Friday, November 25, 2016

Under the Big Top # 47: “Valediction for an Old Faithful”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “How Many Friends”
Album: The Who by Numbers
Release Date: October, 1975

Over the last two months I have been saying goodbye to some old faithful friends.  It started with Who Are You, which I listened to on my drive to and from Ottawa for a business trip in late September (culminating in my 39th Big Top write-up), continued with Quadrophenia 3 weeks ago, which I listened to on my drive to and from Quebec City for another work trip (leading to my 45th Big Top write-up), and finished with The Who by Numbers this past week for a more standard-fare stay at home commute to and from work in the three days leading up to Thanksgiving (for this current Big Top write-up).  Yes, I am sure there will be occasions where I will be touching base with these albums again, but in general I’ve been treating this entire “Music and Memory” blog concept-series in the same way throughout; an intense revisit and refocus into the songs of those musicians I know and love most - each given a solid, unfettered music-listening year of my life - that ends with equally intense goodbyes, particularly to the best of their works.  In approaching the music in this way, I allow myself to hear it all in the best of light.  I’m sure this tactic does not quite equate to the intensity of what a man goes through when he recovers from a near-death experience and finally begins to smell the roses (what can I say, I’ve been smelling those proverbial roses for decades – at least when I am on my game) but it’s that kind of spirit I have in mind.

These three original Who studio albums are at the core of my fandom for this band.  They also happen to have been released back to back to back: Quadrophenia in ’73, The Who by Numbers in ’75 and Who Are You in ’78.  And they are my favorites; the only Who albums that stir me in a consistent fashion from beginning to end.  One big reason is that these discs connect me back to an extraordinary decade - the 70s - when I came of age.  This is not so much a nostalgia thing.  It’s a recognition that something big happened in the 70s, not just with the Who and many other musicians, but in the youth culture as well, and I’ve taken it upon myself to try and explain this through many hours that have gone into writing up these entries thus far.  I will continue to do so until I am satisfied (or until I drop).  * Side Note: The top-drawer quality of Quadrophenia, The Who by Numbers and Who Are You is proof that a band does not have to fade away after entering their second decade of existence.  Indeed, my thinking is the Who aged like a fine wine in these albums.

Back in Big Top # 4 (“Connecting the Dots”) I wrote about The Who by Numbers for the first time in this series and in the process 1) told the story of how I got tipped off about it by a college friend, 2) elucidated on the John Entwistle connect-the-dots cover art, 3) discussed several musical and lyrical highlights and 4) reconnected with my Mother-Son dance at my wedding (to the tune “Blue Red and Grey”).  Here, the 4th-to-last Big Top write-up (a book-end to that early entry I suppose), I’d like to round out my thoughts on this magnificent album with some personal anecdotes. 

First up is a memory that comes to me whenever I listen to the line in “Imagine a Man” that goes “Imagine a soul so old it is broken and you know her invention is you”.  I recall driving to Newton (from Franklin) with my Mom in 1985, not long after her Mom (Nandy, my grandmother) had passed away.  Mom cared for Nandy at a nursing home not far from our home in her declining years.  “Imagine a Man” was one way for me to connect with what Mom was going thru at that time, simply because of that verse (the rest of the song continues to ask us in many different ways to look at the world through the eyes of others who are experiencing a powerful period of emotion in their lives).  On that drive to Newton, I popped in The Who by Numbers tape and asked Mom to listen to those lines.  In the process I told her what it had meant to me in the months prior.  Neither of us said a word as we listened to the entirety of the song over again (that lyric is near the end).  Mom reached out and held my hand.  It was a healing moment for the 23 year-old me.

