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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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pa_JM287Lhk).  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.

Pete

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