Saturday, May 28, 2016

Under the Big Top # 22: “Learning the Hard Way”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Slip Kid”
Album: The Who by Numbers
Release Date: October, 1975

I’d like to think I’m a pretty easy going, fun, interesting ‘adult figure’ and that when I talk with anyone from the younger crowd they sense this and in turn feel comfortable in my presence (I believe much of what allows you to connect with younger generations relates to whether or not you have the capacity to channel back in time and put yourself in those “Young Man Blues” shoes).  However, there’s one thing I like to nail down pretty quickly with the kids I meet, which is how I am addressed.  I actually give it a little time to work its way out naturally, but after a few meet-and-greets if they still toss me nothing but a grunt or a “Hey” or “What’s up” or “How we doin”, I tell them that this does not cut it for me.  They can choose between Pete and Mr. Steeves, but addressing me as nothing is not going to work.  Occasionally I’ve embarrassed Charlotte and Peter, repeating to a few of their forgetful friends my mantra, but it matters not to me:  Address me as something and all is well, otherwise we will circle these wagons again and again until we get it right.  We all have our pet peeves. I guess that’s one of mine (and by the way, I do this not just for me but for all of us!). 

And yet there are always those outliers; the kids who tend to dig in their heels.  I’m not talking about the shy types; I can usually break them in.  No, these are the kids with a chip on their shoulder.  Somewhere along the line they got an attitude and so they almost look to such ‘confrontations’ as a challenge.  After a while I can recognize this, partly due to having connected with kids on a fairly regular basis over the years (as a coach, teacher, Dad, etc.), partly due to that ‘confrontational’ address mantra, and there comes a point where I see the need to take a different tact, including the likelihood of laying off some.  There’s only so much you can do without a considerable amount of time to work through such a stubborn stance as refusing to address someone properly.  

Anyhow, when I come to this conclusion that I am up against a kid-with-attitude my knee-jack thinking is that these are the ones who are going to make some big mistakes in life, which actually begged the question for me this week:  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  I say this because as an adult I can look back on the most rebellious of my peers way back when and see how that attitude worked out for them.  And, more often than not, in spite of the minefields these kids chose to walk through, it all appears to have worked out just fine for a fair number of them.

Yeah, I remember being a kid.  One of the great debates in life is what is it that shapes a person’s character:  Is it nature or nurture?  But based on those memories of my younger self, I would throw in a third element: Peer influence.  I remember the heavy bonds that come with a young friendship.  I also know that these kinds of bonds can block out potential sage advice of parental figures in your life, which for many kids fades to background noise.  I also recall the aftereffects of all this, that period of transition, typically in your early 20s, when most of us come to the realization that nothing good in life comes easy.  It can be a restless period because this is a reality that does not settle in without a fight with your ego.  As such it takes a little time. 

I recall this period of my life very well, and this week I reconnected with a song that helped get me through it, “Slip Kid” (, which is a Who-aficionado favorite.  “Slip Kid” is a concept filled with operatic drama but done in just 4:29.  The crux of the song is back and forth banter between an adult, one presumably filled with wisdom, and a young upstart ignoring the elder’s advice (all of this sung by Roger Daltrey making it a bit hard to decipher the back and forth between characters).  With all that is going on in this fantastic song, I would like to spend the remainder of this entry dissecting it. 

“Slip Kid” starts out with a drum beat (also a cowbell, as well as another rhythmic ‘instrument’; clapping, which continues throughout the song).  The beat connotes a military exercise, which is reaffirmed a few moments later with a 1 to 8 count, giving you a sense of boot-camp, and soldiers scurrying out of their cots for their gear. Immediately after, the Who’s version of Reveille kicks in, followed by Roger Daltrey as the young upstart:

I've got my clipboard, text books
Lead me to the station
Yeah, I'm off to the civil war
I've got my kit bag, my heavy boots
I'm runnin' in the rain
Gonna run till my feet are raw

Slip kid, slip kid, second generation
And I'm a soldier at thirteen
Slip kid, slip kid, realization
There's no easy way to be free
No easy way to be free

After Pete Townshend interjects his only lead vocal “It’s a hard hard world”, the adult character, believing that he himself and the upstart are soul mates at this point, takes over narration:

I left my doctor's prescription bungalow behind me
I left the door ajar
I left my vacuum flask
Full of hot tea and sugar
Left the keys right in my car

Slip kid, slip kid, second generation
Only half way up the tree
Slip kid, slip kid, I'm a relation
I'm a soldier at sixty-three
No easy way to be free

The backing vocal of the title words “Slip Kid”, repeated often, leads the listener to a sense that the older character has made some mistakes in life and wants the younger character to learn from them.  Following a brief fluttering-keyboard interlude (and ‘more cowbell’), perhaps done to ponder this notion of a bond, it soon becomes abundantly clear when Daltrey kicks in again as the young upstart, with a vocal delivery full of righteous indignation, that this character has no intention of a solidarity with the elder:

