Adele Says “Hello”

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Adele brought her current tour to the Oakland Arena August 2, 2016, just after two sold out nights in San Jose. The concert was fabulous in every way, from the production design, to the sound, the band, and Adele herself, who was in great spirits and exceptional voice.

The concert production (featuring creative direction and stage design by Es Devlin) focused appropriately on Adele and her vocal performance. There were no dancers, no special effects. She arrived on a “b stage” placed near the rear of the floor, starting off with “Hello,” and over the course of the concert did several songs from that position. But most of the time, she stood in front of her band that was arrayed within a diamond-shaped stage behind, at times behind a gauzy curtain that could be opaque or translucent, allowing for some nice multiple-exposure visuals via 12 projectors, and some shadow play when the band was lit from behind the curtain. One thing noticeable was how frequently white spotlights were trained on Adele with a lack of color in the rear and front-stage visuals, except for during the James Bond theme “Skyfall” when she and stage were bathed in red light. In one very impressive moment, Adele returned to the b stage for several tracks, ending with the closer “Set Fire to the AdeleRain_72dpiRain” at which point she was surrounded on all four sides by real falling water, giving the illusion of her singing within the rainfall. Then for the encore, graffiti cannons fired away, sending up white strips of paper each adorned with a lyric, or phrase that appeared to be hand-written… my wife and teen girls scooped up tons of it! Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and LD Adam Bassett and the stage design team did her proud, achieving the intended focus on her performance with these elegant touches.

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As to Adele herself, her voice was in perfect shape. The songs she close spanned her catalog sounding as good as or better than the original studio versions. The set list was well balanced, the only cover being a sweet take on Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Most were played faithfully to the originals, with two tracks done acoustically, “Million Years Ago,” and “Don’t You Remember.” Adele generally stood in place, whether main or b stage, swaying or turning a bit all while projected on front and rear stage screens to get everyone in the audience a great view.

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What was unexpected for this uninitiated attendee is just how personable and funny Adele is. She greeted fans warmly, even pulling one couple on stage for selfies. She told stories from different points in her career, often in a self-deprecating way that was very endearing. There was a lot of this between song chatter, but it never wore thin, particularly since so many of her tracks are melancholic, a fact Adele herself pointed out, admitting that a lot of her songs are depressing. Yet there were enough upbeat tracks in the playlist, and between those and the banter, there was a celebratory air in the room.

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All in all a wonderful, heart-warming and entertaining evening from this pop megastar, who deserves every accolade.

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Rush Balance Left and Right Brain

Rush_ESLImage_72dpiRush could be described in a number of ways; they are rock gods, storytellers, and virtuosos. They are the rare band that evolved without trading away complexity or progressive tendencies and yet became incredibly successful, their popularity waxing rather than waning in the 1980s and beyond. As most readers will know, there is a question now as to how many more times Rush will play live, whether a one-off or a proper tour, given the status of the three band mates, and the vagrancies of time.

 

I missed seeing Rush in the 1970s and was first introduced to the band by my hard-rocking college roommate Dave Kain, who was a major fan. I really liked parts of Farewell to Kings (1977), and had no exposure to Hemispheres (1978), instead I identified most with the sound and lyrics on Moving Pictures, released in 1981. Here is what I’ve learned while researching my book, on late 70s Rush.

Geddy Lee (bass, vocals) and Alex Lifeson (acoustic and electric guitars) formed Rush with drummer John Rutsey in Toronto in 1968. In 1974, they released their first album, Rush, which sounded a little like Led Zeppelin. It included the first classic Rush song “Working Man.” Rutsey left after the first record and was replaced by ace stick-man Neil Peart. With that, Rush recruited not only one of the world’s greatest drummers, but also one of rock’s best lyricists. By 1977, Rush was bringing their epic songs and instrumental virtuosity to arenas in the US, Canada, and Europe.

Rush_farewell-to-kings-cover-600x600The band’s fifth and sixth studio albums, A Farewell to Kings (1977) and Hemispheres (1978), are two of a kind. They were both written in the Wales countryside and both contain lengthy compositions on grand themes such as space travel (“Cygnus X-1”) and Greek mythology (“Hemispheres”), and songs inspired by Romantic poetry (“Xanadu”) interspersed with short, intimate pieces (“Closer to the Heart”). The two albums are also connected by one long song in two parts. A Farewell to Kings ends with “Cygnus X-1,” the first part of a two-part epic that lasts 28 minutes. The second part, titled “Hemispheres,” kicks off the next album, Hemispheres.

