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. 

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