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.


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