Keep away old man, you won't fool me
You and your history won't rule me
You might have been a fighter, but admit you failed
I'm not affected by your blackmail
You won't blackmail me

What follows is the best part of the song, the instrumental bridge.  Great bands can build off powerful lyrics, and that is what is happening here.  It starts with John Entwistle’s 16-note descending bass lines.  This is our introduction to the new Slip Kid, this upstart not willing to learn from the past and now “slidin’ down the hill like me”.  ** Side Note: I have tried to repeat these descending notes on my bass guitar.  Perhaps a few thousand more attempts and I’ll nail it.  Then Pete Townshend’s masterful guitar work takes over: Never in your face, with each and every note a vital contribution, allowing the listener to think of all that just transpired. You can almost picture the young upstart ‘waist deep in the big muddy’.  In terms of the music, “Slip Kid” is another example of an impeccable sense of timing by each of the band members.  The song closes with similar back-and-forth banter and a repeating of the line “No easy way to be free”.  Hear Hear.

“Slip Kid” is a futuristic song (originally written by Pete Townshend for Lifehouse > see Big Top # 22).  But Townshend has also stated that it’s about trying to talk a kid out of getting into the music business. And of course it could be interpreted in a myriad of other ways, including subplot in a revolution, and a generational rebellion (the 60s, Punks, etc.).  Pete Townshend wrote a string of songs about generational conflict, starting with “My Generation”, and on thru “The Punk Meets the Godfather” “Slip Kid” and “Who Are You”.  With this week’s entry I’ve now covered all four of them. 

There is tragedy in “Slip Kid”; the younger man thinking he is doing something different and the older man knowing this is not the case and that all the kid will be doing will be repeating the same mistakes he did.  But there is also hope in the independence of this kid.  We all need to make mistakes to get better, which goes right thru your entire life.

There’s a balance in being a parent figure.  You want to tell the younger generation what to avoid, but you can’t pile it on.  You have to know when to hold em’, when to show em’ and when to let it all go.  The opposite extreme of the “Slip Kid” is the child who can’t move on.  Not long after my siblings and I had all broken thru that transition from youth to adulthood and succeeded on our own, Mom told me about some words of wisdom she received from a close family friend, Ray Ward, who was a counselor in his professional life.  Mom and Ray had been discussing a family in town whose kids kept coming back home when Ray stated “well, they keep coming back till you do it right”.  So yes; there is a balance when dealing with young upstart types portrayed so effectively by Pete Townshend and the Who in “Slip Kid”.  And there are no easy ways to be free.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Under the Big Top # 21: “Filling the Glass”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Empty Glass”
Album: Empty Glass
Release Date: April, 1980

One thing I did not anticipate with this Who series was how impelled I would be to include full or partial album reviews in my musings, which has been the case for a majority of the 20 entries thus far, and which will continue here with Pete Townshend’s best solo album, Empty Glass. I did the same in prior Rolling Stones and Neil Young series, but not to the degree I have this time around.  Reflecting this week I realize it has to do with the fact that by limiting all of these series to 50 headliner songs, there’s a lament of having to leave the dissection of so many great tunes on the shelf, which is especially the case here with the Who.  And so I feel compelled to include at least some discussion of the “support acts” as I loop through the band’s discography.  Also, Pete Townshend’s and the Who’s music is so very album oriented, that to write about these songs individually feels incomplete, at least on this first pass. 

All in all, this has left me less room than usual for the personal-reflection angle (which will likely be even more difficult with Bob Dylan when I tackle his music, given the sheer volume and quality of his output).  Fortunately, that first pass is near an end (I say this in relation to spreading myself too thin).  I’ve got a few more as-yet-uncovered albums on the docket, which I hope to sprinkle in from time to time between other entries, but looking ahead, there’s a bit more freedom to branch out.  For those of you with marginal Who interest who have hung in there so far, thanks:  The personal-reflection part of all this should ramp up shortly (although not without a fair amount of Who-centric thoughts to help inspire).  In the meantime, I still need to get this comprehensive album-oriented summarizing out of my system, which again includes this week.

The album Empty Glass is a perfect example of my quandary.  There are so many great songs here, with most having spiritual undertones in the penance-seeking vein.  With this abundance of quality tracks in mind, I’ve decided to do a bit of stream of consciousness with the headphones on, writing about each song as I listen loudly.  I’ll also be viewing videos of a number of the tracks and linking the urls for your own viewing pleasure, seeing as the visual effect adds a stunning wrinkle to the mindset of Pete Townshend in 1980 (a moment in time that was just on the cusp of the MTV era, Townshend realizing this more than most).  Oddly enough, I don’t have any particular affinity for the track order on Empty Glass, so I’ll do this in a preferential order instead, from the truly masterful on top to the simply above average further down (I realize most preferential listings are in the opposite direction, but I’ll save everyone the suspense).

