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.


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