Saturday, October 29, 2016

Under the Big Top # 43: “When Fiction Becomes Fact”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Pure and Easy”
Album: Who Came First
Release Date: October, 1972

When was the last time you did something for the very first time where you said to yourself afterwards, “Man, I never thought I’d get around to that”?  Often it is something that’s been sitting out there for quite some time, stirring your curiosity, but not to the degree where you feel you have to act on it anytime soon.  And so that something remains out of your realm of concrete comprehension.  In turn, you end up conjuring up your own alternate reality of what fills that space.  It could be a street you drive by every day on the way to work, but have never veered onto.  It could be a classic novel you have never read or a nearby town you have never visited.  It could be an Oscar-winning movie you have never watched, or a seldom-seen neighbor you have never greeted, or an activity you have never taken up. 

Or, it could be an album you have never listened to.  Now, I’ve been pecking away over the years at my own personal disc-bucket-list.  My “Stepping Stones” blog series of 4 years ago included listening to Between the Buttons from beginning to end for the first time.  The “Forever Young” series included a personal baptism with On the Beach.  In the last three decades I have also tackled Astral Weeks (Van Morrison), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), Squeezing Out the Sparks (Graham Parker and the Rumour), Blue (Joni Mitchell), Sweetheart of the Rodeo (The Byrds), Sail Away (Randy Newman) and John Wesley Harding (Bob Dylan), among many others.  But The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (David Bowie) remains outside my own personal plane of knowledge, as is the case with This Year’s Model (Elvis Costello and the Attractions), Solid Air (John Martyn), Arthur (The Kinks), Paradise and Lunch (Ry Cooder), Kate and Anna McGarrigle (self-titled debut), Rock ‘n’ Roll (The Mekons), and Shoot Out the Lights (Richard and Linda Thompson), among many others.

There are also the odd-duck records and intriguing deeper cuts of the most popular of Rock musicians that have remained elusive.  These include John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Two Virgins, George Harrison’s Wonderwall, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, Keith Moon’s Two Sides of the Moon, Ray Davies The Storyteller, and John Entwistle’s Smash Your Head Against the Wall.  But I have conquered Neil Young’s Trans and Re-Ac-Tor in the past 2 years, and the Rolling Stones Her Satanic Majesties Request.  In terms of those last three albums, there was some pain in my week-long dedicated listening (for my blog entries), but I did pull it off, and in the process found a few lonely little petunias in the onion patch.

This week I tackled another one of those outliers, Pete Townshend “debut” solo album Who Came First.  I put the word debut in quotes here because many, including myself, consider this more as a specialty disc of demos (with contributions from others), and not what one would think of as a professionally-produced studio album.  Regardless, it felt strange popping Who Came First into my cd player on Monday and then tuning in; similar to how I felt when I peered out the plane window on my decent into Whitehorse, Yukon last year:  A long imagined concept becoming real.  The album cover was already unmistakable to me:  Pete Townshend in his Woodstock-era white jumper-suit standing on a supersized batch of whole white eggs (which begs the question; Who came first, the chicken or the egg?). 

As was the case with Young’s Trans, Harrison’s Wonderwall and Lennon/Ono’s Two Virgins, Who Came First was a very personal album for the songwriter, which centered on the teachings of Pete Townshend’s spiritual “avatar”, Meher Baba.  Now, I’m not going to delve any deeper into the Eastern religious spirituality of Townshend and Baba (and several other celeb-type followers, including the Small Faces Ronnie Lane and Tommy cover artist Mike McInnerney), other than to say that everything I’ve read reminds me of the teachings of Jesus, and so it’s all good.  Yes, Who Came First is an overtly religious album, along the lines of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and - pivoting a bit closer to Rock and Roll home - George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Bob Dylan’s Saved.  This was an opportunity to see the peaceful man behind the stage destruction and guitar demolition, and to connect the dots with the intense songwriting Townshend was showcasing on Who albums up to that point (1972); particularly songs on Tommy and Who’s Next. 

In listening to Who Came First this week, the biggest take home message for me was that the music on it is further confirmation that Pete Townshend is a musician fully willing to bare his soul to the public.  In fact, I think he sees this as his duty.  Later in the decade, that soul-baring would also play out in ever more humble and confessing ways, as Townshend would acknowledge long periods of substance abuse (i.e. “However Much I Booze”) and spiritual depravity (i.e. “Empty Glass”), among other wayward ways (he would eventually get through this period of transgression, and remains a Meher Baba devotee to this day).  And so, of all Pete Townshend’s albums, Who Came First is the only one in the Who/Townshend catalog that comes across as unabashedly uplifting.  Its core messages are love, faith, and redemption. Many of his other albums are too, but it takes a while to get there; there’s a struggle you have to go through first.  Not so with this open-hearted record. 