1. “Empty Glass”:  (  Such a heartbreaking and yet strangely exhilarating song about feeling empty inside and searching for spiritual fulfillment. “Oh, what a thrill for ya” Townshend wearily interjects near the beginning after a line about fans getting to see him on TV.  I love the interplay in the video between Pete and his much younger brother, Simon (who plays rhythm guitar and sings occasional backing vocals into a shared microphone).  The Townshend brothers were respectively 35 and 20 at the time, and there is such amazing contrast in their demeanors.  Simon is so happy to be there that he ricochets joyfully all over the place; almost in spite of the dour seriousness of the tune (I particularly like how he fake preens after the final use of the lyric “all I need’s a mirror and I’m a star” about half way thru).  Pete seems to put up with him well enough, never cracking a smile though, and completely immersed in the song’s meaning.  The most poignant lyrics to me are “My life’s a mess I wait for you to pass. I stand here at the bar I hold an empty glass”:  I imagine a man so down on himself at a bar that he doesn’t even want a passing friend to spot him.  Roger Daltrey (and Kenny Jones, the Who’s new drummer at the time) lamented that Pete Townshend was saving some of his best material for his solo albums in the years after Keith Moon’s death, including Empty Glass.  The real issue may have been something Daltrey was trying to ignore, which was that Pete Townshend was slowly drifting from the band, realizing he did not need the Who anymore (or more accurately, Townshend had lost the sense for what the band meant to him).  No tune reveals this independence more than “Empty Glass”, particularly in the singing department, which Daltrey honestly could not have done as superbly because Townshend optimizes on his vocals to match the song’s personal significance.

2. “A Little Is Enough”: ( Pete Townshend did not focus his creative output on love songs on a regular basis, but this one, a plea to his wife Karen Astley (who he dedicates the entire album too), proves that he was quite able to articulate himself in this department.  As with many of his love songs, however, there is a spiritual duality to this one, which adds wonderful depth.  The video link is from his ‘Deep End’ mini-tour of the mid-80s (a cousin-Becca favorite).  It can be hard to describe to the casual observer how sublime it was for those of us who marveled over all things Pete Townshend at the height of his genius to witness, if only via video, a solo show of primarily solo material.  Townshend was a family man, and in turn intensely valued his home life.  Who tours were the reality of his career.  When he got home, it was hard to pull Pete Townshend away (he was often the last member of the band to commit to a tour).   These are the thoughts I have when I watch this video. Observant eyes will no doubt recognize David Gilmour on lead guitar. The buildup in the bridge to the line “just like a sailor heading into the seas, there’s a gale blowing in my face; the high winds scare me but I need the breeze and I can’t head for any other place” is exquisite.  Townshend adds emphasis to the words “any other place” on this live clip; a nice little twist from the studio version (he does the same near the end of the song at “so keep an eye open; my spirit ain’t broken” on the words ‘open’ and ‘broken’). Oh to be in that crowd that day at the Brixton Academy, London, in 1985.  But in 1998 at Harborlights in Boston, many of us, Becca, Dave, Nancy, Bouv, and Mac included, finally got to see “A Little Is Enough” live.  It was worth the wait.

3. “I Am an Animal”: ( During this blog series, I often mentally compare my younger-thinking self to who I am now:  There’s quite a bit of a gap there now in terms of years.  Empty Glass fits well into this comparison, seeing as, mesmerizingly, I do not believe I had listened to this album in its entirety for 20 years until this week (kinda like losing touch with a good friend).  And so, I really got to compare/contrast my earlier reflections of this album to my current ones (I recommend this to anyone:  Dredge up an old album you used to love, put a solid week into it, and see what it stirs in you now).  As a young man I simply loved the mystery of “I Am an Animal”, and I let that mystery be.  Now in my 50s, I found I needed to do a bit more research (it must have something to do with working for a science agency).  Anyhow, what is the meaning to this song?  Well first off, the title is misleading (which I always instinctively knew):  It’s selective of an early verse in the song, and should have probably been thought through some (but then again Pete Townshend may have been trying to throw us all off in the first place).  Frankly, this is a beautiful song (quite a feat, considering the F-bomb hurled in the lyrics), which on its own makes “I Am an Animal” extremely relevant.  Beauty is almost impossible to describe in writing though, so I will leave this train of thought be and leave you all to debate that description by listening yourself (Side Note: This is my singular use of the word beautiful in this entry to describe a song, and there are two tracks ahead of this one in the pecking order, which hopefully give you a sense for how top heavy this album is with quality music). Back to the meaning:  Townshend loops through a series of characterizations: I am an animal, a vegetable, a human being, an angel, and so on.  He’s imagining God imagining Creation.  The last versus appear to connect to the modern day (after all doesn’t Creation continue ad infinitum?) and the ‘creation’ of the Pete himself.  There are some songs that brilliant writers produce and then set aside for inspiration, which I believe was the case here, seeing as Townshend has rarely resurrected “I Am an Animal” (although I got to see it performed).