Next up is a memory of printing out the lyrics to The Who by Numbers off a web site and bringing them to great friend Dave’s home for a gathering of the crew that night to play poker.  These were the early years of mass-access to the World Wide Web.  To that point, the thought of getting lyrics to an album that did not have them in the liner notes (which was the case with by Numbers) was unheard of.  There were many indiscernible lines sung by Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle on The Who by Numbers and in turn, bad interpretation was a fact we simply had to accept for many years.  That night as we listened and read there were many revelations, most of them quite illuminating.   I particularly recall a moment as we listened to “Dreaming from the Waist”.  Dave had the written lyrics in his hand and was singing along when he got to the part “but here comes the morning, here comes the yawning demented clown”.  Prior, we had not come close to figuring most of that stretch out, and the look on Dave’s face, as well as his rendition of the lines was unforgettable to me; it was as if he had just interpreted the Dead Sea Scrolls. Why do I remember this so vividly?  Because, Dave’s expression was by that stage in our lives (well into our 20s) a unique and fleeting moment: The type of stupefying camaraderie that is usually reserved for our collective younger, more innocent selves.  * Side Note 2: Strange, I keep those printed lyrics in my personal drawer in the kitchen, and as I reached for my keys this week, I mistakenly pulled those sheets out for the first time in years.

Yet another flashback this week is credited to my bonds with “Blue, Red, and Grey”.  Mom (and Sister Amy) had first connected with this song - which again ended up as our Mother/Son wedding dance - because of a music tape I had compiled for her earlier that year as a Christmas gift in 1990.  This was a period I was compiling tapes for many people close to me.  I had several motivations for doing this, which centered on relating with the musical leanings of the person I was making the given cassette for by channeling songs of similar interest as well as introducing him/her to new material that I felt might touch a personal musical chord.  I am still not sure why at the time I chose “Blue, Red and Grey” to put on Mom’s tape.  I mean, it was a deep cut on a 3rd tier Who album (see Big Top # 4 for an explanation to that term), and it was the only time I would use it on any tape I made.  Sure it had the right tempo, but there had to be more to it than that.  It was only after Mom started showing special interest that I began to understand. “Blue, Red and Grey” is a song about someone (Townshend himself I am sure) who loves all facets of the day; morning, noon, night, and late nite:  At least that’s what it is about on the surface.  What I really believe it’s referring to however, is a person who cannot miss anything, and so is willing to burn the candle from every angle in order to capture it all.  That’s me in a nutshell.  I suppose no one knows that more than my Mom. 

So many other reflections hit me this week.  There was the time great friend Mac and I rang in St. Patrick’s Day with a visit to an Irish Pub in the early morning in the North Station part of Boston.  This was several years into our post-college working lives and I had to attend a meeting in town a few hours after hooking up with Mac.  Local Rock Radio Station WBCN was on location at the pub on that day, with legendary morning DJ Charles Laquidara and his side kick/master impressionist Billy West (later of Ren and Stimpy renown) doing their shtick.  On the menu was “Bacon and Kegs” as well as Rock and Roll trivia questions for the audience; all of it being broadcast live.  One question which Laquidara posed through the makeshift speaker system was “Who did the cover art for The Who by Numbers?”  The crowd was stumped, but not Mac and I (yes, the answer is above, but for more on this, see Big Top # 4).….. it was a tag-team WBCN moment-of-fame there.  * Side Note 3: I would later head to my meeting, where much was accomplished in two hours - in spite of or because of my minor Guinness Stout haze - and then carried on with the St. Pat’s Day revelry with Mac at several other Boston locales. 

Then there’s Charlotte singing “Squeeze Box” at the age of two (the first song she ever learned to sing from beginning to end).  And there’s Dave and I thoroughly enjoying repeat playing of “Slip Kid” on my car cassette player on our way to an all-nighter breakfast place in Bellingham after an evening of billiards at Franklin’s ‘Train Stop’ pub (thoughts of both Dave and Mac pile up here, primarily because they were my Who by Number brother-in-arms).  There’s John Entwistle at The Mama Kin Club in Boston in ’96 and The Lucky Dog in Worcester in ‘99 singing “Success Story”:  The only live rendition of a Who by Numbers song that I had ever witnessed until, to my great surprise, Roger Daltrey pulled out “Blue, Red and Grey” and “Squeeze Box” years later (2009) at the Boston House of Blues. There’s Amy prompting me to sing “Blue, Red, and Grey” with her by our Pepperell backyard fire pit.  There’s introducing the kids to my passion for Who music thru this album. And there are all the deep personal thoughts I’ve had since I printed out and read those lyrics all those years ago (again, see “Big Top # 4).

