Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Under the Big Top # 26: “A Watershed Moment”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Guitar and Pen”
Album: Who Are You
Release Date: August, 1978

What’s the most complex thing you have ever done?  I’m not talking difficult per se, à la hiking the Appalachian Trail or running a marathon or dealing with an illness or a family crisis.  I’m talking about something that was complicated and took deep thought and innovation; something out of the box, cutting edge, multi-tiered, hard to mentally tackle.  This entry is centered on this concept because this week’s Big Top entry, “Guitar and Pen”, off of the transcendent Who Are You album, is for me one of the most complex songs Pete Townshend ever wrote and up there with the most complex the Who has ever performed.

Ok, well obviously I’m not going to get any responses to enter into this write up (although I would love to hear your stories) so I’ll proceed with one of my own complicated endeavors.  I kicked the tires on a few thoughts, including a model ship I built when I was a teenager; a handful of essays in college; and designing and erecting a unique tree house in our back yard here in Pepperell.  I finally settled on a program I wrote way back in 1991 while in my early years with the US Geological Survey (USGS).  This will take some effort to explain in layman terms, but here goes….

One of the scientists in the Massachusetts office I worked in at the time, Kernell Ries, a longstanding colleague and friend, who I continue to collaborate with to this day, came to me with a request for my services.  Kernell is a surface-water hydrologist who excels at developing regression equations that predict flows in rivers and streams using long-term records from fixed USGS gaging-station locations, along with landscape and atmospheric characteristics of the region of interest.  The resulting flow statistics are used for a plethora of reasons, from designing bridges and culverts, to regulating development, to water consumption, to constituent time-of-travel predictions (think hazardous spills) to habitat studies.  The list goes on.

I had been hired by the USGS several years earlier for my GIS skills.  Whenever I am asked what GIS is, my short definition is ‘computerized smart maps’ which I hope to explain more through further describing my role in the project I am writing about here.  In the late 80s and early 90s, GIS technology was still in its formative years, nowhere near the vision that later played out with GPS and Google Maps and a myriad of other geographic-centered analysis and use cases.  However, it was a time of rapid innovative discovery, with new cutting-edge ideas being explored and hatched on a daily basis by those who knew the software. Such is the environment for any technology when it begins to flourish.   

A vast majority of GIS map data comes in either vector or raster format.  Vector data is often brought into the computer world through digitization as points, lines, and polygons.  Examples include dams and sampling locations as points; rivers and roads as lines; and lakes and land parcels as polygons.  Linear data can additionally be built as geometric networks in order to trace routes, distances and other information from one point to another such as from home to work on a road network, or up/downstream on a river network. 

Raster data comes in the form of a grid lattice with every square pixel storing a data value.  Examples include 3-dimensional terrain maps of land-surface elevation values and landscape maps of forested, agricultural and urban land.  Digital raster maps can be overlain with one another to perform complex map-algebraic computations that help detect natural and manmade patterns and trends.  

Most GIS specialists excel in either the vector world or the raster world, but rarely both.  I was fortunate enough to be in a position to have to work with each of these environments for a handful of projects leading up to 1991.  This combination skillset would prove to be a complimentary and powerful one for Kernell’s needs and ultimately for the rest of my professional career to date.

The most important characteristic that needs to be computed for regression-based flow equations is drainage area.   This is the area of land that contributes riverine and overland flow to a user-specified point location on a river or stream.  It is also referred to as a watershed or basin.  In the days before GIS, this characteristic needed to be measured using an instrument called a planimeter by tracing along the pre-sketched ridge line (basin boundary) of interest on a topographic map.  In the mid-80s several bright minds at USGS’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Data Center figured out a masterful way to automate this process using derivate raster data from terrain maps called Digital Elevation Models (DEMs).  In a nutshell, a grid of flow direction values can be derived from a DEM, which can then be used to compute the ridge line of a watershed. 

