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.


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