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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Under the Big Top # 37: “This Machine Kills Fascists”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “I’ve Known No War”
Album: It’s Hard
Release Date: September, 1982

Despite not releasing any new material in many years, the Who sounded like a well-oiled machine on their Y2K Tour.  The show at Great Woods in Mansfield, Massachusetts that summer was one of my all-time favorite Who shows; the band sounding crisp and honed, consisting of just the three surviving original members, Pete, Roger and John, along with Zak Starkey on drums, and John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards; their most-thinned lineup since 1982.  It’s not often a band grabs you right out of the gate, but on that nite the Who would indeed do that,  hitting the ground running with “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”.  From there they would not take their foot off the peddle all the way through the final encore. 

In many ways the mid-70’s super-group Who was back, once again performing at levels that most other bands can only dream of.  I believe there were several reasons for this, starting with their Quadrophenia tour three years earlier, which brought back some of the old spark.  Pete Townshend and John Entwistle followed up on that tour with solo tours of their own in ’98 and ’99 respectively, which further conditioned them.  The biggest reason however for that throwback feel was Zak Starkey, who had raised his contributions to equal footing with the rest of the band, something neither Kenny Jones nor Simon Philips had in them.  For those of us who thought Keith Moon could never be replaced, we were pleasantly floored.  ** Side Note A: I do have to say in Jones’ and Philips’ defense that 1) the shows they played in were still quite potent and 2) the bar was extremely high. 

The best thing about the Who’s re-mastery of the stage was that there was an old/new air of authority about them, which I myself had never seen.  This supreme confidence proved to be of particular importance on October 20, 2001 when the Who performed at Madison Square Garden.  If the date doesn’t make a connection, please read on (although I welcome you to continue reading regardless!).

Few historical events in a lifetime are so extraordinary that they induce instant recall when reflected on.  Going back a generation or two before mine, I’m willing to bet there’s a fairly unanimous ability for Americans of those near bygone eras to nail down the time and place they were when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor, VJ Day, and JFK’s assassination.  Fifteen years ago this past Sunday, September 11, 2001, most of us had our first encounter with an event of this magnitude.  There was nothing even remotely comparable.  It shattered our sense of reality.  Life has not been quite the same since.

The days and weeks immediately following 9/11 were, to put it mildly, intense.  Everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells.  Little flags decorated most cars in a display of patriotism.  Normally comedic talk show hosts were devoid of humor.  Days seemed dreary and nights felt darker than before.  Despite the efforts of Hollywood types, musicians, and political leaders it appeared nothing could be done to help us recover from what happened.  The country was in universal mourning and on the brink of despair.

At the same time, there was plenty of debate about how to respond to the attacks.  Case in point: I was driving down Rte. 128 later that fateful week, when I spotted a pickup truck with a large handmade banner in the flatbed reading “Kill All Arabs!”.  I looked over at the guy driving the car as I passed him by.  He stared at me as if to say “you got a problem with that?”.  It was a tough pill to swallow:  I was on the same team as this guy?

The experience got me thinking: 9/11 was horrible in so many ways, but as happens with all crises, it brought out either the best or worst in us.  What I really saw in that man was fear, and it was something I saw and heard from others in not so blatant ways over those weeks and months following the tragedy.  I admit to some of it myself.  But fear is a dangerous thing.  It stems from ignorance and often leads to vengeance and hatred.  Yes, there no doubt was a need for justice….but not hatred.  That’s what those who aimed the planes and coordinated the attack had in them.  To react in a similar manner would make us no better.  ** Side note # B: I once heard it said that the term ‘hate crime’, used by media types is a misnomer.  The suggested replacement:  ‘ignorance crime’.  I concur.

It’s difficult, but not impossible to rise above fear and loathing in such times.  The USA had done it before in its history.  Since the repercussions of 9/11 still linger to this day, I think it’s too soon to tell if we will do it again.  The country remains way too polarized:  Joe McCarthy-like finger pointing and mistrust is standard fodder on our airways.  Hopefully, rational, well meaning, peace loving minds will ultimately prevail.