This week’s Big Top song-of-choice is “How Many Friends” (  It was the very first song I connected with on The Who by Numbers.  Roger Daltrey’s vocals are impassioned here, with each verse gaining in intensity to the central question: “How many friends have I really got? can count them on one hand”.  Pete Townshend’s guitar playing on “How Many Friends” is exquisite, which is the case throughout the album.  This may be partly due to the fact that Daltrey got his way at the sessions for Who By Numbers, insisting that backing synthesizer be kept off the album.  I love the synthesizer on the two previous studio albums, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, but it is indeed refreshing to hear the Who stripped down to the bare essentials here, allowing their core elements (bass, drums, guitar, vocals) to shine brilliantly.

And so, I say, goodbye, old faithful.  You’ve been there for me through thick and thin.  I’ve appreciated it immensely.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Under the Big Top # 46: “Big Brother”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Boris the Spider”
Album: A Quick One
Release Date: December, 1966

There was a short period in my early to mid-20s when I shared with my brother Joe (and separately, college friend Bouv) a rather morbid sense of humor (also referred to as gallows humor).  Occasionally Joe and I dip our feet back into that bizarre, twisted world, which never fails to give us one or two belly laughs, but these days it’s for the most part a rehashing of old material.  Back in the 80s however, we were in major fresh-idea mode (a good window-sample of where our heads were at:  We concocted an alternate-world scenario where the psychotic killer in the first Dirty Harry movie, along with Jason from Friday the 13th, and our own creation “Laughing Boy”, hijack the Los Angeles Lakers charter plane on its way back from Boston after their devastating 1984 World Championship loss to the Celtics, and force Kareem, Magic and friends to sing the Boston Celtics Theme Song over and over again).  In our musings we would include dialog and sound effects, such as chain saws, swinging hatchets, poison darts, blow torches, pipe bombs, rolling heads and flying body parts.  Not much was too demented for our imaginations (I suppose you could say we predated South Park in this regard).

This humor was pretty unique to Joe and me in our circles.  Few could relate to us for very long when we morphed into this mode, including our very own siblings.  Quite often we would find the crowd around us thinning out, our friends and family off to other conversations, leaving the two of us (and sometimes brother-in-law Dale when he was feeling it) to our own devices.  It was not so much that they were repulsed; they just didn’t get it.  This had no effect on us.  We knew we had a good thing going and so we would continue to run with it, coming up with one outrageous thought after another (I recall on one occasion carrying on our crazed humor into the wee hours outside on my parent’s front steps).

John Entwistle had the same macabre sense of humor, which he expressed in his songs.  From “My Wife”, about a very angry spouse out for revenge (“Gonna buy a tank and an aeroplane, when she catches up with me won’t be no time to explain”) to “Ted End” about a poor sod who’s funeral goes unattended, to “You’re Mine” about the devilish fate of someone who drowns cats, whips horses, and robs old woman, to “905” about the emotionless state of a humanoid, to “Cousin Kevin” about a masochistic relative, to “Uncle Ernie” about a dirty-minded one, and finally to this week’s Big Top entry “Boris the Spider” about the abject fear of an arachnophobe and how he takes it out on a poor defenseless 8-legged  creepy-crawler (  Many of Entwistle’s solo-album titles and covers reflected this warped imagination too; from1971’s Smash Your Head Against the Wall, (the first solo effort by a member of the Who) to Whistle Rhymes, to Rigor Mortis Sets In  (one of my all-time favorite album titles).

What explains this dark fixation that John Entwistle, Joe, Bouv and I have connected with at various times in our lives (you can add Alice Cooper, Vincent Price, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, Elvira and many others to this list as well)?  In terms of Entwistle, from all I’ve read, it had nothing to do with his personality, which was the type that Pete Townshend looked up to: The Ox being in many ways the big brother Pete never had.  This was simply his sense of humor.  As for the rest of us, I don’t believe this humor reflects on our core values either, which had me scratching my head a bit as I took on these thoughts earlier this week.  And so I ended up doing something atypical of these entries: A little research on the matter.  It turns out that laughing at the macabre and absurd is for most of those of us who do it, a coping mechanism:  A way to deal with the sad reality of the darkest and most hapless extremes in human nature, and a way to get a grip on some of our deepest fears.  With this new perspective, I now believe Joe and I just had to get this morbid humor out of our system as we transitioned into the working adult world (that period being one of the toughest and stressful transitions any of us make in our lives).

