Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Note, Pure and Easy: a Rock Opera about the Who

Elton John
In seventh grade, I discovered Elton John. He was my first concert – 1976 in Greensboro Coliseum. If I remember correctly, the tickets were $8.75. My friend Allison and I whooped and hollered our way through a magnificent set of piano pop… Well, I don’t actually know if it was a magnificent set – to a 13-year-old girl who has never been to a show before, it was pure excitement. I did not yet know that the best music is seen crammed right up to the stage at a tiny venue with the speakers right next to your ears and the performer’s sweat threatening to drench you…. 

My obsessive teenage love for all things Elton was an introduction to a much more meaty and interesting band – the Who… because it was around this time that EJ put on those ridiculous stilt-boots and portrayed the “Pinball Wizard” in Ken Russell’s crazy movie, Tommy. His version of that song was a huge hit, and my friends and I went to see the movie just to see him sing it. 
I have loved the Who
for so long.

Before this, though, my seventh-grade friend Mary Madison lent me her sister’s album of the Who’s Tommy, so I knew all the songs, knew the convoluted story, and became acquainted with Pete, Roger, John and Keith, whom I’ve loved ever since. Anyone who’s ever listened to classic rock radio (what they called “album rock” back in the day) – which is pretty much everyone – knows that these fellows will completely rock your socks off.

I love this album. Critic Robert 
Christgau absolutely did not.
I’ve followed them, albeit loosely, for years, always on board with Pete’s solo efforts – despite Robert Christgau’s unmitigated scorn for them. (Of one album, Christgau says, "it's pretentious at an unprecedented level of difficulty – you have to pay years of dues before you can twist such long words into such unlikely rhymes and images and marshal arrangements of such intricate meaninglessness.") But I love Pete's records. I feel his pain. His plaintive voice makes me weep. I’m not exactly on board with his love for guru Meher Baba, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write and sing a song, right? And it doesn’t mean I can’t take the words the way I want to… which as you know, is how I roll.

Pete still does his windmills.
Anyway… so where I’m going with this is… I got to see the Who the other night! At Greensboro Coliseum, again, performing their “rock opera” Quadrophenia all the way through! Then they played the hell out of some of their bombastic classics while the crowd sang along. I found it completely thrilling. Of course a couple of the original musicians have gone to their reward, but the remaining two – Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey… well, they had my heart soaring and my brain racing… over thoughts like these:

1. I think I like them so much because… their music fully occupies my mind and my emotions. It creates longing as well as satisfaction, and my head is constantly trying to wrap itself around the lyrics and the mix of aggression and vulnerability that they create. Roger’s hearty voice is out to conquer you, while Pete’s thinner, but no less beautiful, voice is full of yearning.

The windmills are fun
until someone gets hurt...
2. What the hell does it all mean? The words, I mean… Some of it, I guess is fairly obvious – the youthful bluster of My Generation, the carefree joy of Going Mobile… Other songs are more obscure. Baba O’Reilly? Eminence Front? I mean, you get a rough idea of what they’re about, but it’s not something you can analyze word-for-word. My friend David has worked for a lot of quite famous rock bands and he told me once that when he would ask Pete Townshend what songs meant, Pete would say, “It means f*ck-all.” I’m guessing that means, “Don’t overanalyze it.” (How cool would it be to be able to go directly to the source when pondering the meanings of the songs you love? It would be a tiny whisper of what we’ll have in heaven when we get to know the secrets of God Himself!)

3. If I could ask Pete one question, I would ask him what the sea represents in his mythology. He uses that image so often. Pete says, “I am the sea,” and “The sea refuses no river,” and “Let me get back to the sea…” Is it love? God? Humanity? Death? Can someone please enlighten me?

Rog is still in fine form.
4. Because of their aggressive sound, I guess, the Who have primarily a male following. I’ve always wondered what it says about me that I love them so much. Is my femininity lacking somehow? I think, actually, it’s just that I love men. And I love and romanticize these intense men the same way I love the idea of rugged Highland warriors, or dangerous pirates.

Still spinning the mike...
5. If you aren’t familiar with Quadrophenia, it’s a rock opera about the violent rivalry between mods and rockers in 1960s England. It follows one particular Mod called Jimmy through his exploits – his work as a mailboy, his rocky relationship with his family, his nightlife spent dancing and flirting with other mods, a trip to Brighton where he survives a violent riot and a trip to night court with Sting... Tom and I watched the Quadrophenia movie last week, and I was struck by several things. First, while I understood his classic teen angst (I certainly had my share,) Jimmy was a flat-out a-hole. Second, I can’t help but think that he could have avoided a lot of his troubles if he had just stopped with the constant popping of “blues” (amphetamines) into his mouth. Third, this is SO not how I saw it when I first viewed the film in college. 

just like in the old days.
Quadrophenia is about a boy with four faces (apparently)… trying to find out who he is. In the film, Jimmy would occasionally look at his reflection in the four mirrors on his scooter… as if THAT’s where he might find himself…  “Look, I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.” 

Dr. Jimmy? Or Mr. Jim?
6. It was kind of odd seeing a bunch of old guys doing a musical about youth. But, as I’ve said before – these guys GAVE us their youth. Their youth is perfectly preserved in their songs… and THAT’S why they will never get old. Pete Townshend wrote “I hope I die before I get old.” And in my opinion, he can keep right on living, cos he’s not there yet.

