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


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