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.



  1. There's something about those school years that can get you to that point of psychoactive equilibrium. I reached it in the last full year living around my college town in 1975. Probably haven't been quite as well off since but hey, life goes on. I had trouble getting 'welfare food' part of that year when I was more or less homeless, because they required an address. I eventually got some ...

    1. Jeff, thanks for the feedback. I recall hearing some of your stories about that point in your life


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