Helsinki, Finland February 18 2013
I cannot put this book down. Who I Am by Pete Townshend from The Who. Truth be told, The Who, and especially Pete, were the most important influence on me. It wasn’t until I found them that I actually considered picking up a guitar.
As a boy artists like Elvis were characters of mythical legend. As if Memphis were the Holy Land and if I was extra good when I died I’d go to Graceland.
The Beatles were some unattainable ideal. To be honest, I believe they still are. Their music had been within me from the womb.
KISS (yes, he’s going from Elvis to The Beatles to KISS) were superheroes. They literally had comic books about them. They were demons and catmen from outer space (my KISS friends are all correcting me right now-The Demon and the Catman were not from Space!). They were 10 feet tall and breathed fire (Yes-only Gene breathed fire). They may certainly have been the first ‘band’ to grab my attention but I don’t think, as a boy, I pieced together the men behind the masks. While Elvis may have been ethereal, The Beatles unattainable, KISS were cartoon characters come to life and I say that with all the love in my heart.
All three of these would fall under the category of ‘not real’ or at least certainly nothing I could be capable of.
I suppose it would have seemed just as likely to bend spoons with my mind or to simply take flight.
Of course, as I grew, both as a living, sentient being on this planet AND later as a musician my take on the above perspectives have changed. Only slightly.
The truth remains.
Elvis was first.
The Beatles reached plains of dimension none will ever attain.
And KISS are still, and will always be cartoon characters come to life. This is why I loved them, love them and always will.
But THE WHO-
As a boy I lived in a tiny town in northern Canada that was frozen most of the time. To my great luck, inexplicably, we had a gigantic (at least in my memory) movie theater for a town of 1500. That movie theater was the only thing to connect me to anything bigger than my meager surroundings. Some of my greatest memories are worlds I witnessed on that giant screen. I believed a man could fly, no one in space could hear me scream, galaxies far, far away and just when I thought it was safe to go back in the water…believe me it wasn’t. It’s still not!
In 1979 The Who released a film called The Kids Are Alright. (Frank Sidoris has never seen this film and he’s a The Who fan. This must be remedied) I found myself alone, as I was so many times, in that same expansive theater where that single film changed my life.
There is something so fascinating about the subjectivity of music. Why a song can speak to you and not to me. In the same way that I can look at a girl and say she’s the most beautiful woman in all the world and my friend might say, ‘Yea, she’s alright’ then the exact reverse event occur.
This would be why later in life teenage boys would sit around on car hoods in random parking lots discussing why Priest ruled while another would declare that, in fact, Maiden ruled. How could anyone be right or wrong?
I dislike seafood yet my friends LOVE it. Are they wrong? Well, yes, but, again, subjectivity comes into play here.
For the record the correct answer is…
Wait for it…
But Priest ruled.
But I digress…
The opening scene of The Kids Are Alright has The Who appearing on the Smothers Brothers show in 1967. There was something different about The Who. They didn’t seem as omnipotent as The Beatles. The Beatles were always smiling at me while they sang. I’m glad they did. It made me want a Ticket To Ride Magical Mystery Tours with Eleanor Rigby on Yellow Submarines to Strawberry Fields by way of Penny Lane.
The Who had something that I believe I would always gravitate towards from then on. Danger. Sure they were dressed very fancy in puffy shirts and shiny jackets but they didn’t seem the kinda fellas who you’d feel comfortable commenting on their appearance to.
They had ‘the English accent’ which I think we’d all grown accustomed to watching The Beatles being wacky and loveable in their movies.
I was always confused why their accents were almost imperceptible when they sang. Were they imitating the American rockers they’d grown up on? I remember asking my Mother and her looking quizzically at me. Was this an unusual question for a 4 year old to ask? Of course as an adult I can hear their accents here and there just fine.
The Who played My Generation on the Smothers Brothers show. That song is a freight train. It ‘rocks’. I don’t think I’d been aware of that term just yet. It was unrelenting to my young ears. Pete Townshend didn’t so much play his guitar as tear the chords out of it. Keith Moon was an explosion of lunacy. To this day he is a fascination. The rhyme or reason of his magic is to have no perceivable rhyme or reason whatsoever. Daltrey, looking exactly as he was, an English bruiser, coughing and spitting (and quite literally stuttering) a big ‘EFF YOU’ to ‘people who try to put him down’. Throughout John Entwistle is this bizarre dichotomy. An unmovable pole in a hurricane. Drawing almost more attention to himself by doing nearly nothing at all.
The lyrics to the song are enough to wage a war with-’Hope I die before I get old’. I’d never heard anyone say they hoped they died for any reason or in any time frame.