Healing and unity were a long time coming after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C.  The first ray of light for me was a month later, when the aforementioned ‘Concert for New York’ took place.  Although professional in their performances, most of the acts, including Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, were understandably not quite ready for the intensity of that period.  But The Who were.  Their four-song set (John Entwistle’s last show in North America) in front of the surviving first responders (who were taking up a majority of the first 20 or so rows) was exceptional, and the crowd reacted accordingly.  This point has to be emphasized for posterity, as rising to such an occasion is extremely unusual and not for the faint of heart. 

The Madison Square Garden crowd reaction to the Who’s four-song set was uplifting to those of us who watched on TV.  Once again, the music prevailed.  It seemed the healing had begun, but though the Who had initiated a certain positive strength that had not been seen at any point after 9/11; there was still a ways to go.  Several more months passed, and expectation of building on the Who’s spirit had yet to be capitalized on.

This brings me to football. 

Huh? 

Yes, football. 

First I need to rewind.  After a one week hiatus immediately following 9/11, the NFL kicked its schedule back into forward motion.  For New Englanders, the 2001 NFL season was to prove far from business as usual.  The Patriots, with a history more bizarre than the Bad News Bears, were climbing the ladder of success, led by an amazing coach, Bill Belichick, who ran a team that insisted on being introduced…. as a team.

After a great regular season run and two action packed playoff games (including the unforgettable ‘Snow Bowl’ game against the Raiders and the Troy Brown-dominated AFC Championship game against the Steelers), the Pats found themselves in the unlikeliest of places: The Super Bowl, against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams (“The Greatest Show on Turf”).  The Patriots surprised everyone, dominating most of the game.  The final score was not a true barometer of the lopsided play, with the Pats winning on a last second field goal.  Football’s ugly duckling reigned supreme! (much to the disgust of the powers-that-be).  ‘Team’ and ‘Unity’ were the key themes in this story.

But what was almost as memorable as the game itself (perhaps more memorable for those who were not fans of the Rams or the Pats) was the half-time show.  Most Super Bowl half-time shows up to that point were for the most part, forgettable, over dramatized events. 

Not this time. 

With the names of the September 11 victims scrolling on a Twin-Tower-like screen behind them, U2 performed “Where the Streets Have No Name” with all the emotion and passion a band can bring to the stage.  As the song reached its climax, the names listed on the screen collapsed in an eerie but powerful moment of flashback.  The performance was intense, classy, and unifying.  These 4 lads from Ireland hit all the right notes, showing their respect, admiration and solidarity for the United States in 11 short minutes (which included a second song ‘Beautiful Day’).  Strangely enough, an unlikely event (The Super Bowl) and an unlikely group (a band from another country), allowed us to emerge from darkness. At least that’s the way I felt. 

There’s a great old photo of Woody Guthrie with a guitar slung over his shoulder on which are written the words: “This Machine Kills Fascists”…..that’s what the Who and then U2 pulled off (not to mention the New England Patriots).  At the very least, they made democracy a little stronger. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a song U2 have played at virtually every one of their shows since they penned it.  The song was written at the height of unrest in Northern Ireland, and envisions a Belfast where street signs do not distinguish Catholic streets from Protestant ones.  It’s a song that tries to break down prejudice-centric barriers between people.  Love thy neighbor.

After the Super Bowl, Bob Kraft, the Pats owner, said to the crowd “We are all Patriots here”.  One pundit rhetorically posed the question: “What if the Rams had won?  Would their owner have stated ‘We are all Goats here’?”

I guess even the wonderfully warped American sense of humor started making a comeback around that time too.

As for the Who, well, for many of us they were the first to have us stepping out of that proverbial underground bunker into daylight.  Those were indeed scary times, giving all of us who were too young to experience World War II a tiny sense for the intensity of a war-strewn world.  Pete Townshend actually wrote a song about this very notion for the Who in 1982: “I’ve Known No War” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5RJznEO5xo).  Little did he know how it would play out 20 years later.

Pete

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