Saturday, December 31, 2016

Under the Big Top # 50: “Deja Who”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Baba O’Riley”
Album: Who’s Next  
Release Date: August, 1971

Over the past month or so, as I anticipated a winding down of this series on the Who and the memories their music evokes within me, I found myself reflecting back on a moment during my first Who concert, which was at Rich Stadium, Buffalo, New York, in the early autumn of 1982 (I wrote about this show in greater detail in entry # 3).  The band was performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” near the end of their set, and when they got to the refrain - that part of the song when Roger Daltrey sings “I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution, take a bow for the new revolution, smile and grin at the change all around” - I recall being mentally launched back in time, to my childhood, and the only circus I had attended by that point in my life.   The main reason for that flashback moment was because it was during that refrain that John Entwistle played a particularly potent stretch of bass guitar, identical note for note to the studio version, but somehow far more powerful.  It was the type of sound only the Who could pull off (Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon have all had these transcendent stretches too), and as I took it in, it felt as if the band were soaring into the stratosphere, like some otherworldly musical trapeze act. 

I suppose it’s appropriate that I would have that moment on my mind at this conclusive stage of my Who musings:  The title of this series after all alludes to this band as a circus act.  And yet, it’s not as if I’ve ever been enamored by the circus, in the traditional sense:  Flying trapeze, clowns, human pyramids and the like are fun to watch, but they never have been awe inspiring to me.  In the not-so-traditional interpretation however, the Who have shown me what a circus performance could be:  A mesmerizing, jaw dropping, and tantalizing, four-ringed spectacle!  Ever since I first became a fan of their music in the late 70s, the Who have done quite well with matching –correction, besting - my childhood imagination of how good something could be before I witnessed it.  In others words, unlike so many other events, this band did not disappoint.  And so, yes, what I was tapping back into on that hot, muggy day in Buffalo was the innocent, youthful sensation of being astounded. 

I got that feeling back this year; that sense of “Deja Who”.  Yes, the Who astounded me once more.  How about that!….a 54 year old man consumed for an entire calendar year by the music of a Rock and Roll band from his youth.  Is this supposed to happen?  I mean, have I not reached that point of time in my life where a little Mozart would come in handy, or an opera, or the Boston Pops?  Shouldn’t I be closing my eyes and taking in a piano concerto, rather than the image of a leaping guitarist, windmilling his power chords?  Should not the pleasing sound of an improv jazz drummer now be trumping the maniacal Keith Moon?  Shouldn’t I be gravitating to that new Country sound that seems to be pulling middle-aged America in this day and age?  If you believe this, than you have not been reading closely, because I think I’ve made a pretty compelling case in these pages that Rock music, when played with soul, passion camaraderie, and talent, can be as immense and intense as any music in the annals of melodic sound.

Earlier this year I came across an interview Pete Townshend gave not so long ago which had him discussing the Who at Woodstock.  At one point during the interview, he was talking about the commotion on stage before their set, as the band, camera men, stage crew and others were running about with heavy equipment and electronics, setting up.  He looked over at Roger Daltrey, who was in the middle of all the chaos, and Daltrey came across to Townshend as….vulnerable (which put Townshend in a defensive mode and factored into him literally kicking political activist Abbie Hoffman off stage during their set).   Now listen, Roger Daltrey in his early years with the Who portrayed an image that was anything but vulnerable, but his time on the road, in rehearsal, and in the studio with his bandmates had changed him.  Gone was the boisterous he-man; the blue-collar tough guy who solved problems with his fists.  In his place was a lead singer who had risen to the occasion by singing deep songs while in the moment, and who as a consequence had rounded out a perfect lineup that would from that period forward collectively up-the-ante again and again until Keith Moon’s death 10 years later.  Needless to say, Pete Townshend was quite impressed with Roger Daltrey’s performance that night on the biggest of all rock stages.

I have thought long and hard about this insightful comment by Pete Townshend, until I realized that Townshend himself has also exuded a raw vulnerability on numerous occasions.  You can see this in the “A Quick One” video, as well as his own performance at Woodstock, and at the Concert for New York City after 911, as well as many other instances (including by listening to virtually any song he sings).  Vulnerability is not all that common in the Rock world, but it is something which I now see as being a significant contribution to what helps make quality music.  I may face some flack saying this, but I believe the biggest difference between the Who and bands like Led Zeppelin was that Zep never had this angle on quality.  Led Zeppelin was all about bravado.  The same could be said about the Rolling Stones (although vulnerability did magically slip in on their magnum opus, Exile on Main Street).  I’m not saying this is a bad thing: You can make it in the Rock world on bravado and showmanship alone.  But add vulnerability to the mix, and you’ve instantly raised your game.   The Who were able to do this, where so many others either could or would not. 

Why, or more important, how?

Here’s the thing: Vulnerability comes with honesty, which can come at a price (that being scrutiny and criticism).  You can’t get one without the other.  And if Pete Townshend is anything he is honest.  His honesty is brutal at times:  Yes, self-criticism is something that comes easy to Mr. Townshend.  But it’s something to aspire to.  Most of us attempt to put a little veneer on how we project ourselves to others in relation to how we feel inside about who we truly are.  Not so Pete Townshend. In turn, his honesty rubbed off on his bandmates.  It also rubbed off on Who fans.  Know a Who fan, and you know someone who is willing to dive a bit deeper into a conversation.  Know a Who fan and you will know someone who is willing to share more of themselves than the average bear.