Rush’s concerts for the two albums were a feast for the ears and eyes. The success of 2112 (1976) had allowed them to buy some shiny new instruments. Peart added a wide array of percussion to his arsenal: a gong, orchestra bells, tubular bells, temple blocks, and crotales. These expanded his sound palette and helped him to become one of the most versatile drummers of the period. In addition, Lee bought some new synthesizers (a Minimoog, an Oberheim polyphonic) and a Taurus foot-pedal keyboard. Lifeson showed his versatility by switching from acoustic to electric guitar, playing foot-pedal keyboard and changing his sound with a wide array of effects pedals. Watching Lee sing, play intricate lines on his bass guitar, and play a pedal keyboard with his feet all at the same time was riveting. No matter how complex and cerebral their albums were, when they played live they were always raw and visceral, and no one ever seemed to make even the slightest mistake!

Rush_HemispheresCover_72dpiThe tours for these two albums were reportedly extremely difficult for the band, not only because of the complexity of the music, but also because of the everyday circumstances of being on the road in the 1970s. They headlined both tours, but, unlike Led Zeppelin, Rush didn’t have a snazzy jet to fly from gig to gig. Driving in a van 300 miles each day across the vast expanses of Canada and the United States to reach their next destination, they dubbed the Farewell to Kings tour the “Drive ’til You Die” tour. These die-hard musicians never wanted to disappoint their fans, playing when they were sick and sleep-deprived, rarely missing a gig.

Fans recall these performances as legendary in great part because of the backing films by Nick Prince, the swirling smoke effects, and the band’s high-powered performances. The wider array of instruments expanded the overall complexity of the material, but the band still rocked hard, wringing emotion from Peart’s two-part science fiction epic. These rock gods embodied the story’s new deity, Cygnus, the god of balance: a perfect blend of Apollo (the logical thinker) and Dionysus (ruler of emotion). Mind and heart united, a balance of brain and boogie… Rush triumphed at the end of the 70s, perfectly positioned for the mega-success the experienced in the 80s.

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Exit … Stage Left (1981)
Replay X 3 box set
Mercury (2006), 59 min., 1.33:1

 

 

 

Although short clips of early Rush concerts have been included in documentaries and as bonus material on DVD sets, the best way to see them during their epic period is to the watch Exit … Stage Left, filmed in Montreal. This concert video is on Disc One of the box set Replay X 3, released in 2006 (each of the three discs from the set is also available separately). Although the concert was filmed in late 1981, after they had released Moving Pictures, the band plays three classics from their epic period: “Xanadu,” “Closer to the Heart” and “The Trees.” Geddy and Alex’s double-necked electric guitar and bass can be seen in action in “Xanadu,” as well as Peart’s wide array of percussion instruments. The sound is a bit muddy and the lighting could be brighter, but it hardly matters in this epic display of creativity.

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Alice Dies Again…

Wakeman2016Cooper_StoneFreeAd_72dpiQuite a weekend just passed at the O2 Arena, London. The Stone Free festival featured a series of bands over two days, June 18th and 19th, 2016 headlined by American rock legend Alice Cooper on day one then on day two Britain’s treasure, Rick Wakeman. It was both a complementary and divergent pairing, Alice heading a list of bands Saturday who are principally heavy rock ‘n’ rollers, such as The Darkness and Apocalyptica, and Wakeman with various progressive rock bands on Sunday including among others Steve Hackett and Marillion. I’ve seen this type of pairing before in Britain, last year’s Ramblin’ Man festival paired The Scorpions opposite Camel, and it’s entertaining just to walk around and people-watch. It’s easy to guess who came to see which bands as the rockers tend to favor adornment of leather, skulls, and crosses, and the proggers, well, they tend to arrive in carefully selected t-shirts commemorating Yes, Genesis, ELP, and so on. I started the weekend by picking up a Wakeman t-shirt so as to immediately declare my allegiance.