One big problem however was that the DEMs in the early 90s were pretty course, often producing sketchy results, particularly in flat areas.   One consequence was that ‘synthetic’ streams in these areas, which could also be derived from the DEM, would often plot hundreds of feet from their true location, and/or merge and meander together incorrectly.  The erratic results did not give Kernell a lot of confidence, he being a meticulous planimeter delineator back in the day.  At one point Kernell pulled out a handful of USGS topographic quadrangles from our map drawers, each of which included a Mylar overlay of delineated sub-basin boundaries, adding up to several thousand across the State of Massachusetts (which was the study area for his  project).  Kernell wanted to see if I could figure out a way for these boundaries to be used in place of the DEM derived boundaries in all locations where the two were hypothetically coincident along the ridge lines.  I was aware that these boundaries had been digitized into a GIS datalayer by a colleague at the State’s GIS clearinghouse (now called MassGIS, which was formed as a result of a three-year cooperative program between the State and our office:  I was initially hired by USGS to play a role in the last year of that co-op) and I had knowledge of and access to this data, having worked with it some for several projects already.  Yet, seeing those overlays, worthy of display in an art gallery, and in their original hand-delineated state, was both impressive and inspiring. 

I also had access to digital stream-line data and other vector hydrography, digitized by the USGS mapping centers at around this time as Digital Line Graphs (DLGs).  In the two years prior, I had been involved in fleshing out this data, creating ‘centerlines’ through lakes and wide polygonal rivers by devising Euclidean distance formulas in the raster world to complete the connectivity of dendritic river networks in the vector world, from the multitude of small headwater streams all the way down to the major tributaries and ultimately the ocean (think the silhouette of a tree from twig to branch to limb to trunk to ground). 

Around the same time I started messing around with an Australian-source GIS program called ANUDEM (later renamed TopoGrid in the ArcGIS software and now called TopoToRaster), which enforces a DEM to recognize the spatial accuracy of digitized vector streams, thereby improving the spatial accuracy of the elevation values near the streams, and in turn getting the synthetic streams more in line with reality (though not quite getting to the even-more precise horizontal line up which would come later with a deep-trenching raster procedure called ‘burning’, developed by students at the University of Texas, albeit in a compromised fashion that rendered useless the output DEM, but got the desired spatial alignment with the vector DLG streams for derivatives like flow direction). 

Finally I was getting fairly proficient at programming in a GIS macro language called AML, which opened up all sorts of mind-expanding concepts for me related to computation and automation; functions, directives and variable settings being the cornerstone to this fascinating new world.  It was this combination of knowledge that got my brain spinning with ideas on how to help Kernell.  My plan:  Automate a way where I could get basins delineated from any click point on a river or stream by using both the raster DEM and the more accurate vector sub-basin boundary datalayer for Massachusetts.

Since just before the time I started working at USGS, the agency had initiated the first in a series of blanket purchase agreements with ESRI, one of the largest developers of GIS software in the world.  Today, ESRI’s flagship product is ArcGIS.  In the 80’s and 90’s it was better known as ArcInfo.  The ‘Coverage’ was the vector product of that time, and there were some interesting features of that product which have unfortunately disappeared with the newer ‘geodatabase’ model (at least without considerable effort to replicate).  One of them was the ability to build a single Coverage as both a line and polygon layer.   This allowed for a relationship that could be utilized between the two feature types: Depending on which typically-random direction a line was facing, there was built-in coding that determined whether an adjacent polygon was to the left or right of that line using the related line attribute table.  This coding was rarely applied in analysis, but now I had a good reason to use it.  I added two additional integer attributes to the line attribute table: ‘LOpen’ and ‘ROpen’ (left and right open).  If there was no flow relationship between the adjacent polygons I left these to the default zero values.  However, if there was flow relationship up and downstream, I would give one or the other a code of 1 to ‘open up’ flow, depending on the line feature’s digitized direction, when it got ‘tapped’ in the iterative stair-step program procedure I had now begun devising in AML. 

Ok, I had a coding scheme, now I had to figure out a way to automate it.  I tracked down a great “DO UNTIL” looping piece of code from a USGS colleague and tinkered with it.  This code would loop through a process over and over until it ran out of options, at which time it would move on.  I modified this code to work with my line attribute coding scheme.  Polygons would be collected systematically through this line-polygon relationship until all upstream polygons had been found. 

At this point I turned my focus to the click point and its immediate contributing area upstream.  This was the chunk of territory that had to rely on the DEM raster process devised by EROS and enhanced with ANUDEM, and since it almost always fell inside an existing vector basin polygon, I had to figure a way to only use the raster-derived watershed (by this time converted to vector) up to the points where it intersected the accurate existing vector basin boundary.  I devised how to do this by narrowing the analysis window to the basin polygon that the click point fell within.  After a few steps of finding a way to cut the new boundary at the first intersections (both sides) I had my final piece of real estate.  Combining this sub-piece with the first upstream basin polygon (or polygons) was a fairly difficult concept to work through and took some trial and error, but once I got it with some proximity commands I had my raster/vector merger.  From there I used the iterative DO UNTIL loop, until all upstream polygons had been collected, which I then proceeded to dissolve of internal boundaries to get the final basin boundary polygon from a click-point (hence my dubbing the program “ONEBASIN”).

Obviously this process needed a visual component for the user which I set up by first prompting the user for a latitude/longitude coordinate.  The initial map view consisted of the vector stream and ANUDEM raster (synthetic) stream, as well as the lat/long point, with instruction to click a point on the synthetic steam that best represented the equivalent location of the vector stream and the point (for the entire procedure, see the attached jpeg files from my scanned slides).  From there the program took off, showing the user the progress along the way.  The attached selection of slides from the talk I gave that fall in Portland, Maine at the annual Northeast Arc Users Conference (NEARC) show how it all worked.  Subsequent programs would take this boundary and use it as a cookie-cutter for other basin characteristics (i.e. forested area, urban area, precipitation, channel slope, mean basin elevation, soils, total length of streams, area of sand and gravel deposits, etc.).  The most significant ones would be added to a final program to run Kernell’s regression equations to get flow statistics.

Over the ensuing years Kernell and I would collaborate to bring this automation to the web, first as a state-wide product and later, after USGS Headquarters got wind of it all, as a National product for other State offices to utilize (with a significant amount of training from us).  That product is called StreamStats, and for many years, it stood head and shoulders above all other GIS web sites in terms of its advanced use of GIS functionality on the web.  Thousands of users hit the site daily on a regular basis.  StreamStats has been a tremendous success story for us.  Some of what I did had to be modified for the newer software, but that early “ONEBASIN” code still stands; a proud moment as a trailblazing procedure where I took a complex and disparate set of data and ideas, and customized it all to work for a very specific and revolutionary purpose. 

“Guitar and Pen” is one of my all-time favorite Who songs ( (for more on “Guitar and Pen” and the album it was recorded on, see Under the Big Top # 10 “A Who Album Review: Who Are You”). Thank goodness Keith Moon was still around for this one as for one last time Pete Townshend had all that brilliant one-of-a-kind potency of Who tools at his disposal (Moon, Entwistle, Daltrey and himself), making the complex, multi-textured structure of this tune possible.  Like the program I wrote, I believe Townshend had to work at it one piece at a time.  Complex ideas typically come together that way.  I’m thankful for those clairvoyant handful of times where multi-tiered schemes came together for me in life, if for only to give me a tiny bit of insight into the world of a genius.



Monday, June 20, 2016

Under the Big Top # 25: “Bloody Good Use of Cockney”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Bellboy”
Album: Quadrophenia
Release Date: October, 1973

On a ferry ride from France to Ireland during a life-changing backpacking tour of Europe with great friend Bob Mainguy in the summer of 1986, I stood outside on the decks for quite some time during the daylight hours to gaze at England’s southern coastline, in particular the intermittent ranges of white-chalk cliffs, as the ship wrapped around Great Britain to get to the Emerald Isle.  The region had captured my imagination after multiple viewings of the movie Quadrophenia to that point.  The most spectacular scenery in that film is along one of those coastal white-chalk cliffs near the seaside resort town of Brighton, where the lead character Jimmy, in a very agitated state of mind after a series of mishaps, rides a stolen scooter, ultimately gunning it directly toward the cliff, jumping off just as the bike careens over the edge and down to obliteration. 

The stolen bike belonged to the movie’s “Ace Face”, the head of the Mod pack so to speak (as written about in Big Top # 9, Mods were a British youth subculture of some renown in the early to mid-60s).  Jimmy too is a scooter riding, pill popping, fashion-conscious Mod, but considers himself just a face in the crowd, someone whom this Ace Face (played flawlessly by an as-yet famous Sting in the movie) would probably not recognize despite having shared moments at dance halls and in big fights against rival grease-haired ‘rockers’.  For most of the movie, Jimmy has great admiration for this seemingly composed rebel leader, but as the film lurches to its climatic conclusion his fondness abruptly crumbles. 

