Monday, April 06, 2009

Blame Pete!!!

This was a piece that I wrote for Glorious Noise. Jake (ed. in chief) decided to judiciously edit it for space reasons; he might have had a point. Here is the unedited version of that article, plus a couple of additions and revisions. I will let you decide if he was right to "trim the fat".

Brothers and sisters, I gotta testify; my name is Murph, and I’m a Rockaholic.

I place the blame squarely on Pete Townshend’s shoulders. Roger, John, and Keith are just as guilty, complicit as they are in catalyzing so pervasive of a conversion to the Rock side of your loyal correspondent. But the songs were Pete’s, so he ought to get the lion’s share of the blame. I was only seven; my resistance was already low, when an album that came out three years before I was born pushed me so completely over the edge of no return deep into the depths of Rock fandom from which I will never emerge from. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily…

My very own rock opera


In 1979, my father got an 8-track recorder from my uncle, who had just made the upgrade to cassettes. At the time, Saturday Night Fever was still huge, so my parents borrowed the soundtrack record from my uncle and taped a bunch of Bee Gees, Tavares, and Yvonne Elliman onto the first two tracks of an existing 8-track that came with the recorder. But on the remaining two tracks were the greatest songs I’d ever heard in my 7 years of life; a deaf, dumb and blind kid who had an evil cousin, the Christmas he couldn’t appreciate, a quack doctor who couldn’t cure the kid, and of course, the fact that the kid was a pinball wizard. But best of all, the kid was named Tommy, just like me. I wore glasses at the time, and listened to that 8-track loudly on those classic black-and-clunky headphones, so I figured I was 2/3 of the way towards the same fate. But it killed me that my parents didn’t know who sang the album; their idea of great music at the time was Makem & Clancy, Helen Reddy, and John Denver. However, Santa knew who sang it; that year, under my Christmas tree was possibly the coolest present a kid could ever ask for: the glorious double record of the original 1969 Who rock opera Tommy, in its famous three-panel gatefold sleeve. Sure, I wondered what the hell that big ball on the cover was, and why the guys were inside the ball. Why were they waving their hands? But all that was secondary to the music: two records worth of the coolest songs I’d ever heard. I was hooked, and a lifelong love of Rock was born.

Who needs baseball cards when there’s Who’s Next?

Frankie O’Malley and I hit it off immediately in first grade; we were the only two kids our age who’d even heard of the Who, let alone had their records. Later, we found out that Mike Robinson was a fan. Mike got me The Who By Numbers for my birthday that year; like the kid I was, of course I connected all the dots on the cover, d’oh!! I also picked up the “You Better You Bet” 45 and (not long after that) the Face Dances LP. I didn’t know at the time that I was coming into the group at the nadir of their career, but even then, I knew that By Numbers was a far better LP than Face Dances.

Life is really so much simpler when you are in the second grade. Language gets taken for face value; multiple metaphors get lost at that age. Again, I was hanging out with Frankie O'Malley at his house, and wanted to show his mom that I knew how to play guitar (I think I'd been playing for two years at that point). So what song did I choose to play for her? "Squeeze Box", of course. What can I say? The song only has three chords, and it's easy to remember. Too bad that a second grader has absolutely no way of knowing that it's crude slang for female genitalia; back then, I thought it was just an accordion. Lord only knows how she must have thought her poor son Frankie's friends were already warped at such a tender age.

Some kids spent all their lawn-cutting money on baseball cards, video games, or candy. Not me; I distinctly remember borrowing a copy of Who’s Next from my guitar teacher, loving it, and saving my grass-cutting dollars to buy it at Rainbow Records in Park Ridge. The record store opened at 10am on a Saturday; I was there at 9:45, nose pressed against the glass like a cat eyeing a goldfish. And you know that it was worth the wait, to crack the shrink-wrap and set the needle into the groove to hear the bubbling synth of “Baba O’Riley”.

That year, the Who toured for their first “final” time. Mike Robinson had the proper pay-per-view channel which was showing the last show of the tour in Toronto. WLUP was simulcasting it as well. Frankie, Mike, Mike’s buddy, and I were all in second grade at that point, and had one hell of a sleepover party to see out the Who’s career (or so we all thought at the time). The music was cranking, and it was a blast.

Ain’t no cure for the Mom-intercepted-my-copy-of-Quadrophenia blues

When I was in fourth grade, our local Chicago Public Library actually had a copy of Quadrophenia in the stacks. Being curious about another Who record I hadn’t heard, I took it out along with my Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and Encyclopedia Brown paperbacks. But then my mom, as only a mom can, decided to take a closer look at the thick libretto that came with the Who’s second rock opera. Well, between the big picture of Jimmy the Mod with all the centerfolds on his wall and the drug lyrics in “Cut My Hair”, there was no way she was gonna let me listen to the album, despite my protestations to the contrary. Then, to top it off, we returned the record to the library without the book; my mom had to sheepishly return it weeks later as soon as she discovered what she’d done. Serves her right, I say.

