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.


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