The Who’s 1973 album Quadrophenia: the one to save if I could only save one
The beach is a place where a man can feel
He’s the only soul in the world that’s real
Years ago, when I was much younger and possessed much less, I had far fewer albums. Which was OK, because I didn’t need many.
I had The Who’s Quadrophenia.
Today albums and CDs are spread in the front room and climb the walls as if they were Bougainvillea in the courtyard. Quadrophenia is filed amidst 30 albums — best hits, live albums and solo albums, records and CDs — by The Who or Pete Townshend or Roger Daltrey or even the late John Entwistle, in a compartment that has seven times as many albums, in a wall unit that has 10 times as many as that. Quadrophenia rarely gets played any more, but it’s still in my head.
I’ve been thinking of Quadrophenia and The Who and what makes a favorite album, because the latter — the half that’s left of it — began a tour this month that features the former, all 81 minutes of it. How stable are our tastes? Stable enough that I have my ticket.
From the liner notes: “I had to go to this psychiatrist every week. Every Monday. He never really knew what was wrong with me. He said I wasn’t mad or anything. He said there’s no such thing as madness. I told him he should try standing in a queue at Brantford football ground on a Saturday morning. I thought it might change his mind. My dad put it another way. He said I changed like the weather. One minute I’d be a tearaway, next minute all soppy and swoony over some bird. Schizophrenia, he called it. Nutty, my mom called it.”
For months at a time all those years ago Quadrophenia was the only record I listened to; it never came off the turntable. Life is simpler, in some ways, when you’re 21.
If I got tired of Quadrophenia, I turned it over, and listened to the new side for months more. I could set the calendar to it — it has four seasons and the album has four sides.
I thought I knew every beat, every note, every word with an English accent, every pitch, every switch of every part of the album, the way a classic car owner knows every contour of his vehicle.
I’m not sure why its coming-of-age angst resonated so strongly. I felt aimless, even if I wasn’t, and unsure, which I was. “I should be more careful what I say,” Daltrey sang in Dirty Jobs. I meant to be, even if I never was (and still am not).
“(Quadrophenia) is easy to understand,” said the singer Daltrey in an interview on thewho.com when the tour was announced. “It’s that period of your life when you’re going through adolescence and you’re trying to find out who you are. Hopefully you get to that point quite soon after your teens. Obviously some people would get into their 30s before they get there. Maybe even their 70s. That kind of story doesn’t change.”
I didn’t know that then, of course. Who does? Looking back at what is a now a blip in a longer life, I was overwrought and overly dramatic. Quadrophenia was the Xanax of young adulthood.
I took it off the turntable only to pack it when I entered a transient stage, and I stopped playing it probably because it was too much trouble to unpack. My tastes evolved to other genres and other artists and soon I had a few hundred albums and a few hundred more.
I found some stability — a job, then a better job; a place of residence, routines, eventually a wife and a son who’s now about as tall as I am — and if I felt the urge to play Quadrophenia, it was typically only at what Charles Pierce calls the whiskey hour. You can’t play Quadrophenia when yours is the only light on in the building, because it’s an album meant to be played at high volume. Playing Quadrophenia with the sound down is like reading a Shakespeare play without one of the characters. It’s not the same without the context.
I am a young man
I ain’t done very much,
You men should remember how we used to fight.
Just like a child, I’ve been seeing only dreams,
I’m all mixed up but I know what’s right.”
Years passed, and as Pink Floyd sang, 10 years had got behind. And then another 10 and another 10. The sportswriter Joe Posnanski, in a beautiful essay on baseball and Bruce Springsteen, wrote that he listens to Born To Run “probably 25 times a year,” to sing along with a certain part of the song. I realized I probably haven’t played Quadrophenia 25 times in the last 25 years.
But I get JoePos’ point; I sing along with Born to Run when I hear it, too. (Unlike Quadrophenia, JoePos doesn’t have to seek out Born to Run. Springsteen has his own station on Sirius and there’s a world full of classic rock stations where Born to Run is never more than a few commercial breaks away).
Music is subjective. I’m sure somebody loves Sad Songs Say So Much, but I’m not sure there’s anything sadder than the knowledge Elton John wrote it. And I learned to identify FM by Steely Dan, a tandem I grew to love even more than The Who, in two notes or less, the sooner to be rid of it (of course, sometimes it’s a false alarm and it’s Josie, a more palatable song, which only sounds like FM, by the same group).
Quadrophenia was a perfect storm of an album — Townshend’s lyrics, Daltrey’s voice, Keith Moon’s drumming, a message you weren’t alone at being alone. “The songs are so superb,” Daltrey said. “But they come from a very deep space within the psyche.”
A lot changes in 35 years — the artist’s perception, the listener’s, all of ours. Townshend wasn’t yet 30 when he wrote Quadrophenia — he’s lived longer after he wrote it than before, and the world he wrote it for, the world one was disconnected from then, has changed. Or has it?
“I think if you’re one of those people that gets left out of the loop somehow, if you can’t do twitter, God you must feel pretty lonely,” Townshend said in the interview at thewho.com. “This is about a young man who doesn’t fit in, that’s all.
“Everybody are now starting to communicate through texting, through emails, through Facebook, through all kinds of social media. And one of the difficulties with that is if it’s not a place where you can be absolutely authentic to yourself, you will have great difficulty when you try to, in a sense, mature, grow . . .
“And that’s what Quadrophenia is about. It’s this young man who realizes that he hasn’t quite managed to solve the problems of growing up and what he has to do is he has to sit and offer up to the universe and that’s all he can do. And I can well imagine that there are young people all over the planet at the moment coming to that point in their life, where they put their computer aside and they just try to sit with themselves and find out what does it feel like to sit in the rain and pray? I don’t know. I can imagine it’s happening everywhere.”
Townshend is 67, Daltrey 68, performing a great album of youthful discontent. Half the original band is dead. There’s an irony there, and a contradiction that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Perhaps Townshend’s points are correct, but are Townshend and Daltrey, with their decades-old album, the people who should lead that musical charge?” asked Nancy Dunham at ourstage.com. “It seems sad that a band that helped lead the British Invasion, that, in Townshend’s words, struck a blow for creativity and against authority, is seemingly trying to wring a bit more out of one of their most beloved albums . . .
“Quadrophenia was magic at one time. For certain fans, it will be nice to remember that time with the band’s two musical geniuses Daltrey and Townshend.
“But, truly, the time of Quadrophenia magic has passed.”
Has it? Perhaps. I’ve seen The Who live three times — the first on their farewell tour in New York 1982, 30 years ago with The Clash opening, then a few years later in Philadelphia, and a few years after that in Florida, before a half-empty arena, about half of whom appeared half-bored, seemingly more concerned with what to pay the babysitter than what The Who played for their encore.
I’m not sure what to expect from The Who as senior citizens, but I’m closer in age to them now than the age they were when they first released the album. The group that produced Quadrophenia and once wished to die before it got old, now sells cars, is the soundtrack to the World Series and CSI and performs at the Olympics and the Super Bowl. How much more establishment could they be.
And yet I’ve got my ticket, and a sense of excitement that’s not nostalgia. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the music for what it is — great songs, not salvation.
sources: The who.com, our.stagecom