Empty Glass extortion and other childhood lapses of judgment

Being a kid, I wasn’t able to wrap my brain around one tiny aspect of The Who Sell Out album. In the run off groove of the second side of the UK pressing, there is an actual track called “Track Records”, the UK record label which the Who had partial interest in. However, in their infinite knowledge, Decca Records in America had the bright idea to obscure the track’s only lyrics, “Track Records, Track Records”. To my ten-year old kid’s ears, they made the remaining noise sound like ghouls going “hah ha-hah, hah ha-hah”. I knew it wasn’t ghouls, but nonetheless, the sound made my skin crawl. So what did I do? I took a paperclip to the run-out groove to scratch out the offending sounds. Dummy… good thing it was a blue-sky label MCA reissue copy, not an original Decca pressing.

Little by little, the rest of my classmates caught up to me with their own musical tastes. [Name withheld for privacy; I was actually gonna use this guy’s real name when I first submitted the article.] knew I was a Who fan, and offered to sell me for three bucks his only-slightly-used copy of Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass, one I didn’t have yet. For three bucks, I knew it was a deal and a steal, and gladly offered to take it off his hands for him. But like a fool, I wasn’t wearing my poker face that day. When I got to his house to close the transaction, the price mysteriously had risen to an intractable five bucks. Despite all the names I called him, the price would not budge, and I begrudgingly parted with my Abe Lincoln, making a mental note to never do business with [this dude] again.

“Mom, can I cut class??”


Once in a while, your parents shock the hell out of you. You think you have them pegged, then they throw a fast one your way. In 1989, the Who miraculously reunited to celebrate their 25th anniversary with a tour. They were coming to Alpine Valley, and at the time, had only planned one show. Tickets went on sale on a Friday, a school day for me. But St. Patrick’s High School had a half day that day. That Wednesday, I took a long shot chance, and pled my case to my mom that I needed to cut class that Friday to buy tickets to see the Who’s glorious 25th anniversary reunion concert, fully expecting her to ix-nay the plan out of hand. In a move that still shocks me to this day, she agreed that it was okay for me to call in sick to school that day, so that I could buy tickets. Not only that, she drove me to the Sears in Golf Mill (which had a Ticketron outlet) at 3:45am so I could wait in line. In hindsight, she completely righted the damage done by the Quadrophenia fiasco. I bought four tickets, so my cousin, his two buddies, and I could enjoy what I still think to this day was a kickass concert. When they opened the show with a glorious rendition of the overture from Tommy, I knew I could die a happy man.

The death of the Ox

With the Who now essentially back in action on a more-or-less regular basis, I had the chance to catch them in 2000 with my now-wife, at the New World Music theater in Tinley Park. Little did we know we were witnessing the last time a truly viable lineup of the Who would come through Chicago. They still knew how to put on a hell of a show, and it was a thrill, if not as thrilling as 1989 for the sheer novelty’s sake of seeing a freshly-reunited Who.

John Entwistle’s death was so senseless; you’d like to think that Keith Moon’s death might have counted for more. As far as rock deaths go, it was pretty disgraceful to die of a coke overdose when you knew in advance you were suffering from a serious heart condition. The shame of it all was somewhat positively mitigated with a bit of good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll sleaze when it was later rumored that he died in the arms of a Vegas showgirl. It was John’s death that first inspired me to post to the Glorious Noise message boards, and find out how other like-minded music geeks took the news.

The remaining two continue to tour, and really ought to call themselves Who’s Left, if you ask me. I mean, it would be like Paul and Ringo going on tour as the Beatles. Pete, Roger, and John, I’ll buy that. But then there were two, and so ought to endeth the name the Who.

Pete’s scandal

When Pete got in trouble for admitting to accessing a child pornography website, it broke my heart the way it was sensationalized. First off, the whole thing is one of the most bizarre chapters in Who history. Don’t get me wrong; child pornography is a horrible crime against humanity. But I truly believe Pete’s explanation that he was trying to dig deep into his own psyche to discover whether or not he’d been molested as a child. Unlike Gary Glitter, Pete was not found with scores of images on his hard drive (that we know of). When he claims that he looked once and was repulsed by what he found, I believe him. However, I’m not naïve enough to believe that it could be that as a lifelong fan, I want to believe him. Regardless, I do think that he went about the whole thing in a wrong (and naïve) way; he probably didn’t need to go to that site in the first place. But worse was the treatment he received at the hands of a merciless, scandal-hungry press. I don’t think that much less of Pete for what went down, but the whole episode breaks my heart.

My (next) generation

Now that I’m a father myself, I’m introducing my kids early on to the classics; my son as an infant would fall asleep every night to a Beatles lullaby CD made by Jason Falkner. And one of the songs which routinely calmed him down was Big Star’s “The Ballad of El Goodo”. My daughter, though she is still sometimes shaky when she walks, tries to play the guitar with me whenever I am playing it. I created lullaby comp CDs for my kids, with Verbow, Tom Waits, and yes, The Who among the included songs. Unlike my own pre-Who diet of John Denver and Helen Reddy, I want to give my kids an appreciation for the finer tunes, or at the very least point them in the direction of good stuff. And who knows… if early signs are any indicator, the kids may take after the father and become music fanatics. Heaven help us if that happens; Pete Townshend will then be guilty of corrupting two generations of Murphys!!!!

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