That moment, discussed below, is the last straw in a downward spiral for Jimmy over the prior 24 hours, culminating in that dramatic scooter ride along the chalk cliffs.  The rest of that miserable spiral takes place in London, and includes Jimmy 1) getting fired, 2) getting kicked out of his home, 3) getting two-timed by his girlfriend, 4) getting shunned by his friends, and 5) getting into a reckless accident which ends up destroying his own scooter.  After fleeing from the big city on his personal mind-warp journey to the coast on the “5:15” train (this mind-bending experience is mostly due to a heavy dose of uppers), Jimmy experiences that last straw when he spies the Ace Face at a fancy beach hotel employed in the subservient role of bellhop.  Jimmy stares in utter disbelief as this ‘leader’ of the pack caters to the hotel’s upper-class clientele; those same people whom the Mods were railing against.  After screaming out “Bellboy!” he rounds the bend into an alley and spots the Ace Face’s scooter, which he proceeds to hijack. 

The Quadrophenia song “Bellboy” is all about this encounter.  “Bellboy” is so profound in so many ways, that I thought it appropriate to break it down, musical sequence by musical sequence and lyric by lyric.  What follows is that breakdown.  You can follow along with this url link: (

First off an overview:  “Bellboy” is a two-character song; Roger Daltrey singing in the role of Jimmy and Keith Moon in the role of the Ace Face/bellboy.  This is the only well-known Who song where Keith Moon sings, and he does it brilliantly.  Generally speaking, Moon was a horrible music vocalist in most every circumstance (all one need do to confirm this is struggle through a cut or two from his singular solo effort, Two Sides of the Moon), and the rest of the Who did all they could to keep him away from the microphone in the studio since he was under the lifelong delusion that he was good at singing  (** Side Note: This internal battle is hilariously caught on record at the end of “Happy Jack” with Pete Townshend blurting out “I saw ya!” as Moon tries to slip into the recording-console room at the moment the rest of the band were performing the backing vocals). 

But Keith Moon was absolutely perfect for the role of the bellboy.  Considering how rarely Moon sang, how the heck did the Who figure out that he was the ideal vocalist for this song?  Listening to “Bellboy” I find this factoid alone a fascinating one.  Moon nails his vocals by exaggerating the absurdity of the character in his singing; in similar fashion to how Ray Davies could pull this same sentiment off for the Kinks in songs like “Mr. Pleasant” and “David Watts”, which was something that the other members of the Who frankly did not have in them.  I would go as far as to say that Keith Moon’s lead vocals in this one song ranks up with some of the best lead vocals in the entire Who catalog. 

Speaking of Keith Moon, “Bellboy” starts off with tremendously assertive drumming.  If a novice Who listener wants to get a good sense of Moon’s value to the band, the entirety of Quadrophenia is the best place to start:  This is his magnum opus.  It’s the record that first gave me true insight into the intrinsic value of this musical instrument when played at a supremely adept level.  Yes, it would take a Herculean effort, but this message did finally get through to me, and once it did, it opened a new world of perception to the drums and eventually to that other rhythm instrument, the bass (though the Who’s ‘rhythm’ section rarely adhered to this rather limited adjective). 

Ok, let’s move on to the lyrics, which I will color code: Red for Jimmy and Green for the Ace Face/bellboy.  I first have to note that I must not forget Roger Daltrey’s singing in the Jimmy role.  He is top drawer here too (making for a magnificent one-two punch with Moon).  The following opening lines by Jimmy (Daltrey) introduce us to the seaside setting, the ocean being a central theme to Quadrophenia in so many ways (including ultimately drawing out a ray of hope in Jimmy at the end of the story):

A beach is a place where a man can feel
He’s the only soul in the world that’s real

It’s a relief to know I’m not the only person who can feel this way at times (Pete Townshend has done this for me over and over again with his music).  From here the song “Bellboy” gets down to business.  It has not quite dawned on Jimmy (Daltrey) as to just what he is observing.  He realizes he is looking at the Ace Face but his mind has not yet accepted the absurd juxtaposition of the hotel uniform he is wearing, and so he daydreams a bit:

But I see a face coming through the haze
I remember him from those crazy days.
Crazy days.  Crazy Days

Images flash through Jimmy’s mind of the glory days:

“Ain’t you the guy who used to set the paces
Riding up in front of a hundred faces?
I don’t suppose you would remember me
But I used to follow you back in ‘63”

It is here at the end of this verse that the reality of Ace Face as bellboy kicks in with Jimmy and the music reflects this; the pace is faster, the tone more ominous.  Pete Townshend’s guitar playing sounds furious. After this short, intense musical transition, the bellboy (Moon) introduces himself in a self-mocking exaggerated cockney accent:

“I’ve got a job and I’m newly born
You should see me, dressed up in my uniform”

The Ace Face now bellboy continues by reflecting on the past himself.  In the movie, an earlier scene has a rumble taking place in Bristol between the Mods and the Rockers, with the entire resort town falling victim (a true story, with Pete Townshend retrieving some old news footage of the event as one of the many add-in effects between songs on Quadrophenia).  Included in the destruction is the hotel the bellboy now works at:

“I work in a hotel all gilt and flash
Remember the gaff where the doors we smashed!”

