Friday, June 4, 2010

We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Who Posts

It's been awhile since I bored you to the point of annoyed yawning with a post on The Who and I figured if I didn't post another one soon y'all'd be in danger of actually enjoying and - dare I say it? - liking this blog.

Hahahahahahaha! Yeah, riiiight!1! Like that'd ever happen! I'm totally fucking with you!

On a personal Who note ... Ian went on a class trip to Ellis Island yesterday. As part of the lesson on immigration, he was given an identity: an immigrant German farmer named Emerick.

So when Ian learned this, he came home singing:

Now I'm a farrrrrmerrrr
And I'm diggin' diggin' diggin' diggin' diggIN'!

This happens to be about the only Who song Ian and Teh 'Bride know. Neither of them quite gets the melody right when they sing it.

But it's a start.

I’m skipping right past one of the greatest of The Who’s albums, Who’s Next, which I hate to do, but discussing it would pretty much require getting into the whole failed Lifehouse project and that just gets too deep too quickly and you can't just wade into it casually. Get the album Who’s Next and listen for yourself. It’s worth it. Because Who's Next is comprised almost entirely of the songs Pete wrote for Lifehouse; once the project fell apart,  the group just put the songs out as an album without even trying to impose the original narrative structure on them. There are tantalizing hints as to the plot and characterization in the songs themselves, though1.

You've got to wonder if the stark album cover photo, a picture of the group immediately post-micturition, is intended as some kind of comment on their inability to make Lifehouse work – as an acknowledgment of, a visual pun on, the seemingly wasted effort?

I remember as a kid thinking Who’s Next was a Who’s Greatest Hits compilation album, because all of the songs were that good.

But we're not talking about Who's Next now ... on to Quadrophenia! (My favorite Who album.)

The story of Quadrophenia goes roughly thus: Jimmy is a young Mod (I discussed Mods earlier, in this post about “My Generation”) who had recently been involved in the beach fight between Mods and Rockers. That was the time Jimmy felt he most fit in – as part of the Mod subculture, his sense of  individual identity tied intimately to this group identity. Now, post-fight, he feels alienated from everyone and everything and feels as though he doesn’t fit in anywhere. So he travels back to Brighton to try to regain that feeling of belonging, but discovers that things there are just as foreign to him as everywhere else. In fact, the Mod leader during the fight, the Ace Face (played, in the movie version of Quadrophenia, by a young Sting), is now a bell boy at the very same hotel they had trashed in triumph during the weekend of rioting.

Quadrophenia, like Tommy and “A Quick One While He’s Away” before it, is short on plot but long on feeling and deep on theme – perhaps even deeper and more personal than Tommy.

Play “The Real Me”, “5:152”, “Drowned”, “Bellboy”

Water imagery, water motifs, indeed, water sounds, abound in Quadrophenia3. That’s especially true in “Drowned” – which is just drenched (pun intended) in water imagery that, like water itself, changes constantly, is in perpetual flux, much like Jimmy's mental state and his sense of identity; but water as a symbol gains layers of meaning and significance as the album progresses. “Drowned” is Jimmy’s plea for freedom – “let the tide in and set me free” – but also kind of a death wish – “I wanna drown ... in cold water!” ... suggesting that only death can bring about true freedom4? Possibly. Certainly this is how Jimmy sometimes feels as every worldly object and event is stripped of meaning for him.

The whole “inside/outside” dichotomy I’ve alluded to in previous posts comes from the lyrics of “5:15”:
Inside, outside – leave me alone
Inside, outside – nowhere is home.

Jimmy has a kind of nervous breakdown on the 5:15 train to Brighton – “Where have I been? … Out of my brain on a train” – which seems not to bode too well for him on his voyage of self-rediscovery. “5:15” is an expression of a series of contradictory or oxymoronic conditions: “he-man drag”, “tightly undone”, “greyly outrageous”, “sadly ecstatic”, “magically bored”, “quiet storm water”, “uppers and downers” – things and their opposites, reflecting Jimmy's internal struggle, his confusion in his fight to find meaning. Does it matter which “wins”? “Either way, blood flows.”

None of this is resolved in Jimmy’s mind and thus the song begins and ends with the same nagging question: “Why should I care?” – which is pretty central to Quadrophenia and, not to be too ponderous, life itself, really ... yes, things bad and good happen out there but ... why should I care? The purpose of life can be expressed in many ways, one of which, certainly, is as the struggle to find a reason to care.

