03 March 2010

Things Blinking Across My Head

Would the Who have been a better band without Roger Daltrey? I recently saw an article (Rolling Stone maybe?) that I'm not going to bore anyone by linking to, wherein some poor music writer was contracted to deliver a very special message from Roger Daltrey, fresh off finally killing rock and roll music forever and ever at this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show. "I want to work with Jimmy Page," he said. "He needs a great blues singer to drive him. I am a great blues singer."

I love the Who. I really liked "My Generation" first because it sounded like punk rock to me, and because they were absolutely mind-blowing to watch as a live band in their prime. Being a Hendrix fan from deep in my soul, from way before my birth, I was always looking for a VHS copy of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival concert movie at Blockbuster, MooVIES, MediaWave, the Library- you know, no big deal. I don't remember how I came about it- I think VH1 played it periodically when I was in junior high- but seeing and hearing Jimi Hendrix play the guitar straight, unedited and in a full "concert" setting (Christgau: "less than extraterrestrial"- we'll ignore him on this) was life-altering to me. The sound of his guitar is shocking, totally powerful. You can hear jagged shards of electric noise branch off into fuzzed out octave parts, moaning and screaming at the same time. The way he just leapt around the guitar, not just tossing out single notes, but complex, thick, heavy chords and feedback. He has a naturally crisp, heavy blues tone at it's base, but what he lays over it is ferocious and violent and the most unique sound in modern popular music. It can't be described in words.

"Should words serve the truth?" - Watt

So of course no mention of Jimi at Monterey can be made without also mentioning the Who- their performances both have this very desperate, urgent quality, and also uniquely interact and play off of one another. Pete Townshend in the years since has always been at great pains to let us all know of the fight had about who would follow who (sorry, I had to)- both wanted to go on first, looking to upstage; the subtext of the story, of course, for Pete, being- "I was on his level."

Well no, he fucking obviously was not. A really interesting book could be written about that love triangle of late- 60's guitar gods, all getting their start in the UK. Clapton comes first as a blues virtuoso, Townshend pretty soon after as a brilliant sped-up noisemaker/ innovator and songwriter. Then comes Hendrix, who completely redefines the medium of the electric guitar like Joyce redefined prose and Prometheus redefined barbecue. Hendrix, for his part, is in many ways equal parts both- blues prodigy, technical and emotive master just like Clapton, but loud, abrasive, and experimental with a gift for songwriting like Townshend. Except, Clapton's never performed anything near Jimi's blues work on "Red House" or "Voodoo Child" or his performance of "Hear My Train A-Comin'" from Rainbow Bridge. In the same light, between Hendrix and Townshend, Hendrix is far and away the greater songwriter and studio innovator. Hendrix came and blew them both away at the same time and they both knew it.

Clapton chose to openly acknowledge it and humbly worship at his feet. Townshend, particularly in the Hendrix documentary, chose instead to express his more complex emotional reaction- jealousy, anger, awe, somewhat false bravado. Whenever he describes his experiences regarding Hendrix he is careful always to acknowledge the obvious about his tremendous talent, but is equally careful to never give an inch on his own position in the grand scheme of that "tradition." The story from Monterey goes that neither band wanted to go first because they were both known for their performance art-like stage antics- Eric Burdon describing Jimi's "making love to the guitar" while Pete's a "brutal rape." Interesting. Yeah.

Anyway, they argue backstage. Pete isn't having it when Jimi simply declares they're going on first. Jimi grabs his guitar, stands on a chair and stares Pete down as he plays his unplugged guitar. Townshend stares back. They flip a coin. They go to stage in this order: The Who, The Dead, Jimi, and then some boring comedown crap.