Then Entwistle’s bass solo was like the sonic equivalent of an inescapable beating by a schoolyard bully. Except it was awesome.
Then something so unexpected happened that it would forever changed everything for me. Nothing would ever be the same once I witnessed Pete Townshend smash his guitar at the end of the song.
I mean it was a guitar.
It was an electric guitar.
I mean I was already drooling over the image of a Gibson Les Paul. A Fender Stratocaster, A Gretsch Country Gentleman. A Rickenbacker 330. I’d spend hours drawing them. Such care and detail in every line like they were the dizzying curves of Marilyn Monroe’s hips.
I never took the sacrifice of that guitar as disrespect. It was a celebration. A sacrifice to the glory of Rock N Roll. To a higher power I could not understand yet.
From that day forward, and I am not kidding about this, I knew what I wanted to be. I knew what I wanted to do. The path was laid out before me that day by a skinny, big nosed kid from a world away. He had shown me the light and I followed his every move. He was not omnipotent nor a super hero. He was real. He was just like me.
I could not identify with the beauty and perfectness of the pop artists around me but there was something so achingly genuine about Pete Townshend. The anger in his performance and the fury in the destruction touched me in a way that probably no other single event will.
From that day forward it was all about The Who. T-shirt, jacket, buttons, hat, every single album, solo albums, soundtracks etc etc etc.
I have often commented in more recent years that The Who was a course I took. I immersed myself in every aspect of them. It was hard for me to listen to just ‘one song’. If I started an album an OCD took such deathly hold of me I had to at the very least finish the side of the album. This made me late for school many a morning. I would race home at lunch time for my fix. I had no iPod. I didn’t even have a ‘walkman’. Not surprisingly I was late for school after lunch too.
All this and Keith Moon was already dead. Something I learned late during my journey into this new discovery. That was a sad revelation. Shouldn’t I have known this already? I don’t think so. No one else seemed to know anything about The Who. A lot of people thought I was referring to the Canadian group, The Guess Who. I didn’t become familiar with them til years later. I didn’t become familiar with ‘anything’ til years later. I was in the midst of a lengthy crash course by Professor Townshend et al.
Not until one day my 8th grade teacher, Mr Hartle (or Hardle, I can’t remember. This was a ‘few’ year ago…) looked at the back of my jacket where my giant target emblem read proudly ‘The Who’. He very calmly said, “Jimmy Page is a better guitar player than Pete Townshend.”
“What did you say?”
An epic battle took place where his Crane style was no match for my Tiger style (that’s Kung Fu talk for the uninitiated).
I think part of me was just tickled to be talking music with anyone. Most people I knew only talked about sports or…I don’t know. What do normal people talk about?
I didn’t know who Jimmy Page was. I think I was aware that he happened to play on The Who’s early hit ‘I Can’t Explain’ (it’s a fact-google that shit). I knew that the name Led Zeppelin had been coined by Keith Moon (Fact #2-google it! Well, maybe not fact but certainly legend has it…) but I had never heard a song by Led Zeppelin. All I knew was that the smoking pit of hard looking older boys outside of school wore Van Halen, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin jackets/shirts (all to be replaced by Metallica soon enough).
That 8th grade teacher had intrigued me enough to purchase Led Zeppelin II. I dropped the needle on a song called Whole Lotta Love…and my life was changed all over again…
But that story is for another time!
At the height of my studies in all things The Who I had turned each and every one of my friends on to them. We formed bands and butchered their songs. The first drummer I ever played with, Kelly Bear (yea, his name was Bear. That’s pretty Rock N Roll) would trash his drums at the end of our jams. The only ones there to witness it were Johnny Barnstorf and myself. It was appreciated nonetheless.
We wrote songs that sounded like our juvenile estimation of The Who and I believe that element remains in me to this day.
I have only smashed a few guitars in my life. I love them entirely too much to do so without conscience. I smashed a bass guitar as a teenager on stage at some kind of community hall dance. It did not give up the ghost easily. It fought me every step of the way. It was some kind of Jazz bass copy and it was a solid piece of wood. The wood on the neck split and cut my hand before I finally separated neck from body. So there I was nearly defeated, bleeding profusely but victorious.
The only response I recall was, “Your parents are gonna kill you when they heard you broke your guitar.” It wasn’t my guitar. It was donated for the sacrifice. Its spirit now lives within me. I am one with the higher power of Rock N Roll.
In 1982 when The Who were on their farewell tour they were ending in Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens (a building I would later play in my own career) my Father looked at me in the kitchen and asked if we should maybe go to Toronto for this big finale thing? I remember being dumbfounded. My Father never seemed to understand anything about my newfound obsession with music, Rock N Roll or The Who. Clearly he did. Looking back I realize my Father knew that ‘this band’ was somehow very important to me and that if they were actually saying ‘farewell’ then perhaps his boy should go and say…well,..farewell. Kind of a strangely sweet act of kindness on his part.