4. “Rough Boys”: (  The Who were forever performing in front of rows and rows of tough-minded Who-liggans (including yours truly, though some of those close to me would dispute this rough characterization).  A taste of what I mean by this is that their concerts (and related solo efforts) were notorious for backup bands getting booed off stage, no matter how good they were: Joe Jackson, Big Country, Bob Mould, even the Clash got booed.  My first times seeing this was a bit disconcerting (which may go to the root of why my defenders would dispute my ‘tough’ claims, since I never partook in the mudslinging), but after a few times witnessing this I started finding it a little bit funny.  Anyhow, “Rough Boys’ is a shout-out to all of us in those rows, and Pete Townshend insists he’s going to get inside our “bitter minds”.  His intent here is to soften hearts in an “I can play that bad boy role too, and it’s easy…. the hard thing to do is the antithesis” sorta way, which the video brilliantly portrays.   In general, this is a fantastic video; a soothsaying MTV primer.  Pete Townshend’s authenticity shines through, as it does in most everything he does.  You don’t even have to know the guy personally to recognize it.  On the album sleeve, “Rough Boys” is dedicated to Pete Townshend’s daughters as well as the Sex Pistols.

5. “Gonna Get Ya”: (  Unfortunately, no true video exists, and I’m wondering if this song has ever been performed live.  “Gonna Get Ya” climbed way up the ladder of relevance for me this week: A song about relentless pursuit toward reconciliation; confident and patient in the process.  Tony Butler, a fellow Shepherd’s Bush, Londoner of Pete’s plays a tremendous bass, particularly during the hypnotic extended instrumental bridge (I love how Butler seems to coax Pete Townshend into duplicating the bass notes on guitar, which finally happens at the 4 minute mark – Got Ya).  Like most of the tracks on Empty Glass, I can get completely lost in this song.  Volume, volume, more volume! It’s a tremendous six-plus minute closer to the album.

6: “Jools and Jim” (  Another incredible tune that has no video support, and also like “Gonna Get Ya”, may never have been performed live. Despite the fast pace of this song, the lyrics are crisp and clear.  At face value, “Jools and Jim” lashes out at Punk rock critics in particular and all journalists in general.  One verse goes “they don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead.  Is that exactly what I thought I read?” (later Townshend adds “morality isn’t measured in a room he wrecked.”).  Every song bridge on this album is moving, and the “Jools and Jim” bridge is no exception. The lyrics in the bridge are an olive branch extension to those critics: “But I know for sure if we met up eye to eye.  A little wine would bring us closer, you and I”, sung in Townshend’s angelic high falsetto.  There is more going on here however.  Pete Townshend turns the criticism on himself (“Cos you’re right hypocrisy will be the death of me”).  This is the attraction of Pete Townshend to those of us who are fortunate enough to see though the haze: He never excludes himself from criticism; on the contrary he emphasizes this.  Although this url link here is simply a fans snapshots, I cannot get over the still-shot photo during the last two minutes.  This is Townshend encapsulated in all his earnest seriousness. The end of “Jools and Jim” is a three-peat shout of the word “Oklahoma”.  I may just go to my grave trying to figure that part out (“the farmer and the cowman should be friends”…. that’s all I got).

7: “Keep on Working”: ( This out of the vaults video is so brutally real and as such should have been required viewing for all who were to follow in making their own MTV videos.  Pete Townshend is at home with one of his daughters, bathrobe on, disheveled, jotting the lyrics to “Keep on Working” on a blackboard and erasing them.  This to me is the sister song to “Gonna Get Ya”:  A continuation of a relentless pursuit to some type of reconciliation (although at one moment there appears a kink in the armor, as Townshend jots “why don’t you ever take any notice of me”, which are not lyrics in the song).   Pete Townshend has stated that he tried to write and record this song in the style of Ray Davies.

8: “And I Moved” ( Here I am at number 8 of 10 and the quality of the music is still top drawer.  Pete Townshend offered this song, which is sung from a woman’s perspective, to Bette Midler, but she never took him up on it.  This live version was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1994 and includes full orchestration.  It’s fantastic, but I’ll take the studio version any day, with its up-tempo piano and Townshend’s ethereal vocals.

9: “Let My Love Open the Door” ( This is the ‘hit’ of the album, charting as high as number 9 on Billboard.  According to one Townshend interview I recall, it’s sung from Jesus perspective.  Most Pete Townshend fans find it’s a bit out of their comfort level for how a Townshend song should sound; a wee bit too smooth and jaunty (kinda like “Face the Face”). 

10: “Cat’s in the Cupboard”.  ( Bringing up the rear, but I would not call this a throwaway.  It’s too good for that.  I actually enjoyed listening to it this week, more so than way back when.  The highlight of the song is the great harmonica work by Peter Hope Evans.

That’s a wrap.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Under the Big Top # 20: “Tug of War”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “The Kids Are Alright”
Album: My Generation
Release Date: December, 1965

Of the eleven original studio albums the Who have produced, there was only one that I never really gave a good listen to until this year, that being the very first, 1965’s My Generation.  The one solid memory I have of this album is related to a show Mac and I went to in Boston several nights after John Entwistle died, when one of the bands paying tribute to the Ox performed My Generation from beginning to end.   Other than that singular flashback, these blog insights and musings into my favorite band start off with a pretty vacant black hole in terms of my connecting with the Who’s discography, which is darn right mortifying to admit.

And yet, this actually falls right in line with my track record (no pun intended given the name of the record company which the Who’s managers, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert founded subsequent to breaking from Decca not long after My Generation was released; that being “Track Records”).  As with all great 60s bands, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and even Bob Dylan, I tend to shy away from the earliest albums, which were typically out of the musician’s artistic control (read:  At the mercy of the record labels and their “under assistant West Coast promotion men”).  I also have a tendency to squirrel away a nugget or two for future reference, no matter the hobby or interest, content in the knowledge that there is always a treasure to dig up somewhere.  This is no longer the case with the Who:  All eleven chests of gemstones, pearls and nuggets have now been unearthed. 

This up-till-now omission in my immersion into the Who’s discography has allowed for at least some song discovery this year, which is refreshing (the same can be said for my Stepping Stones and Forever Young series’).  And I have to say that listening to the Who’s inaugural studio album this week was definitely a more enjoyable experience than listening to inaugural studio albums of those other prior mentioned 60s musicians.  Many critics think so too, as My Generation has made its way onto a handful of ‘top’ rock-album lists over the years (another reason to be embarrassed), which can’t be said for the others.

It would be easy to say this album is top heavy with two long-time Who classics “The Kids are Alright” and “My Generation”.  These songs do sound quite different and significantly more cutting edge when compared to the rest of the record, but we are not talking here about a quantum leap in quality from the top to the bottom of this oft-critiqued track list.  Most of the album is old-sound rhythm and blues, including two James Brown covers, which fit Roger Daltrey’s tastes in those days, he being the undisputable band leader in the early years.  But there is flow here that gives you a tiny bit of confidence that the record company knew what they were doing, and gives you even more confidence in the Who themselves, regardless of the fact that the band had yet to find their true sound on a consistent basis.

A number of Who ingredients are there on My Generation however, albeit in germination form, including their pop sensibilities (“Legal Matter”, “La-La-La-Lies”) their jam extensions (“The Ox”), bass propulsion (including the first-ever rock bass solo on “My Generation”, which would be Spinal Tap silly if this were not John Entwistle), drum propulsion (“The Ox”, “The Kids Are Alright”) punk (the title track – see the last blog entry), and the aforementioned rhythm and blues (most everything else).  There is even a hint of the otherwise unique sound of their third album, The Who Sell Out, which was released two years later at the heart of the psychedelic period (“Circles”).  With all this, one could make the argument that My Generation is the Who at their most diverse. 

Oh there is one other ingredient: Concept, or more accurately the foundation of concept, in “The Kids Are Alright”.  There is a lot going on here.  “The Kids Are Alright” cuts to the very core of the Who’s connection with their fan base. It is also the ground floor for their seminal 1973 album Quadrophenia (see Big Top # 9: “A Symphony of Four”), actually appearing briefly on that album as the intro to “Is It in My Head?”.  Additionally, it’s the title of their unparalleled 1979 rocumentary, which is what hooked me with this band in the first place (see Big Top # 2: “The Awakening”).  The key reason for such prominence in the Who’s story (and ultimately their legacy) is that “The Kids Are Alright” anticipates the band’s longevity through blood-brother-like loyalty and camaraderie.  As such it is the mustard seed to all they would become.  The rest of this entry will try to flesh all this out.