Jimmy gets back in the mix now, pointing his finger at the bellboy and screaming in incriminating fashion (much like the band did at Billy Idol when he played the role of bellboy in this tremendous footage:  From there it’s a back and forth between the two:

“I got to get running now”
“Keep my lip buttoned down”
“Carry this baggage out”
“Always running at someone’s heels
You know how I feel
Always runnin’ at someone’s heels”

A few soft John Entwistle bass notes transition the tone again, this time to melancholy, as the bellboy’s conscience seems to kick in.  This is where the depth of Pete Townshend’s intentions to the meaning of this song really becomes apparent.  Up until now “Bellboy” is about the notion of someone who disappoints us in life; perhaps a person who we held to high standards and later let us down.  That’s unique enough.  But here the songs focus shifts to the even deeper meaning of also disappointing ourselves, and soon enough realizing you are disappointing others.  I always knew there was something significantly more complex about this song, and yet I could not quite put my finger on it.  It was not until this week, when I gave “Bellboy” another series of good listens that I rounded out my understanding of the multiple levels of meaning that Pete Townshend intended when he wrote it:

“Some nights I still sleep on the beach
Remembering when stars were in reach
Then I wander in early to work
Spend my day lickin’ boots for my perks

At this point the opening stanza loops back (A beach is a place where a man can feel….”).  There’s not much to say about this part of the song other than recognizing Roger Daltrey’s extraordinary professional sixth sense that this is the second go-around, and so must build on the intensity of the first.  On the recent 50th anniversary tour, Daltrey called himself an alchemist in terms of his ability to interpret Pete Townshend’s music.  This part of the song is an excellent affirmation of that quote.

Another intense musical interlude is followed by Keith Moon bringing it all back home with yet another twist to the meaning of Pete Townshend’s song, the bellboy trying in vain to make sense of his plight:

“People often change but when I look in your eyes
You could learn a lot, from a life like mine
The secret to me, it ain’t flown like a flag
I carry it behind this pretty little badge, what says?
“I got to get running now”
“Keep my lip buttoned down”
“Carry this baggage out”
“Always running at someone’s heels
“You know how I feel
Always runnin’ at someone’s heels”

Bravo to the Who for giving me the opportunity to interpret in my own words another timeless masterpiece.


Monday, June 13, 2016

Under the Big Top # 24: “Unfinished Business”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Zelda”
Album: Scoop
Release Date: April, 1983

I’ve been listening all week to Pete Townshend’s Scoop compilations.  These albums are  but the tip of the iceberg in terms of a treasure trove of songs that were typically recorded in their rough-draft infancy, performed by Townshend alone in his home studio.  They consist of various released and unreleased music eventually taken on by The Who, as well as other demos.  These ‘Scoops’ are invaluable to the Who enthusiast, because they give us insight into the raw early visionary stages of what would become some of the best music of our time.  A number of the songs on these albums evolved further into their final pearl-like form after Pete Townshend presented them to the band. Others were rejected.  Still others never quite got to the point of presentation, as Townshend continued to grapple with the central concept of what he wanted them to be a part of. 

I have struggled myself this week to gel my thoughts in order to write-up a coherent blog entry, and it’s at least in part because of this all-over-the-map music world I’ve immersed myself into with the Scoops.  Alas, while hiking Mount Monadnock on Saturday I got an idea:  Intersperse bulleted comments of a handful of my favorite Scoop gems with personal thoughts that come to mind as I listen; in similar fashion to how Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan’s would occasionally release his thoroughly enjoyable “Emptying out the desk drawer of the sports mind” columns throughout his career.   My thoughts have fallen in line with the Scoop aura in general and so they associate to notions of coalescing, persistence, loose ends, unpolished fragments, abandonment and sources of inspiration.  Without further ado, here is my own personal version of emptying out that desk drawer of my Scoop mind:

  • “Zelda”(off of the original Scoop): This week’s Big Top entry (  “Zelda” was written during the Face Dances period (the band’s first post Keith Moon album) but never recorded by the Who. In an interview years after Moon’s death, Pete Townshend broke down briefly and confessed that he had never properly mourned his friend/bandmates passing.  There’s a line in this song “Keith has joined the Navy” which tends to support this admission.  As for the music in “Zelda”, I particularly love the entry of the Townshend-performed bass guitar at the 45 second mark of the above link, which I simply cannot picture (I can’t picture him playing drums either, which Townshend also routinely played on his demos).
  • I’ve always been impressed with colleagues at work who persistently put significant effort into writing up one idea proposal after another, knowing very well that many of them will never see the light of day.  Often these ideas are pie-in-the-sky, but still these workmates give it the old college try time after time.  Every once in a while, however, they get a nibble, and then before you know it, a funded project.  This approach works for them, but frankly, I don’t have it in me.  If a project has little chance to get funded, I struggle to put the time in to dreaming it up.  I need to see something developing before I immerse myself into it.  I suppose it’s why I never pursued baseball seriously as a kid: If the percentages are lower than average that a positive outcome is achievable, as is the case with batting average, I can almost feel the energy draining right out of me.  And yet persistence is not necessarily painted in this one light.  I can relate to it in other ways.  A hobby can be about persistence.  Creativity needs persistence.  Work ethic, exercise, endeavors in general; they are all about persistence. The endurance of love and friendship can at times rely on persistence.  Heck, sometimes this blog is purely about persistence.
  • “Football Fugue” (from Another Scoop:  I remember first hearing this and finding it odd that Pete Townshend had written a song about a soccer match.  The song uses hooliganism as an analogy to a Rock concert, with fantastic interplay between Townshend as the serious concert goer and Townshend as the fan who is just there to be a bit disruptive and have fun.  Pete Townshend recorded a number of songs with his father-in-law/composer Ted Astley and his orchestra, including this one.  A handful made it on to Townshend/Who albums (most notably “Street in the City” off the Rough Mix album and contributions to Who Are You).
  • I’m sure everyone can reflect on loose ends in their lives.  What follows are several that come to mind for me.  There’s that elusive 1950 D (Detroit) vacant spot in my Jefferson Nickel coin collection.  After I visit Nevada in July, I’ll be three States shy of a fifty-state sweep, with Hawaii, Kansas and Nebraska the remaining holdouts (*side note: I’d always intended on the singular no-visit being Florida, but I was forced to go there for a conference several years back; so be it).  As for Canada, I’m down to one Province (Saskatchewan). One of these days I’m going to purchase my first Townes Van Zandt album.  Will I ever get serious about the “4,000 Footers Club”? (Instead of focusing on new mountains to climb, I tend to repeat those already conquered).  The funny thing is, the closer I get to complete a particular goal, the more I resist the urge to do so.  I guess I kind of like the loose ends and it may come down to the quest being more interesting to me than the achievement.
  • “Lonely Words” (Scoop 3:  How this song did not get on a Townshend or Who studio album is beyond me.  It says something about an artist when they can leave such quality music on the cutting-room floor.  Pete Townshend’s ideas are so grandiose that some of them simply become insurmountable in terms of fleshing out, and so he’s left with great songs, originally meant for a grand concept that never came to fruition.  I believe this is a common trait in all those over-achievers among us, which leads me to believe that they need this debris, this flotsam and jetsam, to help round out the occasional pearl.
  • Thinking a bit more about my travels, several of my most personally-satisfying journeys have been to Northern outposts, including Newfoundland, the Yukon Territories, and my one venture north of the Arctic Circle to Bodo, Norway.  There is something about the remoteness of these locales that fascinates me. They have proven to be significant sources of inspiration.  When I have visited these regions, I always felt as if I were on the edge of the Earth.  In Newfoundland, the icebergs rolling in from Greenland may as well have been arriving from the heavens.  In Yukon, the mighty river that the territory is named after flows northwest; for all intents and purposes into oblivion.  In Bodo, I happened to be there in late June, and the 24 hours of daylight was the one time I can say I experienced a day that never ended. 
  • “Begin the Beguine” (From Another Scoop:  A beautiful Pete Townshend cover of this Cole Porter song.  There are a number of ways to delve into the soul of Messrs. Townshend, but if you want to take one of the easiest routes this is it.  
  • Back in Big Top # 14 I wrote about visiting friend Bruce’s home in the early to mid-70s and being fascinated with the 3rd floor 60s feel left behind by his older siblings.  Another great friend Pete’s home had its unique entertainment value too, this in the form of his older brother’s Beatles album collection.  Where I tend to leave loose ends, this was not the case with Pete’s brother Paul.  Paul’s Beatles collection was awe inspiring for anyone who even slightly knew this world.  He had the infamous “Butcher Cover” album, the “Two Virgins” album, and every picture sleeve 45 you could imagine.  Paul once took Pete, I and a few other friends to a Beatles Convention. He gave me great advice on a handful of 45 purchases, which I cherish to this day.
  • “Brooklyn Kids” (Another Scoop: I am seeing a trend here that when Pete Townshend writes a song based on observing people, it becomes orchestral.  Luckily he had his father-in-law to turn to in such times (see “Football Fugue” bullet above). 
  • Last year at this time I was in Juneau, Alaska. The region felt so isolated, primarily because there are no roads in or out of this part of the State.  The only way to get a car there is by boat.  Every road is ultimately a dead end.  I loved it.  Anyhow, the first day I was there I took a long hike into one of the many temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, which was a first for me.  I ended up pushing myself a bit and was still deep in the woods as the sun began to set (I have this obsession with not backtracking on hikes if I can avoid it and although this loop trail was of considerable additional and isolated distance, I could not help myself).  There were bears in these woods: Grizzly Bears.  I let my mind race a bit but finally found my way to shore.  However these shores were still miles away from civilization.  Six hours in the woods already, I was somewhat drained and had lost my reading glasses which made it difficult to follow my maps.  There was driftwood all over the inlets and related beaches and the sun was way down by now.  For a while I felt like that driftwood, but eventually found my way.  In the end though an incredible experience, and hey, I think it’s the type of adventure that brings me closer to understanding these Scoop albums.
  • “Eminence Front” (Scoop 3:  I had to include a demo that ultimately became a Who song.  Most of Pete Townshend’s solo versions were improved upon by the band, but this one is a rare exception.  This version is ultra-intense in a very sad but extremely real way, and reflects so much of what society is dealing with today. 
  • Persistence toward any goal can leave in its wake fragments and loose ends.  But like a manned raft that ultimately finds its way to civilization from a desert island after running a gauntlet of obstacles, there will be a core that survives this onslaught, giving the drifter a second chance on life.  When it works out this way, the story is all about overcoming hardship in the face of adversity.  Yet what is often overlooked is the debris; those fragments and loose ends left in the wake.  Sometimes these tell the real story, even more than the core story.  We are never really finished products, are we? In the end we are all going to have loose ends. 
  - Pete

