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. 


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