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.


1 comment:

  1. Another brilliant post, Pete. We are all outsiders in some way and it what makes the world go. Ever to achieve, ever to evolve, ever to conform, ever to be unique. Your introduction of The Who brought me inside, FYI...


Please feel free to comment: