Thursday, June 17, 2010

Musical Entelechy: Deep in the Back of My Mind Is an Unrealized Sound

There are a number of facets to the music and lyrics of The Who and Pete Townshend to which I have either given short shrift in this series of posts or have ignored entirely. In the song below, "Music Must Change", at least two1 of them can be heard, the second of which, while there, is rather more subtly hinted at than outright stated.

To Pete, music has an almost mystical power to transform — to transfigure, even. Through music, performer and audience can commune — and I mean "commune" in precisely the same sense it has in many religions, Christianity perhaps most notably — and attain a wholeness, an integrity, they lack individually. This view posits an audience equal in importance to the performers2 and the former are, accordingly, encouraged to be active participants in the Mystical Celebration.

This Mystical Atonement3 of Band and Audience was to be the major theme and plot point of the "failed" Lifehouse project, a theme that can still be discerned in the songs Pete wrote for Lifehouse that were released in various forms over the years — songs like, e.g., "Join Together"4,"Pure and Easy", "Song Is Over" and "Getting In Tune".

It always seemed to me that, after Lifehouse "failed"5, Pete didn't stop believing in the power of music to transform, to lift the soul, to raise the spirit above the seemingly meaningless theater of random, quotidian life ... he just began to doubt himself, became convinced that he himself could no longer pretend to be the instrument of this transfiguration ... he thought that he had had his shot and blown it.

This — Pete's own "failure" — is the second big theme in the songs of the latter half of The Who's career. You can hear that critical self-assessment hinted at and echoing through the first line of "Music Must Change": "Deep in the back of my mind is an unrealized sound" ... the change6 must happen, it must be through music, but I, Pete Townshend, can't do it, despite my best efforts; I tried and failed: The musical "note that began all" ("Pure and Easy") remains inchoate, unrealized, still a mere possibility, not yet an entelechy.

In 1971, when Lifehouse refused to cohere and Pete abandoned it and The Who released Who's Next instead, Pete was all of 26 years old, and instead of feeling like the young punk of "My Generation" who hoped he would die before he got old, Pete was evidently already feeling as though he were the Cold, Phony Old Man who had failed the younger generation; and, through his songs, Pete began actively telling anyone who would listen that they needed to find some other Avatar.

Pete had taken us as far as he could, but his own view of his accomplishments, as expressed in the song "However Much I Booze", was:
I just can't face my failure
I'm nothing but a well-fucked sailor
You at home can easily decide what's right
By glancing very briefly at the songs I write
But it don't help me that you know
There still ain't no way out
7
In his own view, he had failed both us and himself. And there was no way out.

You can see that view — Pete Townshend, Failure — expressed, to a far lesser extent, in "Music Must Change"; not merely in the first line, but also in the contemplative bridge:
But is this song so different?
Am I doing it all again?
It may have been done before
But then music's an open door

[Yes, I realize I quoted these exact same lines in FN7, below, but that was to make the case for an entirely different point.]
The song is adamant that the music must change, but accuses itself of possibly being nothing more than a tired rehash8.
____________________________________________
"Music Must Change" is a song I have been particularly obsessed with of late not merely because I think it is musically complex9 and lyrically rewarding, but also because I think Roger's singing performance is just an unmatched marvel. He's restrained and jazz-cool where he needs to be, when the tone calls for it, but his voice explodes with charged emotion as he belts out the song's more febrile, grandiloquent (and sometimes mixed) metaphors; Roger's vocal performance more than matches the song's tonal and temporal shifts.

And if Roger's take on the last chorus
The music must change
For we're chewing a bone
We soared like the sparrow hawk flied
Then we dropped like a stone
Like the tide and the waves
Growing slowly in range
Crushing mountains as old as the Earth

The music must change
 fails to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, then I'm afraid I am forced to conclude, Reader, that you do not have a soul.


Deep in the back of my mind is an unrealized sound
Every feeling I get from the street says it soon could be found
When I hear the cold lies of the pusher, I know it exists
It's confirmed in the eyes of the kids, emphasized with their fists

But the high has to rise from the low
Like volcanoes explode through the snow
The mosquito's sting brings a dream
But the poison's derange

The music must change
For we're chewing a bone
We soared like the sparrow hawk flied
Then we dropped like a stone
Like the tide and the waves
Growing slowly in range
Crushing mountains as old as the Earth
So the music must change

Sometimes at night, I wake up and my body's like ice
The sound of the running wild stallion, the noise of the mice
And I wondered if then I could hear into all of your dreams
I realize now it was really the sound of your screams

But death always leads into life
But the street fighter swallows the knife
Am I so crazy to feel that it's here prearranged?

