Friday, August 24, 2012

Musical Gnosis: The Who

Apologies for the delay in posting.  Been incredibly busy engineering and producing, and also moving. 

Sometimes looking back on extraordinary events I have to wonder if some nonhuman Intelligence Agency such as Coincidence Control conspired to bring about a certain outcome or if it was merely serendipitous random chance.  Case in point, the best concert I've ever seen as a spectator, The Who in 1980.

The story begins the week before the concert.  I was on tour with Sargent.  We were playing in Fort McMurray, Alberta, far in the North, about 300 miles Northeast of Edmonton.  It was my first experience with satellite television, rare in Canada in those days;  the first time viewing a Movie channel.  They played about a half dozen films and cycled them over and over, around the clock.  One of them was The Kids Are Alright, a 1979 documentary on The Who featuring a non-narrative pastiche of performances and interviews showcasing this amazing, high energy band.  I watched it 3 or 4 times in its entirety and saw various segments  at other times during the week we were there.  It proved quite educational as well as being most enjoyable.  Didn't know much about The Who before this.  I only knew their latest studio album, Who Are You, the last one recorded with drummer Keith Moon.  I particularly enjoyed the title track and a song called Trick of the Light.

The Who distinguished itself  from other major rock bands by having the focus of attention not on the lead singer, Roger Daltry, but on guitarist Pete Townsend, and on Moon whose frantic, manic drumming seemed equally at home in the worlds of punk rock or free jazz.  Moon was the inspiration for the Muppets drummer, Animal, a legacy no other drummer, not even Bonham or Baker can claim.  Bassist John Entwhistle, aka The Ox, held it all together with a foundation of rock solid musicianship that allowed Townsend and Moon to go off into space with their experimental free-form sonic and rhythmic explorations.

Toward the end of that week I picked up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine and noticed in their concert listings that The Who were going to be playing in Vancouver the early part of the next week.  Sargent, normally booked 6 nights a week, had that time off until Friday when they would be playing 2 one-nighters on the weekend.  It seemed that a Who concert was justifiable continuing education, so I decided to go.  I felt confident that I could get a scalper's ticket.  It was easy in those days, and not too expensive.  I booked a flight and called up a friend from High School, Jay Blue who had relocated to Vancouver.  Jay generously offered me a place to stay for the three days I would be there.

Arriving in Van I discovered that a Who concert ticket  was the hottest item in town.  This was the same tour where fans tragically died in Cincinnati due to poor crowd control.  As a result, Vancouver officials had held a lottery for the tickets to be sold.  Each request chosen would be allowed to purchase four tickets.  700,000 requests for tickets were sent in.  If all the requests had been fulfilled that would have meant 2.8 million tickets.  The Vancouver Coliseum only held about 26,000.  I began to wonder how easy it would be to get a ticket.  Fortunately, I found one advertised in the paper and was able to get it for $65 which seemed like a lot of money for a concert ticket back then.

The day of the concert was warm and drizzily, typical Vancouver weather.  I had some breakfast nosh at a cafe with Jay and we caught up on news.  Later, I met her brother Dennis, an energetic social activist.

Got to the concert, found my seat and made friends with a neighbor who offered a small partaking of hash that mellowed, but did not drastically alter the reality spectrum for me.  The seats were high up off of stage right, Entwhistle's side of the stage.  After the warm-up band, Vancouver favorites that did nothing for me,The Who came out rockin' full force with Can't Explain (writing this, I realize I can't, but will still try) then went immediately into Substitute.   Almost from the start Daltry did his well known bit of throwing the SM 58 microphone, attached to an extra-long cable, as high up as he could and catching it.  During the guitar solo in Substitute the mic went sailing way over his head.  Without looking back, Daltry backpedaled, jumped up and grabbed it like a baseball outfielder reaching for a fly ball about to go over the fence.  In the process of this, he crashed into Entwhistle's bass cabinets and bounced off of them, carrying on as if nothing had happened.  The reason he was able to bounce back was that 3 roadies, seeing what was about to happen stationed themselves behind the cabinets and held them up as Daltry made contact.  I could hardly believe the teamwork involved that allowed Daltry to just go for it knowing the support would be there.   Also was amazed that these roadies were alert enough to follow the lead singer's every move and be there when he needed it.  I guess it wasn't the first time.

