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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

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