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Having said that, I was also very excited to see Alice Cooper on “Classic Rock” day, as it was to be my first time seeing him after all the years I’ve spent in concert halls. For anyone not familiar with the history, Alice Cooper shows have featured dancing skeletons, attacking spiders, an 8-foot-tall Cyclops, broken baby dolls, and fully functioning guillotines all fronted by Alice’s vaudevillian protagonist backed by a rock ‘n roll band that Cooper_DVDCover_3x4_72dpiwould influence rock and metal upstarts for decades. In 1974, after racking up seven albums and countless concert performances, the original ban split. Singer Vincent Furnier legally adopted the name Alice Cooper, and embarked on a long and fruitful solo career. His first album and tour spawned the movie Welcome To My Nightmare that screened in 1975 at my local movie palace. I took to this film immediately, reveling in the clever stagecraft that included dancers appearing to step in and out of a movie.

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Now more than 40 years on, and many solo album releases later, Alice still rocks — the concert was fantastic. As you might guess, these shows are quite well rehearsed now, a bit less anarchy on stage, replaced by more carefully crafted choreography, better lighting and effects. Yet the feeling of spontaneity and naughtiness remains, still aided with stage antics, props and costumes, continuing Alice’s long string of compelling rock ‘n’ roll Grand-Guignol, attended by the faithful and curious alike. The set list was packed with classics, beginning with “The Black Widow,” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” He included several hit singles ending with “School’s Out” and the encore “Elected.” Late in the set list, Alice covered four songs by departed rockers, revealing a tombstone flag for each as he honored Keith Moon (“Pinball Wizard”), Jimi Hendrix (“Fire”), David Bowie (“Suffragette City”) and Lemmy (“Ace of Spades”). Alice’s voice sounded great — he’s kept the growl, but can still deliver a ballad like “Only Women Bleed.” Of all the fine musicians on stage, Nita Strauss stood out for her demonstrative searing leads on guitar. But this show has been and remains about the performance, about making a rock concert interesting by investing the proceedings with theatrics, in this case celebrating all things macabre. And, as is tradition, Alice died once more on the guillotine, guilty as always.

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p.s. oh yeah, and time to pick up some leather, skulls and crosses to balance my allegiences!

 

Don’t Stop Making Sense

One of the most surprising, exhilarating concerts I ever attended was way back on December 6, 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium at the height of the “new wave” music movement. On that night, my roommate Irene and I arrived to find that the stage area of the cavernous concert hall was nearly empty. The Civic was and still is a hollow concrete shell, built originally to hold 7,000 patrons as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. On this night, there was a stage riser, but only plywood where normally there would be black flooring. A wooden ladder leaned against the dirty white wall stage right, along with a few racks seemingly bereft of gear. There were no lights, no curtains and no equipment save for a single microphone on its stand at center stage. We asked an usher what the hell was going on, and were told to just take our seats.

After some time waiting and wondering what was about to happen, the house lights dimmed, and the man of the evening, David Byrne came strolling onto the stage platform, a cassette tape player in one hand, acoustic guitar strung over his shoulders. He said “I gotta tape I want to play…” and clicked the Play button on the boom box. Then begins a pre-recorded backbeat to an acoustic version of the first Talking Heads hit “Psycho Killer.” As anyone can imagine, particularly if you’ve seen the outstanding Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense (1984), which was filmed over three nights in Los Angeles just a week after the San Francisco date, we were in for a one-of-a-kind art-rock performance.

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HOLLYWOOD, CA – CIRCA 1980s: (From L to R) Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads perform at a concert circa the early-1980s in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We expected the Talking Heads to be avant-garde, to present something unique and different, but accounts of their previous shows all the way back to their first, supporting The Ramones in 1975 at New York’s dank CBGB club suggested to us that the show’s staging would be minimal. What we did hear is that the band would be wound tight, that singer, guitarist and principal composer David Byrne was an eccentric, that he could dance TalkingHeads_CBGB_72dpiand sing while somehow keeping his head straight, or bobbing or moving in some other unnatural way to accentuate the Reagan-era angst of their rock ‘n’ funk songs. We had no idea how far he had developed these skills, that he could truly hold an audience enraptured with every move, and play so effectively off the other musicians, each of whom were accomplished in their own right, dancing together or apart, songs building into manic eruptions of jubilant, rhythmic new wave music.