My friend Bill and I used to talk about music non-stop in college (seriously, it never ended), and easily the biggest disagreement we ever had was over this. Bill really hated Pete Townshend, mostly for the scene in Hendrix where Pete describes the Monterey story. "That guy is full of shit." I said I hated Clapton specifically for how he describes Jimi in Hendrix. "He's like a goddamn Star Trek geek about it. He knocks himself right out of Jimi's class. At least Pete has some fight in him." He thought (and, in a way, he's right) that humility was the more heartfelt appreciation, and that it wasn't bravado, it was pretension. I thought it was really telling ultimately about Clapton (I'm not as down on Clapton as it seems, but... yeah I don't listen to Eric Clapton at all. Ever.), and that Townshend was wrong, but right to think that highly of himself.

Of course, the final most telling layer of the triangle is- no one was askin' Jimi for anecdotes about Eric or Pete. (And the best line from that movie is Lou Reed's anyway- "Oh yeah, I thought Jimi was just such a bitchin' guitar player." "Was he better than you?" "No.")

Ultimately, how they react to his death is really pretty sad. Coupled each with additional tragedies, they both get heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol and all that fun business. I've always thought that it probably hit them both really, really hard- because, even though they've both, to varying degrees, become fairly bloated and uncomfortable versions of their younger selves (and don't say everyone does- there's Neil.) they're both people that would be particularly appreciative of what his ...event represented. And I'm sorry, before I leave Jimi altogether here, I have to say, since I put it on my speakers- I don't care if it's become a fratboy cliche or whatever- the sound on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is not of this Earth. If I can travel a little further up my own ass for a second here- the sound of his guitar is the sound of modern life, even still today. Plus I mean, "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun". "MACHINE GUN".

But my early love for Jimi lead me to this also legendary performance of the Who, which is really no slouch in it's own right. It is the performance that broke them in the States (or so the story goes, I'm sure the internet could cough up a reason why that's not really actually true) and killed me. I was obviously a really big Nirvana fan at this point, so the instrument smashing was cool to me. Keith Moon stuck out obviously, their senses of humor, the way there appeared to be like, two cliques in the band- the two straight-laced college guy types in Daltrey and Entwistle, and the pissy, annoying, funny, weird, tweaked out on speed and coke C-3PO and R2-D2 of Townshend and Moon. It was a weird dynamic- they sort of each took lateral "sides" of the stage. At their peak as a live band Townshend didn't really move far from his amp and thus didn't cross this "line" (he was close to get feedback, his big new trick), he and Moon flailing away like Animal and Dr. Tooth from the Muppets band. On the other side, Daltrey is doing this rote mic sling and delivering quaint, taupe-brown rock vocals with an almost off-puttingly blank blue stare ("Hey Pete, these lyrics for 'Behind Blue Eyes' are really pretty neat, where'd you come up with the idea for that?!"), with Entwistle directly to his right, never moving except to flick his fingers from his almost corpse-rigid body at his bass. He was a fucking unreal bass guitar player. When he sang "Boris the Spider" he'd grin and it was funny (PS Jimi's favorite Who song).

The Who were pure dynamics (MAXIMUM R&B), loud and quiet, restraint and unbridled energy. Kurt Cobain never really mentioned the Who (Townshend was in league with The Vedder) as an influence really, but they were, big time ("I'm a Boy," "Been a Son"). Nirvana was endeared to that dynamic style by the Pixies, but they got it in practice from the Who.