Who Came First opens up with “Pure and Easy” ( ), which four years later would appear on the Who’s Odds and Sods, with Roger Daltrey singing the lead.  * Side Note: Ideally, “Pure and Easy” should have made it’s Who introduction on Who’s Next in 1971.  Combined with other omissions, including two more songs on Who Came First - those being “Let’s See Action” and “The Seeker”- would likely have vaulted that record from a top 20 all-time Rock album to a top 5).  Pete Townshend has written a laundry list of soul-searching songs and  ”Pure and Easy” may be the epiphany of them all (along with “Drowned”, which I still need to write about).   I recall in Townshend’s autobiography Who I Am, where he reflects on a childhood memory while in a small boat during a storm, where the intensity of the moment suddenly connected him with a musical sound like no other he had ever heard.  Reading this, it came across to me as a life changing moment for him. “Pure and Easy” captures that sentiment in song.

I believe all faiths have a musical component:  Hymns, Psalms, Gospel, Pow-wows, chants, a cappella, etc.  It appears that with Who Came First, Pete Townshend and his compatriots were hoping to make a musical case for their new religion.  Although I have enjoyed listening to Who Came First, I’m not connected enough to the teachings of Baba to understand if they made a compelling case.  But I do understand the power of music and on this album and many others, Townshend found a way to combine musical and spiritual beauty:  Now that is something I can relate to.  And that combination just may be the cathartic moment that Townshend experienced on that boat as a boy, and later put into words and music in the song “Pure and Easy”. 

I’ve alluded to the fact several times in these blog entries that I tend to like loose ends; mysteries that remain unexplored.  Perhaps it’s a personal bias; that fiction is stranger than fact (or better yet, stronger).  I believe this thinking is tied to the notion that if something has not been discovered, the possibilities remain endless.  This week, I ‘discovered’ Who Came First, and as my connection transitioned from abstract to concrete, I came to the realization that for any qualitative artistic expression, my bias is proven wrong:  Fact can on rare occasions be stronger, stranger and even more surreal than fiction.  Do I leave things that I alluded to in my opening paragraphs of this entry hanging out there because I don’t want to be disappointed?   That’s part of it, and more often than not this becomes a truism when I finally do dip my toes in.  But then, despite the setback, that curious side kicks in again, and I dig, delve, veer, probe, and listen until suddenly I am rewarded with a rare diamond in the rough. 


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Under the Big Top # 42: “Expectations and First Impressions”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “I Can’t Explain”
Album: Released as a single
Release Date: December, 1964

It felt as if the diamond ring was burning a hole in my pants, and that it would disappear at any moment, slicing through the stitching of the lining in my pocket with the same precision-sharp edges that were cut by the Boston jeweler on Washington Street whom I had recently purchased it from.  It would be weeks before Nancy and I would get to the Alps, which was where I wanted to unveil it.  In the meantime, here we were in Paris, hundreds of miles away, with friends to visit and a wedding to attend in Holland beforehand.  I’d already been babysitting this shiny little puppy for four days, including through airport security, where I was nervous as hell that the personnel would detect it and prematurely blow my carefully laid-out plans (in hindsight that would have been an interesting place to propose).   On top of all this, I was very excited to make my case to Nancy.  Put it all together, and that majestic European mountain range felt as if it were light years away.

Could somewhere/anywhere in Paris be an alternative?  Well, first I had to break my future wife away from our friendly crowd, which was not all that kosher of a thought for Nancy, considering that we had just reunited with our Parisian-based friends (the bride and groom to be) the day before.  But I filled Bob in on my intentions, and he was able to help me weave though Nancy’s wonderfully polite sensibilities.  Soon enough the two of us were off on our own to try and make the best of what ‘la Ville des Lumières’ has to offer. 

All day, the Eiffel Tower was looming both in the distance and in my mind.  But from afar, the structure did not impress to the degree I had desired.  However, I decided to hold out hope that this world-renowned marvel of human ingenuity would gain in stature as we gravitated closer.  And so I passed popping the question at the Notre Dame Cathedral, and on the River Seine, and in the cafes of Montmartre, and at the Arc de Triomphe, and in the magnificent restaurant we dined at that evening. 

