Friday, July 29, 2016

Under the Big Top # 30: “The Townie in All of Us”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Come To Mama”
Album: White City
Release Date: November, 1985

Of all the albums I looked forward to in terms of release, the one that had me most in anticipation was White City.  I was at the perfect point in my appreciation for the music of Pete Townshend at the time, who was relatively elusive in those days, which simply fueled his fan base for fodder of any kind.  The Who were defunct for much of the 80s, which was probably a good thing considering how badly Rock music was trending that decade.  Much of it seemed contrived, over the top, digital, stylized, and plastic.  The medium had an aura of having sold out to big contracts, big productions, big videos, and big hair.  Looking back on that period now, it still feels that way.  Rock music before and after is much more grounded than it was in the Reagan years. 

And so, Pete Townshend was on his own, which worked well for him in the 80s given his approach to music as a way to express honesty, often of the brutal variety.  There was no democratic process to weave through as a member of a band anymore.  And his dedication up to that point worked very well for him.  If the Who had disbanded earlier or later, things may have been different; Townshend could have been another victim of the crassness of the era.  But by sticking with the band thru the Keith Moon era, at times relying on his loyalty alone, and then giving it a brief go-of-it afterward before realizing the magic was gone, he won his wings so to speak.  The payoff was an open palette and clear mindedness to do with what he pleased.  Out of this came the sobriety of White City.

White City was subtitled “A Novel” (in a radio interview promoting the album Townshend stated “well, I figured if I could get away with ‘Rock Opera’…”).  The record was accompanied by a one hour film drama and follow up interview with the ‘author’.  Most of the songs from the album are in the movie, with a handful in their entirety (which distinguishes this soundtrack from Quadrophenia, which unfortunately pieced out sections of most songs, rather than allow them to play out).  For the most part the film was disjointed, quirky and slightly bizarre (for example, a live rendition of “Face the Face” on a platform atop the deep end of the local public indoor swimming pool was choreographed by synchronized swimmers).  But I loved it and I watched often (I’ve still got the VCR cartridge on my bookshelf).  My goal in this entry is to get to the bottom of why.  ** Side Note: The band Townshend played with in that “Face the Face” segment of the film later went on a mini tour with him and dubbed themselves appropriately as “The Deep End”.

The White City was a section of Western London that Pete Townshend grew up near (in Shepherd’s Bush) and which he strongly connected with.  It was a poor neighborhood, built rapidly as post-war subdivisions in areas that were levelled by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.  Townshend’s storyline focuses on a character who makes it big as a musician (a slightly fictional version of himself), coming back to write about his upbringing and also to write about a few of the people he left behind, particularly where they all were at that moment in their lives (he does not leave his character out of this analysis).  It’s fascinating when you take in the album from this perspective, because you get to see a range of priorities:  What matters to one person does not necessarily equate to another, particularly in relation to some of our preconceived notions of what it takes to be successful.  In other words, the ‘townie’ view of staying put in the White City (as opposed to venturing out) comes thru loud and clear here.

Ah the townie view; I’ve known it well myself, having several very close friends who have been content with what they have been handed at face value.  This view of staying put plays out in many ways.  As with those of us who venture forth, I believe there is a certain personality trait in the townie attitude.  At the risk of generalizing, I’ll reflect here on one situation that I butted up against this past week.  A close associate passed away suddenly.  He was a townie, which probably had an effect on his work ethic.  Lance had no ambition to ‘climb the ladder’.  He was content with what he could do for others in the office environment:  Punch in, do your job for 8 hours, punch out.  I was travelling for work when the news got to me.  It was difficult to take in.  Lance was the other “GIS guy” in the office.  He dealt with the day-to-day in-house requests and local projects.  We worked well together primarily because he knew what he was doing, which allowed me to ‘spread my wings’ to tackle the so-called big-ticket items in the region, and beyond.

When I got back to the workplace, I headed right down the hall to the office of his closest friend, Linda, who is also a townie type. The two of them ate lunch every day together and travelled to her Mom’s hometown in New Brunswick, Canada on several occasions.  I asked innocently about services and what we could do to recognize Lance.  Now, don’t get me wrong, we get along fine, but Linda looked at me defiantly and said there would be nothing of the sort.  This was a private matter, for the immediate family only, and the USGS was not invited to participate.

Ok, I know this happens in other circles outside the townie realm but it all had an air of familiarity about it.  I’ve seen this stubbornness-to-the-end before.  Regardless, it was a hard pill to swallow.  I mean, how do you put closure to such a situation?  Do you move on as if nothing has happened; as if Lance never existed?  There was a divide here that I had to overcome (I’m working on it) but of equal importance, there was a strong curiosity stirring inside me of trying to further understand the difference between Lance’s townie world and mine.

