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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

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