U2, Sting, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Eric Clapton, Joan Baez, Madonna, Santana, The Beach Boys, The Cars, The Pretenders, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and on and on.  How Geldof pulled this off remains a modern-day miracle. 

Madeline and Jeff, who receive these weekly entries, would make it to the Philly show.  Other friends and family took the event in at a variety of venues in large gatherings, Super Bowl style.  Me?  Well that could have been a very pathetic story, but ended up being an amazing correlation to the Who reunion that day.  What follows is a recap of my Live Aid day experience and the related events leading up to it.


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1985 was my first year out of college.  The latter part of 1984 had included an internship at the National Park Service Regional Office in Boston, which would turn out to be my initial baby steps to a professional career as a GIS Specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey.  After the internship, I continued working there for a short time, primarily in the Natural Resources Branch on the seventh floor.  Over the course of that year I became friends with a number of the long-timers, as well as a relative newcomer, Peggy, who was very serious about her work, and who turned out to be a great connection; guiding me in the direction of her mapping colleagues and their then fledgling GIS software.

I mention Peggy, because she was with me on that July 13 Live Aid day.  The summer of ’85 was a particularly bad year for forest fires in the western part of the country, and the two of us had volunteered to fly out and fight them.  Over the days prior, we had been put through a physical-endurance qualification process, along with many other Park Service employees in the region, which both of us passed.  This lead to a day of intense training, which included prescribed fires, at the Minuteman National Historic Park in Concord, Massachusetts on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon. 

I was in a quandary; although I was getting a lot out of the training and looking forward to heading west, I could not get out of my head what I was missing on TV and radio.  I had caught some of the early acts while driving to Concord from my Franklin home (including, I recall, a pretty cool Dire Straits rendition of their new song “Money for Nothing”, with special guest Sting, who also had joined them on the studio version) but as the day rolled on, I was missing the big-ticket-item moments. And now, here I was glancing at my watch late that afternoon: The Who were due up imminently as one of the closing acts to the London event. Peggy knew me well enough to see that I was torn.  She actually got a kick out of it, which was not helping matters any.  And so, on we went with the training, which had now come to a point where we all had to take turns wrapping ourselves in our fireproof blankets (which I still have) and roll though a brush fire.  I saw my slim opportunity and volunteered to go first. 

After literally wrapping it up, I slipped myself to the rear of the crowd and then, when attention was fully on the next fire roller, faded back a bit more and finally glided backward in the direction to my car, where I proceeded to jump in and turn on 104.1 WBCN, just in time for the Who’s set which was due to start in a few moments.  Again, it was dog-day hot. My car had no A/C.  The thought of cranking the volume, which was only possible if I rolled up the windows in order to avoid detection was…..out the window.  Glancing at the time and then the trainees and back again, I quickly built up enough wishful thinking to conclude that I should have enough time on my side to drive away and listen to the Who’s short set before the next phase of training.  I started my car, backed out of my spot and high-tailed it out of there. 

Immediately ruling out the possibility of finding a TV, I made a beeline for the highway just a mile or so up the road:  The faster I could drive the better. The Who began their performance with “My Generation” as I shifted the car into fifth gear and maneuvered into the fast lane, windows all the way down and radio cranked as high as was possible without distortion. The Who were back, if only for a snapshot in time.  Next on their set list was “Pinball Wizard”, after which I got off the highway and turned around to head back.  This was followed by “Love Reign O’er Me”, and finally “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.  I remember that last number well because a driver in the middle lane caught my eye as it started.  He was cranking the concert too.  The both of us fist pumped the air and cruised side by side for a good portion of the song until I spotted my exit and weaved over to the off ramp, my magic-bus of a ride winding its way to the end game; the parking lot of Minute Man National Park looming up ahead.    

I slipped back into the crowd in a reverse pattern to how I faded out not long before.  Once I realized all was copasetic I reveled a bit in the joy ride I had just taken and then focused on the training again.  The only person who actually noticed I was missing was Peggy who looked at me incredulously and whispered something to the effect of “did you just do what I think you just did”?  I told her I had no choice.  She chuckled.  At that moment I think she really got it.  I don’t mean so much that she got my fascination with the Who.  I think she got the somewhat risky choices that a free spirit has to make in such moments. 

Pete Townshend wrote a song for Live Aid, “After the Fire”, this week’s Big Top entry, which the Who were supposed to have performed at the event, but did not due to lack of rehearsal/preparation time.  Townshend revealed not long after that “After the Fire”, which contains the lyrics “After the fire, the fire still burns”, was about the famine in Africa (primarily Ethiopia), and that even though the proceeds from Live Aid would uplift the region, the poverty would still smolder, still burn, and it was up to all of us to remain tuned in after the hype had dissipated. 

