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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Under the Big Top # 35: “Transition”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Outlive the Dinosaur”
Album: Psychoderelict
Release Date: June, 1993

It’s hard to absorb, but over the past 25 years, there have been only two full-fledged original studio albums behind which Pete Townshend was the creative spark.  The most recent was Endless Wire, the Who’s 11th original disc, which was released in 2006.  Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1993 and Townshend’s last solo album (to date….one can only hope); the sturdy, ambitious Psychoderelict.  That concept album was a failure in terms of record sales, not quite breaking the 200,000 mark upon release (the record company was anticipating 5 million in sales), and ultimately leading to Townshend’s decision to pull the plug on his solo-record contract and pretty much call it quits (which again remains the case to this day).  ** Side Note: from his own accounts, Pete Townshend continues to be prolific in writing and recording music in his home studio, he has just not released much of it.

I’d had fellow fans of Pete Townshend’s music (both solo and with the Who) to turn to for feedback my whole young life to that point, but when Psychoderelict came out, I felt that I was on my own for the first time.  Nobody I knew got into this album at all.  I recall raving about the first single “English Boy” to my brother Joe, and sensing ambivalence.  Others seemed stuck in the past:  Fellow Who-crazed friend Kurt was never really a Townshend-solo guy in the first place, but in the decade leading up to 1993 that was all you were going to get.  And on the theatrical tour that supported the Psychoderelict concept, I suffered the ignominy of listening to good friend Bouv shout out for older material during the performance of the new stuff. 

Psychoderelict was unique, but not that unique.  The music itself was sound, arguably Townshend’s most even-keeled effort since 1980’s Empty Glass.  No, there was something else going on with all the indifference, something more overarching, and I was beginning to realize that at least some of it had to do with the fact that many of us were moving on in our lives.  Transition was all around me.  Children were entering the picture.  Careers were being established. Expectations were being altered.  Personally, I was a year into my 30s and in another year I would be anticipating the birth of my first child.  Life was getting serious.  In comparison, what was the big deal with another Pete Townshend album anyway?  There was a strong sense that everyone was putting the Rock and Roll world behind them, at least at the level of intensity we had been accustomed to when it came to the excitement generated upon the new release from a top-tier talent. 

Don’t get me wrong… I can fully understand these developments:  It’s all an important part of what life is all about.  But still, it was a hard pill to swallow at the time.  There are interesting periods in our lives where we have to weigh our practical selves against our creative, artistic selves.  This was one of those periods.  For me this clash of thinking has always posed questions: What do you do to adapt to societies norms while at the same time try and maintain a spirit of cutting-edge imagination?  What do you do to be a breadwinner in a job market of restricted options, while at the same time maintain your integrity?  How do you keep an open mind in a sea of conformity that is often ready to marginalize us unless we go along with the majority ways of thinking?

This just happened to be the initial dilemma facing the Psychoderelict lead character, Ray High (a combination/twist on Ray Davies and Nick Lowe’s namesakes to honor their deep-thinking reputation as British Rock musicians; a trait Townshend succeeded to emulate in the Ray High character).  Perhaps the album and its concepts were a big reason for my feeling the way I did at the time (but if so I did not make that connection right off since the concept was initially of less interest to me than the music itself).  Anyhow as the story unfolds, Ray High confronts his post-stardom reclusiveness after his manager tells him he’s matured (“I’m not mature, I’m just derelict!” High retorts, hence the album’s title).  From there it’s a myriad of the same middle-aged emotions many of us grapple with.  Yes, in typically insightful fashion, Pete Townshend was once again relating to his audience’s emotions by connecting with where we were at that stage in our lives.

What emotions you ask?  Well, there’s “I Am Afraid”, which soberly confronts our inability to change even when we know the effect of our lifestyle is not good for those around us (in an interview years after the release of Psychoderelict discussing this song, Townshend used the example of how he enabled Keith Moon’s self-destructive behavior despite feeling a strong sense that his life-of-the-party bandmate was not long for this world.  He also has discussed the song in the context of the effect we have on our children when we raise them during a period of self-abuse).  There’s “English Boy”, which is about the negative effect we can have when we point fingers at other easy targets (in this case older Brits calling out the younger generation of boys) when it’s more appropriate to look in the mirror.  “Let’s Get Pretentious” is about the importance of taking risks, even in the face of ridicule.  “Early Morning Dreams” tackles how difficult it is (if not impossible) to go back to something we started (and abandoned) at a younger age, in the hope of giving it new life.  “Now and Then” on the surface appears to be about falling in love with someone you just met, but a deeper meaning is the ruinous effect that cheating can have on your family.  Underlying it all is the effect of fast paced change in the modern world.

All heady stuff and it pointed me to another related reason why Psychoderelict did not make as big of a splash as had been hoped:  This was the first album in Pete Townshend’s career that was virtually devoid of innocence.  Yes, Townshend had always been serious, but that often came with a sense that what he was experiencing was fairly new to him.  In Psychoderelict, it was clear that this man had been around the block a few times.  Those of us who were willing to weave through this sad but familiar reality were in a position to conclude that at least Pete Townshend was not afraid to admit it.  And so we could relate more to his post-release comments about what he was really searching for in this album:  A core truth that Townshend felt was insidiously vulnerable in that aforementioned new age of rapid change and access, personified in the internet.

I believe we all look for innocent, fresh thoughts in the artists we turn to.  It’s invigorating and hopeful.  When a musician gets heavier and heavier in their lyrics, they risk losing all but their most empathetic audience (Bob Dylan being a rare exception).  But there is no other option for a true artist:  They have to follow the truth!  Otherwise they lose their artistic creativity.  In the end, it’s more important to avoid at all costs losing your artistry than to lose your audience.  Pete Townshend has always made the right choice in this regard; often at the expense of his own dignity (which is the key reason why I find his music so appealing).  And he has followed that path to the present, in the end (at least up until now) acknowledging that when the response became placid, it was time to internalize. 

A lot of big ideas are fleshed out in Psychoderelict.  The basic premise revolves around the stereotypical personality traits of the three primary characters; 1) the already-discussed serious musician Ray High 2) his shallow, money-grubbing (albeit loyal) manager, Rastus, and 3) Ruth Streeting, a confrontational DJ who is an outspoken critic of High.  These three characters never sing, rather they narrate in the middle of and between songs (much like Neil Young’s Greendale tour which came later, actors played their parts on stage during the tour that followed the album’s release, which was intriguing to watch).  Ray High is ‘tricked’ by Streeting into coming out of semi-retirement in order to help a young artist who writes to him for guidance (in actuality it’s Streeting in disguise).  Interspersed throughout the story are reflections into Ray High’s earlier aborted opus, Grid Life, which was never released because it was too ambitious for anyone but the author to get (this is where the internet angle gets fleshed out some).  Similarities to Townshend’s Lifehouse failure (see Big Top # 7) are unmistakable (some of that music is used) but the depth and complexity of the Psychoderelict concept overcome this otherwise eyebrow-raising obvious connection. 

A minor negative aspect of Pete Townshend’s legacy will likely be his at-times-failed attempts to conquer the grandiose.  Townshend can tend to stick with something BIG and personally interesting until either he masters it or it masters him.  One thing I’ve learned in my middle-age is that people are more fascinated with who you are than what you are interested in.  In other words, what got you to who you are is of less interest to your loved ones than where it got you.  Friends and family like the results more than the path to those results.  This is what keeps us humble.  It’s all good. 

Psychoderelict may have been that reality check for Pete Townshend (although the concept gives you the odd sense he knew it all along).  If it was his last solo effort, it was apropos though; a multi-tiered thinking man’s rock album.  Ideas hit you on the first listen and then new ones hit you on the second listen, and so on.  Isn’t that what great music is supposed to be all about? 

I close this entry with this week’s inspirational song source: “Outlive the Dinosaur” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUyPnh7jMNw).  To me, this tune is a clarification of one of Townshend’s most renowned anthems: “I hope I die before I get old” from “My Generation”.  These lyrics have always been misinterpreted as old age associated with a number.   Are we old when we are 60? 70? 80?  The real meaning is not age per se.  It’s about staying one step ahead of the demon dinosaur in us all.  And we can only conquer it by staying honest to ourselves.  Pete Townshend has made it into his 70s.  Some would think that in doing so he failed that early anthem. Those of us who have listened to his music through to today, including Pschoderelict, know different.

Pete

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