Listening to you / I get the music
Gazing at you / I get the heat
Following You / I climb the mountain
I get excitement at your feet
- Tommy (1969)
These four lines pretty much sum up my feelings about The Who as they celebrate their fifth decade in the music industry. From the first time I heard them back in 1978, to the 50th anniversary concert that took place 5/15/15 in Columbus, I am continually reminded of their genius, their passion and their relevance.
As a middle-aged musician—I’m as old as the band—who still struggles in the “minor leagues” (to borrow a phrase from Joe Oestreich) these four lines are passages that I revert to whenever I’ve “lost my way” in this ever-changing, ever-frustrating music biz. These lines are a reminder of why I still do what I do, even though sometimes it feels like it’s in vain.
Pete Townshend was very different than most songwriters coming out of UK in the mid-60s. While his peers were penning songs about teenage love and girls named Angie, Townshend was writing tunes like “The Seeker.” While his contemporaries were writing political and folksy songs about Vietnam, he was penning operas about pinball wizards. Townshend was—and still is—in a class by himself. He took a look at the state of the world in his era and got “in tune with the straight and narrow.” As he penned in his song “Pure and Easy”: “There once was a note / Pure and easy / Playing so free / Like a breath, rippling by.”
For those who craved more meaning to life than suburban sporting events, pop music and movies approved by The Catholic Times, The Who represented a shift from this stifling worldview and expanded hearts and minds to embrace a faith in something bigger. That’s what drew me to them in the first place—they re-examined spirituality in general and how it related to manhood in particular. For males reared in the 60s and 70s, with the specter of Vietnam ever present in their psyche, The Who paved the way for a new vision of what it meant to be a man: “Imagine a man / Not a child of any revolt / But a plain man tied up in life.”
Having grown up in a patriarchal family—with a father who was influenced by no-nonsense role models like Woody Hayes and Bobby Knight—The Who taught me about the softer, gentler side of manhood, what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls “The Left Hand of God.” The Who showed me that you don’t have to be a bully, brute or jerk to get your way in the world, perhaps love can truly reign over everything.
While it’s true that The Who is considered a “masculine” group—and have always appealed to men more than women—the Daltrey/Townshend duo are, to me, the Yin/Yang balance of masculine and feminine energies. Daltrey’s rugged voice and hardscrabble working class persona, coupled with Townshend’s meek tenor and art-school upbringing, address the duality between testosterone-laced impulsivity and feminine reflection. We see this played out so brilliantly in Quadrophenia, the rock opera about the conflicting desires within its main character, Jimmy, who wanted to be both a lover AND fighter for the Mod cause. He realized, at the end of his journey, he had to decide between the two—he couldn’t be both. Would love reign, or would he seek to be the Ace Face?
The Who has always struck a beautiful balance with its frontmen, and it’s a marriage that hasn’t been lost on its fans. Whether it’s expressed in the raw emotion of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or the melancholic sensibilities of “I’m One” we’ve come to realize that we’re all Jimmy: straddling the fence between selfish, violent whims and the desire to transcend it all.
As for the show last Friday (sadly, they didn’t pay homage to 5/15 by playing that song) it was thrilling to see the band—or at least half of them—perform in front of 20,000 screaming fans at their respective ages of 69 (Townshend) and 70 (Daltrey). Sure, there was a stoop in their walk, and they both wore sunglasses that looked more like bifocals than hipster specs, but their passion was still intact. They started off the show with their seminal, 50-year-old classic “I Can’t Explain” and didn’t let the foot off the gas until the final crescendo of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” two hours later. Most of us walked away with a feeling of awe and respect—they obviously still “got it.” Even those who didn’t enjoy the show (my friend’s son said: “It would’ve been cool to see them in the 70s”) they still left the venue with an understanding of what made The Who special for so many years. Fifty years, in fact. Half a century. Playing music to millions of fans. Still. To me, for The Who to generate that level of enthusiasm—as they approached their seventh decade on the planet—is nothing short of miraculous.
The music business has changed dramatically since The Who first stepped onstage in 1965; Townshend professed this inevitability in his ditty “Music Must Change.” But I wonder if he foresaw the events that are taking place today? The industry has become—more or less—a diaspora of the talent pool and a dumbing down of the medium. Steady radio play featuring new talent has all but disappeared—Clear Channel saw to that. The Internet has generated tens of thousands of new bands, yet it’s impossible to keep track of them. Youtube, Facebook and Soundcloud have created a mass market for songwriting but it’s now a free indulgence—royalties have all but disappeared. Ironically, it’s harder to make money in this ubiquitous industry because competition is stiff, the market is endless and opportunities are widespread. There are too many venues, too many bands, and not enough paying audiences. In fact, nobody wants to pay for music anymore—it’s expected to be free. Artists hand out their CDs like business cards.
It’s nearly impossible for an original, modern act in the spirit of The Who to come close to selling out a Nationwide Arena at $100 a pop—unless your name is Swift, Timberlake or Spears. And you won’t hear songs like “Join Together” or “A Quick One” at these shows either—one can’t afford to take those kinds of risks in the digital age.
As a musician I sometimes despair over the state of our medium. It seems like the least original, least inspiring and least talented acts have risen to the top while the rest of us struggle in the minors. It saddens me that some of the most talented, original, and inspiring acts in this town are playing to fifteen people at a local bar for five bucks a head. It saddens me that a whole generation of folks will grow up in a world where Nicki Minaj is regarded a “viral success.”
That’s when I crank up Tommy as loud as I can and chant those four lines, over and over and over again. Rock is dead. Long live rock. Pete Vogel 5/16/15
Pete Vogel is an accomplished artist, educator, and musician. He also wrote and directed the documentary "Indie". Learn more by clicking here,