That's when I fell in love with the Who. I bought Live at Leeds first, figuring it was as close to Monterey as a record would get. There are a few albums you get and, between your natural excitement to discover them, the artwork that just strikes a certain tone on your way home to put it on, and the way it starts as the sounds open up- you just know that whatever comes out, it almost won't matter, you're going to love it. You're going to always love it. Another more recent example for me, actually, is the new Surfer Blood record, Astro Coast, which I basically haven't stopped listening to for more than a day or two since I downloaded it in November. It's the best guitar record since Murray Street. They're the first band to really meld all these trendy new styles- surf music, garage, the Beach Boys, Jesus & Mary Chain, a little Sonic Youth and 90s guitar-y/ production-y stuff like Pavement, Dinosaur and My Bloody Valentine- in a really compelling new light. There's that indescribable whiff of "East Coast college boy" on it too, which I get a kick out of personally. See also: Weekend, Vampire. Bear, Grizzly. Phoenix, . Like even more "boy in college" than Pavement even. Yes I know none of those bands are in college and that Phoenix are French and probably over 40 so should they count?- yes, I say they do. I saw Surfer Blood a week or so ago here in NYC and they were pretty good, kind of nervous to start. Maybe a little preoccupied with fine-tuning the gee-tarz too. Yikes. They caught some wind later in the show though, and it was a great time. They use some really nice, boutique fuzz pedals and have killer motherfucking merch.

When we were in Cape Cod later that 16th summer, I bought Tommy at The Caped Cod CD store. I can still smell the moldy wood in the house we slept in, on vacation with the family as I absorbed that and Raw Power by the Stooges in one night (that's one grand fucking slam of a trip to the record store when you're 16 or 17), in pain with a sunburn, aloe cold on my skin. Raw Power won out both because it's simply better and because it was shorter and easier to immediately wrap my head around. That album is a whole 'nother post though- they haven't invented words for that album yet. If art is my religion then Iggy is St. Peter.

But Tommy always stayed with me. Initially I missed the heavy feedback and constant, driving speed but... I mean, I don't need to sell Tommy anymore. It sounds great. And I always thought this was the best execution of that story Towshend conceived (maybe that's obvious)- there's something faceless about it all that adds a creepy layer to the album. Maybe it was the cover too. Who's Next was great too, Quadrophenia. There's a lot to love about this band.

Of course, the Who are not the Who anymore. The Who were not the Who once Keith Moon died, and I say that not as some fanboy snit- I don't think it's a stretch to say that whatever Keith Moon "was", it was integral to their sound and presence and it was absolutely irreplaceable without completely changing the DNA of the band. But even if you concede that- when Entwistle died- it's just cashing a check now. I mean, come on. "Roger Daltrey?! The guy from CSI?) That's fine if that's your thing, but I can't imagine finding any of that appealing. Man, they were so bad at the Super Bowl.

But back to my point- Daltrey, in an effort to lure Jimmy Page into working with him, claims to be a "great blues singer." Now, I will acknowledge that I am not a Roger Daltrey fan, not so much as to say that I dislike him, just that I think he is there as a prop to hold up the fun parts. You could bend over backwards and be sore all day arguing he was a "great" frontman. He was a fucking snooze on stage and his voice was... solid. Unremarkable.

But no- I'm sorry, I don't buy "great blues singer." It made me think- if the Who were this tiny, scrappy power trio with the nutty (kinda thin-voiced) frontman ("nose on a broomhandle"), the nuttier drummer, and the statue bass player- would they have been any better? Maybe a bit dirtier, even punk-ier? A lot of what made Townshend great was his ability to roam, to basically treat singing duties as a whim- he was writing all the material, so he basically sang when he felt it appropriate- at great length very often. When he felt it time to simply stand back and focus on the rawking, he rawked, hard. So Daltrey does have that going for him- likable enough that he exists as a solid frontman when he's in his natural position, but bland and uninspiring enough that you don't miss him when Pete does- and he will- take over. If you listen to "A Quick One, While He's Away"- the Who's greatest song- you can tell especially that this is Pete's band. It's a mini narrative, and Pete comes out for the star parts, killing it on the sensitive, plaintive bits and letting Daltrey do his bloozy groawwwan thing. So that's the thing- Daltrey knows that was his role, and you can't blame the man for thinking a bit too highly of himself- hey, he got there. He earned that at least. Plus, I don't think there's any way the Who are anywhere near as successful out of the gate like that without Daltrey. He really "sold" the band.

So to sum up, dude, Tim- what is your problem? Live and let live, kind friend. Let Roger be Roger.

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