Thursday, May 1, 2014

No. 35 – I Am the Sea / The Real Me / Quadrophenia

Performer: The Who
Songwriter: Pete Townshend
Original Release: Quadrophenia
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: The studio version.

From here on, nearly half of the songs on this here list are more than 10 minutes long. You have been forewarned. This song suite, of course, is the overture of my favorite album of all time. No further explanation for its position on this list ought to be necessary.

When it was announced that Pete Townshend was going to reform The Who in 1996 to play all of Quadrophenia at a special charity event for The Prince’s Trust in London, I couldn’t have been more excited. My excitement wasn’t just that it was going to happen at all but that it meant—possibly—that The Who would bring it to the United States at some point after.

Quadrophenia, aside from being my favorite album, also was legendary in that, unlike Tommy, The Who couldn’t quite pull it off on stage back in their heyday. The synths were all on backing tracks, and it ended up being a technical and logistical nightmare. The tour was, in short, a disaster that nearly broke up the band, and it led to constant frustration from Pete that he couldn’t pull it off. But now that The Who were freed from the constraints of being merely a four-piece band with no keyboard player, Pete wanted to try it again.

The show in Hyde Park in London was a bit of a mess but successful enough that Pete brought it to New York City for a run of shows in July 1996. Jin and Scott went and invited me to go with them. I declined.

This was a tactical decision, and I knew when I made it I was taking a risk like the one that cost me a chance to see Nirvana live (good ol’ ol’ ol’ No. 988). There was no guarantee that The Who would mount a tour of Quadrophenia that would come anywhere near Columbus. But Debbie didn’t want to go to New York for a concert, and I guess I didn’t want to go by myself. When the reports came in of how epic the show had been, I wondered if I would have a second major musical regret.

I didn’t. Soon after, The Who announced they were going to tour Quadrophenia in fall 1996, stopping in Cleveland in November. My strategy paid off this off.

Scott, now in the midst of a ticket-buying run that was unstoppable, drove over to Indiana the day tickets went on sale. Because he was the only one in line for a show that went on sale in Ohio, he scored great seats.

How great were the tickets? We were in about the 20th row on the floor in Gund Arena downtown when we showed up for the opening act, which was billed as The Heads—the three Talking Heads minus the most important one, plus Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde fame.

Better than that, just before The Who hit the stage, I recognized Wags and Elliott—a well-known longtime DJ team at Columbus’ big station, Q-FM—coming down the steps of the lower bowl. They were about even from us as far as distance from the stage, but they stopped in the lower bowl.

I assumed that they had radio station promo tickets—freebies. I turned to Scott: Check it out. Our seats are better than Wags and Elliott’s. He got a kick out of that. Then it was time for the lights to go down.

Pearl Jam in 1994 was the best concert I ever saw. If I hadn’t seen that show, then The Who in Gund Arena in November 1996 would be at the top of my list. Unlike in 1989, which was great just because we were there, this time The Who played with purpose—Pete wanted to reclaim this opera once and for all—and they brought the fire. Doug, my music writer buddy still in Flint, agreed with my assessment when he saw them in Detroit.

And, of course, it was Quadrophenia, start to finish and everything in between. The moment the ocean made its appearance in crashing waves on the screen behind the stage to start I Am the Sea was something I’ll never forget. Nor will I forget when, after playing acoustic all night, Pete strapped on the Fender electric during The Rock and even whipped through a windmill near the end.

The only thing I didn’t like was that The Who broke up The Real Me and Quadrophenia for a bit of narration by Jimmy. Those songs have to flow together like they do on the album. So, it wasn’t perfect … but it was close.

Of course, The Who have toured several times since. They even remounted Quadrophenia a year ago. I’ve had no interest in seeing them, even though Jin has and said the shows were great. That might well be, but 1996 was so fantastic, I saw no reason to go again for reasons of nostalgia. Better to have my lasting final image of The Who—the most important band in my musical canon—be that of them playing Quadrophenia successfully for the first time. Without a time machine, you can't top that.

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