7. Besides, it’s not like he’s in denial – Pete’s also written some great songs about aging… like Slit Skirts, a mournful, frustrated lament about middle-aged marriage and Who Are You, in which Pete confessed how out of his depth he felt when the punk movement came storming onto the scene.

8. Even though he wrote Who Are You and his character Jimmy struggles with his identity, it looked to me at the show Friday night that Pete seemed to have the happy confidence of a man who knows EXACTLY who he is at this point. He’s Pete Townshend, dammit! 

Out of his brain on a train on a train
wooo he's out of his brain!
9. I was pleased to be able to tell my brother Andy that Roger is still flashing that million-dollar chest of his. And although Rog is 67, it still looks fine – all tan and smooth and gleaming. When Andy was a little kid I was hanging out with him once and we started drawing pictures out of this beat-up copy of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. We drew Roger’s chest as it’s own character… It had a grin at the bottom. It made us laugh so hard… and what I wouldn’t give for those sketches now…

10. At a certain point I started to worry that someone on stage might blow a gasket or something, but then I thought… I don’t know about the other guys, but Roger is probably in better shape than anyone in the room!
The photo of Roger and
his chest  that Andy
and I drew from.

11. Pete still does the windmill guitar-playing thing with and Roger still twirls the mike. Yes, it’s a cliché, but wouldn’t we all be just a little disappointed if they didn’t?

12. The two departed members of the band were sorely missed, bless their souls. Back in the day, John Entwistle played bass like... like no otherDuring one of the songs, they dropped everything but the drums and played a film of Entwistle doing a smashing bass solo. Of course, the crowd roared. During the rest of the show, their stand-in bass player didn't even try to recreate the complex thumpings of The Ox's bass lines... they might have been able to do it, had they hired TWO stand-ins. 

John Entwistle –
the loudest
"quiet one" ever.
And the force of nature that was Keith Moon... What a drummer; what a character. I don't know whether to be proud or frightened that my eight-year-old son Bill LOVES watching old YouTube videos of him playing and smashing drum kits. They paid tribute to Keith by showing a film of him singing Bellboy, when the time came for that song - his earthy, off-key singing and goofy personality on full display.

RIP Keith Moon
13. Stadiums are not great venues for seeing/hearing music. I guess if you get to sit right up front, it would be great... but at today's prices, I won't be doing that. One way performers get around that these days is gratuitous use of video screenage. This show had not only the obligatory zoom-in's on the musicians, but also other screens depicting psychedelic images, old footage of the Who, clips from Quadrophenia the movie, and newsreels of real Mods, the sixties, and, well.. some of the big things that have happened since: the Vietnam War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Glasnost, the Occupy movement, the Free Pussy Riot debacle... Woo! We're multimedia! Was their assertion that they are part of history sort of grandiose? Well, yeah. Or it would be if it weren't a bit true, right? They're part of OUR history as frustrated teens, yearning adults, regretful middle-agers, anyway. And I am not sure they were saying, "We are part of history"... more "We've been here the whole time."

If a rock star
plays a note
and no one holds
up a lighter...
14. After they played Quadrophenia from the first note to the last, the boys played some of their hits... AOR staples like Won’t Get Fooled Again, Baba O’Reilly and Behind Blue Eyes. Everyone in the room – except maybe my cynical husband – was riveted on that stage, singing along with every word... (Again, humorous and ironic hearing 20,000 old people yelling, “Only teenage wasteland ... WE’RE ALL WASTED!”) I couldn’t help being reminded of Bob Dylan’s most recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, in which he mentions that the personal nature of his own songs makes it sort of creepy when people sing along during shows. "I'm not playing campfire meetings," he says.

Here's hoping Pete's joy is complete!
Somehow, though, I don’t think the Who mind. After all, it’s one of Pete’s pet theories that music isn’t complete without the listener. It’s something I wrote about here ... (As an aside, it reminds me of when Jesus said this to his friends: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”) If a tree falls in the forest but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a rock star plays a note and no one holds up a lighter... does it mean anything?

In any case, if you listen to his music you can deduce that Pete Townshend has seen his share of suffering... It may be a small consolation, but I hope that we – the Greensboro crowd – in our response, made Pete’s joy complete. I know mine was.


  1. Yeah, "Chinese Eyes" still rocks. Christgau was just too cranky for his own good when he wrote that...

    Enjoyed reading this one a lot, Julie!

  2. First of all thanks for this great article.
    What you wrote here is exactly what I think. I first saw Tommy on German TV when I was about 12 or 13. Could hardly understand a word but I loved the music and Roger's voice from the beginning (and Roger himself too, like every girl for sure). Unfortunately no one around me liked The Who or knew them at all. So I only had the chance to follow Roger and Pete a while when they did their solo careers. I finally found back to The Who only some years ago (thanks internet) and I dare to say that I'm the greatest fan ever ;-)
    No matter how, I had the luck to see them in Amsterdam (NL) a few months ago for the first time in my life.Unbelievable. It's really sad that I couldn't see them in the 70's.
    Long Live Rock.

  3. Very well done indeed!