TalkingHeads_SMSPoster_72dpiWhat we saw that night has remained seared in my memory forever, repeatable to an extent by viewing the film. After the opener, accomplished bassist Tina Weymouth joined Byrne for the song “Heaven.” As she took the stage, road crew members, clad in black, wheeled out a riser for her gear, plugged her into the sound system and exited quietly. During this track the team wheeled out another riser packed with drums, shortly to be occupied by the Heads’ rock-steady drummer, Tina’s husband Chris Frantz. Next up, the fourth member of the core band, Jerry Harrison (guitars, keys) joined in for “Found a Job,” one of the really infectious early Heads tracks. From this point on, additional musicians including guitarist (Alex Weir), keyboards player (Bernie Worrell, of Parliament/Funkadelic), percussionist (Steve Scales) and backup singers (Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt) joined in succession until the entire band was assembled for then hit “Burning Down The House,” from their album Speaking in Tongues (1983). Now assembled, this expanded band drove through a perfect set list that included “Life During Wartime” and “Once in a Lifetime” along with several from the new album, while the rest of the stage was completed with colored lights, video projection screens, and black matting for every exposed part of the stage. The movie does as good a job as possible of giving viewers an idea of what it was like to have a complete stage built out during such an event, but the necessity of focusing on the musicians precludes the ability to capture the nuanced impact of seeing all the rigging happen before our eyes – literally cabling, matting, lights, screens, everything it took to create a modern day concert was erected by the crew while we watched. It was an absolutely fascinating thing behold. It also ruined the band.

TalkingHeads_SITCover_72dpiAfter the experience of staging this massively creative show, the Talking Heads never toured again, despite the fact they went on to record three more albums before officially breaking up, the last including guest guitarist Johnny Marr from The Smiths. The daunting thought of topping the 1983 tour wasn’t the only issue. The band was growing apart, each member working on other projects. Chris and Tina continued on with the Tom Tom Club. David Byrne launched a long solo career. In fact, besides The Smiths’ Morrissey/Marr split, the demise of the Talking Heads was one of the most unfortunate “divorces” of the 1980s.

I was reminded of all this recently, when our art theater The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco screened a print of Stop Making Sense on one of their Monday concert film nights. The effusive sellout crowd led to a second showing, after all these years. It was a potent reminder of the popularity of the Heads and this angular music in general, as we were, midway through the reign of the punk/goth/new wave 80s.

Stop Making Sense (1983) © Talking Heads Films 1984, 1.78:1, 84 minutes

PrintThis is justly considered one of the greatest concert films ever made. The spectacle of the stagecraft, along with leader David Byrne’s jubilant performance, is emotionally impactful, filling attentive viewers with the lust for life he and the band exhibit. After a theatrical release, the movie was originally made available on home video tape in an extended version that included three additional songs from the actual show that had not appeared in the theatrical release. These tracks “Cities,” “I Zimbra,” and “Big Business” are available as extras on the extended “special edition” DVD which also includes audio commentary, promotional trailer, and other features.

p.s. There is also film of the Talking Heads on the prior tour in Rome, December 18, 1980 taken under bright white lights, when the core band was joined by Adrian Belew (guitar), Busta Jones (bass), Steven Scales (percussion), Dollette MacDonald (vocals) and Bernie Worrell (keys). It’s reasonably good footage of the band at this key point in time, before they took three years off prior to their final tour. The show is also captured in B&W footage from the Capital Theater, New Jersey on November 4th, 1980. Both films will be of interest to fans and collectors, particularly as the lineup at the time included guitar wizard Belew, who added his trademark distorted guitar noise, and who also harmonized with Bryne perfectly given their very similar voices.

 

 

Getting Into The Cure

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Robert Smith, The Cure

I saw The Cure  way back on October 10, 1985 in Santa Barbara, California supporting their smash album The Head On The Door, from that same year. While it was a powerful and emotional show in parts, I was ultimately disappointed with the stoic stage presence of the band. In particular, founder Robert Smith seemed to be napping through long stretches of the set list, only coming alive it seemed for the couple of hits at the end of the concert. In part my California roots drove my perceptions at the time; the gloomy mysteriousness of goth music, while connecting well in gritty San Francisco, was in part lost on the audience in sunny southern California. The band at the time was also right on the cusp of greater stardom, with just a few popular hits like “Let’s Go to Bed” and “In Between Days” overshadowed by darker dirges such as “A Forest.” A standout memory for me was their performance of “A Night Like This,” which bridged the two forms, it’s prolonged menacing prologue leading to a heartfelt reading of the chorus:

I’m coming to find you if it takes me all night
Can’t stand here like this anymore
For always and ever is always for you
I want it to be perfect
Like before
I want to change it all

Smith’s songs while sometimes quirky and playful are most often laden with sadness, relating stories of lost love, unbearable pain, or outright anger and hatred. While that might sound like torture to some, these songs have an ability to access deep-seated emotions in listeners, unlocking these feelings, even allowing for their release. The greatest melancholy music can do this. It can support a bit of wallowing, but a lot of healing as well. The Cure has always walked this line skillfully. That fact was gloriously on full display last Thursday May 26th at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, just south of San Francisco where so many of us first fell in love with the band. I took my daughter Elaina for her first Cure show, and my second, 30 years on. It was everything my first time wasn’t.