I find John Entwistle’s sense of humor and his personality in general very interesting in relation to how he fit into the Who as a bandmate.  In his insightful review of Smash Your Head Against the Wall, John Swenson, writing for Crawdaddy observed “In the complex character interplay that makes up the Who dialect, Entwistle was always the dark horse who worked in a strange way opposite to the direction of the other members of the group”.  I read this for the first time last week (in the liner notes to my brand new purchase of Smash Your Head) and said to myself “right on!”  Roger Daltrey and even Keith Moon would occasionally genuflect to the genius of Pete Townshend, but not Entwistle. John admired Pete, but as far as I can tell he did not once ever put him on a pedestal. 

This fascinating relationship I always sensed and I could too envision how important it was toward what made the Who unique, and toward what it was that made them tick.  John Entwistle helped to keep things balanced in the band through his equal-footing approach to Pete Townshend.  Without his attitude, the group would have been top heavy like so many others.  Unlike Townshend, Entwistle rarely tried to tackle big-world problems or spiritual soul searching, or deep concepts or personal crisis in his songs.  He did not try to emulate his prolific bandmate in any way really.  The Ox beat to his own drum, and in doing so contributed profoundly to the extremely unique dynamics of the Who.

At some point in their career - probably around the production of Tommy in 1969 - John Entwistle came to the realization that the Who was Pete Townshend’s band in terms of songwriting.  Townshend’s composition style fit the Who much better than Entwistle’s, the number two songwriter in the band, which must have been very difficult for him to accept at first (although, the Ox once admitted that he wrote in a style for himself where Townshend wrote in a style for the band).  But the really cool (and historically significant) end game in this saga was that Enty never left the group, despite his abundance of God-given musical talents and a desire to write music primarily for himself.  Yes, the money and fame had much to do with this I am certain, but there was much more to it.  John Entwistle knew that the Who had captured lightning in a bottle after years of working hard together and he was not about to disrupt that.  Indeed, the truth of the matter with the Who was, if any member had broken away, the whole structure would collapse.  But keep with it like each of them did (right up until Keith Moon’s death), and the sky was the limit.  All four band members sacrificed something of themselves in the process, with Entwistle’s sacrifices being the clearest of them all to Who fans.

The complexities of the relationships in the Who remind me of my own complex relationships; the interplay between friends in my handful of friendships (home, college, Canada) are replete with dynamism, as too with my family.  My hometown neighborhood crew of eight for example is made up of personality traits that include intellectual curiosity, bravado, quiet fortitude, slapstick, book smarts, street smarts, stamina, generosity, extroversion and introversion.  How much of this that gets tossed into the soup kettle on any given gathering can tilt the scales in any number of directions related to our unique cocktail-blend of personas. 

My sibling dynamic is even more interesting.  As the oldest of six, I do not always play the part.  Everyone has a strong lead role in the family.  There’s not a weak link in the bunch.  Despite the fact that I don’t always aspire to the more traditional roles of ‘big brother’, I still find a responsibility to my standing as the first born.  Many oldest siblings set the stage for their younger brothers and sisters in the standard-bearer ways of what it means to be successful: Big house, big car, big income, doctor, lawyer, architect, etc.  Not me (and I’m proud to never have put that kind of pressure on my siblings to follow suit, seeing as those types of ambitions for me would have been misguided because they do not reflect who I am).  But I do like to think that when I am at my best, I can be a role model in many other more important ways; through patience, kindness, understanding, faith, listening more than talking, minimalism, interest in the outdoors, dependability, humbleness, concern for the environment, modesty (in my mind a requirement for a civil servant), and yes, bizarre humor (which I find myself adjusting happily to each sibling’s comedic tastes in ways that reflect mine) are but some of my priorities.  I do not always get it right, but these are the kinds of ideals I try to portray and convey in my role as big brother. 