As with all great songs, however, “After the Fire” can be interpreted in multiple ways.  Who fans could not miss the connection with this immediate-post-Who period for example.  An easy reason to come to this conclusion was that Pete Townshend gave “After the Fire” to Roger Daltrey to sing on his 1985 Under a Raging Moon album (all proceeds for the single also went to famine relief in Africa), which Daltrey recorded admirably, and which he would go on to perform live on his subsequent tour (a fantastic tour by the way, which Mac and I caught at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, and which I hope to elucidate more on at another time).   Later, Pete Townshend would also perform “After the Fire” on his “Deep End” mini-tour (discussed in Big Top entry # 13 > “Poetry in Fluid Motion”).  Both versions are included as links here (below) and I welcome anyone to weigh in on which version is better.  Do you like the Roger Daltrey MTV performance (with a touch of 1980s shtick) or the Pete Townshend ‘Deep End Live’ version (with slightly botched lyrics)?  Note: Nancy has already weighed in on the Townshend side of the ledger.

Roger Daltrey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tg4jQAZ_cw
Pete Townshend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I09C-owWw5s

Great songs can also allow for personal reflection, and due to my unique Live Aid experience, I will always have that interpretation to turn to.  In a way, I kind of lived out the song that day. After that fire training (ok, during it), I took to the highway and realized that the fire still did indeed burn within me.  This was a transition period in my life.  I was just getting familiar with the working world after 16 years of schooling.  I had no idea what loomed ahead, but I still knew what got me to that point in time.  The Who may have been the impetus to my deciding to shuffle off and seize the moment that summer afternoon.  However there was so much else behind that free-spirited decision, because it was far from an isolated event of this caliber in my life.  Mom and Dad surely played a major role, but there are so many factors to shaping who we are, be they family, friends, life experience, everything really.  Regardless, I’d like to think I still live that way to this day (although I must say, a lifetime of bucking the norm can make for some pretty circuitous – though never dodging or untruthful - parental discussions with my children let me tell you!).  

Turns  out Peggy and I never went west to fight fires, which ended up to be so big, that they called in members of the armed forces.  But the memory of that day lives on, so there must have been a reason for it to play out as it did.  Perhaps the reason was to explain it all here, allowing me to take in the meaning of it all a bit more.  Yeah, that works.  With that thought, I’ll call it an entry.

Pete

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Under the Big Top # 14: “Risk, Reward (& other reverberations)”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Amazing Journey”
Album: Tommy
Release Date: May, 1969

After years of high-octane stimulation, a fair contingent of increasingly paranoid hippies ‘dropped out’ and headed for the hills in the early 70’s, where, as Dennis Hopper once explained “at least you could see them coming”.  But those who stayed put, particularly the ones who remained in touch and aware (including a top tier of 60s musicians) had an opportunity to reap the good out of what their era had sewn, which included the music.  Where in the 60’s the music was simply another part of the scene however, in the 70’s the music was the scene.  Up and coming Rock ‘n’ roll bands and their fans had realized what had taken place the decade before, and although not part of it, had learned to appreciate it far more than those who were actually there (and as the old saying goes, if you remember the 60s you weren’t’ really there anyway).  The result was a mostly positive evolution of the music and the culture that surrounded it.  I was lucky to be a part of it.

I am the oldest (of six) in my family, but most of my friends growing up were on the other end of that spectrum, which turned out to be my window into that immediate past.  One of those good friends, Bruce, was the youngest of five, with a good age spread between his older siblings and him.  Bruce’s Dad was a professor at Dean College in Franklin Massachusetts.  He and his family lived in a large school-owned house on the edge of campus (which has since been converted to dorm rooms). Not long into our friendship, when visiting Bruce at his home during our formative years in the mid-70s, it became clear to me that he was growing up in a far different world than I.  Bruce’s brother and sisters had already moved on to university and beyond, leaving much of their memorabilia behind.  What they left in their bedrooms told, for me, a transformative story. 

The 3rd floor was the epicenter of this personal edification, with one very large room, another smaller, and attic space. As far as I could tell, the entire floor was now Bruce’s domain, and was rarely visited by his parents (Bruce’s Mom, with a heavy German accent, would greet me pleasantly at the back door, say something along the lines of “you know where he is” and send me on my way up the two flights of stairs).  Upon reaching the 3rd level, I crossed a threshold into another world.  There were psychedelic posters on the walls; beads for doors; lava lamps and incense; an abundance of large patented pillows and ceiling carpets for d├ęcor; old Rolling Stone Magazines in heaps on the floors; and time-period paraphernalia and knickknacks of all sorts in the drawers and on the bureaus.  Let me put it this way: If the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame really wanted to do a showcase on 60’s Pop Culture, they would have extracted that 3rd story from Bruce’s home and placed it smack dab in the middle of the museum. Bruce treated it all with mostly a hands-off respect which rubbed off on me, as well as our other friends.