The music must change
It's gets higher and higher
Smouldering like leaves in the sun
Then it bursts into fire
Its rhythm grows strong
It's so new and so strange
Like bells in the clouds, then again
The music must change

But is this song so different?
Am I doing it all again?
It may have been done before
But then music's an open door

Deep in the back of my is an unrealized sound
Every feeling I get from the street says it soon could be found
When I hear the cold lies of the pusher, I know it exists
It's confirmed in the eyes of the kids, emphasized with their fists

But the high has to rise from the low
Like volcanoes explode through the snow
The mosquito's sting brings a dream
But the poison's derange

The music must change
For we're chewing a bone
We soared like the sparrow hawk flied
Then we dropped like a stone
Like the tide and the waves
Growing slowly in range
Crushing mountains as old as the Earth
So the music must change
______
1 I think these two themes are really important in — perhaps even central to — Pete's later compositions for The Who. When I began writing the outline I intend to use for the library program I'll be doing on The Who next month, I included songs that embody these themes; but as I edited the outline1a, I saw it would clearly be impossible to include these themes in the one-hour program if I intended to elucidate the central Who theme of identity and personality in an even marginally perspicuous manner. It remains to be seen whether I can accomplish even that much — but my point here is that I had to jettison these other significant themes from the program entirely for the sake of conciseness, which makes me feel as though the picture of The Who I present will of necessity be incomplete, false and, worst of all, won't even begin to do justice to their collective genius.

And so I'm dumping this information here, on my blog, to further alienate all of you. Because it may not need to be out there, but I need it out of me.

No one ever promised this blog would be fair to or — Heaven Forfend!— fun for the Reader.

1a Which is really more a script than an outline, since I suck at extemporizing and would be risibly incoherent if I tried to wing it; but I should say, in my defense, that I'm at least dully aware of this limitation of mine. I've attended lectures by people who are similarly handicapped but seem blissfully unaware of it and ... Hoooooo-boy ... it is never a pretty thing to witness. It's like being at a performance by a real-life version of that Kevin Nealon (? I think?) character who keeps running his mouth until he hits on a sound bite that seems insightful, at which point he claims, "Yeah, THAT's what I was really trying to say all along — all that other stuff I was saying? O man! I was just winging it, grasping at straws ..." only to meander desultorily yet again until he chances upon another, different topic, at which point he again claims, "THIS is what I was really trying to say ...." And so on.

I have a certain amount of sympathy for people with this particular public speaking affliction; but not enough to make me abandon the effort not to become one of them.

2 It's the singer not the song
That makes the music move along
I want you to join together with the band.
"Join Together"

3 "Atonement", above, in this sense:  
ORIGIN early 16th cent. (denoting unity or reconciliation, esp. between God and man): from at one + -MENT , influenced by medieval Latin adunamentum ‘unity,’ and earlier onement from an obsolete verb one [to unite.] {emphasis added}
There are distinct Myth of the Soul Mate overtones in Pete's lyrics (e.g., "I sit looking 'round/ I look at my face in the mirror/ I know I'm worth nothing/ Without you/ And like, one and one don't make two/ One and one make one/ And I'm looking for/ That free ride to me/ I'm looking for you" - "Bargain"), and Lifehouse kinda takes that idea a little further, making the idea communal rather than personal — turning it into a vision of many souls fusing into one, completing each other, rather than two halves of one Ur-Soul seeking each other and thereby regaining a semblance of the lost perfection and unity of their original androgyny (which is approximated on This Our Lesser Plane of Existence by the sexual union of male and female3a).

3a Hubba!1!

Adding: Which is why when True Soul Mates initially find each other, they spend a lot of time fucking each other's brains out.

And I guess here is as good a place as any to point out that, yes, I am aware that the Soul Mate Myth is, implicitly at least, kinda conservative and possibly even reactionary in that it assumes that only a Male and a Female can be True Soul Mates, or, as the adepts on Faux News might put it, it is a condition reserved for Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve; because the Original, Unified Soul was androgynous and two sets of genitalia can't really cancel each other out, as it were, unless you're starting with one set of each. So, sorry Gays, sorry Lesbians — you foax can't be True Soul Mates.

Well, like much of what appears on Faux News, this is utter bullshit, and, worse, not even good theology — which you'll spot right off, assuming you were brought up in and are familiar with the teachings of the Catholic Church (and I have no reason, Reader, to assume you weren't) — because the Catholic Stance on The Soul is that it is a Simple Substance; and by "simple", the church doesn't mean "easy to understand" or "needs to wear a helmet at all times so as not to hurt itself"; it means "simple" as in "cannot be further subdivided or broken down; elemental".

