Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Plopping into bed last evening, I switched on the TV and found myself near the beginning of a documentary or sorts on The Who, "Amazing Journey", I think it was called, from 2007. Now, I was only a bit of a fan in my teens, owning only "Tommy", iirc, seeing them once live at Tanglewood in 1971 (sharing the bill with Jethro Tull and It's a Beautiful Day, both of whom I probably preferred) but friends of mine, the Steins, were Who fanatics. They were also fledgling filmmakers and, that day, we went around back of the stage to the trailers (you could do so then without fear of being tossed bodily by superstar protection), chatted with Entwhistle (very pleasant) and they got Daltry to take their camera (Super 8?) into the trailer to film goings on within. This led, eventually, to Jeff Stein filming "The Kids Are Alright".
I never saw that movie until a couple years ago when a co-worker happened to bring in the DVD, which I borrowed. It was interesting, kinda, especially the earlier footage, less so post 1970 or so. I never could tolerate Daltry, but the rest of the band was relatively OK. I knew that Townshend had attended the Destruction in Art Symposium held in London in September, 1966 which featured Gustav Metzger and his corrosive, eroding "paintings", Yoko Ono and others, including AMM. Watching film of Townshend at the more extreme end of his guitar abuse (sliding it up an down the mic stand at Woodstock, for instance) I could only wonder if he'd seen Keith and absorbed a thing or two. I've made a few attempts to reach him through the Steins and others, so far to no avail; nothing major anyway, more a curiosity.
In the documentary last night, he mentions the Symposium and having learned about the nature of performance art there. Incidentally, in conversation, he sounds remarkably like Keith in his phrasing, etc. though, to be sure, on a different level as to meaning and understanding of the larger world outside his domain. So you have this young musician with adventurous tendencies in 1966, in London, where all manner of exciting experiments were taking place. But, and he's very explicit about it, he quickly realizes that he can be paid for writing three-minute songs that many people like and he wholeheartedly embraces this, creating the foundation for his subsequent career. I hadn't realized they'd done a Coke commercial back then, satirizing (lightly) pop ephemera while at the same time reaping the benefits of same. It's a little startling, given his obvious intelligence, to hear him--without much of a trace of cynicism--make no bones about having made such a calculated, commercial decision. All fine and dandy, his business as far as I'm concerned, but it was the kind of thing that should be seen by folk who somehow hold up rock icons like Townshend as epitomes of creative virtue.
So The Who go on and make relatively exciting rock for a few years (I've always thought "My Generation" one of the better early rock songs and that the stutter therein was a rare example, in the genre, of inspired poetry) until succumbing to bombast with Tommy and most of the rest of their subsequent output. This is brought to an unintentionally gruesome close with the final portion of the film, which documents the recording, in 2003, of a new song ("Such a Good-Looking Boy", I think?) with a rather portly Greg Lake on bass and a youngster (Ringo's son?) on drums, along with a pianist and back-up guitarist. Here, in a multi-million dollar studio, the musicians sit in isolated rooms, cobbling together in good corporate-rock fashion, a machine of a song perfect for boomer airplay and eventual use as thematic fodder for an ESPN feature on an aging athlete one day, having entirely, utterly lost the dollop of freedom, of devil-may-care attitude they had 40 years before. It's become pure product, the predictable outcome of the decision Townshend had made in 1966. And they're very happy with themselves.