Along with all the memorabilia, Bruce’s siblings left behind a great stereo system with powerful speakers, and an amazing collection of records.  I cut my 60s-era Rock ‘n’ roll teeth on that music, which included albums by The Kinks, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix.  And it was not only the music of those albums I was taking in; it was the artwork and liner notes, the lyrics and images.  This was all heady stuff; an informal bohemian education to say the least.  Those visits to Bruce’s 3rd floor sanctum, listening to that music, fueled my soul. 

This general experience, along with a handful of others, is why I still remember how I felt in those days, stepping out into the crisp evening air after dinner.  Often the night moves ahead of me would hold mystery and wonder. The electricity in the breeze was palpable; you could cut it with a knife.  Unbeknown to most of us experiencing this (not just in our crowd, but others my age who were lucky enough to connect this way, which is portrayed so classically in the opening scenes to Almost Famous), we were catching a fleeting snapshot in time; a passing of the torch so to speak, from 60s to 70s youth culture (some might call it counterculture).  That torch-passing influence would turn out to be significant, lasting, and most important act as a template to expand upon.

There were a handful of late 60s albums that set the stage for this transition.  One of them was the Who’s 1969 breakthrough Tommy; the 24-track ‘Rock Opera’ concept album about a “Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy”.  To put this breakthrough in proper context one has to understand the risks the Who were taking leading up to the album’s release, which bordered on desperation. After four years of endless touring, pop singles and three studio albums, the band was still broke (equipment smashing was not helping matters any).   Pete Townshend (and later the rest of the band) immersed himself into the new concept, which due to the complex (and ever-evolving) nature of the story, came together very slowly.  Mounting studio-time expenses and a lack of touring were putting the band further and further in debt; so much so that it ultimately came down to the fact that a mediocre reception of Tommy would not get them anywhere near out of their financial hole.  What the Who needed (and got) was a resounding success. 

This all-eggs-in-one-basket investment was indeed a huge risk, but with huge risk can come huge reward, which drives at the heart of the matter in terms of this week’s talking points.  Tommy launched the Who into the top tier of Rock era acts (alone there with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan) because it was so risky.  I don’t mean that the huge success of Tommy on its own did this.  I mean that by being such a risky venture, it allowed the Who, while under pressure, to see what their potential was, which they would go on to sustain for another 10 years.  Few of us take risk this far; the fear of failure is too great to overcome.  Factoring into this equation of risk is a boatload of investment, commitment, and faith, which were all there in the making of Tommy.  ** Side Note: If Pete Townshend has come across as being consistently satisfied with any single project in his entire career it is Tommy, and I think the risk of that project has a lot to do with it.

We could debate ad infinitum the merits of late-60s ‘free spirit’ society, personified in the hippies.  But one thing that cannot be argued is that this youth movement opened up previously taboo dialog on a host of topics, in direct contrast to the hush-hush post-war conservative period of the decades prior (for more on this, see Big Top # 5: “Of Wit and War”).   That open dialog, which remains in effect to this day, is exemplified in the Who’s Tommy.  Pete Townshend was no hippie; none of the Who were.  But Townshend tackles a whole range of deep subject matter on this album, linking him to the Woodstock era forevermore whether he likes it or not.  The subject matter on Tommy includes; the effect of war on a personal level (“Captain Walker didn’t come home, his unborn child will never know him”); the cost of keeping secrets (“you didn’t hear it, you didn’t see it”); visions (“Amazing Journey”); the perils of drug use (“The Acid Queen”); bullying (“Cousin Kevin”); transcendental consciousness (“sickness will surely take the mind where minds can’t  usually go”); child abuse (“Fiddle About”) psychosomatic trauma (“Go to the Mirror”) ; idolatry (“Welcome”); resistance to idolatry (“We’re not going to take it”); and finally, enlightenment, vocalized in the closing refrain (more on that below).

I have to admit that I’ve never quite connected with Tommy to the same degree that I have other Who albums, which is partially due to substandard production (although this week I listened for the first time to a remastered version which has been a treat, and a bit eye opening).  But I do see its place in history.  As has been documented often before, the most sustaining aspect to Tommy was how well it worked as a live act.  Because the Who resisted manager Kit Lambert’s suggestion for a backup symphony and other studio effects, relying strictly on their own talents as a 4-piece, the transition to performing Tommy live ended up being both seamless and astounding.  Related to this was that extended tracks like “Underture”, “Sparks” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” played out magnificently as lengthy thought-provoking jams when performed live.  These jams gave the songs an opportunity to breath and the crowd an opportunity to think about the underlying concept.   On a good nite while touring the opera houses and other high-end performance centers of Europe and North America after Tommy’s release, it could be argued that the Who’s live performances were as fascinating of a spectacle as any event of our times. 