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On this night, The Cure took the stage beginning with the bluesy dirge “Open” from Wish (1992). It was clear from the first minutes that Smith was in top form, fronting one of the tightest lineups of his oft-changing collective. Robert Smith has been the only consistent member of The Cure since it’s inception in 1976 and as principal composer and vocalist, its driving force. In addition to some of his punk/goth contemporaries, Smith pioneered a style of guitar playing that drives so many Cure songs, a type of short repeating chord cycle, which relentlessly drives the music forward, allowing the listener to get lost in the sound. Consider the aforementioned “A Forest,” one of the purest examples of the form.

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Smith’s band is now composed of Simon Gallup (basses since 1979), Roger O’Donnell (keyboards on and off since 1987), Jason Cooper (drums since 1994), and relatively new guitarist Reeves Gabrels (since 2012). The rhythm section of Gallup and Cooper were a major part of what made the concert so exceptional. Cooper is able to execute the start-stop hiccups of so many Cure backbeats with precision and endurance. Gallup brings movement to the stage, pinning down deceptively complex bass leads that often drive the melodic force of these songs, ambling about, punk posturing, on fire.

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After the second track “alt.end” from The Cure (2004) the band made this fan a happy man, as they dove into five consecutive tracks from Head On The Door, followed by “The Walk” from the 1983 EP of the same name (and from b-sides collection Japanese Whispers), one of the best tracks of the set. Incidentally this rare track, along with the unexpected rendition of “Kyoto” before it, were two of those songs that showed off drummer Cooper’s ability to execute complex polyrhythmic leads, while “Screw” showed off bassist Gallup’s chunk funky lines.

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The Cure on this tour has been playing crowd-pleasing set lists that change each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” This raw, psychedelic funeral march was absolutely overwhelming live, a perfect ending that summed up everything I came to love about The Cure. After verses like “I think I’ve reached that point where every wish has come true, and tired disguised oblivion is everything I do,” follows its poignant, desperately sad refrain:

Please stop loving me
Please stop loving me
I am none of these things

Cure_Smith2_140dpiI watched the crowd, many of whom had clearly never heard this coda to Wish, slowly come around as the band cranked up its intensity, realizing they were witness to an immensely powerful moment, joining in the refrain, despite its despairing message. Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen last week in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice. Long may this artist persevere. In the meantime, catch this tour if you can. You might just find a bit of healing yourself, a salve for the ills of this world, a new reason to love this enduring band.

oh, and my daughter Elaina on that night….

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The Who Hits 50!

Who50_Hits_50_TourAd_72dpiA nice kitschy title for the most recent, maybe last, tour of the Who, one which comes at the heels of the seminal band’s 50th anniversary, and wherein they ”play the hits.” The Who, after a delay a several months, made it to the Oakland Arena here in the San Francisco Bay Area last week on May 19, 2016. The delay was due to health issues with singer Roger Daltrey, which involve his voice, limiting his ability to sing on consecutive nights, causing quite a logistical challenge during the tour, and a long delay of our show due to a resulting shuffle in the schedule.

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The show was fabulous, despite Daltrey’s evident struggles with the vocals. The large backing band were all singers as well as instrumentalists, and they helped immensely with multi-part harmonies and solid backing vocals, particularly during tracks like the opener “Who Are You,” “The Kids Are Alright,” and “I Can See for Miles.” Daltrey covers his parts as best you can imagine, often nailing even a high gruff note, while at times needing to hang back in the mix a bit. Though he now struggles during challenging passages, he is still in fantastic shape, a real inspiration for clean living and fitness! I read that Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder stood in for Daltrey at an event in Chicago, and that he directly sought out Daltrey at the end of the long set. He told the legendary vocalist that he could not fathom how the man ever delivered those vocals throughout the very long tours the Who staged over the years, so challenging was it to hit those notes on just one night. Sweet thing to say, and one can imagine how true it is, given the experience of all us fans, and our flawed attempts over the years to sing along! Townsend still hits his vocal marks quite well, though at bit gruffly as during “The Acid Queen,” but perfectly well on “Eminence Front.” His guitar technique is immaculate, and though he understandably does not leap into the air as in times past, he still executes his windmill-arm attack on the frets mightily. And he has attitude to spare.