I had a lot of time this week to listen to White City, travelling north to New Brunswick for an extended Steeves Family reunion (the coincidence of travelling to New Brunswick allowed me to reflect on Lance’s and Linda’s travels there together).  As with many of my Big Top focuses this year, it had been too long since I took this album in.  As I drove, I recalled listening to the first single on WBCN upon its release, the aforementioned “Face the Face”, and being disappointed.  It was way over the top; the drum beat heavily overdubbed; the horns not even remotely resembling Rock and Roll.  But the lyrics resounded.  There was something there.  I could not put my finger on it then, but there was definitely something there.

The B-side, “Hiding Out”, which thank goodness was also played soon after, immediately resonated with me though.  I thought “now we are on to something”.  From there it was on to that radio interview which I heard a week or so later (with Tony Pigg on Infinity Broadcasting), and it was one sensational song after another:  “Brilliant Blues” was magnificent, “Crashing by Design” and “I Am Secure” riveting; the title track suburb.  This was coming across as an album where Pete Townshend was turning a corner; almost born again.  But then again, no: I really believe this was Townshend simply building on top of an amazing resume of truth in music to that point.

One thing I absolutely need to make clear in this back and forth townie vs branching out approach to life is that neither is superior or inferior.  All the townie folks I have known are very bright.  It may be partly due to the fact that there’s no muddling of their thinking in terms of lofty ambition, and so there is a certain clear-headedness that permeates their day-to-day activities in ways that those of us who pursue big dreams often struggle to rediscover from our youth.  On the other hand, I don’t think it can be argued, even by the townie types, that with a range of experiences comes a certain wisdom that can only be gained by venturing out and taking risks. 

Still, Pete Townshend seems to emphasize in White City that despite these differences, there are so many more similarities.  The song “Face the Face” is a continuation of Townshend’s never-ending insistence that we all look at ourselves in the mirror.  In this tune, he’s making the case that we should never let past transgressions drag us down to the degree that we no longer pursue to our ideals.  I think my townie friends would agree.  “Second Hand Love” links the main townie character (Townshend describes him as Jimmy from Quadrophenia 20 years down the road) to Townshend’s own star-studded life, seeing as what at first listen appears a song about a jilted lover becomes clearer in the film as a child not getting the prime attention from his Mom that he desperately needs (which is reflective of this rock star’s upbringing).  “Brilliant Blues” is about being able to look back at troubled times during a period of renewal.  “Crashing by Design” is about being willing to take blame for your own bad decisions and not point fingers.  “White City Fighting” is about a yearning to relive our glory days, no matter how twisted those days were (the line “to resist the temptation the gutters all threw up” sounding oh so mid-80s Dylanesque). All in all it’s a pretty straightforward Townshend concept album and much of it crosses the townie/seeker divide. 

There are a few songs on White City that could only be from the star’s viewpoint: “Hiding Out” and “I Am Secure”, both wonderful tunes about observing the world around you and then recording those observations in some manner (one line contrasts the White City experience for the writer with the matter-of-fact statement that, though this be the case, “Tomorrow, I’ll walk among heroes and princes”).  But even here, the townie cannot be overlooked:  These folks observe and conclude as well.  Most of them simply don’t feel the need to write about it. 

The opening track, “Give Blood”, is a tricky one.  England experienced war closely, personally, and intensely in both World Wars and this song drives at the heart of that topic: “But you may find that blood is not enough” Townshend sings (I love the line “Parade your parlor in iniquity” in reference I believe to photos in the parlor of loved ones who died in the wars).  The sentiment hits across socio-economic boundaries; the townie, the rock star, and everywhere in between. In the film interview, Pete mentions that war was thankfully not an option for his generation, but seeing what their parent’s generation went through, they needed an outlet to try and express their own kind of courage, and so many turned to the honesty of Rock and Roll as a surrogate.  Some like the Who ventured forth to perform it.  Others like the townie characters in White City simply listened intently.  The song concludes “So, give love, and keep blood between brothers”, an apt analogy to Rock and Roll idealism.   ** Side Note 2: Pete Townshend’s Dad ‘Cliff’ was a saxophonist in the Royal Air Force Dance Orchestra during the war, and his orchestration of “Face the Face” may have been done this way in honor of this.

This week’s Big Top entry is the final track on the album and in the movie; “Come to Mama” (  This was my favorite part of the film.  It touches a chord every time I listen and watch.  The song is about the pitfalls of pride and tackles the relationship between the Jimmy/townie character and his wife.  The couple is estranged for much of the movie, which starts with his multi-dish-smashing moment in their kitchen early on (during which the instrumental portion of “Come to Mama” plays in the background, the female character with nowhere to turn, crouching in the corner of the bedroom).  But I empathize with both of them, and so when the movie ends at the ‘Deep End’ of the swimming pool (the morning after the big show by the returning rock star) and they glance at each other across the pool while the swimming-lesson kids jump in and “Come to Mama” plays out, I see it all come together (I wish I had this scene to show, but I cannot track it on YouTube). A glance turns to a smile and then laughter.  This moment raises these townie characters, and gives them credence.  It reaffirms my solidarity with their supposedly more insular world than mine. 

