Saturday, August 12, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #045: The Who: The Kids Are Alright

I had some astonishing musical, artistic, and personal experiences at the old Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge, Mass (old New Englanders pronounce it “Mass”; we don’t need no stinkin’ USPO abbreviations!). I saw Hendrix for the first time, in the fantastic Jimi Hendrix film (see “100 Greats” #31), saw most of my favorite (though not my first) Zatoichi films, saw My Dinner with Andre with a dear old friend. It was a tiny (250-seat), dank place, with, as Kevin Murphy described it, seats only marginally more comfortable than fire hydrants. But their programming policy was (and is) absolutely fantastic: if you think that “underground” art functions best on a shoestring (not fuelled by cheddar and Chablis and Yuppies), then it might be the best art-house theatre in the country.

It’s also where we saw The Kids are Alright, Jeff Stein’s earthshaking biopic of the Who, in its original theatrical release. I’d been a Who fan for years (Live at Leeds was another one in the small-but-good collection I took to West Texas—the first time), and Dharmonia had been ever since My Generation (and saw the last Moon tour), but I’d never seen ‘em live.

I don’t think, even as a pretty-knowledgeable person by 1980, even as well as I already knew their music, even though I’d seen their fantastic sequence in the Woodstock film (about which more in a future “100 Greats” post)—I don’t think I was prepared for these guys. I knew the music was good (I fuckin’ loved Townsend’s writing), but I didn’t get just how overwhelming they were in concert. And not just in volume: Blue Cheer was louder, the Velvet Underground was much sludgier, Zeppelin was way more ice-pick trebly.

No, the Who were more like the aural equivalent of the immaculately dressed street-fightin’ Mods immortalized in Pete’s later Quadrophenia (and in their theme song, the amphetamine-stuttering I Can’t Explain): they were absolutely sharp, absolutely together, impeccably well-thought-out, and absolutely merciless. Whether it was an interview with teenybopping newspaper writers, where Roger would pick his nose; Pete would sneer (like Ian Anderson, Pete terrified writers because he was smarter than they were; unlike Anderson, he was also just as lacking in self-confidence as they were, which leveled the playing field); Entwhistle would sit stoic (or giggle at the others’ antics); and Moon would either clown, as manic as Spike Milligan, or take off his clothes.

But make no mistake about it: they were unmistakeably nuts (and cranked on meth, or grass, or acid, or brandy-and-soda, or, eventually, horse), but they were also the scariest fuckin’ band in rock ‘n’ roll—I can’t imagine how noodlers like the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane must have felt to have to follow a band as tight, as fierce, as virtuosic as the Who, and playing the absolutely sublime (the word is chosen advisedly) songs of Pete Townsend.

It was the intensity of four working-class yobbos (Roger was looking at a job as a sheet-metal worker)—or, OK, three working-class yobbos and an art-school student (Pete)—for whom this band, this music, these fans were the spark and the lifeline: the spark to a life bigger than Shepherd’s Bush, and a lifeline to a greater world.

I don’t think one could argue that Townsend is one of the greatest minds in rock ‘n’ roll—OK, also one of the biggest mouths in rock ‘n’ roll—on the sheer weight of the music. Pete’s daddy had been a big-band/swing-band leader during the war years (Pete was boarded with relatives during WWII, and there’s a dark story there, I think—the wicked child-molesting uncles that recur throughout the Townsend oeuvre are pretty deeply felt), and like every British schoolboy of any class he’d learned to sing harmony and counterpoint in the Anglican choirs, and he like the whole band went to school on the incomparable songwriting of what they called “Tamla/Motown” (Smokey, Barrett Strong, and the magnificent Lamont-Dozier-Holland), so he know how music could be put together, but he also had both the hubris and the astonishing conceptual breadth to think in larger forms. By comparison, the Stones wrote riffs (great ones—but riffs), the Beatles wrote pop songs (great ones—but pop songs—Sergeant Pepper is marvelously evocative, but it’s not a complete concept).

Townsend wrote operas. In fact, he wrote at least two (Tommy and Quadrophenia), and you could argue that might have written three (Lifehouse, whose songs formed the backbone of Who’s Next, was never released in complete conceptual form). Or two-and-a-half: A Quick One, though it’s only eleven minutes long, is a complete entity—a lovely little cantata: it even ends with a chorale (the aforementioned You Are Forgiven).