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Under the Big Top # 23: “Music Is My Yoga”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Won't Get Fooled Again”
Album: Who’s Next
Release Date: August, 1971

We spend significant chunks of our lives alone with our own thoughts and actions.  This applies to virtually everyone including the most socially networked extroverts among us as well as those with the closest of marriages.  Take Dad for example; up and out before the crack of dawn, his daily revitalization, which includes morning Mass and a greeting of the rising sun from any number of vantage points, most notably the Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth on Cape Cod, is already half full with reflection and design before many of us have even cracked open our eyelids.  I know this is an invaluable start to Dad’s day, if for no other reason than seeing how he conducts himself when with all of us.  Dad is a testament to the notion that what we do with our time of solitude can fuel all those periods when we connect with others.  When you’re alone time is productive, so is you’re interaction time, the one a mirror image of the other. 

Pete Townshend’s approach to songwriting falls under the same logic.  Listen to his home-studio demo tapes of Who songs (released in a flurry of Scoop albums over the years, which I will review and do highly recommend) and you get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a brilliant mind at work, with vocals and multi-overdubbed layers of music; Townshend demoing just about every musical instrument that ends up on the final Who studio versions.  This inner-sanctum of creativity first became general public knowledge to Rock critics and fans upon the release of Who’s Next in 1971.  The big reason:  Synthesizer music, meticulously composed by Pete Townshend, which was used extensively on the album for the unmistakable backing-track melodies we hear in rock classics such as “Baba O’Riley”, “Bargain”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (** Side Note: On the surface, it can seem a bit absurd that these oh-so familiar of grooves in Rock history are from pre-recorded synthesizer, which supposedly goes against the grain of what this ‘spontaneous’ music genre is about.  But they were very well crafted, and done with only the best of intentions, so this train of thought has never really gained any traction).   Synthesizer was so distinct to the Who’s new live sound in the early 70s, that when it was being pumped in on backing tapes by sound-engineer Bobby Pridden, fans started asking how this music came to be.  The answers gave them deeper insight into the germinating steps that ultimately lead to the making of a Who record. 