The first 2.5 minutes of “Come to Mama” is instrumental (so uniquely musical that NPR used this obscure song as the opening to one of its premier programs in the late 90s); a very nice experimental piece.  But for me the song becomes riveting with the lyrics, which are emitted by Pete Townshend in some of his most impassioned vocals:

His pride is like a bandage
He's wrapped in a warm cocoon
His pride is just like heroin
He's back inside the womb

His pride is like an ocean
Encircled by a reef
His pride's a hypnotic potion
His memory is a leaf

Her pride is like armor
Flaming ring of fire
Her pride is like a blindness
An ever tightening wire

Her pride is like a razor
A surgeon's purging knife
Her pride is like a censor
She's slashed out half her life

Here be the moral of the White City story (excuse me; White City Novel):  Getting past our pride, fears, and insecurities.  In the townie, this may manifest itself one way, as I saw this past week with the ultra-private mourning of a family to the exclusion of others who feel a need to do the same.  But make no bones that in this album Pete Townshend attempts to open our eyes to the fact that these insecurities are universal; no stereotypical personality trait has a corner on this market.  If over-exclusive privacy is a symptom of this crutch in the townie world, then vanity surely is the mirror image to beware of in those of us more ambitious types who venture beyond the familiar confines of our first homes.  For us to avoid such pitfalls, we need to reflect back on our youthful selves, and reconnect with the townie in all of us that is there waiting to be heard again and again.

This entry is dedicated to the memory of Lance Ostiguy, colleague and friend. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Under the Big Top # 29: “Secrets to Success”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Success Story”
Album: The Who by Numbers
Release Date: June, 1975

Thus far all of my Big Top entries have been centered on music composed by one man; Mr. Pete Townshend.  This week I’m taking a temporary detour to focus on the Who’s number two songwriter, John Entwistle.  The Ox wrote a fair number of songs for the Who, and had a pretty successful solo career too (for a hint of Enty’s independent identity, YouTube his hilarious cover of “Mr. Bass Man” off of Rigor Mortis Set In.  He’s the bass vocal…. what else would you expect?).  Entwistle’s Who compositions include such classics as “My Wife”, “Medac”, “Boris the Spider”, “Cousin Kevin”, “905”, “The Quiet One”, “Dangerous”, and my favorite “Had Enough” (off of Who Are You).  Each of these songs gives a unique angle into the mind of the Who’s anchor man.

“Success Story” is another of John Entwistle’s top-tier songs, and the focus of this blog entry.  I can relate to this Who By Numbers cut, not only because of the meaning, which I will get to shortly, but the general notion of piling everything you’ve got into one basket.  Much like George Harrison with the Beatles, Entwistle typically had very little wiggle room to add personally-penned music to his band’s albums (in the case of Quadrophenia, the Who record that preceded The Who By Numbers, Enty had no wiggle room, with every song on that double album a Pete Townshend composition).  I found myself relating to this quandary after my earliest entries to this Big Top series:  Many were album-oriented, with significant details about individual songs, and it has taken a while to find my legs again now that I am circling back to these albums for other highlights after such a heaving-out of insights the first time around. 

Yes, Success Story is an all-eggs-in-one-basket song, which is why I discuss it here.  There are so many easy-to-grasp lyrical twists and turns in this tune, which overall is about the trappings of Rock and Roll stardom.  In honor of this multi-angled song-story, I’ve decided that I can’t leave any of the lines out of this review.  And so, what I will attempt to do from here on is add each and every line to my talking points (bolded and in italics).  To follow along, put yourself somewhere in the late 80’s, heading to a nightclub to see John Entwistle with a group of good friends.  I’ve combined a handful of Enty shows from over a ~ ten year span into this one all-encompassing, slightly stylized (but based on true stories) account.  I hope you enjoy.

Friday night, I'm on my way home, they ought to make work a crime.  I'm home for the weekend, I'm gonna make the most of my time.  Man, what a great time to be alive.  I’m heading out to see John Entwistle tomorrow night at the Channel in Boston with my fiancĂ©e Nancy, Cousin Becca, Brother Fred, and great friends Dave, Bouv, Kurt and Mac.  This is goose-bump territory.  The Who are a Big Stage Band, each and every member a formidable presence, and here I am about to see one of them in an intimate setting.  How can you contain that bass sound into such a small environment as a night club?  I guess I am about to find out!  I am going to try to savor this moment and maybe write about it someday.  ;)

There’s a Rock and Roll singer on the television.  Giving up his music gonna take up religion.  I crack a beer at my home (and Fred’s) on Lake Street in Waltham and pop The Kids Are Alright into the VCR player.  This favorite-band-of-mine is so refreshing in their soul searching.  As I watch, the intensity of the music has me reflecting on the Who’s spiritual output in songs like “Bargain”, “Don’t Let Go the Coat”, “Drowned” and virtually the entirety of Tommy, and I think of Al Green, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens who abandoned secular life for a time for a Reborn religious path.  This could have been what happened to the Who by the early 70’s, seeing as Pete Townshend was definitely in search of a deeper meaning to life, but they persevered with their mass-appeal talents.  It would take an essay to explain how I feel about this, but in short I am grateful for his choice.