On the surface, the lyrics to “The Kids Are Alright” might just sound like a need to break free, on occasion, from family life; a night on the town with your buddies.  But try to find a consistent meaning to this song on websites like SongMeanings and Songfacts, and you will find opinions all over the map.  One says it’s about Roger Daltrey’s fragile marital status at the time.  Another says it is an ode to the Who’s Mod following.  Another says it’s about our children.  The list goes on.  To complicate matters even further, Pete Townshend has added even more lyrics on recent tours.  I’ve seen and heard them, which included a number of touching verses added in remembrance to John Entwistle only weeks after his sudden death.  And he has also tied in the crowd with other lyrics, pointing out the family relationships we all have and our connection with the Who as a sort-of family. The fact of the matter is that “The Kids Are Alright” is an open-palette of a song about dealing with life, which evolves and expands with time.  And so, in some ways, everyone is correct.

The notion of “The Kids Are Alright” anticipating the Who’s longevity is a fascinating one to me, not only because it appears to envision the future at the beginning of their collaboration, but also because it acts as a counterpoint to the title track.  “My Generation” is a declaration in the moment: “I hope I die before I get old” Roger Daltrey sneers, while stuttering in high-strung, pill-popping Mod fashion throughout the song (pretty impressive in its own write, considering Daltrey was the relative teetotaler of the bunch).  Teenagers and young adults in general can relate to all of this.  Heck, a very good friend used to exclaim back in the ‘love lost so live fast and die young’ day that he would be dead before he turned 30.  Thankfully that prediction did not play out. 

Most future punk bands would stick a fork in it right there, but not the Who.  Where this band closes side one with that youthful abandon in “My Generation” they open side two with “The Kids Are Alright”; the title alone suggesting a yearning for survival.  What we see here are the two extreme ends of the Who paradigm.  It’s almost as if Pete Townshend is saying “ok, yes we are going recklessly all out here, but make no doubt we are committed to making this work”.  It’s a conviction he shares with Neil Young, but in Townshend’s case he’s trying to take his band and his fans along for the ride.  Unfortunately Keith Moon, John Entwistle and many of those fans would ultimately overdo it with the “My Generation” approach to life.  But Pete Townshend himself has overcome the Rock & Roll lifestyle odds (as has Roger Daltrey in a different way, seeing as loyalty and dedication are key factors to his personal rock and roll story that cannot be ignored)… or so one would be lead to believe, unless you take this early anthem “The Kids Are Alright” into account.

Pete Townshend is a unique soul.  He is a loner, a solo artist at heart, who unconventionally ended up in a gang that happened to be a band.  And he not only adopted this situation, he glorified it.  I have no solid basis for the following, but the more I listened to “The Kids Are Alright” this week, the more I could envision Townshend breaking down each verse to the individual members of the Who and their personal commitment to both the band and their own loved ones at the time.   Toss into the mix that prior-mentioned interpretation of the song as a dedication to their Mod followers in 1965, and I can see how there could have been a very natural progression for Pete Townshend when it came to conceptualizing Quadrophenia (which hits on both these storylines). 

This tug-of-war between punk immediacy and the type of responsibility that comes with longevity plays out so wonderfully in the rocumentary The Kids Are Alright too, which may explain why this is my all-time favorite movie.  When I watch it I get hit from two directions:  Capturing the moment on one hand and loyalty/longevity on the other. Isn’t this balance what you hope to pull off with your friends?  The times I remember watching this movie were all with great friends:  That first viewing in North Adams with the “TH1-ers” (Big Top # 2) was later followed by multiple viewings with the Franklin crew; renting the video, along with other rock classics, to watch in friend Pete’s attic.  And then there was the midnight Ottawa theatre viewing with Bob and other friends in ’82.  I vividly recall walking out of that theatre in the early morning as the closing number “Long Live Rock” blared in the background.  In all these cases, the memories are surreal.  I felt as if my friends and I were at the center of the universe, fully understanding the meaning of camaraderie like no one before us or since.  Yes, I believe I covered the gambit with my personal kids-are-alright moments. 

So I sit here in my Pepperell home on a rainy Friday nite, not sure if I’ve even come close to articulating the meaning of “The Kids Are Alright” ( ).  Then again, I don’t think anyone has, including Pete Townshend, and I don’t think anyone ever will.  I will close with this reflection: If there is a ‘give’ in this two song tug-of-war, it’s on the “My Generation” side.  I have always interpreted the lyrics “I hope I die before I get old” to mean getting old mentally, not physically.  And so in my mind “My Generation” is a sheep in wolfs clothing.  With this denouement “The Kids Are Alright” wins, and explains how the overall story of the Who has played itself out, in spite of their losses along the way, rather than the alternative version, which has played out all too often with others.