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The backing band is filled with a who’s who of stellar musicians. Townsend’s son Simon plays guitars, Pino Palladino plays the bass, Loren Gold and John Corey are on keys all led by musical director Frank Smiles who adds more keys (did the Who really have that many keys on the albums?) and assorted instruments, including very strong backing vocals. Critically, Ringo’s son Zak Starkey played drums, and while no Keith Moon (who is?) he did an amazing job of interpreting and covering some of Moon’s most roiling, propulsive leads. As any fan knows, Moon used to play with almost reckless abandon, seldom pinning down a beat with single snaps of the snare, instead nearly always substituting a roll where others would place a note. He was one of the greatest drummers on the planet, maybe the best rock drummer ever (okay, right next to Bonham?), and it’s impossible not to miss him, even though we’ve had nearly 40 years to get used to the fact. Nonetheless, Starkey was top of his class and his assertive and stylized playing hit the marks as well as any drummer imaginable, a truly worthy heir.

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Due to circumstances, poor timing and other factors, I’ve never seen the Who. Back in the day I was drunk on complex progressive rock, and prioritized concerts by Genesis, Yes, Tull and others given limited budgets. In retrospect, the Who’s music edged into that progressive category, as even though their focus was dead-on rock ‘n’ roll, their compositions were deceptively complex, the musicianship and vocals driven and unrelenting in their sheer power and audacity. Besides The Pretty Things’, SF Sorrow, Townsend’s masterwork Tommy was one of the first long form rock operas, certainly affording him and the band a place at the pinnacle of rock god heroism.

Who_TommyCover_72dpiAlas, as I recently shared within these pages, Tommy both excited, and repelled me, particularly after viewing Ken Russell’s love-it-or-hate-it movie version of the album. I realized recently that all my friends had the soundtrack alum to the movie, and it crowded out the memories I had of the original Tommy cassette tape I played endlessly at ten years of age. I recently rediscovered the album and it’s charms, and the story behind it, influenced by Eastern philosophy much as my brother was at the time, as soon after this album’s release he left home to go into seclusion, and become a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship church. Townsend plowed serious ground with Tommy, arguably more personally and more effectively invoking a spiritual story than any of his counterparts including the Beatles who touched on these themes though never as expansively. And, in case you’ve forgotten, there is an almost complete lack of shrieking vocals or angry guitar on the album, quite unlike the movie soundtrack. Townsend primarily plays acoustic guitar, and clear, clean electric while he and Daltrey sing through relaxed vocal cords, innocence and emotions laid bare. Add to that Entwistle’s natural ability to lead or color everything he touched, and Moon’s unrelenting rolls, and the result is an album that is fresh, impactful and eminently listenable, particularly as an adult — it’s simply a masterpiece.

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Not surprisingly for me then, the Tommy segment of the “Who Hits 50!” tour was most compelling to me. The set kicked off with “Amazing Journey,” and continued through the instrumental masterpiece “Sparks,”(go straight to your stereo and spin that track if you have at all forgotten what an incredible piece of music that is!) then “The Acid Queen” (one of the tracks I felt ruined in the film by Tina Turner!), ‘Pinball Wizard,” (okay, Elton did nail that one!) and coda “See Me, Feel Me,” presenting what must be one of the greatest lyrics to end the 60s and start the 70s:

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

The concert ended with two songs that followed the Tommy set, two of their absolute greatest, “Baba O’Riley” during which Daltrey’s signature scream actually hit the mark, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” featuring those classic Townsend power chords. The lighting, and particularly the visual backdrops, rendered in hi-def imagery added mightily to the impact of the presentation. Overall it was a great night of music and a celebration of this legendary band, now more than 50 years in the making, and still rolling on.

