Thursday, November 1, 2007

Suprise Saints of My Generation: The Who

When I was a kid it confused and bothered me that All Saints’ Day comes before All Souls. I knew that Halloween was the vigil of a commemoration of the dead, and I didn’t understand how it could leap over this Saints thing.

Then it became more clear that the “hallowed” of all Hallows Eve means holy or sacred, and that the ordinary people had to wait one more day for their do. Fine. That makes it doubly fitting to talk about The Who on All Saints' Day—-they are many things, and ordinary isn’t one of them.

I had the thrill of seeing the premiere of the new biodoc about them, Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, at the Paley Center for Media on Tuesday night, as part of their annual documentary festival. Besides the film itself, the thrill was having Roger Daltrey and Chris Stamp, their co-manager until 1973, in the audience.

It is an engaging, satisfying documentary. The story threads of the individuals are strong and easy to follow, and there’s enough performance footage to balance the talking heads. Luckily, the main talking heads are Daltrey, Townshend, and Stamp, so your attention does not drift. The filmmakers—-a team of Nigel Sinclair (No Direction Home: Bob Dylan) and Robert Rosenberg, executive producer Bill Curbishley, and directors Paul Crowder (Once In a Lifetime) and Murray Lerner—-have found amazing footage of the band when they were the High Numbers, among other rarities.

There are many highlights, but the absolute standout moment is the footage of the group performing at the Concert for New York in Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001.

I had not seen that concert on tv, so it was a fresh, immediate experience for me here. The defiant downbeat to the unmistakable undulating A and D chords. Sublime tension drawn out . . . drawn out . . . drawn out, until the next merciful, scalding downbeat release:

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Said our judgments were all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Townshend is on fire, Entwistle is planted firm, and Daltrey’s voice is strong, certain

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray


The primal scream, now taking on meaning informed by the murder of 3,000 people.

The theater-sized screen, the souped-up sound system, the sheer power and brilliance of that performance: the Paley Center crowd broke into applause as the last chord rang out, even jaded first-nighters roused by reliving this painful, extraordinary moment in time. The filmmakers seemed to know instinctively to let this performance footage be the longest in the whole film.

In the panel discussion afterward, Daltrey said that it was Pete who decided that they would do rock ‘n’ roll, that others might be doing more gentle, “healing” songs, but he wanted to rock the place down.

And that’s why they are in my thoughts this sainted day, as the Church encourages acknowledging the saints we know in our daily lives outside of the litany.

Townshend & co. offered back to a shattered, grieving, stunned city the comfort of certainty. His music is in the DNA of at least 2 generations. The angst, the longing in his chords—the anger, the rebellion, the exuberance: THIS IS WHO WE FUCKING ARE. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll—it’s part of life. And a particularly American life.

We had just been attacked, in part, because of those values. Because a fundamentalist viewpoint sees the decadent West that must be destroyed.

But Pete, and Roger, and John pushed back as only they could and said NO. You can’t kill us---we will go on stronger, and longer, and louder. And we were all raised up then, and now in the rewatching, by the blistering, insistent, inspired performance of their anthem. Deo Gratia.


Tim Footman said...

Like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, healing the US after Kennedy was shot.

See, you chucked the tea in the harbour, but you need us when things get really grim...

M.A.Peel said...

Yes, there may be something to the comfort of Mother England thing.

It was organized by Paul McCartney, and besides The Who had Bowie, Elton John, Jagger and Richards, Eric Clapton, and a couple of Americans. Hmm.

Tim Footman said...

So why couldn't Tony have just said, look, we organised that concert to cheer you up, isn't that enough? No, he had to follow the monkeyboy into the desert...