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Under the Big Top # 19: “Gravitational Pull”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “My Generation”
Album: My Generation
Release Date: December, 1965

Rolling Stone Magazine did a nice cover story on the Ramones a few weeks back. (** Side Note # 1:  I find it amazing that all four founding members of the Ramones are dead:  “The Cover of Rolling Stone” has been sadly eulogistic these days with David Bowie and Merle Haggard on other recent covers and now, Prince, in the mail just yesterday).  The issue included a review and ranking of the top 40 Punk albums of all time, the Ramones taking the top spot with their 1976 self-titled debut.  The #2 and #3 slots were predicable (The Clash’s 1977 self-titled debut and the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bullocks), but there were some interesting choices further down the list, including The Stooges, Devo, the New York Dolls, and Nirvana, none of whom are considered primarily as Punk bands.  That was fine by me, seeing as each write-up made a valid argument for having the given entry in the mix, including several as Punk inspirations.

The only problem was the inspirations did not go far back enough.  If they had, and were flexible enough to recognize singular songs instead of just entire albums, the Who would surely have been slotted in somewhere, considering their earliest chart entries were truly proto-punk songs: “I Can’t Explain’’, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”, and “My Generation”.  Yes, before this band was anything, they were a Punk-like band; maybe even the first (the Kinks could make this claim too).  I realize this probably does not impress many, but part of my job here is to make the case for why this was a big deal.  After all, the Who’s punk origins made them immediately relevant (due to the novelty) and is the key reason why this band will endure the test of time.  I’m not just talking through our age.  I’m talking Mozart-like endurance (the one commonality of the bands I focus on in this blog series is this conviction).  It’s pretty cool to realize something like this at the time it is unfolding, and that you have personally witnessed such a spectacle on numerous occasions.

If Punk itself was anything, it was liberating.  Many Punk bands came from lower class backgrounds, and the music was their ticket out of misery and conformity.  Heck, even middle and upper class kids who did not want to repeat the mistakes of their elders found solace in Punk, which rebelled against the establishment.  Punk even rebelled against most of the Rock establishment that preceded it, seeing as by the mid-70s many of those successful performers were slipping and sliding into the same hedonistic trappings that fame had incurred on so many other famous people before them.  How do you define Punk?  How about “laying it all on the line”; or “nothing to hide”; or “raw and unadulterated”; or “open wound”.  All these work.  I was too young and honestly not angry enough (thank goodness) to fully appreciate Punk when it erupted onto the scene.  But I knew at the time that it was real (my first memory of Punk was actually a funny one, with the Sex Pistols just starting their singular disastrous USA tour, Dad walking in the house after work, looking over at Fred and I with a glimmer in his eye and blurting out "Johnny Rotten!")

The sad fact with many Punk bands however, was that they did not last (fearing rust more than burnout perhaps) and more importantly, they did not evolve.  The Sex Pistols and many others of their contemporaries were shooting stars.  The latter-day Punk band Green Day (recognized at # 18 on the Rolling Stone Punk list for 1994’s Dookie) is a rare exception. They took their roots and stepped it up, ultimately producing the phenomenal Rock concept album, American Idiot. One of the incredible things about the Who is they did this too, only along a much longer and diverse continuum.  That proto-punk foundation was a solid one; extremely important for setting the Who’s work ethic and morality.  And they capitalized on it -- like no other band has since. 

The Who’s Punk origins are captured in all its glory on the 1970 Live at Leeds album, which has consistently been rated as one of the best live Rock albums of all time.  Even the non-punk songs (in terms of their original studio release sound and meaning) come across as Punk here.  Funny thing was I did not pick up on the potency of this album on the handful of times I first listened to the original compact release.  Some of this had to do with live albums in general.  I have forever known the potency of live music, but I guess I had always just concluded that “you had to be there”.  On top of this, as I have mentioned often before, I am an original-studio-album-oriented guy:  Great studio albums lay out concepts whether intentional or not, which I love to diagnose.  Also producers and engineers have the opportunity with studio albums to perfect the sound.  Live events make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to capture and tinker with sound in order to get the sought-after effect onto record.  That was my thinking for many years.

But as music critic Tom Moon once stated, “The more you love music, the more music you love”, and so it was really only a matter of time before this one sunk in.  The first live recording I ever really connected with was Bob Dylan’s 1976 Hard Rain album with the Rolling Thunder Review, which hit me many years after it should have.  And I do recall the very moment the planet’s aligned for me with Live at Leeds – literally.  I was sitting on the deck at Mac’s Humarock cottage on a lovely starlit night about 10 years ago.  Mac cranked up the album and I said to myself “ok, I’m going to give this another go”.   I sat back and looked into the night sky.  There to my left was Mars, and to my right Venus.  Together with my perception of where Earth was in comparison, I could suddenly see the Solar System at play (no, I was not stoned).  And as this image enveloped me, so too did Live at Leeds.  It was one of those glorious moments that you hope can last forever.  Some of it was fleeting, as such moments certainly are, but other aspects remain, including that then new found insight into the power of Live at Leeds. 

