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

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