Saturday, December 3, 2016

Under the Big Top # 48: “Rising From the Ashes”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Real Good Looking Boy”
Album: Then and Now (compilation album)
Release Date: May, 2004

In April, 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine released “The Immortals: The 50 Greatest Artists of All Time” (50 more were added later to round out the top 100).  Each of the musicians featured included a write-up by a well-known admirer, typically a fellow musician.  Elvis Costello wrote the tribute to the Beatles, who won first prize (no surprise there).  In at # 2 was Bob Dylan, who was reviewed intelligently and insightfully by Robbie Robertson.  And Bono sang the praises for Elvis Presley at # 3.  The Who came in at # 29 (a travesty!) with Eddie Vedder writing a masterful tribute - perhaps the best of them all - making it clear in the process just how much of a fan he is of this inimitable band (and also making it clear they should have been ranked far better!).   

About half way thru his tribute, Vedder mentions that Who drummer Zak Starkey gave him a sneak pre-release listen to the then just recorded “Real Good Looking Boy”.  Vedder’s take: “It was beyond moving”.  This was all news to me prior to flipping pages right to that Who feature in Rolling Stone, just minutes after freeing the magazine from my mailbox that spring.  At that time, the Who had not recorded an original song together in 15 years (side note: I typically search for Who news first when any Rock publication catches my eye after it hits the news stand.  The Rolling Stone ‘Immortals’ issue was a classic example:  I jumped past the Beatles, Dylan, the Stones, and others to read about the Who first).  Not long after, I had the opportunity to hear the new tune for myself, loudly, thru headphones at a funky record store in Baltimore called The Sound Garden. The song immediately resonated with me (indeed, I recall glancing around the store to see if anyone was catching me emotionally in the moment).  I purchased the new Who compilation album Then and Now on the spot (which included two new songs: “Real Good Looking Boy” and “Old Red Wine”, another moving song, this one a poignant ode to the then recently deceased John Entwistle, which I wrote about in Big Top # 12).

“Real Good Looking Boy” is truly a lovely and moving song (  Clocking in at 5:42, it makes its way thru several diverse musical stanzas, in similar fashion to the length and complexity of “Guitar and Pen”, another favorite Who song of mine.  It begins by telling the story of a pre-teen Pete Townshend, enamored by Elvis Presley, as so many kids his age were in the mid-to-late 50s, and in turn gaining confidence in himself.  As the song progresses he loses that confidence (partly due to a mother figure telling him he doesn’t look anything like Elvis: “in this long line, there’s been some real strange genes.  You’ve got em’ all…you’ve got em’ all….with some extras thrown in”) but in the end he finds it again through true love and grace.  The title is repeated throughout, connecting to both Pete’s reflections of Elvis and of himself as a young boy (and finally of Townshend in the then present).  As a Who fan, it’s touching to hear all this, because Pete Townshend has never been one to find happiness in his own personal narrative through any of his music.  Roger Daltrey seizes this rare moment with an amazing vocal delivery, making Townshend’s new-found-happiness-in-song quite satisfying for all of us who have followed this band over the years.

To get the big picture on “Real Good Looking Boy” however you have to put the release of this song into temporal context.  Less than 2 years earlier, Pete Townshend was publically cautioned by police for visiting a child pornography site (just typing that is difficult).  The accusations were later proven misleading and blown out of proportion, but the damage had been done.  I remember when this news hit the airwaves.  As a fan it was a very tough pill to swallow (which included getting quizzed by friends and family).  These charges cut against the grain of everything Pete Townshend had stood for.  His significant giving to children’s charities was well known (one of endless examples: A deep pocket concert/album at the Chicago House of Blues in 1998, all artist royalties benefiting the Roman Catholic Maryville Academy institution for treating physically, sexually, and emotionally abused children).  His music (Tommy in particular) sang out to the world the chilling effects of child abuse.  His spiritual leanings, his interviews, and his home life: It all screamed foul.  

The smear campaign was in high gear for a few weeks, with yahoos like Howard Stern leading the charge.  Roger Daltrey forcefully came to Pete Townshend’s defense and in the process wondered why a Rock magazine such as the aforementioned Rolling Stone did not speak out in similar fashion, as he claimed it would have in its early years of publication (Pete would later thank Roger in the heartfelt acoustic number “You Stand By Me” on Endless Wire).  After all, for many years Pete Townshend was an avid spokesperson for all the good that Rock music represented, often writing to Rolling Stone about his passion in this regard (many of his letters are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and regularly offering interviews and self-written articles in the Magazine’s green and lean years of the late 60s and early 70s. 

It’s all water under the bridge now, I suppose. Regardless, the aftershocks have persisted to this day.  When the Who played at the Super Bowl a few years back there were a handful of organized online protests.  A Knighthood was likely in the cards for Pete Townshend before the shit hit the fan.  Now… who knows?  His legacy has been tarnished for sure, but I do believe the truth will ultimately win the day (the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, which included a chorus of New York City Police and Fire Department workers serenading Townshend and Daltrey, was a step in the right direction in terms of its effect on the court of public opinion).   

I have to be honest with myself though:  I do not know this man, Pete Townshend, personally.  And in the end don’t we all simply gravitate to what we want to hear regarding any subject matter?  But what I liked in the near immediate aftermath of the tabloid fodder was “Real Good Looking Boy”.  It was a telling statement. Pete Townshend knew that this song could have been seriously misconstrued when he released it.  The title alone was incriminating enough.  But this did not matter to him.  I find that brave and honorable.   Time has a way of healing, and some actions speed it up.  Although counterintuitive in some ways, the release of this song did just that.  Townshend recaptured his audience, his fans, which was what he needed to do first and foremost.

Another clearly positive effect from the entirety of that three-year period (which included 9/11 and the Who’s follow-up blue chip performance at The Concert For New York – hence the reason for the NY Police and Firemen serenade at the Kennedy Center Honors; John Entwistle’s untimely death; a spectacular world tour; the charges against Pete Townshend; and the release of “Real Good Looking Boy”):  It ended up initiating a long-overdue friendship between Townshend and Daltrey.  These two were never close.  They rarely saw eye to eye on anything:  Pete Townshend the dreamer/schemer and Roger Daltrey the practical leader/thinker.  Yes there was love and admiration, but there was no mutual understanding of what it was that made the other tick, and therefore no real friendship.  And so, frankly it was a bit odd to see this newfound kinship unfold before our Who-fan eyes at their concerts.  Now instead of miscue-finger pointing or general avoidance there were hugs and hair ruffles.  What was this?  It was the same type of goofy feeling one gets when watching the abominable snow man going all soft on us in the iconic animated television version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Hey, adversity often has its sublime side effects.  For those with a strong foundation, it pushes them to be better people (and better abominable snow men). 

When I started this Big Top blog series, I knew I’d have to talk about this period in Pete Townshend’s life at some point.  I saved it for near the end.  Why?  Not because I was avoiding it, but because I knew that everything I have written prior could be my answer to questions about his integrity and character for those who base it on that one event.  So yes, now I have my answer:  Read my blog!  We all grapple with daily, often petty struggles regarding questions of who should serve and who should eat or related to conceits such as “this why they pay me the big bucks” or rapid reaction to someone cutting you off in rush hour.  Well, after all this wrangling most of us should be counting our blessings, because at any time it could all come crashing down.
Pete Townshend counted his blessings and gave us "Real Good Looking Boy" in response.


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