Tuesday, July 8, 2008

the wasteland



Who’s Next. Who’s Next was one of the first ‘serious’ rock records I bought with my allowance money when I was a kid. I got it at a little record store/head shop called Record Connection on 86th and Lexington in New York City. It’s the kind of joint a kid would never be allowed into today. But back then I poured almost every cent I could get my hands on into records from that place. I’d walk through the jingling front door and the heavy sounds of Blue Oyster Cult and Deep Purple would fuse in the tight air with some weird smell I couldn’t identify. The guy working the cash register, Mitch, would appear from behind a beaded curtain with bloodshot slits for eyes. “What’s up ‘lil buddy?” he would say with a slight giggle every time he saw me. He could never remember my name.

A camp counselor turned me on to The Who. Let’s call him ‘Buddy Green’, a fitting pseudonym for sure. Buddy and I were only in each other’s lives for two months, but that precious eight week period, some 30 years ago, proved to be pivotal for me. He introduced me to so much great music, and to some other things too, but that’s maybe a conversation for another time...

Of all the music Buddy played for me, The Who had the most dramatic impact. It’s difficult to convey now because years and years of radio overkill have snuffed out much of the pleasure I used to get from some of the greatest Who songs. These days, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Pinball Wizard” sound like annoying muzak when I'm sitting in rush hour traffic and they come on the Classic Rock radio station. But then again, “Substitute”, “Behind Blue Eyes”, “The Punk Meets the Godfather”, and “You Better You Bet” never get old…OK, that last one was a joke…There are also Who songs that haven’t been played nearly as much which still sound great (some of my favorites are “Circles”, “Tattoo”, “So Sad About Us”, “Pure and Easy” and “Naked Eye”).

Who’s Next was my favorite record. Everything about it seemed so cool and mysterious and epic. The strange pee pee sleeve; the moog, piano and crashing drums at the start of “Baba O’Riley”; the freedom radiating from “Goin’ Mobile”; the rockin’ deftness of Pete’s guitar playing on “Bargain”, along with the way Roger’s voice rises when he sings ‘the best I ever had’; the soaring majesty of “The Song is Over”; the fire and rage of “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”…

Today, Who's Next strikes me as an amazing distillation of the Great Collapse. ‘She was the first song I ever sang,’ Pete sings at one point, ‘but it stopped as soon as it began.’ In one way or another, the record as a whole has always made me feel like I'm experiencing a passage from one world to another, a transition laden with loss (“The Song is Over”), desperation (“Bargain”), loneliness and isolation (“Behind Blue Eyes”), and the need for transcendence (“Goin’ Mobile”). More explicitly, “Baba O'riley” seems to suggest that the legacy of the 60s – the ‘teenage wasteland’ - should be left behind (‘put out the fire and don’t look past my shoulder’), and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” offers an even more stinging indictment (‘the world looks just the same, and history ain’t changed’)…


But you can’t really do Who’s Next justice without talking about the sleeve photo… Pete, Roger, Keith and John stand in the midst of a rocky, grey (teenage?) wasteland. It looks like a strange battlefield with a nondescript piece of concrete emerging from the ground, against which the four men have just finished relieving themselves. I used to look at the photo for hours, wondering what had happened in and around that field, eventually concluding that it was some kind of stormy event or series of events, leaving only a monument in its wake. I look at it now and have a very similar reaction. The 60s have come and gone. Their impact has been imposing and will be memorialized and celebrated for a long time to come, but there is a sense of anger and betrayal among what were once some of the most fervent True Believers.

3 comments:

Dan E said...

I have some very mixed feelings about Who's Next, but you zeroed in very nicely on the stuff that makes it more than just another "classic rock" record.

Nearly two decades ago, I was working in a record store in Chicago. One afternoon, shortly after the incident where Townshend was quoted in the press as knowing "what it's like to be a woman" because of his bisexual experimentation, or something, a couple of meatheads came into the store and started looking through the Who section.

"Hey," said one meathead. "You hear? Pete Townshend's a fag."

"No way," said the other. "Nobody who wrote Teenage Wasteland is a fuckin' fag."

Max Stevens said...

That's sad. What a bunch of meatheads. Sometimes I guess ya gotta separate the band from the fans in your mind, but it's not always easy.

dan w said...

I'm all for giving the meatheads and your story, and optimistic read: I hope meathead #2 meant that, bisexual experimentation aside, writing Teenage Wasteland defined you as a non-fag. The alternative, that the author of Teenage Wasteland could not possibly have indulged in bisexual experimentation, rains much on my Who-and-head-shop reverie. Rooty-toot-toot.