My first opportunity to see Tommy performed live was in 1989, the Who’s “Reunion Tour” (which I briefly discussed in the ending to last week’s blog entry).  There was much anticipation leading up to this tour, seeing as the Who had not gone on the road for over seven years.  My friends, siblings and I were at that ideal stage in our lives for all of this.  Sister Jen hosted a pre-concert gathering at her home in Franklin, not far from the Foxboro concert venue. Her home was besieged with revelers that day which, to put in context, was a weekday/workday afternoon.  Dad popped by on an errand from his home down the road.  I remember him trying to comprehend what was going on.  I explained as best I could: “Dad, this is a BIG event”.  It was.  I don’t think any of us truly realized how unique that moment was. Nothing quite like it had happened before and nothing like it would happen again.  I hope this write up allows anyone who was there to stop what they are doing for a moment and reflect. 

A viewing of the Who’s Woodstock performance in the movie The Kids Are Alright is enough to convince me of their mastery of Tommy on stage.  When I listen to the soundtrack, one part I find myself replaying over and over are those enlightenment lines at the end of the album:

Listening to you, I get the music
Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet

Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story

One reason for this is that I love to listen to John Entwistle’s high-falsetto backing-vocal contribution (as mentioned before, he would lose this high-end range later in life) which I found myself trying to assist him with at shows (and fill in for him later after his passing).  But the big reason is simply how profoundly these versus can work when sung to an audience.  It’s that special relationship the Who have formed with their fans that truly comes out in the singing of these lines on stage.

I’ve had the opportunity to see Tommy performed live on several other occasions, including in 1993, when Nancy and I went to a fantastic musical adaptation of the rock opera at the Colonial Theater in Boston.  My take-home after that show was that this music can indeed cut across the great music-genre divide (there have been many adaptations of Tommy including opera, ballet, and symphony renditions, as well as a movie soundtrack, and even a bluegrass interpretation).  It’s a rare feat for any story-put-to-song to pull this off. 

I bounced around some this week on a choice for my Big Top song-of-the week entry.  The first song that hit me was “Christmas”, which is another one of those very underrated songs in the Who’s catalog, and which somehow always seems to slip through the cracks in terms of classic rock radio play during the Christmas season.  We hear the Kinks “Father Christmas” (which is my favorite), John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and many others, but never this Who song.  I also flirted with “Pinball Wizard”, which I’ve practiced myself on bass guitar, and “Sally Simpson”, which relates to some of the personal stories I’ve heard from folks I know who went to Woodstock.  Perhaps all of this will play out later.

I finally settled on “Amazing Journey” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqhoy98HldA), one of the opening numbers which helps set the ground rules for the storyline. During my 2012 Stepping Stone and 2014 Forever Young series, there were a handful of times where I got floored by a song that had never quite hit me as hard before that years focus on the given artist (the Rolling Stones and Neil Young respectively).  This was the first time this happened to me with the Who in this series, as for the most part, I’ve already been blown away by most of their music.  Keith Moon’s drumming is mind boggling in “Amazing Journey”, a cascading buildup to each bridge in the song.  As I listened to this song all week, which tries to explain what is going on inside the mind of Tommy, the “deaf, dumb and blind boy”, I thought of Pete Townshend’s connections with the teachings of Meher Baba who at an early point in his life simply stopped speaking, believing the act would ultimately strengthen his message.   In both cases, Tommy and Baba, the limitation was not physical.  This bit of insight gave me a bit more clairvoyance to the meaning of “Amazing Journey” and Tommy in general.

I’d like to close this entry with a shout-out to great friend Pat Shea, who for my 50th birthday several years back painted a classic Tommy lyric, which we have up on our hallway wall here in our home in Pepperell (image attached).  Pat is a kindred soul, as he and I have engaged over the years in many an in-depth, open minded conversation, with no subject off the plate of possibility.  Perhaps Pat’s formative experiences in the hinterlands of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, were similar to the types of older-sibling experiences that Bruce introduced me to.  I’ll have to ask Pat when we connect again this summer on the beaches of Humarock.  Hopefully the ensuing discussion, which if history continues to hold weight would take place on the deck of Mac’s cottage home around the midnight hour, will spark some of those old electric night-air feelings all over again.


- Pete