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 (, 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. 


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