Deserted Rock and Roll
To try to save his soul

Saturday night, gotta gig with the band, playing the electric guitar.  Someday I’m gonna make it, gonna be a super-duper star.  It’s Saturday evening.  We gather together in Boston for the seminal event.  John Entwistle made it BIG a long time ago, which makes it pretty cool that he is doing this club tour.  How many musicians can you name who have been on such a big stage on a regular basis and are happy to go back to their roots?  David Bowie (with Tin Machine), and The Band (post Robbie Robertson) come to mind, but the list is not long.  The Channel is hot as hell, but I love it here.  The place radiates a rich history of amazing musical events (an exceptional regret of mine was missing one of Roy Orbison’s last night’s alive here in 1988, a consequence of a miserable income at the time on my part.  The show was later reviewed in spectacular fashion by Rolling Stone Magazine).  Will this venue still be around 10-20 years from now?  For that matter, will TT the Bears, Zanzibar, Nightstage, Johnny D’s, The Rat, Jonathan Swifts, Bunratty’s and other great venues survive? (None of these did).  I take in the moment as a time capsule to relish…. just in case.

Get a flashy car and a house for my Mom. The big break better happen soon, ‘Cause I’m pushing twenty-one.  Due to equipment smashing and some bad contract decisions, the Who took a long time to strike it rich.  If Tommy did not become such a huge success, the debt they were under could have crushed them before they took their spot on Rock’s Mount Rushmore.  I look around me, my crew and the crowd.  There’s a sense of solidarity here, of a common purpose.  When you see the Who at a big stadium the true fans are thinned out significantly.  But in a club to see John Entwistle, everything gets condensed.  It’s like maple syrup thickening in a kettle.  The crowd crams together on the open floor in front of the stage.  The guy to my left waxes poetic on what the Who means to him.  The middle-aged gal at the bar had a great Woodstock story of how she stayed awake to see the Who in the wee hours of the second night. 

Just like Cinderella when she couldn’t go to the ball a voice said “I’m you’re fairy manager, you shall play the Carnegie Hall”.  When the Who did strike it rich with Tommy, Kit Lambert, their manager, saw what a grand spectacle this “Rock Opera” was when performed live and began promoting his boys as the best live act around.  Word soon spread and not soon after the Who found themselves playing (and selling out) in the classic grand old theatre houses of Europe and North America.  Does the Ox think about this storied past as he saunters on stage with his band, the Rat Race Choir?  There is a definite star presence about him.  Of course his larger-than life shimmering bass guitar doesn’t hurt this image.  The band rips right into “Real Me”.  What a rich sound, especially the bass!  This is going to be fun.

I gotta give up my day job, to become a heartthrob.  I may go far, if I smash my guitar.  John Entwistle only smashed his guitar once or twice I believe, but on this night we do get to see his angry side when the electricity surges through his microphone and zaps him:  Not once, but three times (this actually did happen, but at another event at Sir Morgan’s Cove in Worcester a number of years later).  The Ox swings his guitar at the stand and refuses to sing for a stretch, leaving the lead vocals to his bandmates until the stage hands can figure out the problem.  That’s ok for now, as one bandmate, Godfrey Townsend (no relation) does a darn good (and uniquely his own) cover of Roger Daltrey’s vocals and the band launches into the Daltrey-sung Entwistle song “Had Enough”.  Wow!

Away for the weekend, I've gotta play some one-night stands.  Six for the tax man, and one for the band. I’ve only had to travel for work a few times at this stage in my life and I already have a sense of what it must be like to live life on the road.  The lack of stability and being away from loved ones is not easy to get used to and I can see why some musicians go off the deep end.  I keep this perspective through the middle part of the show, knowing this is but one pit stop in a multi-city tour for John Entwistle and his band.  After so many years performing you would think him a bit jaded.  Maybe he is.  Maybe he’s just working on talent alone.  But he looks to be having fun with his bandmates, something you just don’t see much of in his interaction on stage with Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (they all suffered from losing Keith Moon in this respect).  The set list rolls through “Boris the Spider”, “My Wife” and a tremendous rendition of “Success Story”, which is so perfect a selection for this evening.  I look over at Dave.  He nods as if reading my mind.

