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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” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfFh0h1IF20 ), 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. 

Pete

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