By the time we reached the immediate neighborhood of the Eiffel Tower, where every glance up was a vantage point, night had fallen.  And the closer to the ‘Iron Lady’ we got the more impressive she became.  When we finally arrived, I looked up in shocked awe at the magnificently lit-up tower.  A contented feeling settled over me:  This was indeed the place!  Nancy was impressed too (which is never an easy sell).  To get to the top, however, would take some time, seeing as there was a very long line to get on the elevator.  In fact, there was a chance we may not get up there at all that night based on some of the feedback I was getting from the security folks.  There was simply no way that going to happen. 

We poked around a bit (as is my nature) and ended up sauntering to a dimly-lit section of the base, where we spotted a staircase that was loosely roped off.  No one was there to stop us, and so we slipped under the barrier and began climbing the steps.  And then we kept going…..and going…..and going:  To the first platform, and beyond.  It was at the second platform that we slipped under another rope and joined a crowd of people who had stepped off the elevator.  We enjoyed the view for a moment and then got on the up elevator which took us to the top. 

Stepping off and then looking out at the postcard-perfect Parisian nite, I dug into my pocket for the umpteenth time and relievingly felt the rock.  We then stepped over to the Seine River side of the platform and I slipped a short primer note I had written out of my pocket.  Nancy smiled sweetly at me after reading it, but did not get the full gist of the meaning.  And so, I finished the delivery, pulling out the ring and proposing on the spot.  Now that got a reaction! (not only from Nancy but from the two women behind her, who just happened to capture the whole affair).  There were a few tears shed and also (thank goodness) a big fat “Yes!”  Mission accomplished. 

I begin this entry with this favorite reflection of mine because I’m focusing here on first impressions and the expectations that may or may not come with them.  My expectations of that nite had certainly turned out as wonderful as I had hoped, and it was in part due to a famous edifice pulling thru, which was not in any way a guarantee.  The Eiffel Tower had never been a really a big deal to me.  I’m more of a natural-features guy:  Niagara Falls, Old Faithful, the fjords of Norway, the Mississippi River, and the icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland all come to mind.  It takes a bit more for cultural features to blow me away, but it can happen: The US Capitol, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Rideau Canal, the Statue of Liberty, even the Pepperell Covered Bridge in my hometown.  They have all wowed me, and it’s partly due to the fact that when it comes to cultural features, my expectations are low, which increases the chances of making those ‘what have I got to lose’ experiences positive ones.  On the other hand my expectations for natural features are typically on the high end of the scale.   These features have much more to prove (and many of them pull through).  It’s all kind of a paradox when I think about it. 

The Who came out of the gate in 1964 with the single “I Can’t Explain”(  ( in 1964 and followed it up several months later with their second single “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” ( This was a heck-of-an opening salvo for the Who…. for that matter, any band that hopes to nail down their image right off.  Yes, the Who had established their sound from the get go, which is not typically the way it works.  The earliest Rolling Stones records for example were old-Blues sounding.  The early Beatles recordings were a bit teeny-bop.  Bob Dylan had a raw coffee-house folkie sound on his self-titled debut, but there’s little there that reveals what he would soon become. 

But those earliest Who singles gave us the essence of this band (indeed, there are examples of other musicians who have done this, including Richard Thompson, the Kinks, REM, and Led Zeppelin).  On top of being a nice, slightly-brash pop number, “I Can’t Explain” reveals Townshend’s seeker mentality in his songwriting.  The title alone gives this away, with the opening lines reaffirming this:

Got a feeling inside (Can't explain)
It's a certain kind (Can't explain)
I feel hot and cold (Can't explain)
Yeah, down in my soul, yeah (Can't explain)

With those lyrics, the Who introduced themselves to the world…..not bad!  And then, “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” came at us from a slightly different angle.  Where “I Can’t Explain” may be a bit polished, not so for this second single.  The ‘instrumental’ mid-riff reflects a Who live set, with feedback, reverb and power chords.  Keith Moon’s unique drumming comes across much clearer here too than in the opening single.  All four members get to strut their stuff at one point or another (I love Roger Daltrey’s fade away “Anywhere……” as the buildup to that instrumental portion kicks in).  It’s a fantastic song.  To this day, both “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” remain opening numbers in most Who set lists.  How many longstanding bands can say this about their introduction singles?