Back in the studio to make our latest number one. Take two-hundred-and-seventy-six, you know, this used to be fun.  The Ox has always come across to me as a man with amazing patience.  His longtime band consisted of very strong personalities, and I hear he kept a low profile when the internal debates got heated.  Pete Townshend would one day speak of him like a big brother figure, even though they were the same age:  A sage-like presence who did not have to say much.  This is one of the fascinating things about the Who to me; Entwistle’s quiet, somber demeanor.  I think it a major reason they stuck together for as long as they did.  I reflect on my friendship with Pete Faenza; a man of few words, but whose presence is felt just as strongly as the rest of us in the hometown gang.  Just then, the band launches into “The Quiet One” including the lyrics “It only takes two words to blow you away”. 

Monday morning, I just got home, six and the birds are singing.  I need a drink and my clothes are wet, ooh, and my ears are still ringing. Pete Townshend’s tinnitus has been well documented, but according to the man himself, John Entwistle’s hearing was even worse.  He never complained though.  The Ox just kept turning up the volume.  Roger Daltrey often complained, but to no avail.  He didn’t even have an ally in Townshend who once told him that he would completely agree with Daltrey if this were a regular band.  But in somewhat muddled, lamentable fashion he responded that the Who was not an ordinary band, and so this was their reality (I love that story so much I had to tell it again).  The volume on this night was certainly powerful, and yet not overwhelmingly so (that would come later when Enty’s hearing got worse).  Anyhow, I can’t think of a better crew to see this show with.  There is so much appreciation for the moment:  If I could save time in a bottle…..

There's a rock and roll singer boppin' on the TV.  He used to be a preacher, but now he sings in a major key.  The band wraps up with “Shakin’ All Over” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (and often covered stupendously by the Who).  What a show!  On his way off stage, the Ox walks right toward me.  I reach out and he follows suit; we shake hands and nod at one another.  The Who know a fan when they see one.  They’ve been at this for a while and I’m thinking this is part of the skillset they pick up from experience.  As for these near-concluding lines in “Success Story”, it is funny that in all three cases mentioned earlier (Al Green, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens) they all came back to Rock and Roll.  Wait, I take that back…. they all ended up balancing their outlook, realizing what their God-given talents were, and taking everything into account, including their spirituality, moving forward in their lives. 

Amended his decision to the new religion

The greatest testament to a musical event is if it sticks with you through life.  Those Entwistle shows have been lasting.  One of them at the Mama Kin Club in Kenmore Square Boston in 1996 (since closed) has to be on my top 10 list of concert events.  I did not know it at the time, but it turned out that show was being taped for a soon-to-be released live album Left for Live.  “Success Story” was on that album, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, all the lyrics are here in the heading of each paragraph, John Entwistle giving his views on success (or lack thereof).  What is success though?  Did he get it at least partially right?  The dictionary describes success as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals”.  I thought long and hard about this all week and ended up with two takeaways.  The first is that John Entwistle was able to reveal success simply by scaling back after such lofty achievement.  When you can continue doing something you love after all the fame and fortune has played out, in any setting you desire, that to me is the epitome of accomplishment.  You slip back into your own skin so to speak with all the wisdom of your experiences in tow.  The second is more related to my life as I reflect on the wonderful ties I have, including everyone who attended these John Entwistle shows with me, and the experiences and challenges we have all been through together, and knowing in my heart now that it is all so enduring.  That to me is true success.

The links below are versions of “Success Story”.  The first is of John Entwistle’s hilarious contribution to the movie The Kids Are Alright.  The second is the full song off of The Who By Numbers.  The third is the live recording from that Mama Kin Club show.

This entry is dedicated to all those dingy nightclubs that are closing by the score and the friends and family who have frequented them with me.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Under the Big Top # 28: “A Balancing Act”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Don’t Let Go the Coat”
Album: Face Dances
Release Date: March, 1981

Music can have a funny way of revealing where your life is at any given time.  Often, you don’t even realize it while it plays out.  It’s only after a period of self-reflection, as has been the case with these blog entries, where you can begin to piece it all together. 

So it was my senior year at North Adams State College, North Adams Massachusetts, 1983.  Quite often during that year, my roommate Bob Bouvier (Bouv) and I would call the school’s radio station to request the Who’s “Don’t Let Go the Coat”.  The question as to why we were fixated on this song instead of moving on to request any number of other far more popular Who songs, or great songs from other musicians, has crossed my mind on numerous occasions since.  It may have been partly as a goof on the DJs:  They rarely ever denied our signature request, and so we persisted to see how long we could keep it up.  I don’t believe they ever got sick of it though.  On the contrary, after several weeks of us doing this, I think they actually looked forward to these repeated inquiries.  Perhaps these DJs started looking at “Don’t Let Go the Coat” as a radio-station theme song.  Perhaps Bouv and I started a movement, with others eventually dialing in to make the same request (we did start hearing it independent of our calls).  Then again, maybe these DJs were simply having fun with it too.