Part of the insight I obtained that evening had to do with how that 1970 concert on the West Yorkshire England campus of University of Leeds (at the University Refectory) progressed. The original 6 song release of Live at Leeds was a compilation of highlights from the show.  But in the process of capturing highlights, the original release lost much of the flow and buildup.   Much like fireworks, amazing live events have buildup, often reaching a grand finale.  In the case of a concert however, it’s not so much due to one final outburst as it is to a crescendo effect, or slow buildup.  The first time I realized this as important in a live event was when I went to see Richie Havens many years ago. The show started off slow and tame, but as it went on I came to the realization that I was slowly being reeled in, like a fish on a line.  Not soon after I had the same experience at an Arlo Guthrie show. Professional musicians are masters at this ability.  The Who were among them.  Recorded proof finally burst through with later releases of Live at Leeds which have included more and more of the set list. That evening in Humarock, Mac and I were listening to the whole 33 song event. That Planet-aligning vision, coinciding with my Live at Leeds eureka moment, was no fluke:  I was opening my eyes to a gravitational pull on multiple fronts that night.  (** Side Note # 2: Live at Leeds was the only live recording the Who released in Keith Moon’s lifetime, which dumbfounds me knowing their top-notch reputation as a live act).

Live at Leeds is a 4-man freak show.  It borders on sensory overload.  The Who had everything going for them that evening (and many others), and were masterful on all accounts: Drums, guitar, bass, lead and backing vocals.  Although the entirety of Live at Leeds is mind-numbingly good, I’ll cherry-pick out a couple of highlights here.  First, if I had to introduce someone who was completely alien to the Who’s music to try and define them, I might start with the Live at Leeds version of “Happy Jack”, which captures all their energy and potency in 3 minutes, and then I would compare it to the studio version.  This live version somehow replicates note for note the studio version, but in much more dynamic fashion because it is live.  The amazing thing about it is the studio version is by no means easy to replicate (it actually sounds live itself), and everything seems to be moving at 78 RPM.  But the Who pull it off.   Keith Moon’s drumming is mesmerizing.  Pete Townshend’s guitar work is majestic, as is John Entwistle’s bass and Roger Daltrey’s lead vocals.  Even the Townshend/Entwistle backing vocals are spot-on stupendous. And it’s all note for note (most incredibly Moon’s drums), syllable for syllable, and pitch for pitch (i.e. “lap, lap, lap”).  My point here is, even if you have never heard this song before, you could compare a studio listen of “Happy Jack” to the live version and I believe you would be astounded.

Other moments on Live at Leeds are not so emulative.  One of them is “My Generation”, the second to last number played at Leeds, and this week’s Big Top entry.  “My Generation” has been constantly tweaked in the Who’s live set throughout their 50-plus year career.  The version on “Live at Leeds” is likely one of their longest, taking up most of side 2 of the original album release (the only other song on side 2 was the encore, “Magic Bus”).  Its proof that a Who extended jam could rival anyone’s including the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

To witness the Who at their Punk best one only needs to watch the opening scene to the movie The Kids are Alright (“My friends call me Keith you can call me John”) which thankfully, Rolling Stone Magazine has posted on the web ( ).  It is a truly fascinating moment in pop-music history, and one that no band will likely ever be able to get away with again (for those who do not know what I am talking about, I’ll leave the resolution to this anticipation up to the video link to showcase). 

Years ago great friend Kurt posed the question to me “If you had to choose any event to attend from the past, what would it be”?  It’s a great question.  I immediately rolled out a few concert events, including Woodstock and the Neil Young Rust Never Sleeps tour.  I caught him by surprise, as he was thinking along the lines of sporting events (Bobby Orr’s Stanley Cup winner for example).  But after hearing me out, he reconsidered.  Anyhow, I’ve been thinking more about this exchange all week as I listened to Live at Leeds. No doubt I am adding it to my wish list.  It really is a seminal recording and must have been brilliant to have witnessed in the flesh.   I was once in the sensory-overload crowd with this album, but not anymore.  Through stars aligning, or gravitational pull or luck or blessing or wisdom or a little of it all, I’ve been transported to the other side.

I’ll close with a few images.  The first is a poster that Madeline and Jeff (who receive these weekly rants) presented to me on my 50th birthday.  It’s so punk, and so I dedicate this entry to these two great friends.  The second photo is one of my all-time favorite Who photos which is a caption in Richard Barnes sensational book The Who: Maximum R & B.  It’s another punk moment I could not pass on adding here (note the action-reaction between Pete Townshend and the preppy crowd).  Finally, I add those 4 recent Rolling Stone covers.  Let’s hope 2016 is done with taking away some of the great musicians of our time.

- Pete