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 fiancée 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.


1 comment:

  1. Well Johnny D's managed to last almost 30 years from back then. Too bad they went down just recently.

    Great recollections.


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