Because if the soul were divisible, if it could be broken down into simpler elements, that would necessarily entail that it is susceptible to decay, decomposition — in short, death. But the soul, sez the Church, is immortal precisely because it can't be broken down; it is a Simple Substance that can't be made any simpler and therefore is impervious to decay.

In The Myth of the Soul Mate as adumbrated above, an Androgynous Soul that has, in the distant past, been split into two halves is posited; this "soul", having just been divided, is definitely not incorruptible and impervious to decay, which, after all, is just the process of a Bigger Thing being broken down into Smaller, Simpler Things. It is therefore not immortal and is, hence, inconsistent with the Catholic teachings on one of the Necessary Conditions of Soulhood: Eternal Life.

So rejoice, Lesbians and Gays! The Catholic Church has no grounds upon which to assert that you and your lovers can't be Soul Mates.

But something tells me the Church will find reasons to condemn you anyway ...

4 A song that is a call to overcome superficial differences to achieve a Universal Harmony:
Do you really think I care
What you read or what you wear?
I want you to join together with the band.

...
This is the biggest band you'll find,
It's as deep as it is wide,
Come on and join together with the band,
And it's obvious that by "join together", Pete didn't mean merely "sing along with" — he's talking more about a True Union of Souls via Musical Communion, a literal joining together of spirits, an Ineffable and Transcendent Experience.

5 I find it impossible to use the epithet "fail" with reference to Lifehouse without putting it in quotation marks: Lifehouse was a "failure" only in the narrowest possible sense of the word. The Who's attempt to realize the Lifehouse project brought us some of the best songs of their career, in which the themes and concerns of the Lifehouse narrative are still pretty evident and well- and poetically-expressed. It's difficult to call any process that brought these songs to life a "failure".

At roughly the same time that groups like the Rolling Stones were pretty much stipulating to the view that rock 'n' roll is essentially trivial, pleading nolo contendere to that accusation — "I know it's only Rock 'n' Roll/ But I like it" — The Who were aggressively pursuing the opposite view: that Rock 'n' Roll could be one's salvation  and redemption.

"It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" is a great song, no doubt; but The Who's Lifehouse-related "failures" represent a far greater and far more meaningful statement of musical purpose. And they can only be called a "failure" because, at some point while trying to give birth to this Lifehouse project, Pete went from attempting to artistically depict a science fiction story about the mystical transfiguration of band and audience to actually trying to bring it about in the real world.
The plan was for The Who to take over the Young Vic theatre with a regular audience, develop the new material on stage and allow the communal activity to influence the songs and performances. Individuals would emerge from the audience and find a role in the music and the film. When the concerts became strong enough, they would be filmed along with other peripheral activity from the theater. A storyline would evolve alongside the music. Although the finished film was to have many fictitious and scripted elements, the concert footage was to be authentic, and would provide the driving force for the whole production.

Pete went wild, working out a complex scenario whereby a personal profile of each concert-goer would be worked out, from the individual’s astrological chart to his hobbies, even physical appearance. All the characteristics would then be fed into a computer at the same moment, leading to one musical note culminating in mass nirvana that Townshend dubbed ‘a kind of celestial cacophony.’ This philosophy was based on the writings of Inayat Khan, a Sufi master musician who espoused the theory that matter produces heat, light, and sound in the form of unique vibrations. Taking the idea one step further, making music, which was composed of vibrations, was the pervading force of all life. Elevating its purpose to the highest level, music represented the path to restoration, the search for the one perfect universal note[5a], which[,] once sounded[,] would bring harmony to the entire world. [...] Pete: "The fatal flaw…was getting obsessed with trying to make a fantasy a reality rather than letting the film speak for itself." Eventually Pete had to let go of Lifehouse for his own sake. [Source]
This is the type of project that seems doomed to failure due to its scope and ambition. And, while the overall project failed, it didn't do so miserably, but rather, paradoxically, triumphantly because of the series of undeniable successes that emerged from these sessions: dozens of songs, themes, motifs and ideas were brought to life, and the rest of Pete's career as a composer was changed by this experience as he alternately went back to Lifehouse, trying to breath life back into it, or composed and performed truly heart-felt and -rending songs about his failure to do so, which, for him, seemed to amount to an overall failure as an artist.

Pete was often his own harshest critic.

But the aftermath of Lifehouse really only served to confirm Pete's — and the Who's — greatness and centrality to the visionaries of Rock 'n' Roll who were trying to make it be about more than just three chords and an inchoate attitude of vague "rebellion".

Although there is nothing wrong with three chords and a "Fuck You" attitude, in my opinion. You can certainly find that in the music of The Who.

