I blew off The Who in high school. There was no 'Beggar's Banquet' as there was with the Stones. I lumped them in with the establishment rock and roll that I had come to despise. Boy, was I wrong.
Even now it is hard to look at The Who with a fresh perspective. To imagine you'd never heard them, heard of them, knew anything about them at all. If you could create such circumstances you would have some hypnopomp indeed.
My college years were like most, I suppose, intense partying, new people, new experiences. My world centered around the theater department which was a world like any other undergrad world, with maybe a higher percentage of out-of-the-closet gay folks. This was the late '80's the difference between then and now is like the difference between answering machines and cell phones.
My tastes weren't really expanding into more mainstream areas. The new stuff I was hearing was mainly euro-pop like Erasure, New Order, Bronski Beat, etc. I wasn't crazy about this music. It had technical perfection and glossy beats but there seemed to be some sort of hole at the center of it.
Into that atmosphere came a couple of guys. One was actually a high school friend who'd briefly played bass in my band. Joe was a DJ at WRIU and took classes in the theater department. He was a good actor but mainly he enjoyed being behind the scenes. Stage managing, building sets, etc. He and another guy named Bill had similar tastes in music and they became friends.
I still can remember the first night I wound up hanging out with them down by Narragansett Beach. Bill had a huge record collection and we got beer and sat down to enjoy it. While he and Joe had nothing against punk rock, they held The Who, The Stones, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly in as high esteem as I did The Replacements, Husker Du, and The Clash.
Bill went to play a Who record and I made some sort of nasty snorting sound and said something negative. You'd have thought I'd insulted his mother. He and Joe then proceeded to lecture me for (I'm not kidding) an hour and a half about why I was wrong, how full of shit I was, and how I simply did not have the information I needed.
I begrudgingly admitted that I had heard 'My Generation' and maybe 'Pinball Wizard'. To this day I don't like those songs because the shadow of my punk prejudice hangs over them.
Then Bill opened me a Budweiser and played The Who's 'Who By Numbers' from front to back. And by the time it was over I was apologizing to Bill, Joe, and the members of The Who for my ignorance and malarkey.
I also found it ironic that in a year in which I'd been introduced to a whole subset of gay artists that the gayest thing I'd hear would be an album by The Who. To me it is clear that Pete Townshend is struggling to define his sexuality here, chafing at the restriction that fame puts on his interactions with people, and feeling as if the perception that people have of him is at odds with his real truth.
Many have doubted that Townshend ever ventured into any gay relationships. But here is the opening stanza of 'How Many Friends', a blistering self-excoriation that comes at the close of the album.
I'm feelin' so good right now
There's a handsome boy tells me how I changed his past
He buys me a brandy
But could it be he's really just after my ass?
Now, I might be jumping to conclusions here...um, is it me?
In any case, whether he is or he isn't gay, did or didn't sleep with men, the point is that he is introducing the subject matter as a reality unto itself. The greater questions at the heart of the album are all about identity and what happens to a person when they are seen as something that they are not, or as something they desperately want to be but cannot.
This album is one long howl of pain, all dressed up in beautiful melody, bouncing bass lines, pounding drums, and soaring guitar solos. If you didn't know English your basic response might be enthusiasm, or vigor. These songs are calls to action musically. But when you climb inside the lyrics they are a morass of self-doubt, hatred, and questioning.
To a sheltered kid at college it was like a bolt of lightning from the sky. I had been wrong! The Who were as amazing as everyone said. And subversive! And ballsy! At the height of their fame they're singing about getting picked up in a bar by a young guy and being a 'well-fucked sailor'. I mean, are you kidding me? Total bad ass-ness.
In the middle of the album is a small song. It doesn't call much attention to itself but I think it is The Who's finest moment. It is called 'Blue Red and Grey'. I'm going to include the entire lyric sheet here...
Blue, Red and Grey
Some people seem so obsessed with the morning
Get up early just to watch the sun rise
Some people like it more when there's fire in the sky
Worship the sun when it's high
Some people go for those sultry evenings
Sipping cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day
I like every second, so long as you are on my mind
Every moment has its special charm
It's all right when you're around, rain or shine
I know a crowd who only live after midnight
Their faces always seem so pale
And then there's friends of mine who must have sunlight
They say a suntan never fails
I know a man who works the night shift
He's lucky to get a job and some pay
And I like every minute of the day
I dig every second
I can laugh in the snow and rain
I get a buzz from being cold and wet
The pleasure seems to balance out the pain
And so you see that I'm completely crazy
I even shun the south of France
The people on the hill, they say I'm lazy
But when they sleep, I sing and dance
Some people have to have the sultry evenings
Cocktails in the blue, red and grey
But I like every minute of the day
I like every minute of the day
I was on the verge of adulthood. But I was still a kid. I had no responsibilities other than finding my favorite party or rehearsing some new play. This hint of optimism in the middle of that dark pool of regret and pain moved me very deeply.
The bravery it takes to say, "Hey, I love EVERY SECOND THAT I'M ALIVE", the determined absence of jaded cynicism in that sentiment, got me through many of my darkest college days, days when I felt like a paint-by-numbers sketch myself, when it felt like I was an outline for others to fill in.
When I had no idea who I really was.