It was not long into my own fascination with the Who’s music at the age of 18 that I discovered this factoid too.  And with that insight I began thinking more about how ones time spent in solitude effects his/her ability to inspire others.  Yes I had this concept tossed at me in one way or another from a handful of knowing adults before this time, including my parents, my Aunt Ginger (whom I promise to talk more about at some point), and a few great teachers.  I would learn to appreciate this wisdom much more as the years rolled on, but at that particular time, the music (and the occasional comment or action of close friends) percolated to the top of my sources of inspiration.  In this way music contributed brilliantly to my own personal rite of passage toward knowing the importance of alone-time and reflective thought.  Some people take Yoga or other forms of meditation to do this.  I never needed it.  Music was and continues to be my Yoga. 

Pete Townshend once stated the day you open your mind to music you are halfway to opening your mind to life”.  I love this quote.  It emphasizes the potential of music without overemphasizing it.  Music is not the answer, but it is a means to the end (halfway is pretty significant though, is it not?)  Another thing this statement stirs in me is a reassurance that the concept of this blog series has a solid foundation.  I had not read this quote until recently, but when I started this blog back in 2008 I may have already channeled it.  Music got me halfway, yes, and I guess I have felt obliged to take it further.

How do you open your mind to music though?  Not everyone crosses that line, and there are surely other paths that point us to deliverance.  But still, this is a curiosity.  Does it take a certain mindset?  Are some of us born with this capability while others are not?  I can really only speak for myself, and even that’s difficult.  In fact, it’s taken 223 blog entries so far to try and explain.  Ok, that part is a dissertation.  But at the very least, is there a moment I can look back on and pinpoint when my mind opened up to music?  Maybe, and it just may be that nite at the Mohawk Theatre in North Adams in the winter of 1980 (see Big Top # 2 “The Awakening”).  There were earlier moments that I can certainly credit as waves:  A children’s record player that I used over and over to listen to “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Edelweiss”, along with other traditional songs.   There was Mom and Dad introducing the family to the Beatles with a purchase of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Red Album (“Michelle” and “Paperback Writer” being personal favorites).  There was a moment I documented already listening to Mick Taylor’s lead guitar in the instrumental portion of the Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, along with many other notable waves. But I believe the wave of all waves, the tidal wave, was that viewing of The Kids Are Alright for the first time. 

Music is a state of mind.  It can quiet a room of chatter.  It can pull you out of the doldrums, transporting us into an entirely different mental place.  It has its roots in every civilization in the history of mankind.  However, music can be very difficult to define, which only adds to its aura. WIKI for example starts with the sentence that music is “an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound and silence”.  Hmmm; ok.  One thing Pete Townshend tried to convey through synthesizer was that music is very personal, and that we all have our own musical portrait that can be captured through computerized biographical data.  Much of the synthesizer sound on Who’s Next was developed through this very personal experimentation, with input from all four members of the Who and many of their audience.  At the very least, what I get out of this is that Townshend takes his profession very seriously.

The following video recording is of the Who performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” ( ) which was done for The Kid’s Are Alright movie.  It was Keith Moon’s last live performance, and since this song was the final encore, it is the last of the last.   We get to see the Who in all their glory here.  John Entwistle’s stoic bass playing, Pete Townshend’s masterful stage presence, a laser-light synthesizer bridge to die for,  Keith Moon’s drum solo immediately following, and Roger Daltrey’s famous blood-curdling howl following Moon.  You get the windmills and microphone twirls and treble-rich sound and Thunderfingers and acrobatics (including Townshend’s knee slide across the stage during Daltrey’s howl) and signature Who lead tradeoffs between bass, guitar and drums and equipment smashing and camaraderie. This is powerful stuff.  It’s a perfect example of why I call this series “Under the Big Top”. 

“Won’t Get Fooled Again” was originally meant for a movie, Lifehouse, which never came to light (see Big Top # 7: “A Change of Plans”).  The song is a cynical take on politics and power:  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.  Pete Townshend has embraced the sentiment at times and tried to distance himself from it at others.  Personally, I don’t read into the lyrics all that much.  The music stands on its own, pretty much explaining the sentiment in ways the words can’t hope to match.