As for Bouv and myself however, I believe that the core reason we requested “Don’t Let Go the Coat” on a regular basis was that we thought this a fantastically underrated song, and we wanted the world to agree with us, or at least North Adams.  There was something uniquely refreshing about it, and more importantly there were certain intangible qualities to the music and lyrics that we could identify with.  Alas, the greatest of compositions are not easily interpreted; time, age, and ultimately the wisdom that can come with these unavoidable realities frequently needs to play out first.  And yet, even then you may never really get the interpretation right.  But you can reach a moment when you are satisfied with your own conclusions.

My senior year at North Adams was an interesting period in my life, which I have discussed before in these pages.  Back from an unforgettable junior year on an exchange program at Carleton University in Ottawa, here I was trying to wrap up my undergraduate education on what I felt was a down note.  Ottawa is the capital of Canada for goodness sake:  Parliament buildings, the longest skating rink in the world (the Rideau Canal), embassies, and a multi-cultural setting, with French-speaking Hull, Quebec just over the Ottawa River.  These factors along with the great friendships I had forged there made the entire experience unforgettable.  North Adams seemed utterly dreary in comparison.  It was not long into my return that I felt stuck in a rut, or even worse it seemed as if I were going backwards.  Many of my old friendships and connections were gone or had dispersed across campus.  It just did not feel right…. at first.

Through a series of snubs, delayed reactions and blunders, I found myself in an unanticipated scramble for a place to live and ended up with two new roommates who I knew somewhat from seeing them on campus my freshman and sophomore years, but who I’d never really connected much with.  One of them, Bouv, turned out to be a breath of fresh air.  Bouv was an open book, full of a youthful abandon and wonder that I was soon captivated by.  It was not long before he brought this out in me.  In life’s journey, we all meet people who alter our perceptions of what it means to be real.  Love can do this for sure, but so can unique friendships.

Bouv came from a low-income background in relation to everyone I had befriended to that point in my young life, and at that time I could relate to his plight.  We lived in a rundown off-campus apartment and struggled to make ends meet in regards to rent and basic necessities.  During the winter months, the heat would often go on the fritz.  There was one stretch where we found ourselves qualifying for some form of regional subsistence welfare (the details are sketchy) and so we would head downtown to pick up our weekly block of cheese.  I must say, this was no fault of Mom and Dad.  They would have immediately reacted to the situation and helped me out.  But by the time we are seniors in college, many of us tend to try and cover up our living status from our parents, trying to work things out on our own (I see this in my daughter Charlotte).  In hindsight, this is character-development phase we all should to go through.

Obviously, Bob Bouvier had dealt with this lower-income status far longer than I.  He was a natural at it.  This was his turf (he got us qualified for those chunks of cheese).  The experience surprisingly grounded me; more so than I had been in quite some time.  And was it ever funny to live with Bouv in such circumstances.  Rarely a day went by without us laughing ourselves silly about one or another aspect of our then reality:  The off-kilter neighbor in the duplex next door screaming for her cat at night; our landlord’s inability to remember his promises to fix things; our joking of a need to leave a nightly sacrificial lamb for the giant rat in the house; the barren refrigerator; the lack of a backdoor staircase into the backyard; the hole in the wall we could crawl through to greet our apartment neighbors.  Bouv had a way of making it all downright farcical.  I believe humor was the safety mechanism that kept his world sane (later when I read an interview in Rolling Stone about Jim Carey’s meager and yet hilarious upbringing it all made more sense).  ** Side Note: A little more insight into the humor of Bob Bouvier: Years after school, Bouv had told me about an Alumni Survey he got from North Adams which included a question asking what he was doing for current employment.  He entered “Sasquatch Searcher”.  I don’t believe he ever heard from the school again.

Bouv was also open to discussing faith more than any other of my friends since high school. We attended on-campus Mass together on Sunday evenings, and I am confident that faith factored into our soul-searching approach to music.  We dug deep into very specific bands; the Who and Neil Young in particular (I talked about Bouv in a ‘Forever Young’ blog entry too).  Not necessarily in trying to interpret, but truly listening, appreciating and reveling in it.  Music and religion intertwined in those days (come to think of it they still do).  I’m not saying we were angels…. far from it I must admit.  But we did channel something innocent within ourselves that year which I have not tapped to such a degree since.

