Thursday, April 13, 2017
ON THE AVENUES: Ain't it funny how we all seem to look the same? On Quadrophenia, from 2013.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
This one's a reprint.
Emerging from the shadows of The Dolphin pub in Plymouth’s Barbican, we began walking toward the harbor, the open sea visible to the south.
Then a steadily mounting, weirdly mechanized buzzing was heard just around the corner.
Were we being pursued by lawnmowers?
Soon the street was filled with flashy vintage motor scooters, piloted mostly by older men wearing strange archaic clothing from long ago, and suddenly I experienced a devastating flashback from somewhere deep within my Indiana heartland soul … but why?
How could someone corn-fed like me, born and raised thousands of miles away – who didn’t visit England until he was 38 years old – possibly experience Sixties-back-dated déjà vu on a Devon quayside in the year 2009?
Elementary, my dear Jimmy: It's Quadrophenia, that’s how.
When the whirring subsided and the scooters disappeared around the bend, my wife’s cousin explained that The Who’s seminal 1973 album had been adapted and restaged as a musical by its writer, Pete Townshend. The show would be playing at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, and so we bought tickets and attended a performance.
It was cleverly done, with a group of young vocalists and instrumentalists gleefully blasting their letter-perfect way through passages made immortal by Townshend (guitar and vocals), Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass and brass) and Keith Moon (drums and percussion).
Tears kept working their way toward my eyes throughout, because Quadrophenia inevitably works that way for me.
The basic facts about Quadrophenia are well known. It was conceived by Townshend as a concept album, embracing aspects of post-war British cultural history utterly remote from the American experience.
The protagonist Jimmy is a Mod; on the other side of the “contrasting ethos” aisle are the Rockers. These rival gangs have virtually everything in common when it comes to shared white ethnicity and socio-economic futility in post-war Great Britain; duly deprived of larger differences, they fight endlessly over small patches of turf defined primarily by style, fashion and attitude.
Jimmy’s personality is explained as a four-part disorder of conflicting emotions, perhaps “quad-polar” in amateur 2017 newspeak. Each of these emotions further symbolizes a band member: Introspective “beggar” (Townshend); tough guy and “helpless dancer” (Daltrey); groping romantic (Entwistle) and manic lunatic (Moon).
In turn, each of Jimmy’s personalities is scored as a musical theme, and in operatic fashion, these themes are stated through bookending instrumentals (“Quadrophenia” and “The Rock”), and seeded throughout the narrative. All of it comes to an epiphany in “Love Reign O’er Me,” the album’s closing song.
Arguably, Quadropenia is The Who’s aggregate musical pinnacle. It fuses the players’ greatest individual strengths during a period just before weariness and attrition began taking their toll. Astoundingly, not one of them was 30 years old when Quadrophenia was recorded.
As a whole, while oblique to American ears, Jimmy’s saga makes far better sense than Tommy, the group’s better known album. Upon release, Quadrophenia was by no means acclaimed as an “instant” classic, but it has aged remarkably well, with its deeper, layered textures successfully maturing over time.
Like Pink Floyd’s album The Wall, Quadrophenia’s universals are capable of creative reinvention apart from their original milieu. These days, Tommy as a whole seems positively impoverished by comparison.
However, Quadrophenia’s enduring resonance in my own singular existence has much less to do with the details of its birth and subsequent reincarnations than with an unquestioned, bedrock fact of the rock and roll canon in its most expansive sense, because in the end, the music is all about me.
Pete Townshend, that distant Englishman, actually addressed me personally – one listener out of millions – with Quadrophenia, an album I first heard at 13 years of age and found bafflingly impenetrable, but a few short years later, gratefully embraced as fully capable of addressing the innermost labyrinths of my far-off Hoosier world in a way that was just plain uncanny, and remains inexplicable these many years later.
Why not? After all, that’s rock and roll.
In retrospect, it is clear to me that from a very early age, I’ve harbored inclinations toward cantankerousness, rebellion and insolence. Curmudgeonly cynicism is my destiny.
However, these traits took a while to coalesce into a doctrine for daily living. Like so many other teenagers, I couldn’t always find words or principles to articulate my thoughts, and when I became aware of The Who and Townshend’s terse early statements of doubt, self-loathing and alienation (“Can’t Explain” and “Substitute”), contrasting with outbursts of aggression and bravado (“My Generation” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere”), they definitely served as an influence.
But I can be a very slow learner and a comically late bloomer. To grasp the broader implications of Quadrophenia, I had to grow a bit older and be knocked good and hard upside the noggin (in a metaphorical sense). My inevitable comeuppance came in 1979.
Although captivated by my philosophy and history courses, I was muddling disinterestedly through university, completely clueless about the future. Then, providentially, I met a girl, and for the first time ever, there was seeming clarity, because naturally, as with every TV show I’d viewed since the boob tube became my de facto babysitter in 1963, there would ensue a storybook romance, marriage, a career to pay the bills, children, softball, holidays … and so forth, until at last, decades later, I’d find myself seated in one of Thornton Wilder’s wooden stage chairs.
This stunningly short-lived relationship proved as epochal as I’d imagined, except for all the “wrong” reasons – at least at the time. In retrospect, it simply isn’t possible to overstate my foolishness and immaturity; even worse, these conditions were just as uncomfortably obvious to me as the remainder of the world.
A lifetime of coddled pop song lyric gullibility was no preparation for this “happily ever after” plot line to be squashed unceremoniously underfoot, but there was a cassette handy for consolation: Quadrophenia. Pete -- well, he knew exactly what it felt like, and I listened to his prescription every day for weeks on end.
On February 16, 2013 the surviving members of The Who came to Louisville and staged a compelling revival of Quadrophenia, performed in its entirety.
The story of how I first came to appreciate the album occurred a thousand or more years ago. It was the jump-start to a process of self-discovery that happily has not ever stopped since, and yet oddly, just as Pavlov’s famous mutt can’t remember exactly why he’s salivating, not a one of my founding Quadrophenia myths surfaced during last Saturday’s performance. Instead (finally?) I just enjoyed the music. The rest of the historical document didn’t seem to matter.
Maybe Quadrophenia by the Who at the Yum Brands Arena isn’t very local at all, but when it comes to mythology, maybe we need it to be arena-sized, and not confined to a busker’s cubbyhole. Maybe we’re always looking for selected whole-planet universals to help us sort through our own small-pond particulars. Maybe music functions as precisely such a religion in my own innermost world.
Maybe I’m kidding myself, because I know it does.
Tears get in my eyes. Music like Quadrophenia inevitably works that way for me.
April 6: ON THE AVENUES: On swill and tornadoes, circa '75.
March 30: ON THE AVENUES: Our great and noble leader is here to stay, so let's break out the țuică and make a joyful noise.
March 23: ON THE AVENUES: Cataloguing my consciousness on a warm spring day.
March 16: ON THE AVENUES: It's all so simple, says Jeff Gahan.Remove the impoverished, and voila! No more poverty!