This is the big number fifty in my ongoing narrative, not including the many sidebars and asides. This seems like a good of a time as any for a sanity check.
I started this project with one intention: to demonstrate how important music truly is. It is a wonder drug soothing broken hearts and conjuring lost memories; binding friendships and speaking for us when we can’t speak for ourselves. It reaches across both time and space. For a lot of us it is our first unique identities — unique to us, anyway — and for some, usually bald and big-bellied and high-fiving from the front row of a Rush concert, those first identities remain with us forever.
If you have been reading along with me (and if you haven’t, welcome) then you know that I was a proud member of the Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam, a moniker of my own creation as “redneck” and “metalhead” seemed inaccurate. Before that I was a Barry Manilow fan, which in retrospect must have been frightening for my parents — especially my father, who already was convinced that I was a sissy. Before that I was just a pup with some hand-me-down records, hardly an identity.
I am just old enough that my earliest musical memories foot to the British Invasion and its aftermath. The Beatles still loomed large in the early Seventies as a cultural rather than a marketing force. They were still of the world, not yet gods. Their songs were performed by school choirs and were still in heavy rotation all over the dial. We still clung to the possibility that they would reunite. They were not yet The Beatles, the elder statesmen, the martyrs, the legends.
Well, they were legends even then. They were the great wind that blew British pop culture to my houses in Denver, Chicago, Texas, South Carolina, and in their wake came the other Brit bands. I repeatedly checked out the only rock and roll book in my third grade library just to look at the photos of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Kinks, T. Rex, Elton, and The Who: Pete leaping in his Doc Martens and jumpsuit; Roger in his nut huggers and his little sister’s shirt, twirling the microphone.
I guess my point is that music was decidedly British, and I caught I slight case of Anglophilia as a result. It was not the “adore the Royal Family” flavor of Anglophilia, nor was it the “Boxing Day and tea time” variant. I will confess to a love of British television, mind you, but I’m not going to eat Heinz Baked Beans for breakfast. No, what I really envied were those amazing UK musical identities: Teddy Boy, Mod, Rocker, Glam, Punk, Rude Boy.
Now here’s the thing: I love my Beatles and my Bowie but in my opinion the single most important songwriter of the last sixty years is The Who’s Pete Townshend. What an amazing body of work that man has created, from the criminally self-indulgent to the most emotionally poignant and accessible pop songs to ever hit the radio. “Nobody knows what it’s like / To be the bad man / To be the sad man / Behind blue eyes.” Sing it, brother. I’ll raise my hand and give you an amen.
I identified with Pete: tall, big-nosed, bright-eyed, awkward; introspective, angry, lonely, searching. Sensitive. Hell, I’ve come this far, I may as well be honest — I still identify with Pete. I’m getting older and balder. My nose is growing along with my gut and my insecurities. I am mad at the world but I love it dearly. I have to make art whether you like it or not so fuck you, but won’t you please love me?
My friend Matt, he of the satellite dish and VCR, my connection for music videos, shared my love for The Who. We wailed “Baba O’Riley” in the halls and debated the lyrics. We tried to map the ground between The Who and The Clash, usually using the Sex Pistols’ “Substitute” as a lazy crutch.
Matt recorded Ken Russell’s film version of Tommy for me, which I hated with exception to the spank bank-worthy sight of Ann Margret orgasmically rolling around in the aforementioned baked beans. He recorded The Kids Are All Right, too, still my favorite Who documentary. The sight of a bloated Keith Moon looking twenty years older than he should is heartbreaking, but that film also includes the most iconic power slide in rock movie history.
But where Matt really got me was with a copy of 1979’s Quadrophenia, featuring a non-lute playing Sting as Ace Face. If you’ve read this far I doubt that you need me to tell you that Quadrophenia was The Who’s next rock opera after Tommy. Between these two was a massive project named Lifehouse that collapsed under its own weight and became Who’s Next, arguably the band’s greatest album.
Quadrophenia. Jimmy Cooper, the Mod with his GS scooter and his Army jacket, chasing the Rockers through Brighton. Is was just too much for me, and sometimes it still is. Just last week it crossed my mind to buy an old Lambretta and dress it in full kit: the mirrors, the antennae, the whole bit. During my years in Los Angeles I’d go to the Hard Rock Cafe not to eat the cruddy food but to be close to Jimmy’s scooter for a moment.
I wanted to be a Mod, but I couldn’t. It was a musical identity that belonged to both the past and to a different culture. I was a South Carolina kid in the Eighties, not a Brit in the Sixties. It would have been like a white kid trying to be black, or a sane person liking Nickelback. So I simply revered the Mods, even though my beloved Beatles were Teddy Boys and then Rockers. Deep down I was a Mod — my own little secret while I tooled around on my silver Honda while wearing my field jacket. Only love can make it rain, but only Pete can pick up a stray from twenty years and several thousand miles away.
That’s why music matters, goddamnit — it connects us. Thanks to the intergooglewebtubes I am sure of it, as a GS scooter just parked at my door and its driver as much as told me so. Yet another best friend that I will never meet left this comment on a recent post:
A great read! I go back to the 60′s; I am an original Mod. Mods being the youth culture of the time in my home town – London.
For no other generation did music have such a high-emotional-value. Music as we know it today was in its infancy; and the pleasure of discovering ‘new’ sounds was a penetration of bright colour into the grey world that surrounded us.
Dare I say that bands such as the Who and the Stones, would not of made it without their strong Mod following. Tamla and soul would of remained lost on African American radio stations, hidden from a music hungry world!
I love music for music’s sake, my musical soul takes me in all directions of genre. There is no better way to ride those musical waves!
– Alex Johnson, http://www.koolwriting.blogspot.com/
Preach it, godfather. I’m waving my hand and shouting amen.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces:
My brief Manilow madness: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/my-dark-confession/
But my first real Who moment: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/21-who-are-you/
What Mr. Johnson was commenting on: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/49-this-is-a-public-service-announcement-with-guitars/