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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 décor; 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

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