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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Under the Big Top # 34: “Rising to the Occasion”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You”
Album: Tommy
Release Date: May, 1969

This past week was the 48th Anniversary of Woodstock; the three-day music festival which was by most accounts a monumental watershed moment, as is evident in its being included in virtually every 20th century American history documentary known. Everyone has an opinion about Woodstock, with most views slotted at the far left of the spectrum (the epitome of the ‘Age of Aquarius’) or the far right end of the spectrum (a decrepit hippie drug fest).  It could be argued that, given the Nixonian reaction soon after to the entire hippie subculture (the Kent State killings for example) and the escalating rift between left and right ever since, this singular event may likely have been the catalyst for the intense political polarization that exists to this day, both here in the USA and in other parts of the Western World.

Contrary to his inharmonious view of the multitude of Who shows that most others who were there rave about, Pete Townshend has always been pleased with the band’s performance at Woodstock, particularly his and Roger Daltrey’s contributions.  But for many years, Townshend’s views of the event in general had fallen more in the right-leaning camp (“I hated it” he once said about the experience).  By 1998 however, Pete Townshend started sounding a bit more objective about Woodstock.  That was the year he did a mini solo-tour (just three shows in the States) with a number of musicians from his mid-80s “Deep End” band (see Under the Big Top # 30), which centered on an appearance at “A Day In the Garden: Woodstock” on August 15th at the original Max Yasgur’s Farm locale, along with other musicians from the ’69 event including Melanie, Richie Havens and Ten Years After.

One of the three shows Townshend and his band performed was a warm-up gig the night before the Woodstock anniversary show, which was at Boston’s Harborlights Pavilion (the third show was a benefit for Maryville Academy at Chicago’s House of Blues, which was filmed and put to record).  I was there in Boston, along with Nancy, Becca, Dave, Mac and Bouv.  It was a rare treat for any Who fan to witness a Pete Townshend solo show.  The band opened up with an original Woodstock classic, Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” (they would later in the set add that band’s other Woodstock hit, “Going Up the Country”).  It was strange hearing Townshend sing in that offbeat high-tenor style of Canned Heat’s then lead singer Alan Wilson (who died the year after the original Woodstock of ‘acute barbiturate intoxication’ at the rock-cursed age of 27; two weeks before Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before Janis Joplin).  But he pulled it off as the show captured a spirit from the past that even those of us who were not there in ’69 could feel.

What also worked were Pete Townshend’s in-between-song reflections of the event that launched the Who into what remains a very small circle of superstar rock immortals.  His mixed feelings came through loud and clear that evening, but at least they were mixed and not his utterly negative reflections to that point.  It was clear Townshend had thought quite a bit about what the original event meant to him leading up to that 29th Anniversary evening.  His past thoughts that Woodstock was just a teenage wasteland had now rounded out some (just listen to the Who song “Cry If You Want” off 1982’s It’s Hard for a taste of how he felt about the hippie movement in the decades following the 60s). 

It’s taken me some time to understand Pete Townshend’s original viewpoints, but now I think I get it.  Tommy was just released at the time and the Who performed much of it that pre-dawn morning (most of their set was in the dark; onto the stage at 5 am and off not long after the sun rose on the 3rd day).  Tommy has plenty of spiritual undertones, and Townshend was then deeply into a personal faith journey, in part due to his intense effort in putting the story of the deaf dumb and blind boy to life.   Pete Townshend made many observations prior to the Who’s set that nite, walking among the crowd and the like to see if the mood was appropriately similar to his, especially considering the peace-centric promotion of the event.  He was disappointed for the most part, seeing that the crowd appeared to be agnostic to what could have been a group spiritual quest:  A sacrosanct Tommy-like moment lost. 

And so at the Boston Harborlights Pavilion time appeared to have softened this view, with Townshend acknowledging who was he to judge the motivations of others who were there.  Perhaps many in that massive crowd were on a quest with him after all.

Pete Townshend has been quite outspoken over the years about the fact that much of what the Who have done throughout their history is in action/reaction to their audience, which would include at times mirroring what they observed in the crowd.  Many of their early stage moves for example were simply aping their Mod-audience’s dances, which would evolve nightly.  A core part of the Quadrophenia concept album was based on the personalities of the Who from the perspective of the stories central character, Jimmy.  And then there’s the title of the album Who Are You, which has no question mark (as originally noted by the great music writer/editor Matt Resinicoff) suggesting, if you know the lyrics, a strong tie between the Who and their fans (see Big Top # 10). 