This is a key reason why I can relate to John Entwistle, particularly in regards to how he interacted with Pete Townshend. As a big bother figure to Townshend, Enty let him do his thing.  The Ox played by the rules and contributed his enormous talents to something which he knew he had to take a second fiddle to.  The only other examples I can think of in Rock and Roll bands is how older brother Tom Fogerty relented to the songwriting skills of his younger brother John in Creedence Clearwater Revival and how Band founder Levon Helm eventually bowed to the talents of Robbie Robertson (although in both of these case the long-term reaction was a quite a bit more acerbic than it was with John Entwistle). 

Of all the great songs the Who have performed live over their many years of touring, “Boris the Spider”, with that heavy bass sound and John Entwistle’s exaggerated, eerie baritone vocals, was astoundingly the most requested of the bunch.  This must have made ‘big brother’ John Entwistle proud.  He stuck to who he was, and in the process helped make the Who who they were.  This all had an eye-opening effect on my younger 20-something self; seeing a stoic, solid, quiet, rock-of-a-man, and knowing that it was ok to sprinkle that trait with a little morbid pixie dust every once in a while for a well needed bit of stress release. 


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Under the Big Top # 45: “Wash Over Me”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Drowned”
Album: Quadrophenia
Release Date: October, 1973

Of the multitude of songs Pete Townshend has penned in a long and fruitful career of songwriting, “Drowned” appears to be a personal favorite of his ( This week I decided to take this educated insight of mine a bit more seriously and allow the song to wash over me in ways I never had before, seeing as Quadrophenia has so many tremendous tunes that “Drowned” can often get lost in my own personal zeroing in (or a more apt term might be  that it can get “drowned out”).  This is not to say that I have neglected to peck away at it over the years:  When Mr. Townshend himself decides to sing and play a song solo at the piano during a Who show - a song that the rest of the band contributed to on the original album - and adds lines such as “I want to drown in your sweet, sweet love”, you tend to get a bit more curious.

To the analogy of ‘washing over’, this is not a random choice of phrase here (though it did come to me subconsciously), seeing as it is consistent to what the deeply spiritual lyrics are attempting to convey through imagery.  Much like Pete Townshend’s solo number “The Sea Refuses No River” (see Big Top # 13: “Poetry in Fluid Motion”) “Drowned” is jam-packed with references to moving water.  However, where the lyrics to “The Sea Refuses Know River” keep us in a series of abstract rivers (with varying water – read: human - quality), “Drowned” is all over our watery world; the falling rain, a train’s boiler, the tear in a baby’s eye, rippling over canyons, etc.  The song’s lyrics even go into the sea itself (and also allude to our free will to want to get to it).  What’s so cool about all this?  Well, the moving water is suggestive as a metaphor for us all, the sea as a metaphor for God, and with the powerful symbolic lyrics as a whole clearly evoking the rite of Baptism (the washing away of sin and renewal of spirit), the song itself appears to be a metaphor for redemption. 

It may or may not be a coincidence in terms of this Who series, but this year has been a revitalizing one for my faith (which, in bracing for the ramifications of this week’s election over the foreseeable future, will be sorely needed).  I kind of anticipated that coming into it back in January.  My first two series on the Rolling Stones and Neil Young were short on spiritual undertones because these musicians do not have much of it in their repertoire.  But with Pete Townshend (and up next Bob Dylan and then George Harrison with the Beatles) I knew I was going to be delving into the deeper meanings of life.  It’s one of the main reasons I saved the Who, Dylan and the Beatles for the homestretch:  A ramping up to more serious topics.  In hindsight, I can see now that I could not help but have it all rub off on my own spirituality when I immerse myself into songs like “Don’t Let Go the Coat”, The Sea Refuses No River”, “Bargain”, “Keep Me Turning”, and  “Drowned” to the degree I need to in order to write these blog entries. 

“Drowned” illuminates the beauty of faith in so many wonderful ways.  It allows you to imagine yourself as a drop of water, yearning to get back to the sea where you once belonged.  You are surrounded by other drops of water – family, friends, acquaintances – who are on similar quests.  The ‘drowning’ is letting go of your fears, doubts and insecurities (in this case, those of the flawed ‘hero’ of Quadrophenia, Jimmy the mod).  Pete Townshend once stated that this song almost stands on its own, detached from the rest of the double-record storyline.  I can see his point, but it’s also fine just where it is: The meaning of “Drowned” being the only real solution to the torment inside of a troubled soul.