“The Real Me” is the first Quadrophenia song with lyrics to it5.

In “The Real Me”, at the very opening of the album, we discover that Jimmy has no idea who he really is, nor does anyone else. He’s been let down by medical science, in the person of his psychiatrist; his family (“I went back to my mother/ I said, ‘I’m crazy, Ma, help me’/ She said ‘I know how it feels, son,/ ’cause it runs in the family’” – sooooo ... not much comfort there); as well as religion ("I ended up with a preacher/ Full of lies and hate ..."). We also learn in the middle eight of this song that Jimmy’s been abandoned by “the girl I used to love.” His alienation is real and total. None of them – doctor, mother, preacher, girlfriend – can “see the real me”.

But, as we discover from the rest of the album, neither can Jimmy.

In “Bell Boy”, Jimmy disillusionment is intensified: He discovers that the Mod leader he used to follow – the Ace Face, the one person he thought would be his own man, “the guy who used to set the paces/ Riding up in front of a hundred faces” – is a lowly bellboy who “spend[s his] days licking boots for [his] perks”. This song is Keith’s theme (each member of The Who has a theme in Quadrophenia) and so Keith sings the part of the bell boy here. Keith's sections vacillate between the comic and the moving: The cockney accented “I’ve got a good job” section juxtaposed with the “Some nights I still sleep on the beach” part – and it turns out that even the “sell out” bell boy who sucks up for tips has dreams and doesn’t want to be who he seems to be ... that is not his Real Me.
1 "Behind Blue Eyes", for example, is often seen as a prime example of Pete Townshend in confessional mode, talking about himself in song – which may very well be true on one level – but the song was composed specifically for the character Brick (or Jumbo; PT had not really settled on the name when Lifehouse was abandoned), who is the antagonist, the "bad man", of the Lifehouse story.

2 There are a couple of slightly different mixes of "5:15", but none of them clocks in at a time of 5:15, which always seemed like a missed opportunity to me. Its official running time is 4:58 ... a mere 17 seconds additional fade and ... sooooo close.

3 E.g., “Drowned”:

Let me flow into the ocean
Let me get back to the sea
Let me be stormy, let me be calm
Let the tide in and set me free

4 In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud posits that we are all basically set on self-destruct: Pleasure is not an end in and of itself, but a state of being in which "mental excitations" are at a minimum, which is ultimately, Freud argues, the state that our minds instinctively seek.

And when are mental excitations at their barest minimum? Why, when they're extinguished entirely, of course, a state of "existence" usually known as "being dead". And that - death - is the state of being we are hardwired to try to bring about for ourselves. So even pleasure-seeking behavior can be seen as the enacting of a kind of death wish at like one remove.

This is, admittedly, a vast over-simplification of Freud's argument but it is not my intention either to endorse or take issue with Freud's death-wish theory (the first step toward doing which would be to give a fuller and more accurate summation of it, which I have neither the time nor the inclination to do); I merely mention it in passing as perhaps helpful in understanding Jimmy's psychology.

You can read the full text of Beyond the Pleasure Principle here. (It's well worth reading.)

Or you could get off your fat ass and go to the library and take it out. We could really use the additional patronage right about now ...

5 The actual first song, “I Am the Sea”, is a kind of instrumental overture that introduces a lot of the album’s musical motifs. Technically, there are some lyrics in “IAtS”, but they’re really just anticipatory echoes of the songs to come.


  1. Come visit me. I need your help.

  2. The Who posts are much more interesting than the Phillies posts. Thought you might want to know.

  3. Keith is right. Thought you might want to know.

  4. "Or you could get off your fat ass and go to the library and take it out."

    Hmm.. it did not link to my blog, but somehow I feel kertwanged anyway.


  5. I have to say that "Who's Next" is my favorite Who album (dare I date myself by saying "album")by far. There isn't a song on that one I don't like.
    Haven't seen you lately visiting my "snatch" blog-as usual, since most of my "wording" gets taken the wrong way, I must have pissed off a few people who I see no longer visit "snatch-land"

  6. I have always liked "The Real Me" for obvious (to some) reasons, but I have never heard the water before now.

    I do really like The Who series, whether I comment on each one or not, you big girl. ;)

    If I am really honest, I usually feel to stupid to comment on your more heady posts.

    I can only keep up at the "tranny slams and SploogËnBraü" level.

  7. "too" Christ. I think you make me dumber. I am going to watch "Real Housewives" to bolster my self worth.