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. 


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