None of this would have played out for the Who to the degree it did if not for another ingredient: Effort.  Pete Townshend was tireless in his pursuit of seeing his projects come to fruition.  These projects were often complex in scope and hard to get across to others (including the band), but dogged persistence and relentless energy frequently won the day.  I suppose when you have designed a Maserati like the Who, you do not want to see it all go to waste.  And make no doubt about it; Pete Townshend did not let it go to waste.  Neither did Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle or Keith Moon, each of whom had to faithfully work through a comprehension process until they could finally ‘see the light’ with some of Townshend’s concepts.  Patience is indeed a virtue, gained through trust and effort.  Here again are more descriptive adjectives that fit:  Effort, honesty, trust, patience, and vulnerability, all interwoven into the unique story that is the Who.  Talent was for the most part a byproduct.  Pete Townshend brought out the best of abilities in 3 men, and they in him.  How many of us would love to be able say that?

The Who have connected with me in many ways, including in my personality.  I see a bit of myself in all of them.  At times I feel the reserved, stoic, big brother, like John Entwistle.  At times I feel the passionate leader, the rational presence, like Roger Daltrey.  At times I feel the crowd pleaser, the best friend, the die hard, like Keith Moon. At times I feel the innovator, the dreamer, the schemer, the deep thinker like Pete Townshend. On the rare occasion, like my bachelor party, I feel all four of these personality traits (a Quadrophenia day if there ever was one).  In this way, my connection to the Who and their music is a bit more intense than all the other bands whom I love.  Close friends and family can attest to that.  It’s more intense than my connection with the music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.  It’s more intense than my connection to the music of Graham Parsons, Iris Dement, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, the Kinks, the Band, Lou Reed, the Cranberries, and Joe Jackson, all of who I have enjoyed immensely.  It’s even different from my connection with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  Connect with a great band’s personalities, and you can connect even more so with their music than is otherwise possible. The openness and honesty of the Who has allowed many of us to do this.

It has been an interesting year of writing.  First off, it’s been tricky having the term “Who” in so many sentences, as Microsoft Word can’t help but interpret it as a question or something completely out of context.  Secondly, I went through a bit of writers block in the spring/early summer, and decided to claw my way though it rather than take a break.  I’m glad I did: When I re-read those entries (~ # 17 thru # 23) they are not as bad as I initially thought.  I suppose I should have taken some of my Cousin Tom Gilligan’s moral support more to heart at the time, where he essentially stated as such. Speaking of Tom, I would like to publically thank him, as well as my great friend, Luc Polnicky, and especially my Brother Fred, for the best feedback to my writings this year.  I am pretty sure Fred took the time to read every entry from beginning to end, which I interpret primarily as a labor of brotherly love.  Everyone else I sent these blog entries to has also commented positively to me at one time or another.  For this I am grateful.  Believe me, I fully realize it is not easy to set aside time to connect with someone else’s thoughts in written form, even if that someone is very close to you.

As mentioned before, I was not expecting too many new insights with the Who in relation to my earlier series’ on the Rolling Stones and Neil Young.  In both of those cases, there were major discoveries to be made.  With the Who however, I had done most of the exploration already.  But I did gain some new appreciations related to their music.  “Amazing Journey” raised a few notches on my personal apprecio-meter, as did “Endless Wire”, “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”, “Outlive the Dinosaur”, and “Gonna Get Ya”.  And for the first time this year, I listened to two albums from beginning to end: My Generation and Who Came First.  Also, I must have watched the “Join Together” video at least 40 times.  I too recaptured the feel of listening to “Love Reign O’er Me” over twenty five years ago as I drove along Rte 495 with great friend Dave on the way to his wedding on the day he married my cousin Becca, as well as the feel of a summer morning on Lake Street, Waltham in the mid-80s, when a number of my Franklin friends and I arose and tossed onto the turntable the high decibel sound of Who’s Next, and then proceeded to discuss the magic of their music.  So many other great memories were recalled and revisited as well.

I choose as my last song entry “Baba O’Riley” ( > the ‘Baba’ representing a spiritual quest; the ‘O’Riley’ representing the pursuit of that quest thru music.  I am sure it was the intention of Pete Townshend when he titled this song to get these two points across:  Meher Baba being his spiritual ‘avatar’ and Terry Riley, one of his principle music mentors.  I believe this is a perfect song to conclude this series with because these two narratives, spirituality and music, are at the core of what this band is all about.  If any band has found a spiritual center through music, it’s the Who.  The case can also be made for their fans.  Music can take you places that precious few other paths can only dream of.  Pete Townshend envisioned this and the Who worked and weaved that vision into reality.

Life experience tells me that there are those among us who have never been astounded in their adulthood, be it by love, family, faith, or outside forces like the Who (or all the above!). That’s unfortunate, because once you make these types of connections you know how vital they are and you strive to keep them forever.  These are addictions of the most beautiful kind.  I am fortunate to have been astounded by the Who.  After this blog series, I now believe I’ll take that astonishment all the way to the grave.

That’s a wrap.  God Bless.


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