When Pete Townshend wrote the Tommy song “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You” he had this band/fan relationship in mind.  He saw Woodstock as the pen-ultimate moment to seize in this regard, and when all was said and done he was disillusioned.  But my goodness, did the Who ever do their part.  Each time I listen to their performance at Woodstock, particularly “Sparks”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You” I find it more awe-inspiring than the time before.  It’s one of those achievements where I can’t help but think that God himself guided the band’s performance to precisely the way it played out, if for no other reason than to reveal what humans are capable of when they form a four-piece rock band. 

I found a mesmerizingly fantastic version of the Woodstock footage of “See Me Feel Me/Listening To You” on YouTube, which includes the lead-in “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbaIB7rurys) (to jump right to “See Me….”, scroll to the 3:26 mark).  Here we see Roger Daltrey majestic in all his golden-Greek-god glory.  John Entwistle and Keith Moon did their inimitable rolls on bass and drums, Enty chiming in backing-vocal high-notes in earnest, spine-chilling fashion (very unusual to see the Ox appearing earnest, but he does here).  And Pete Townshend?  Well, he orchestrated the entire thing; his guitar playing otherworldly.  His stage act jaw dropping.  His focus; laser-beam intense.  Townshend’s guitar work starting at the 6:50 mark of the attached is border-line scary: A Godzilla-like sound (it also reminds me of the sound in  Saving Private Ryan when the German tanks roll into the destroyed French village then occupied by the small group of American soldiers).  If that did not wake up the remaining souls in the crowd that morning nothing would. 

The Greatest Live Rock Band ever at their utmost best on the ultimate stage.  Wow!

I played a bunch of Woodstock footage for my daughter Charlotte on Sunday.  Richie Havens intense improvised singing of “Freedom (Motherless Child)” to launch the event; Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” (including the incredible Maichael Shrieve drum solo), the aforementioned Canned Heat songs, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”; Joe Cocker interpreting in bluesy fashion the Beatles “With a Little Help from My Friends”,  Janis Joplin singing “Summertime”, Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher”, Country Joe McDonald’s “I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” (anti-Vietnam War).  I could have gone on and on.  The totality of quality songs played that weekend is truly astounding.  But of all these songs and acts, it’s the Who that appear to have played their best at the perfect time.  And I believe they gave Woodstock that bit of hard-edge that it needed to fully legitimize it, separating it from your standard folk festival.

Charlotte asked me if I wished that I had been at Woodstock.  Well, I was 6 years old, not quite ready for Prime Time, but I know she means.  I’ve been to my share of festivals.  I know the aura they can give when done right:  There can be a certain type of community feeling that you simply do not get anywhere else; particularly at the multi-day/night events when you get to hang around fires, converse and sing late into the evening with people you have only just then met.  Woodstock was special because it was the first and because it was the biggest (at least half a million people if not double that) ,and because it drew together an amazing and eclectic group of musicians together, like no other event has done since.  So yes, I would have liked to have been there, and so would millions of others.  A parade of Altamont’s and Watkins Glen’s and Isle of Wight’s would never be able emulate what that first big festival event accomplished.

It would have been all in vein however if I missed that 5 am Who set.  I’d like to think that if I were there and in the right place as Pete Townshend was roaming through the crowd earlier that night that that I’d have given him a sense that at least some of us were there to deliver the promise of what Woodstock was supposed to mean to all of us.  In terms of how the Who performed, I don’t think it would have mattered much at the time:  They were flawless.  But who knows how things would have played out if Townshend came away from Woodstock with a positive attitude.  Maybe the Lifehouse project would have come together.  Maybe the Who would have gone to India and then recorded their own version of “The White Album”.  Or maybe the Who would have disbanded:  Pete Townshend going on a spiritual retreat from life in the public eye and then never returning.

As for the me that never was, the me that Charlotte conjured inside myself as wishing he was there? Well, hopefully I would have been ‘in the moment’ and taken in that Who’s set with awe-inspiring abandon, realizing it was all a two-way street as I absorbed the lyrics to “Listening to You” (below) and possibly even realizing later that I may have had an affirmative effect on Pete Townshend in that chance encounter in the fields.

Listening to you I get the music.
Gazing at you I get the heat.
Following you I climb the mountain.
I get excitement at your feet.

Right behind you I see the millions.
On you I see the glory.
From you I get opinions.
From you I get the story.

Pete

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