 

p.s. while finishing up a chapter on the Who for my forthcoming book, I learned something interesting about what is possibly the greatest bit of film of the band playing live. It appears at the end of the documentary The Kids Are Alright, and features the Who playing a blistering version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” What I did not realize was the this is the last footage of drummer Keith Moon playing live, just shortly before his passing, and that it was filmed at Shepperton Studios by the movie’s young director, who felt that this song and it’s companion “Baba O’Riley” had not been properly captured on film….besides the other celluloid rarities the director collected for this doc, the inclusion of this footage alone makes the film worth collecting!

The Rock Opera and the Yogi Temple

The Who were pure electric rock energy personified, most definitely Rock Gods in their time and after, and certainly the progenitors of the Punk movement that followed. They were an utterly fantastic band in concert; performances where you felt that at any time the guys might just levitate off the stage. The music was pushed to the very limits of what rock could acheive. As the 1960s came to a close, The Who released their masterpiece Tommy (1969). This seminal recording introduced the concept of a “rock opera,” delivering a complete story spanning the length of two albums, kicking off the 1970s movement that led to expansive, meaningful rock epics. The album made the band in America and all over the world, with its deeply spiritual message of hope, love and self-reliance.

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I was just ten years old in 1970 when I first got a cassette tape of Tommy. I must confess I didn’t understand it then; it was too deep, sometimes overtly disturbing and parts of it actually scared me. I listened to this tape on a crappy cassette player over and over again for about a year, finally putting it away forever. I probably only heard the hits “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” for the rest of the decade, and since that time. As I realize now, a big part of the album was just too disturbing for me to process then.

Who_LakeShrine_72dpiNow I realize that my aversion to this work was because at that time my family was also in somewhat of a crisis. My brother Bill, who was 19 years old in 1969, was part of that generation’s “perfect storm.” He had lost his way in life to drugs, a failed attempt at college and the Vietnam War draft. He suffered from a deep seated anger, and finally found peace through Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings at the Lake Shrine, a beautiful retreat on Sunset Boulevard near the Santa Monica beaches, soon becoming a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) church. He had been terribly troubled, and left home to find peace. I was not yet in my teens. We only saw him twice a year after that, sometimes visiting him at the SRF church in Los Angeles, or sometimes when he could come back to our house. All I could comprehend was that he went away to become a monk, and was gone. It seemed to my young mind that life was somehow so challenging and dangerous that powerful emotions could cast you out of society, changing your course eternally. Pretty heady stuff for a preteen.

Once I got older I realized that while so foreign to our Christian family, this departure from “normal” society saved my brother. The teachings of SRF were to help students gain a “direct experience of truth” as opposed to blind belief. Those messages and their practices changed Bill forever. I knew the lyrics to Tommy were plumbing the same territory, and again, at that young age I was alternately drawn in, yet somehow repelled by its powerful messages. Today I also realize that this album was and remains one of the most transformative, important records of our time.

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As I prepared to write this article, I experienced a coincidence that has to be telling me to look inside myself for some truth as well. My wife and I just purchased a historic landmark property in Santa Cruz, California. There is a “yogi temple” on the property, a decorative archway as an entry, and other structures built by a mason named Kenneth Kitchen in the 1940’s. No one over the years seemed to know what his architectural influences where – they seemed vaguely Indian or Turkish. I was somehow drawn to this property; the structures spoke to me, and I kept coming back to the idea of going through with the purchase for more than a year, despite the challenges I knew we would face. Just after we bought the property, a historical architect in the area sent us a book he was working on. Get this. Kenneth Kitchen had terrible “anger management issues” as we might say today, just like my brother did thirty years later. In Kenneth’s case, his brother took him down to the Yogananda’s temple in Los Angeles where he stayed and studied in the SRF church (yes, the same church my brother retreated to in his time of need!) When he returned to Santa Cruz he bought the property I now own, and built these structures as homage to the SRF church and the peace he attained from his studies there. Reportedly he raised goats, sold their milk, did his brick work, and tried to live a more simple, humble existence. Was I drawn in to this mysterious property and its structures because of my long lost memories of visiting my brother at the yogi temple, and the sights therein? Or was I ready to move a bit outside of the Silicon Valley, to focus a bit more internally, a bit outside the hustle of hi tech? I think so.

In a similar way, after learning of Townsend’s motivation for writing Tommy, I have been drawn back into that work. I’m not making this up people, it’s been a bit overwhelming and I’m listening now. You might know the story of Pete Townsend’s pathway to his ultimate masterpiece, which itself is informed by a spiritual teacher from India.