When you’re as free-spirited as Bouv and I were in those days, you are a little closer to the flame of truth than at other times in life when you tend to put up barriers of one kind or another.  Whether we know it or not, we are all searching for that right balance of who we are in order to maximize on the positive effect we can have on those around us.  It can be tricky.  Yes there is the spiritual emphasis, but take that to the extreme and you’re a monk.  Yes there is the philosophical emphasis, but take that to the extreme and you’re a bore.  Yes there is the carefree emphasis, but take that to the extreme and you’re homeless.  Yes there is a breadwinner emphasis, but take that to the extreme and you’re a workaholic. Yes there is a ‘life of the party’ emphasis, but take that to an extreme and you’re self-destructive.   Mix it together however into the right blend of a personal concoction and you can find your soul.

This to me is the message in “Don’t Let Go the Coat” (  Pete Townshend is a soul searcher, more so than any other musician I listen to other than Bob Dylan.  The early 80’s (when Face Dances was released, on which “Don’t Let Go the Coat” is the 2nd track) was a difficult period for Townshend, as he had then recently lost several close friends (Keith Moon and manager/producer Kit Lambert) to drug abuse and was struggling in this regard himself.  I recently watched a YouTube video of a Pete Townshend interview during this period where he was talking about Moon’s last years (when he was off-and-on trying to turn his life around), reflecting on how much more accessible he was as a human being during that time compared to the world renowned “Moon the Loon” showman of days gone by.  Townshend’s conclusion:  Losing the showman meant losing some of the extraordinary talent Moon had behind the drum kit.  He could not have it both ways.  Townshend did not say this was good or bad.  He was simply stating a fact in his mind.

But maybe Pete Townshend had it a little bit wrong, and it goes back to that message in “Don’t Let Go the Coat” (I say this partly because Townshend has contradicted himself on this issue, at one time emphasizing that Keith Moon was playing very good drums near the end of his life).  There’s a balance in all of us.  Recalling when I got married, and all these parts of my life came together for this one time to attend, there was a moment where I got a bit overwhelmed, thinking “I was this Pete with my family, that Pete with cousins, another Pete with colleagues, another with childhood friends, another with North Adams Part 1 friends, another with Canada friends, another with North Adams Part 2 friends, and so on.  How am I going to reconcile all of that?  I overcame the anxiety however, when I seized the moment.  The lesson:  We don’t necessarily have to choose one persona or another.  We just have to blend the best of those personas together; find where that soft spot is, that sweet zone in our own unique journey.  I was close to that balance in 1983.  I continue to look at it as one of a handful of bell-weather periods that I can try to emulate today.

And so, I’ll continue to hang on to that coat…. for as long as it takes to get there.


Monday, July 4, 2016

Under the Big Top # 27: “Friendship”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “A Friend Is a Friend”
Album: The Iron Man
Release Date: June, 1989

Of all the Who shows I have seen, the closest to a Who-fan dream-set-list was probably the ’89 Reunion/Anniversary Tour, which I witnessed at the old Foxboro Stadium that summer.  Among the deeper, not oft-played cuts that evening were “Amazing Journey”, “My Wife”, “Sister Disco”, “Rough Boys”, “Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand”, “I Can See For Miles”, “A Little Is Enough”, “Join Together”, “Trick of the Light”, “I’m One”, and “Too Much of Anything”.  It was a treat for those of us who long for a shakeup of the standard fare from time to time.

Also performed that evening were two new songs, “Dig” and “A Friend Is a Friend”, both from the then-just-released Pete Townsend musical The Iron Man.  The Who, whom had not recorded together in the studio for seven years, were ‘special guests’ on the album for two songs: “Fire” (a radically-adapted cover of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown song of the same name) and the Townshend-penned “Dig” (prompting this nugget of trivia in Who history: What is the only original Who recording that Simon Phillips plays drums on?).  Both “Dig” and “A Friend Is a Friend” were highlights for me that evening.  On the studio version of “Dig”, Roger Daltrey sounded like a man who yearned for the magic of the Who, and he did not take the moment for granted.  His heart and soul went into that song, which I could feel when it was performed live in Foxboro. 

As for “A Friend Is a Friend”, a wonderfully upbeat Pete Townshend tune, I wrote a story inspired by this song back in 2009.  Seeing as my son Peter reconnected with an ‘old’ middle-school chum over the weekend, who similar to my friend in the story below, also flew up from his current home in Florida, and with the coincidence of my listening to The Iron Man all week, I’d like to resurrect it here.

Blog entry, August 27, 2009: I’ve heard it stated often and also experienced it: You make connections with an old friend who you have not seen in a while, and it’s like no time has passed.  Whatever bond you had way back when kicks in again, almost immediately.  Old memories are brought back from the dead and new ones take form.  This rekindling has never failed me, but if there was ever a time it would be put to the test it was two weeks ago.  Because two weeks ago, I reconnected with a friend I had not seen in twenty eight years.