5a There once was a Note
Pure and easy
Playing so free like a breath
Rippling by

The note is eternal ...
etc.
—"Pure and Easy"

6 The word "change" in the song's title should properly be seen as pointing in two direction simultaneously: The music itself must change, is one way to read the title; but the title is also saying that the music must be the agent of change, working its transformative magic upon those who listen to it — the music, in other words, must effect change in its audience.

7 In that same song, he also calls himself "a faker, a paper clown", a habitual liar, among other uncomplimentary things. It's easy to see why some refer to The Who By Numbers — the album on which "However Much I Booze" appears — as "Pete Townshend's suicide note".

Also on display in "However Much I Booze" is a certain post-modern self-referentiality that began to creep into Pete's lyrics and music: Quite a few of his songs started to be, in whole or in part, about composing songs. The album "Music Must Change" is on — Who Are You — consists of nine songs, six of which were written by Pete; of those six, four — "New Song", "Sister Disco", "Music Must Change", and "Guitar and Pen"  — are largely about song-composition, and in most cases, frustrated attempts to compose something truly new, in particular. E.g.,

"New Song":

[See lyrics in FN8, below]

"Guitar and Pen":

You're alone above the street somewhere
Wondering how you'll ever count out there
...
When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you're kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they're worth keeping, they're not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say


"Music Must Change":

But is this song so different?
Am I doing it all again?
It may have been done before
But then music's an open door


8 "New Song", which, like "Music Must Change", is from the Who Are You album, includes the following lyrics:
I write the same old song with a few new lines
And everybody wants to cheer it
I write the same old song you heard a good few times
Admit you really want to hear it

...
We sing the same old song, just like a vintage car
You can look but you won't ever drive it
We drink the same old wine from a brand new jar
We get hung over, but we always survive it
...
We hum the same old lines to a different crowd
And everybody wants to cheer it
We run on endless time to reach a higher cloud
But we never ever seem to get near it
Here again is the asseveration that something new is needed "to reach a higher cloud" ... but you won't be getting it here.

At times, listening to these songs can be a nearly vertigo-inducing experience as they virtually disappear up their own assholes in their rush to proclaim their own inadequacy, unworthiness and, ultimately, failure as songs.

Weird.

Nobody was tougher on Pete than Pete. But he could be a bit tough on us, the listeners, too; because we're part of the problem: It's "the same old song" but, Pete chides us, "Admit you really want to hear it." This song may be rote, shit, but it's what you want, Clamoring Masses.

The bridge of this song is also possibly revelatory, for it consists of the following lyrics:

Turn on the radio
Love is proclaimed
Again and again and again
Join in and sing
Now, don't be ashamed
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain
Let it rain
Let it rain

Raaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnn!

These lyrics are a distinct and deliberate echo of those of "Love Reign O'er Me" from Quadrophenia — the song that is Pete's theme on that album; musically, the synthesizer part is virtually identical, too.

So Pete's example, in "New Song", of the type of tired old song that you hear all the time on the radio is .. his own theme. And whereas in "LROM", the word Roger screams is the more positive "Loooooooooooooove!" ... here, in "NS", it's the rather more problematic and gloomy: "Raaaaaaiiiiiiinnnnn!"

9 I link, above, only to the guitar tablature as an example of the musical complexity of the song (which includes some weird chords and a very original chord progression); but the song also has an odd 6/8 time signature — and by this time in The Who's career, Keith's drumming abilities had deteriorated so badly (due to his substance abuse problems) that he could play only cymbals on this song — he simply couldn't find the right groove with his drums.

I am far from a big fan of jazz, but even I can hear the obvious jazz overtones on this song, the style of Mose Allison, who was always one of The Who's favorite artists, being particularly prominent.

2 comments:

  1. Are we playing RBR's Word-A-Day Calendar catch up? entelechy, quotidian, grandiloquent, perspicuous, adumbrated, avatar (in the sense it was used)

    What a grandiloquent post!(which made me snort although I was pretty sure what it meant when I looked it up)

    Although, you did use inchoate twice, which for some reason I took offense to, with my 3rd grade vocabulary and all. Luuuuzer.

    I don't care what you say, I love The Who posts. I also LOVED your thoughts on soul and soul mates (and not just the 'fucking each other's brains out', big perv!)

    Being raised in the absence of any religion (as much as one can be within the context of being an American citizen. Separation of church and state, my ass), I have a little different concept of "soul" but I loved the clarity of your concept and the idea of the soul as simple and therefore unable to be broken down further.

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  2. Man, you are the king of footnotes. Keep on with The Who posts. You;re inspired.

    ReplyDelete