At that time I was just getting in to punk rock.  With their leather jackets, high energy, and bare bones stage set, The Who appeared the ultimate punk rockers but with elegance and class.  The first time Townsend did one of his trademark windmill guitar strokes, I felt energy rushing up my spine.  I was far from alone  judging by the crowd response.

One of the songs I did know before seeing The Kids Are Alright - the classic song of rebellion, Won't Get Fooled Again.  An early band I worked for used to play it and it became my favorite song from this band.  At the concert I picked up on something unnoticed before.  You can hear it in the studio version but it's not too obvious.  The band I worked for didn't include this nuance.  It comes after the line, I know that the hypnotized never lies, there's an instrumental break for about 16 bars then Townsend walks up to the mic and says, Do ya...  that woke me up a bit.

The sound was terrible except for Townsend's guitar sound which was incredible.  Stacks of Hiwatt amps lined the back of the stage cranked up to a godly volume.  I was too young to have seen Hendrix. so had never experienced a guitar player who incorporated feedback so well into their sound.  I remember a moment when he sustained a sound into feedback then hit the top of the guitar body with the palm of his hand and angled it forward slightly causing the pitch of the feedback to modulate up a 3rd.  He had absolute control over this massive sound.

It seemed like I was hearing the guitar right off the stage and that the rest of the PA was competing to be as loud as Townsend.  Shrieking transient feedback from Daltry's vocal mic periodically rang out for most of the show but it didn't bother me in the slightest.  At one point I was looking through my neighbor's opera glasses watching Entwhistle fluidly play his bass line but couldn't hear it at all.  The seat on one side was vacant so I moved over and then could barely hear it.  A little lesson in the relative nature of acoustics never to be forgotten. 

The song Who Are You, the title track off their last studio album, included a lengthy extended instrumental section.  Townsend manipulated and cleaned up his sound so that it almost sounded like he was playing an acoustic. He was doing some delicate, intricate soloing at a relatively soft volume that drew the attention in.  After going on in that manner for awhile, he paused, cranked up the guitar volume, and hit an incredibly dissonant chord nowhere near the key he'd just been in.  Another shocking moment that woke me up.

The gnosis came through in the song See Me, Feel Me.  It wasn't much of a dramatic moment when it started; wasn't that familiar with the song.  However, the end section where they start singing:

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

Right behind you, I see the millions
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinion
From you, I get the story

 kept building and building.  It felt like they repeated these lines endlessly and with each repetition it seemed a  higher harmony was added.  Looking back, it seems like they were climbing a ladder or a stairway of intensity.  Then, another shock - the house lights came on.  Suddenly the focus was no longer on the band, who kept singing and playing, but on the audience which is what they were singing about all along.  As I realized this, I had the experience of leaving the body and becoming incredibly huge in awareness as if  becoming everything in the building.  It didn't last that long maybe 20 - 30 seconds though it felt much longer.  I had the unmistakeable glimpse of something far beyond common perception.  

This song and it's presentation had a strong effect on everyone because when they stopped, people gave them a standing ovation, cheered and clapped as if it was the end of the concert and were calling for an encore.  No one wanted to stop expressing their appreciation this way.  Finally Townsend had to say, " alright, alright, that's enough, we're going to play some more.

That one experience has taken me far because it showed what's possible.  I speculate that most people have these spontaneous glimpses of enlightenment at some time in their life but write them off as a dream or hallucination.  In my opinion, this level of consciousness should be and can become the normal state of affairs.  The dream - maya, or samsara, as Eastern mystics call it, seems the ordinary consensual reality that puts a myraid of limitations on what we can do and become.

I also noted that this experience was deliberately, one could say magically, induced through a powerful combination of sound, light and good music generated by shamanically inspired artists.  It forever changed how I approached rock concerts.

I was buzzing with energy when the show let out and walked several miles back to Jay's apartment.


  1. Good stuff. Haven't had that kind of breakthrough experience through just a concert but did manage to see the Who once. Quadrophenia tour. A unique combination of 4 great musicians. so glad I got to see Keith Moon.
    A just remembered, a friend of mine had the experience of leaving his body and looking down on himself from above while listening to Kraftwerk. Hadnt partaken in any psychedelics either. Just happened spontaneously.

  2. Thanks tony. I wish I could have seen Moon drum. Kenny Jones was a good solid replacement for the show I saw, but definitely not the same.

  3. Yeah Moon was something else. He has such a wierd way of holding his sticks too, kind of first finger along the stick and hand bent down a bit at the wrist. But hey, whatever, he was brilliant.