Jeff Dangelo was a neighborhood friend all through grade school. He moved to Alaska with his family after high school and later ended up in Miami, Florida after joining the Air Force.  I made a few comments about him for Entry # 67 (the original “Gem-Video” write-ups which are available for your viewing pleasure on this Blog site) while lamenting the fact that we had lost touch.  Before two weeks ago, most of the old gang would have likely admitted that the chances of seeing Jeff again were slim at best, and I was beginning to believe it myself.  Too many opportunities to reconnect had fallen by the wayside: There was a last minute cancellation to attend my wedding, and a few other aborted reunions.  Also, for whatever reason, I’ve never been to Florida, never mind Miami. Ten years had gone by since Jeff had touched base with any of us.  Fate seemed to weigh heavily against us ever seeing him again and it appeared we had all moved on.

Twenty Eight years is a long time and a lot of water can pass under the bridge in that span, particularly if it’s that period of your life that covers your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s.  For me, there was college and road trips, double dates, bachelor parties, weddings, home purchases and children, along with concerts, sporting events, weekend gatherings, parties, new friends, and, unfortunately/inevitably, funerals.  Even if there was a reunion, the idea of reconnecting at any meaningful level seemed farfetched.  We are all after all very different people in our middle age than when we graduate from high school…. aren’t we?

Two weeks ago today, I was about to find out.  A series of events over the previous month or so had led up to that point.  There was the initial suggestion by my Sister Amy that I get on Facebook (something I was very reluctant to do) and the virtual guarantee by Cousin Jack that it would one day pay off (Jack also made a noble but futile attempt to track down Jeff after reading the email for Entry # 67).  There was the surprise Facebook ‘visit’ from Jeff’s wife, Ivonne, asking if I was indeed who I appeared to be.  There was a follow up two hour phone conversation with Jeff, during which I half-jokingly suggested he join the old gang in Humarock at Mac’s cottage that very weekend.  Finally, there was the email from Jeff, stating he had a ticket and was ready to board a plane the very next day.  I spread the word to a shocked gang and we began to piece together what was to turn out to be a classic weekend itinerary. 

That Friday afternoon heading into Logan Airport, it all felt a bit bizarre. I was reassured, however, thinking back on the prior 24 hours and the reaction I was getting from everyone about seeing our old friend again. And so, after Jeff and I spotted one another in the baggage area, and sized each other up for a moment, that old truism kicked in yet again.  And though this time it was a twenty eight year challenge, it mattered not.  We were back on a track we left behind many years earlier.  There was no shortage of laughter and conversation on the drive back to Franklin.  On the contrary, we did a LOT of catching up on that ride, tumbling over one memory after another as well as catching up with each other’s lives to the present.  This carried through for the remainder of Jeff’s visit, not just between him and me, but everyone else as well. In some ways, Jeff’s visit even bridged a few gaps between the seven of us he left behind:  A much needed missing puzzle piece, I suppose.

Friendship can be a funny thing, playing out in all sorts of ways.  Two weeks ago, I saw it as a whole of eight; in a one on one moment; and all permutations in between of 3 or 4 of us, and so on.  I’ve seen it on entirely different planes with other friends from college, work and extended family, and certainly have seen it play out with Nancy’s long-time and extremely loyal friends (including Madeline, who is on the receiving end of these emails) and the friends of Fred, Jen, Joe, Amy, Pat, and their spouses, as well as Mom and Dad. 

This week’s Gem ‘A Friend is a Friend’ is live concert footage of Pete Townshend performing this song and it touches on much of what friendship is all about.  Sorry for the back-to-back Townshend-centric videos, but this I realized would happen sooner or later during the compilation of these Gems: There’s too much in Pete Townshend’s catalog (with and without the Who) that passes for Gem material to continue to avoid this inevitability.  As for this particular Gem, after what transpired two weeks ago, I’m more believing of Townshend’s lyrics now than ever before.  Below the Gem link is a second url link of the same song from the animation movie ‘The Iron Giant’.  Below that are the lyrics to ‘A Friend is a Friend’.

I searched a bit for other definitions of friendship on the Web.  Here’s one from a 19th century writer that stuck: “Friendship is the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring all right out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful friendly hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth and, with a breath of comfort, blow the rest away.” 

Ok, perhaps a line is needed in this definition regarding tossing some friendly abuse out on occasion, but not bad.  Not bad at all.

And this feedback from Jeff after reading my post:  Pete, old friend/new friend. As if my reunion with you guys couldn't have been any better, you top it off with your Gem e-mail. It brought tears to my eyes, as well as Ivonne's. You truly may not know how healing it was for me to see you all, and to know that I'm still, after all this time, thought of as a friend. I know now more than ever I won't waste this re-connection, and will consider going "home" every year a new tradition. Sorry I don't check my e-mail as much as I should, I really don't spend time on the computer that much, but I'll try harder. Keep those Gems coming, that's pretty cool that you write stuff like that all the time.”

Keep those friendships alive, everyone.  That advice includes me.