First impressions can be tricky.  If they are real positive or real negative they can stick with you for a very long time, if not a lifetime.   The giant iceberg stranded in a Newfoundland harbor was jaw dropping.  The dinosaur-sized bison crossing the road right in front of our car introduced the family to Yellowstone.  The Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse had the breathtaking aura of being remote and untamed.  Stepping off a plane in Brussels at 7 am and seeing an airport full of businessman drinking beer gave me a first whiff of European culture.  My first wildlife sightings of Killer Whales, Puffins, Steller Sea Lion, Bald Eagles, Yellow Spotted Salamanders, Giant Sequoia, Roadrunners, and Mountain Goats have all confirmed my fascination with nature.

The same thing can be said for people.  There was the cackling, sarcastic old man in San Antonio who confirmed my preconceived Texan stereotype for a spell until others helped round my thoughts out (see Big Top # 6).   There was an early Democratic debate in 1992, when I checked off each introduced challenger as ‘not a problem’ to my choice, Paul Tsongas…. that is until they came to this guy named Bill Clinton.  There was Bobby Orr, weaving his way around the ice as if everyone else were standing still, the instant fan in my Brother Fred and me in-turn being aroused in the fall of 1970.  There was good friend Kurt, who cut through the din of the more raucous overtures of his roommates, insisting I join them for a game of pool.  And there was Nancy, sitting in my chair at a Halloween party in her Indian outfit, instantly shedding the normally apprehensive invisible barrier of mine when it came to breaking the ice with pretty woman (see Big Top # 16). 

“I Can’t Explain” was the Who’s introduction to Rock fans and the music industry, but my personal inauguration (in terms of piecing it all together) came 16 years later in 1980 as I watched The Kids Are Alright film (see Big Top # 2).  I had no expectations as I walked into the cinema that evening, similar to the low expectations that I had for the Eiffel Tower later in that decade.  In both cases, the product pulled through with flying colors.  And both events had lasting impact, arguably the most lasting in a lifetime of curious exploration into what this world has to offer.  First impressions and expectations:  It’s always great to be ready for something, but it’s even better when something magnificent hits you out of the blue. 


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Under the Big Top # 41: “Been There”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Slit Skirts”
Album: All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes
Release Date: June, 1982

This past weekend was the once-in-a-lifetime “Concert in the Desert”, which took place in Coachella, California, a remote region east of Palm Springs near the Salton Sea (as in can’t_get_there_from_here; believe me, I looked into it).  This was a virtual Rock and Roll ‘Dream Team’ of live acts.  Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones played full sets the first nite, followed by Neil Young and Paul McCartney the second nite and finally The Who and Roger Waters on the third nite.  Ok, John Lennon was not there.  Neither was George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, or Richard Wright.  But many of their former bandmates were there, including some of the heaviest hitters in Rock and Roll history: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Roger Waters, and the aforementioned Dylan, McCartney and Young. 

It was pretty amazing that this event came together, considering the fact that all of these musicians are in their 6th decades as active (vs. nostalgic) performers and all have been top draw acts throughout that time, which remains the case to this day (and I mean ‘top draw’ as relates to both their influence and ticket sales).  In fact, I can’t think of anyone who should have been included or excluded.  In other words, if a comprehensive survey were to query long-time rock fans to list their personal top 100 rock acts in order, these six (in the case of Paul McCartney and Roger Waters, I refer to the bands they are primarily associated with, those of course being the Beatles and Pink Floyd respectively) would most likely percolate to the top. * Side Note: I guess I’m pretty proud of the fact that this series of yearly blogs that I am writing focuses on five of the six acts that played at Coachella (Pink Floyd could eventually be a nice added touch, as could another outstanding stalwart, the Kinks.  But I’d have to come up to speed a bit more if I am to write about either of these bands for an entire year). 

Yes, these musicians have been around a----long----time, and are all likely near the end of their individual long-and-winding roads.  Kudos to the organizers for getting them together this one time (yes, I said that right: Never before have we witnessed the ensemble music of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, all of it performed at a singular event by the very musicians who wrote the music.  It didn’t happen at Woodstock, Altamont, Isle of Wight, Prince’s Trust, the ‘Concert for New York’, or Live Aid, each of which lacked one or more of them).  Man, I wish I could ‘a been there.  However, the fact I’ve seen virtually every one of them (most on numerous occasions) lessens the blow some. 

