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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”:  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oR9vESiIDms).  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”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBRG-KI_UWk). 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”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha600FUzGTk). 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”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkT8W6u81Ks).  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”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKyBt6b2IUU).  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” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4POBe1L8BcI).  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”: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZ54CefyLfc). 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” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucl0MKkYVaQ). 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” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JtYgQxetek). 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”.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7rh0f1WFms). 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.

Pete

3 comments:

  1. Pete. You nailed it again. Thanks for bringing back memories of the album that first brought me into Pete Townsend's life. The songs that you introduced to me....brought me to the realization that transformed him, for me, from a rock-star to human and loving husband/family man (seemingly).

    Your look's so incredible...your body's so edible...!

    Awesome

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Fred. Amazing that you focused on that line in the song. Check out what the excellent 1980 Rolling Stone Magazine (David Marsh)review said about that line: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/empty-glass-19800626

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  2. Pete. masterful write up, once again. Empty Glass was the album that moved me quantum deeper into an appreciation of Pete Townsend. You

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