The physical sea is ubiquitous in Quadrophenia (including background sound effects of waves throughout), and so the analogy of it to God is perfect (which has me understanding more why my Dad is so drawn to it).   The entirety of sides three and four of this concept album take place at the England seaside resort town of Brighton.  It is here that Jimmy fleas to from his working class London home, where his life is unravelling (on sides one and two).  It is here things get worse before they get better (see the “Bellboy” entry: Big Top # 25), and it is here Jimmy finally comes to grips (and in turn at peace) with his plight.  

The Who were on fire for the production of Quadrophenia.  It’s astounding to listen to the results, which get recognized more and more by the critics with each passing year.  Even the Rolling Stones, a band not known for singing the praises of another contemporary band, had to admit there was something special going on here.  They hosted the Who in their mobile studio (which they used the previous year for their opus Exile on Main Street) for some of the recording of Quadrophenia.  I believe this was to see genius play out first hand: Townshend’s masterful concept, centered on struggle, love and redemption, likely being the inspiration that allowed the band to shift it into an extraordinary gear.

In his excellent (but dated) book The Who: An Illustrated Biography, Chris Charlesworth opens with a short introduction to each member of the band.  Up first of course is Pete Townshend.  After discussing his lifestyle as a city dweller, he hones in on the deep-thinker aspect of his persona and closes with the sentence “He has to be careful not to preach, but there is a lot that can be learned from this man”.  This was the first book I ever read about the Who (it was a cornerstone on my lobster-trap coffee table on Lake Street in Waltham for many years), and so these lines were my foray into the thinking of others with similar insights about Townshend.  The sentence has two angles, starting with a slight caution, but finishing with a positive truth.  If it were the other way around, it would not be as correct, nor have the same impact. 

Pete Townshend is a humble man, and would be the first to admit to the beginning of that sentence.  In fact, at one point in the 80s he recommended that his loyalties to his own faith be curtailed in their public prominence due to his personal transgressions.  The second part is what us Who fans primarily focus on however, because despite those transgressions (or maybe even because of them) Townshend has been able to connect with both our own foibles as well as our lofty hopes and aspirations.

Rock and Roll has been a major conduit for my connection to my Catholic faith. For the generations that preceded this musical genre, the pulsating beat can belie the honesty behind the music, which often comes from deep spiritual sources of inspiration.  “Drowned” is on a pedestal in this regard:  A moving tribute to the glory of God.

* This entry is dedicated to Leonard Cohen, a master maestro and true ‘seeker’, and my good friend's Mom, Louis Hedtler, a kind and caring woman, both of whom passed away earlier this week


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Under the Big Top # 44: “Love Undetached”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “A Little Is Enough”
Album: Empty Glass
Release Date: April, 1980

Pete Townshend has written plenty of love songs, but there are only a few where you can be pretty certain that the song is actually about being in love.  “Love Reign o’er Me”?  Nope; this is more about the power of love itself, rather than how it drives a beautiful relationship.   “Bargain” and “Drowned” are about love for God (as are many other Townshend penned songs).  “Let My Love Open the Door” is about God’s love for us.  “Now and Then” is about misguided love.  “They Are All in Love” is about looking upon others in love.  “You Better You Bet” is all over the map, welcoming interpretation, as is the case with other Townshend love songs. 

One of Pete Townshend’s unmistakable being in love, love songs, however is “A Little Is Enough” and it is a favorite of mine. * Side Note: And yet, as with many of Townshend’s songs, there is likely some spiritual duality here too *.  “A Little Is Enough” is one of those songs that, if you have ever been graced to experience this mind-numbing emotion, you can immediately relate.  In my personal ‘top’ love-songs list, it’s up there with Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately” (Nancy and my wedding dance song), Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” and “Dance Me to the End of Love”, the Pretenders “Back on the Chain Gang” (reflecting on love lost), Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind” (the advice of one friend to another that reconnecting with the loving bond of his marriage as being the only solution for his troubled soul), and I am sure a handful of others that don’t come to mind at the moment.

