Performer: The Who
Songwriter: Pete Townshend
Original Release: Tommy
Definitive Version: Starring The Who!, 1969. See above regarding Live at Woodstock, although Sparks doesn’t suffer as badly in comparison.
Just two days ago, I noted how Pete has a knack for finishing off his grandest compositions with a bang—what else would you expect from a band that always used to finish its shows by destroying everything on stage? So how does it come to pass that my favorite song by the most important rock band in my life is an obscure musical interlude?
Well, just watch a video of The Who playing this suite at Woodstock. It’s everything anyone who loves The Who loves about The Who.
If the bridge that connects this suite isn’t the heaviest, most gloriously feedback laced two minutes in rock history, I’d like you to show me something better. (Really, I would, except you can’t.) Then it morphs into the lighter—yet powerful—Sparks. Amazing Journey / Sparks shouldn’t really be this close to the top of anyone’s list, but the performance at Woodstock can’t be denied.
When I saw The Who’s performance of Sparks at Woodstock for the first time in The Kids Are Alright, my best friend was my best friend through junior high—Jim. We met in seventh grade and became friends through a mutual love of sports and parlor games.
Jim had a bit of a gambling problem, at least back then. The first time he came over to my house—not long before it was sold and we moved to the Condo—we bet on a few games of pool, which I won.
Mom was disappointed that I would take advantage of a friend, but I protested that it was his idea. Jim didn’t care that he lost. He just figured he’d get me back at some point. So, for the next two years, almost any time we did anything together—pinball, pingpong, pool--we’d bet on the outcome.
You probably never heard of Tooschball. As far as I can tell, it never made it out of Columbus, probably never made it out of Upper Arlington. Tooschball was like a combination of volleyball and putt-putt golf.
One day I came upon this funky structure that was out in the middle of a field across the street from where this computer business called Compuserve (yes, THAT Compuserve) had its offices. I think I was with Marty or Billy or both. Anyway, we noticed this thing, which appeared to be a large incline about 8–10 feet off the ground with several funky-shape blocks atop it and cement pavement that had unknown markings underneath it.
In our boredom, we invented this game called Garageball, where we’d essentially play volleyball but tap or catch and toss a kickball onto the large carport garage that was part of Billy’s condominium complex. It seemed this structure could be used for the same thing.
We were playing there one day when a guy came out of the office and asked what we were up to. Instead of running, we told him, and he said, hey, let me show you how to play Tooschball. Uhh … OK. It was essentially the same game but with a few more rules. He kicked our butts pretty good (as you might expect) and said we should come out next weekend, because there was going to be a tooschball tournament here.
I went, and about two to three dozen people showed up, including a local TV station news team. I bought an official long-sleeve Tooschball T-shirt and ball—both bright orange—for about 10 bucks. It turned out that the guy who showed us the proper way to play was actually the champion of the sport. Might as well learn from the best, I always say.
Not long after that, I taught Jim the game, and literally five minutes after he learned the rules, he said, OK, let’s bet. Oh Jeez …
Jim later introduced ME to a game, one that was far bigger—racquetball. He was a member at Supreme Court, which wasn’t far from where I lived, and he took me to play one night. I LOVED it.
Dad played tennis, so at an early age, I’d taken up the game a bit, but that all went away as soon as I discovered racquetball. I loved that you could hit the ball anywhere—off the side walls, the back wall, the ceiling. It seemed faster paced and far more interesting … and more forgiving than tennis if you mishit.
It wasn’t long before I was a member of Supreme Court, which made it less expensive to play, and Jim and I played a lot as junior high turned into high school. We played one memorable night in February 1980 at a time when my love of Sparks was in full bloom.
I used to be a huge fan of the Olympics, but the break up of the Soviet Union, which was a natural rival, and the rise of professionalism wiped that out. The tipping point was the Dream Team in 1992. What once had been an exciting event where the outcome was anything but a foregone conclusion became just a boring exhibition. The U.S. team was TOO good.
But that wasn’t the case in 1980 when a hockey team of unknown college players got on the roll of a lifetime. Everyone jumped on the hockey bandwagon, and when the U.S. made the medal round, they got the Soviet juggernaut in the semifinal. The game would be broadcast that night, and, of course, I and everyone I knew would be watching.
Jim and I had scheduled an hour of racquetball that day after school, and by the time we got to the courts, I knew the score was 2-2 after one period. As we left, Jim said a guy in the lobby said he’d heard that the Americans won, 4-3. No way! I couldn’t wait to get home and watch.
What’s fascinating about this is that, yes, the biggest hockey game in U.S. history was in fact shown on tape delay. It wasn’t live. Back then, the game was played in the afternoon, and ABC just figured it could show the game during primetime to get better ratings without anyone knowing the outcome. Can anyone imagine that that would be acceptable now?
Sure enough, the guy at Supreme was right: The U.S. won, miraculously, 4-3. My favorite part was how Jim McKay in the studio, smiling his butt off, kept promising that he wouldn’t tell us who won … even though over his shoulder was a shot of people in the streets of Lake Placid going absolutely nuts. Yeah, gee, Jim, I really wonder who won …
The 1980 Winter Olympics actually ties into this here song suite. At one point, ABC showed a story about the dangers of bobsledding. The background music was Sparks, from the Tommy studio album. Sparks and the Miracle on Ice became forever entwined in my head, just like Jim and gambling.
So how did that all end anyway? A year before those Olympics, Jim’s debt to me reached $1,200. That’s no exaggeration. He got into a hole early, and instead of paying me off—he had a good-paying paper route, after all—he kept asking for double or nothing. I didn’t care, because I never was in position to be out money. OK. He kept losing.
Although I liked the idea of having a lot of money coming my way, I knew that much debt wasn’t ultimately good for our friendship. Finally, I stopped betting unless I thought there was a good chance he’d win to chip away some of the total.
One day in ninth-grade drafting class, Jim was talking smack about making a shot across the room into the wastebasket. He was so sure he’d make it, he said, “double or nothing.”
Normally I didn’t bet on something I didn’t have a hand in controlling the outcome, which is why I had Jim in such a big hole to begin with, but this had to end. I was fine if it ended here. Fine, I said. He drained it.
Jim was ecstatic at leveling his account and mocked me a bit when I said I was glad for him. I knew he never was going to pay me off anyway—he would have already if that had been his intention—so I WAS glad to be done with all of that.
And that was the end. Jim and I remained friends, albeit not as close, through college, but after that day in drafting class, we never bet on anything again.