By the end of the 1960s, principal composer, guitarist, and vocalist Pete Townshend and the band, Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass), and Keith Moon (drums) felt that it was time to develop something more substantial than the short pop songs they had been releasing. At the time, The Who was a singles band that felt they were going nowhere. The challenge was on to move past the short singles into something more substantial. Pete could write for a bigger stage, something more serious. Many believe this was the moment that saved the band. Townshend in particular knew that rock fans, and people in general were searching for answers to the woes of the day, the spiritual emptiness that accompanied sex, drugs, and gratuitous behavior. Co-manager Kit Lambert was completely behind his artist, even helping with the story’s development and other matters. Similarly, the band remained steadfastly behind their leader. “Nothing was off limits…I knew it would be okay… [and] that Pete would go on to write this kind of work,” explained Daltrey in retrospect.

Who_TheGodMan_72dpiAs Townshend relays the situation, he experienced a “bad trip” after taking the powerful hallucinogenic LSD while on an airliner from the States back to Britain, and felt he left his body. “There was nothing good about it” he said later. But it suggested to him that there was more to life than what we see, because at some point during the trip, “he was not his body.” As Townshend went looking for answers, a friend told him about spiritualist Meher Baba and the book, The God Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba with an Interpretation of his Silence and Spiritual Teaching, by C.B. Purdom. The book and its messages struck Townshend as containing answers to the questions going on in his head. “It was the simple stuff, I liked. It was, don’t worry be happy, do your best, leave the results to God. All the pieces came together and I was able to start on Tommy in earnest,” he later stated. Tommy would tell the story of a spiritual journey; “a boy that grew up in difficult circumstances, becomes a teacher, and misuse his powers, paying a price” said Townshend.

As most readers will know, the arc of the story begins with Tommy’s mother and lover killing his father right in front of him. The trauma causes the boy to become deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy suffers unbearable traumas, including child molestation, the kind of subject matter that was taboo at the time. He becomes an iconic pinball wizard, and loses his way spiritually, becoming a type of false prophet. In the end, Tommy regains his senses, and he and his followers gain spiritual enlightenment by learning to look inside of themselves for the answers to life’s mysteries. Townshend summarizes, “We are deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to our inner spirit. One life is all I know. The present life. And yet because of my ignorance, of the infinite, I cannot enjoy it. I am sad, poor, wrapped in indignity.”

Who_AutobiographyofaYogi_72dpiTownsend’s epic story of Tommy strikes me as a bit like the story of Kenneth Kitchen and of my brother Bill, and I’m feeling open to these messages. After watching the documentary about the making of Tommy, I did grab a fresh copy of the double LP and couldn’t believe I had set this one aside for so many years. It’s full of beautiful songs mostly featuring acoustic guitars, gentler, thoughtful placement of electric punctuation, creative bass leads, and the roiling drums of Keith Moon behind it all. Roger Daltry’s vocal performance and that of the work’s principal composer, is amazing, their voices still young, belying innocence yet wisdom beyond their years. In studio, then on stage, Daltrey began inhabiting the role of Tommy, delivering the impactful lyrics with an amazing power and grace. And, now, so many years after my brother gave me the book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I think it’s time to read it.

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Coda:

Who_TicketStub76_72dpiThe Who performed most of the album in concert many times around the world, at a time when some of the largest rock festivals were staged. It was perfect timing, as the band played Monterey Pop, Woodstock and two years in a row at the Isle of Wight. South of my hometown in Los Angeles, they played Anaheim Stadium on the 14th of June 1970, just one month after releasing one of the most revered live albums of all time, Live at Leeds. Fortunately, the festivals, and some defining Who concerts have been filmed over the years and there is a wealth of documentation on the band, certainly one of the richest and varied celluloid collections of any rock band before U2, including media darlings The Rolling Stones. Arguably the best of these is the film capturing the band in full flight at the Isle of Wight.

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Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) Eagle Rock, 85 min., 1.33:1, DVD
The Who topped their Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock appearances with this amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage early in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people.

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Tommy (1975) Sony Pictures, 111 min., 1.85:1, DVD
Love it or hate it, this Ken Russell film is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock films ever made. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The imagery in this film, which includes Ann Margaret rolling around in gushes of pork ‘n beans, no doubt fuelled my aversion to it’s strange content at the time! But hey, it’s only a movie, and only rock ‘n roll….or maybe, it does mean a bit more…

Ear Candy for the Hungry Audiophile

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