All of these musicians/acts are likely facing their mortality (except perhaps Keith Richards, who has been predicted by many soothsayers to be the sole survivor if there is ever an apocalypse).  But one musician among them has been grappling with the concept for a very long time: Pete Townshend (George Harrison would have been another. And on his more recent albums, this week’s Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan (for literature), has tackled the topic – check out Time Out of Mind).  From one of the Who’s earliest hits, “My Generation” (which includes the classic line “I hope I die before I get old”), thru Quadrophenia’s “The Punk Meets the Godfather” followed by Who By Numbers, an album which has a general underlying theme of growing older (particularly the songs “Dreaming From the Waist”, “Imagine A Man”, and “Slip Kid”), Townshend has expressed his views on the concept of aging.  The Townshendian slant on this universally-accepted inevitability however, is not necessarily of a physical nature, nor does his music shift ones thinking to the afterlife (which Harrison’s music is inclined to do).  No, Pete Townshend’s focus on aging has always been a state of mind:  A parade of angles on the notion of ‘try to live a young-at-heart life in the here-and-now in order to resist the types of trappings that can ultimately compromise your youthful ideals and in turn make you look and feel old’. 

“Slit Skirts”, off of Pete Townshend’s 1982 solo album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes drives this point across as well as any music he has ever written.  It also happens to be a very catchy tune (  At its core, this is a song about trying to recapture the spirit of what brings love into your life after a period of foolishly letting it go.  Listening to “Slit Skirts” this week, I could not help but compare/contrast my reconnection with the music as I listened this week to my original immersion into it back in 1982, when I was a young 19-year-old man who found the song and the album it was on quite fascinating.  Had I slipped a notch now, falling into the prior referred-to trappings of an older man?  That was the challenge for me this week:  To answer that question.

“Slit Skirts” is a song about Pete Townshend and his emotional state at the still-tender age of 34 (which was in 1979, three years before he wrote the song).  Somewhat ironically, that age falls just about in the middle between how old I was when I purchased the album and my age now.  Why is this intriguing?  Well, when I first listened, 34 seemed like a long way off.  At the time it was compelling to hear Townshend’s “Slit-Skirts” song-story from that youthfully-naive perspective; I was learning something.  Listening now, you would think it would be more of a “been there” affiliation with the song, which could only dull the emotions that it stirred in me all those years ago; or so one would expect.

“Slit Skirts” has a companion tune on All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes; that being the song that immediately precedes it, “Somebody Saved Me”.  At least this is the way I’ve always heard it.  The two songs sound somewhat alike and their back-to-back order on the album is apropos (together they close “Chinese Eyes”).  The former is about Pete Townshend falling into that foolish period I had mentioned earlier of turning his back on love (but being saved by several entities – loosely revealed in the song - from total disaster).  The latter is a song about the period immediately after when all Townshend’s attempts to get back what he had feel as if they are in vein (fortunately, Pete Townshend eventually got beyond this vicious cycle in his life). 

As I listened this week, I found myself reminiscing on a certain brand of passion I had about the meaning of love back in the early 80s.  By that stage, I’d already been down the road of having had love and then having lost it; a teenage hometown romance that fizzled out as growing pains piled high.  At the time I’m sure I had a subliminal conception of the truism “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, which was what I was going thru.  Music was the best way for me to move on while trying to keep true to the importance of love in one’s life at a time when you know this, but do not have it. 

And at that period in my life the album most poignant in helping me maintain my footing in this regard was All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.  Listening (over and over), it was obvious that Pete Townshend had been through the love/loss gauntlet.  The opening track, “Stop Hurting People” was a super-charged evocation of what it means to love someone.  It was poetry in music.  Much of the rest of the album came across as the ramifications of not having that intense feeling of affection in your life anymore, which carried all the way to the closing number (“Slit Skirts”).  It was so important (then and now) to have this music that related to what I was experiencing.  “Chinese Eyes” opened my eyes to the universality of love.

The title of this week’s Big Top entry, “Slit Skirts” needs some explanation.  The song steps through what can only be Pete Townshend’s relationship at the time with his wife, Karen Astley (“Jeanie” in the song):  A couple that used to have a bright flame burning, but for numerous reasons (explained throughout the song and album) have allowed it to extinguish (“without your match, there is no flame”).  The “Slip Kids” refrain…..