At the time I don’t think I understood what that could’ve meant. I mean I was only a boy. The only concert I’d seen was Beatlemania (a sort of tribute to The Beatles, I’ve mentioned going to it in these blogs before. The Paul McCartney guy was right handed. Erroneous! I was a stickler for detail by grade school already). I dismissively played off my Father’s act of kindness. He couldn’t have possibly been serious. And just like that the moment passed.
The Who broke up and I was onto the next course-Led Zeppelin 101. My 8th grade teacher enticed me to do better in school by giving me his old vinyl Zeppelin records he was replacing if I got decent grades. I was already addicted by my first purchase of their second album. I got Zep I, Zep IV, Physical Graffiti and a few more out of that deal. He was an amazing guy. Him and John Mak, my 7th grade teacher who actually owned a Les Paul cherry sunburst. Those two guys are as responsible for me playing music now as Mr Townshend.
Led Zeppelin 101. All This and John Bonham was dead already…
My relationship to Pete Townshend over the years is that of a father. In many ways he may be a kind of musical father. I disagreed with his after the fact dispersions towards the band that made him successful. He seemed to think he deserved all the credit and that perhaps he never needed those other guys in the first place.
That was a real turn off. I always despise that kind of betrayal. It is not only a betrayal to the other members that helped make the legacy what it was but a betrayal to the people that supported that legacy all these years. Pete outwardly attacked Roger Daltrey who had been, in many ways, the voice and face of the words and music written by Townshend. I don’t need to hear that stuff. I think that’s a lesson all bands need to learn.
The Who is more important that the sum of it’s parts. That goes for The Ramones, KISS or U2. U2 is a good lesson for other bands to look at. Class.
I don’t think Gene Simmons nor Paul Stanley realize how bad it makes them look when they speak ill of Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. It demeans the band and it demeans the people that follow it. Who cares about that stuff?
There is a chemistry within a band that only exists between the people that occupy it.
John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Plant, Page, Jones, Bonham.
Daltrey, Entwistle, Moon and Townshend.
That’s not to say that things can’t ‘work’ in other combinations but there is a magic within the above formulas that do NOT work in any other.
The Stones are marginal exception as they survived two major changes in second guitar players that, in my opinion, hardly seemed to affect them. In my opinion Wyman’s exit changed things for me but not enough for me to check out completely. They’re the Stones, after all, the first band to really get old. To go the distance. To push the envelope.
I unknowingly became so turned off by Pete’s dismissal of what was so important to my developmental years that I all but turned my back on him and his work for years. The Who were a course I took. I had passed with flying colors. It was a part of me. It was in my blood. It was in my DNA. I could call on it at any given moment.
That’s not to say I disliked The Who. On occasion a song would come on and I would know every breath and beat as if I had been with them as they recorded it.
Pete was arrested for having questionable things on his computer and who was the first to publicly defend him but his punching bag, Roger Daltrey. Certainly I have no right to question the dynamic of a relationship that has lasted twice as long as I’ve been alive. They are brothers. Brothers fight. Brothers say shitty things about one another but protect one another when an outsider has something shitty to say.
From this slight stumble from grace a humbleness befell my old master. The Who suddenly became an armor of nobility that he could wear proudly again and I have to say it looked good on him.
We lost John Entwistle which was a heartbreaker. He died at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas, a building I have spent many an hour in. Without him the spirit of The Who has finally left. Roger and Pete take it around the world every now and again for the rest of us to enjoy a whimsical look back.
I hope these days when Pete looks to his right on stage and sees Roger Daltrey he understands the power that his words and music had when generated through a machine called The Who. Though John and Keith are in Heaven playing in a dynamite act called Peace Frog fronted by Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix (can’t wait to check them out!) their spirit is alive and well within their bastard children like me.
Pete Townshend is for all intents and purposes a stately gentleman. His hair is thinner and grey but his eyes are the same. The same Blue Eyes he’s been hiding Behind all his life. And when you watch him now he doesn’t hold back like that regrettable ‘acoustic guitar only’ period. He lets himself get inside the music. He lets the music, his music get inside him and a power comes over him. I know because I have been watching him all my life. There is a look, a glint in his eye and he jumps and rockets that arm around and around again until he is no longer an elderly man of retirement age but that same tall boy with the big nose and blue eyes that made a boy, from a world away, with the same attributes want to do the same thing.
Rock Is Dead
Long Live Rock
Your loyal and humble servant