Love songs are so unique, that they can bring the cornball out of the most stalwart of public images.  For example, if you only knew Eric Clapton for “Wonderful Tonight” you would think he could only be heard on soft rock radio stations.  Bob Dylan’s studio version of “Lay Lady Lay” sounds nothing like him.  Patti Smith “Because the Night” comes across as positively mainstream (for her).  And John Lennon was so smitten with Yoko Ono that he out cornballed them all with songs like “Woman” and “Oh, Yoko” (and yet, none of these come close to the Styx “Babe” in the softie department, but hey, even that song can touch those of us who have been on the receiving end of Cupid’s arrow).

There are many elements that contribute to what makes “A Little Is Enough” a great love song, including lines like “I’m like a connoisseur of champagne cognac; the perfume nearly beats the taste” and “I eat an oyster and I feel the contact, but more than one would be a waist”.  What put this song over the top for me however, are the crescendo lyrics that follow upon the instrumental-bridge.  It is here that Townshend takes his typically impassioned singing to new levels:

“Just like a sailor heading in the sea
There’s a gale blowing in my face
The high winds scare me but I need the breeze
And I can’t head for any other place
Life would seem so easy on the other tack
But even a hurricane won’t turn me back
You might be an island
On the distant horizon
But the little I see
Looks like heaven to me
And I don’t care if the ocean gets rough
Just a little is enough”

On the Pete Townshend Deep End Live! release of “A Little Is Enough” (, there is fresh emphasis on certain lyrics and phrases in this stanza that we don’t get on the original studio version (which is not meant to be a criticism of the brilliance of the studio cut).  For example the way Townshend emphasizes the word ‘any’ in line 4 (above) and ‘hurricane’ in line 6:  Further proof that this musician is one of the best when it comes to live Rock and Roll improvisation.

All of this begs the question:  What makes for a great love song?  Well, as the title of another magical tune centered on this most popular of song-topics declares, “God Only Knows”.  I suppose if I knew the answer to that question I would have attempted to wax poetic on it at least once in any one of my numerous entries to this blog site thus far.  Falling in love is after all a central piece of my life puzzle, and likely for many who read these entries as well.  I do know that great love songs cut across genres.  They can be slow or fast, soothing or harsh, melodic and even discordant.  

As with any great song in general, I think that with great love songs, there more often than not has to be a little pain involved, and “A Little Is Enough” is not without struggle.  Townshend’s lyrics include “But it’s clear that the match is rough” and “Common sense’s tell me not to try and continue”.  Other songs I have listed above have similar folly.  On “Have I Told You Lately”, Van Morrison sings “take away my sadness, ease my troubles”.  On “Dance Me to the End of Love” Leonard Cohen sings “Dance me through the panic ‘til I’m gathered safely in”.  Both “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Change Your Mind” are fraught with the pain that can ultimately come with falling in love. 

One of Roger Daltrey’s most memorable quotes was back in the 70s when he stated that Pete Townshend’s best songwriting is expressed when he’s depressed.   Why such a memorable quote?  I believe it is because Who fans already knew this to be a fact and so it was refreshing to hear Pete’s typically unphilosophical band member actually reflect on the notion.  Even though it does have touches of sadness in the lyrics, “A Little Is Enough” is primarily upbeat, and so it’s a bit of an anomaly in terms of Townshend’s songwriting in the late 70s.  However, I don’t believe it stands isolated.  I think it feeds off his more depressing (yet brutally honest) material at the time, which would include “Empty Glass”, “Daily Records”, “Cache Cache”, “New Song”, and “Jools and Jim”.  Looking at it from this context, it’s a truly unique tune in the annals of Who music.   And so in a way the actual song “A Little Is Enough” is that proverbial ‘island on a distant horizon’.

But this condition is not so unique in the annals of Rock music and maybe this is what I’m driving at in regards to what makes a great ‘in-love’ love song, at least for me.  It’s not only about the expression of the love song itself but also what it’s surrounded by.  Love comes with a heighted sense of all our emotions.  Love comes with heartache.  It comes with pain.  It comes with humor.  It comes with truth and faith and conviction and, yes, dismal failure and even self-loathing.  The best of Rock musicians know this.  They express all these emotions, quite often on the same album.  It’s what true Rock-music fans look for, because the whole ball of wax strikes a chord, reflecting on our own complex lives and connecting all of us with our common humanity.