Slit Skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts
And I don’t ever wear no ripped shirts
Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts

….. is symbolic of the carefree nature of their love for one another in better times, and then the loss of that uplifting spirit.  The key line, particularly in regards to this week’s theme, is the last one:  Again, the Townshendian view that growing older is a state of mind.  It’s what happens to us when we have lost our way.

So back to my reconnection with this album…. can I still feel it or have I lost my way?  Well I think we all meander off course at one point or another in life.  We have all experienced the role of the Prodigal Son:  Experience that comes with ever-increasing years tagged to life can so easily have the inevitability of polarizing us from the innocence of our youth.  But I did find love again, and so could now listen to “Slit Skirts” on the other side of the age mountain with this in play too.  The intensity of how I felt listening to ‘Chinese Eyes’ 35 years ago has diminished somewhat; there’s no denying that.  However, that wonderful music still allows me to connect back up with those lifetime-ago feelings, at moments in deep and stirring ways, and for that I am forever grateful.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Under the Big Top # 40: “Odd Man In”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Tattoo”
Album: The Who Sell Out
Release Date: December, 1967

I have often told the story of my earliest days in public school in September 1972 (after 4 years at St. Mary’s, a Catholic parochial school in my hometown which closed its doors the year before), when my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Carrol, as dry witted a person as anyone I have ever met, reviewed a penmanship quiz we had all just taken from his desk in front of the class.  We sat quietly as he peered down through his spectacles at our longhand.  Finally, he looked up at us and stated “there are many examples here of exemplary writing styles.  Could I see a show of hands from all of you who have joined us from St. Mary’s School”?  A handful of us raised our hands and Mr. Carrol slowly scanned the room, nodding in approving fashion as he glanced up and down between pupil and paper, connecting each St. Mary’s transfer-student with his/her penmanship.  Finally he landed his eyes on me.  He stopped and stared a moment.  And then he stated….

Well now, there are always a few exceptions to the rule, aren’t there?

Despite that call out, I actually liked Mr. Carrol.  He kept us on our toes.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I was somewhat bemused at the time he made the comment; not traumatized as one would be lead to believe given the fact that I still vividly recall it.  And yet, why have I retained that memory all these years?  I’ll be frank:  Its part and parcel of my story.  This was not the only memory along these lines that I’ve retained from my adolescence.  I’ve got plenty more where that came from.  Along what lines you ask?  Well, what I am talking about here is the feeling of being different and in turn being signaled out as such.  And it’s a big reason for my interest in the Who.  Let me explain.

For a good part of their first decade as a band, The Who released numerous songs that keyed in on experiencing life through the eyes of the outsider, the misfit, and the odd duck.  It’s a parade of pop tunes.  “Happy Jack” tells the story of a free spirit who gets taunted by kids on the beach (likely someone Townshend knew in his childhood).  “Substitute” is about dating someone who is on the rebound.  “I’m a Boy” is about a child who’s Mom has made it clear to him that he was born the wrong gender.  “Boris the Spider” is about kids with extreme phobias (in this case Arachnophobia). “Sally Simpson” is about a girl with teen-idol infatuation, to the exclusion of all else. “Tattoo” (this week’s blog entry) is about two long-haired son’s trying to prove to their macho-man Dad that they can be tough too (  “Mary Anne With the Shaky Hand” is about the lassie who likes to hang around with the guys rather than other girls her age.  “Medac” is about a kid who is ostracized because of a bad case of acne.  “Little Billy” is about a boy who refuses to cave to peer pressure (in this case, smoking) and so is marginalized.  “Pictures of Lily” is about a kid struggling to comprehend his puberty.  The list goes on.

The two full-fledged Who concept albums were also about outsiders, and each takes the concept to ever deeper and darker places.  At its core, Tommy is about child abuse and the effect it has on the abused (Tommy), who shuts out the world.  Pete Townshend was very likely reflecting on a period of his pre-teen life, away from home (due to his parents breaking up for a spell) and left with a deranged grandmother (who apparently ran some sort of brothel), when he composed this story (at least that’s how I interpreted the tea leaves when I read his autobiography, Who I Am).  At its core Quadrophenia is about schizophrenia and the paranoia such a condition induces: Along with the standard fare of misfit adolescence (such as what I just described in the Who song meanings in the previous paragraph), the Quadrophenia protagonist, Jimmy, has to deal with his mental illness.  In both cases however - Tommy’s and Jimmy’s – their heightened state of confused awareness ultimately brings each of them to catharsis thru music. 