20 years before the mosh pit, Pete Townsend understood that what the rock ‘n’ roll audience was seeking was what he (who called himself “the ultimate fan”) himself was seeking: a sense of community, the kind of community he’d experienced dancing with the Mods at the Marquee in Shepherd’s Bush, before they ever made an LP; a sense of intensity and commitment (the film captures Pete’s magnificent response to an interview question regarding whether he thought he’d remain an angry young man: “naow, no’ a angry young man…more lahk a angry ol’ FAHRT, really…but not BOR-ing!”); even, we could argue, a sense of spiritual purpose: Pete grasped that rock ‘n’ roll could be a spiritual path. This set him up for all kinds of pompous (and angry) pronunciamentos—Townsend certainly cornered the market on the grand, failed gesture—but it also allowed him to actually find that path, in song after song; album after album; concert after concert; leap after leap.

Maybe that helps explain what held these four disparate and battling personalities together: their esprit de corps was about more even than their share of transcendent moments—partly because they sought them: Moon through excess, the Ox through acquisition, Roger through rage, Pete through religion. The astonishing thing is that, screaming arguments and fistfights, battles public and private, digression and internal mockery, they got there together.

It’s there in performance after performance in this film: no matter what arguments, fisticuffs, or dueling interviews preceded the gig, once they hit the stage it was the four of them together against the world: in the “See Me, Feel Me” sequence fro Tommy they were playing as the sun rose over the ragged tent city at Woodstock (as Pete said, “that was a gift, that was; I didn’t really feel we deserved that”); the magnificent instinctive-Tudor counterpoint “You are forgiven” at the climax of A Quick One on The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus (a film worth acquiring only for the Who’s sequence, not for the Stones’ druggy posturing, and if only to see Pete use his massive schnoz to adjust a sagging microphone mid-performance); the thunderous version of Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues from the Live at Leeds era.

Most particularly and most unexpectedly: the climactic moment in The Kids Are Alright, when—old, worn, cynical beyond belief, chivvied back onto the sound stage for another run at a “definitive encore” by director Stein, they crash into Pete’s greatest song and their greatest record ever: Won’t Get Fooled Again, Pete’s anthem to corruption, transcendent music gives the lie to the wounded cynicism of the text. They lash through the opening, the ageless Daltrey running down all his classic spinning-the-microphone tricks (though R Plant took the shirtless-with-blond-ringlets look much further, and was a good six inches taller, there was no question that Rog took have taken Rob with one punch); the aging, paunchy, sweaty Moon, headphones strapped to his head in a vice-like harness, hammering out the 6-tom fills that he invented (and that Zappa later dubbed “Quaalude Thunder”);

and the lights go down and the lasers go up, fading to the synth tracks which Townsend had recorded in ’71 for Who’s Next and which are still the greatest synthesizer parts in the history of rock...

and Moon’s thunderous fills build to the climax...

and the Daltrey screams the ultimate Daltrey scream, and the lights come up,

and Townsend is in the air soaring across the stage, landing, knees oblivious, and skidding like the most balls-out figure-skater into the wings.

He staggers to his feet, the inimitable Townsend sneer in place, and it’s like the music—his own music, the music he made only with those three comrades—has done what it set out to do, one more time, to its most dedicated, and most disillusioned believer: he’s swept away, one last time, into the music and the dancing and the sense of pure rock ‘n’ roll community, which he, with those three comrades, had found in the nameless gigs at the Marquee and, more clearly, consistently, and courageously than any other ‘60s rocker (even Ray Davies, another courageous—but far more introspective—‘60s songwriter), had fought to bring to the stages of the world. That the promise of the '60s was sold out by the late '70s: we were “lied to” (to quote Johnny Rotten—about whom Townsend wrote another brilliant, rueful song, Who Are You?) wasn’t Pete’s fault—he always told the truth, as much as it was in him to do it.

It was their greatest, most hard-won, and most selfless moment of transcendence.

And it was their last: Moon died less than two months later—and the band that’s played since then, while a great band, isn’t the Who.

And that’s OK—they gave us enough. We should be grateful. Walking out of the Brattle in late 1979, I knew that, and I still believe it.


Lisa said...

Wow... simply one of the best essays about The Who I've ever read. It's good to be reminded that other people can hear it the way I hear it. Everytime I hear "Baba O'Riley" (the first song I heard by them that I was fully aware who was playing), it sounds as raw and powerful as the first time. No other band could get away with some of the lyrics without sounding woefully optimistic or horribly egocentric (i.e. Limp Bizkit's cover of "Behind Blue Eyes" - Fred Durst didn't have a clue as to what the song is or could be about).

Again, thanks for the stunning essay. I've enjoyed your "100 Greats" so far and taken a keen interest in your more political fare.

CJS said...

Thanks for the kind words; glad you liked the essay. Yes, I think Townsend is a pretty-unusually insightful and articulate person--not uncomplicated or infallibly on-target, but remarkably brave and a *remarkable* composer.

Thanks again.