All of this outsider-music resonated with me, but not particularly for the reasons one would think.  I did not necessarily connect with the characters in these songs and the related lyrics so much as I connected with the general spirit of the music, and the way that spirit was expressed by the Who, in studio and live on stage (I believe I speak for all Who fans in this regard).  In other words, the music and how it was expressed is a perfect reflection of the meaning of these songs.  The lyrics are but a bonus. 

And so, the Who connection was made for me through numerous musical, visual and personality components, including Pete Townshend’s power chords, windmills, leaps and guitar destruction, as well as his spirituality and soulful acoustic guitar playing (see my last blog entry) and as one of Rock’s most gifted spokespersons for decades.  The connection was also made in Keith Moon’s unparalleled life-of-the-party persona, his showmanship-drawing-power (pretty amazing for a drummer), his yearning to please, and his mesmerizing percussive abilities.  The connection was made in John Entwistle’s musicianship (second only to Van Morrison in my book), his anchor-like presence, his rock and roll demeanor (“if I smile, tell me some bad news; before I laugh, act like a fool”) and his thunder fingers.  The connection was made in Roger Daltrey’s commitment to the band, his work ethic, and his incredible ability to sing touching lyrics with a rock and roll swagger.  Underlying all of this was an outsider mentality.

I don’t believe I have ever been mistaken for someone who could be referred to as an insider.   Over time I’ve learned to take pride in this, but in my teenage years, it could be tough on occasion:  There are moments when we all yearn to fit in with the ‘in crowd’.   However as I have told my children, being on the inside has its own set of pitfalls.  It can harden you, and sets you up for a life of hopeless conformity.  Being on the outside?  Well, yes it can be difficult early on, but it builds character and has a tremendous brand of liberating upside.  It allows for empathy with a broad swath of personality traits and also allows one to think in a creative out-of-the-box sort of way.

So I can look back and chuckle at other Mr. Carrol-like memories, including “Look at the potatoes!” and other insults that a group of punks in Southie hurled at my siblings and I as we walked through my Godfather’s neighborhood with our matching Irish Sweaters.  Or my Franklin-years crew of eight, unorthodox in our relatively intellectual makeup, being on the receiving end of three separate unprovoked fisticuffs with ‘rival’ gang leaders (several of whom were at least 2 years older than us).  Or the ragtag ‘Bad News Bears’ assortment of neighborhood kids I was part of (which also included Brothers Fred and Joe), being provoked in our pickup baseball games by bullies (my leader-of-the-pack image often put me in their crosshairs).  Or my skinny, lanky frame in high school.  Or my membership in the chess club.  Or collecting comic books.  Or driving used cars all my life (but hey, they were all economical!).  Or my Green alliances (which has often put me at odds with the conservative nature of what drives capitalism in our society).  Or my at-times quirky sense of humor. Or my faith focus.  Or falling in love with another outsider, my wife Nancy. 

All of this allowed me to relate to the “Losers Club” in Stephen King’s IT, and the four boys on the receiving and of bully abuse in the movie “Stand By Me” (based on another Stephen King novel, The Body).  Or Ponyboy in The Outsiders.  Or Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and his Dad (Donald Sutherland) in “Ordinary People”.  Or Ralph in the novel Lord of the Flies.  Or just about everyone in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”.  These odd ducks had characteristics that included kindness, comradery, courage, intellectual curiosity, and a beautiful sort of innocent naiveté.  Yeah, I could relate to that.

But most important, this outsider mentality related me to the Who; a band that helped define Rock in a way that, ever since their splash on the world stage has evolved to include not just the rebels; but the misfits, outcasts, nerds, and odd balls as well.  The Who opened the door for David Bowie, The Clash, the Talking Heads, Green Day and so many others.  They opened a door for me too.  Before the Who, I thought you could only make it to the top of the Rock and Roll mountain with band leaders that had either a pretty-boy image (Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger), cocky, rebellious confidence (John Lennon, Keith Richards) or solid musicianship (all four of them).  But the Who proved you could make it with a band of equals, which included 1) a long-nosed, lanky, often gloomy guitarist 2) an impish, hyperactive, Dutch-boy-haircut drummer 3) an emotionless, expressionless, plainspoken bass guitarist and 4) a blue-collar-tough lead singer who couldn’t write music for the life of him. 

This total package sold Rock and Roll for me for the long haul.  Up to that point I had certainly bought into it already through my formative years.  The Who transitioned my commitment to a lifetime.