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Book Review

Who I Am: Pete Townshend’s refreshingly candid biography deconstructs Tommy and his entire career

Townshend

Who I AmPete Townshend’s Who I Am proves that a rock autobiography can exist as more than just revisionist history, actually examining in detail what made the music matter, not just to us as listeners but to the artist as creator. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as Townshend built his reputation as a songwriter intensely obsessed with the idea that music needed artistic ambition in order to provide listeners with anything of consequence.

The book is a must-read, if anything for the honest discussion of the creative process behind Tommy, and “Pinball Wizard” in particular. When critic Nik Cohn of the Guardian commented to Townshend that the opera behind Tommy was good, but the music itself suffered from humorless bloat, Townshend reimagined his Meher Baba-esque protagonist as more than just a “divine musician, [who] felt vibrations as music and made music in the hearts of his followers,” [p.161] re-casting Tommy as a pinball wizard, shifting the concept into the realm of potential absurdity. His argument illustrates the need for any artist worth his salt to be willing to trust his instincts, even in the face of potentially profound threats of failure:

I made a huge leap into the absurd when I decided that the hero would play pinball while still deaf, dumb and blind. It was daft, flawed and muddled, but also insolent, liberated and adventurous. I had no doubt whatsoever that if I had failed to deliver The Who an operatic masterpiece that would change people’s lives, with ‘Pinball Wizard’ I was giving them something almost as good: a hit. [p. 162]

Proving his willingness to shift the direction of the title character, Townshend built beyond mere cliché, developing his avatar’s concept of “God playing marbles with the universe,” using the pinball element to echo the theological underpinings of Meher Baba’s message.

Incidentally, though the character drew derision upon the albums initial release from members of the British music press who called Townshend’s creation of a blind, deaf and mute protagonist “sick,” my favorite anecdote from Who I Am illustrates how Townshend’s deft characterization had a profound affect on his listeners. Roland Kirk, the legendary blind jazz improvisationalist, responded dramatically when he first heard Tommy performed live:

After we had performed …, I stood exhausted in the dressing room as Roland Kirk pushed his way in shouting, ‘Where is that little white motherfucking dude that wrote the thing about the deaf, dumb and blind kid?’ I stayed quiet, but he heard me breathing, came over to me and gave me a hug.

‘You don’t know what it’s like man, but you gave us blind folk our own opera thing at last! But I ain’t dumb, and I ain’t deaf.’

Roland Kirk taught me that when musicians pay respects they don’t always do it with claps and hugs or fan letters. Sometimes they merely listen. If they happen to be blind, they listen with acuity. [p. 170]

Who I Am proves Townshend is equally capable of writing with acuity, assessing his career as honestly as one can through fifty years of rearview mirror. It is a distinctly interesting additon to the band’s canon, shining a light on the process behind the songs we’ve grown to love. Of all the amazing rock bios published in 2012, this should top your “must-read” list.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jay-Z – “Decoded”

Jay-Z Decoded

Jay-Z: Decoded

If you really want a great read that gives a ridiculous amount of “I was there” insight into the development of hip hop as a lyrical artform, you’ve got to pick up a copy of Shaun Carter (a.ka. Jay-Z)’s new book, “Decoded.” Carter uses the book to tell the story of hip-hop as it developed through his life, through his own lyrics, setting the scene for various topics of discussion by using his own music as examples. He describes the writing of the songs from the ground up, then uses the lyrics as full-on examples of his writing process, illustrating the meaning behind some of his incredibly complicated lyrics – which were designed, as he puts it, not to be digested on a single listen. You’re always going to get more from artistic hip hop by listening between the lines.

As an example, here’s some of his intriguing discussion of the meaning behind his huge hit “99 Problems,” and how his original intent was usurped by lazy critics who never bothered to listen beyond the first instance of the word “bitch.”

“99 Problems” is a good song to use to talk about the difference between the art of rap and the artlessness of some of its critics. It’s a song that takes real events and reimagines them. It’s a narrative with a purposefully ambiguous ending. And the hook itself – 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one – is a joke, bait for lazy critics. At no point in the song am I talking about a girl. The chorus really makes that clear if you bother listening: the obvious point of the chorus is that I was’t talking about women. It almost makes my head hurt to think that people could hear that and twist its meaning the full 180 degrees. But even as I was recording it, I knew someone, somewhere, would say “Aha, there he goes talking about them hoes and bitches again!” And strangely, this struck me as being deeply funny. I couldn’t wait to release it as a single.”

- Carter, Shaun. Decoded. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2010, p.56

Check out the video below, and then the full lyrics. And get this book! It’s a must-read for anyone who claims to be interested in the genesis of hip hop and the creative process behind the music of the genre’s most talented lyricists, as told by one of hip-hop’s true legends.

99 PROBLEMS
by Jay-Z

from The Black Album (2003)

 

If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one

[Verse One]
I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that wanna make sure my casket’s closed
Rap critics that say he’s “Money Cash Hoes”
I’m from the hood stupid what type of facts are those
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You’d celebrate the minute you was having doe
I’m like fuck critics you can kiss my whole asshole
If you don’t like my lyrics you can press fast forward
Got beef with radio if I don’t play they show
They don’t play my hits well I don’t give a shit SO
Rap mags try and use my black ass
So advertisers can give em more cash for ads…fuckers
I don’t know what you take me as
or understand the intelligence that Jay-Z has
I’m from rags to riches nigga I ain’t dumb
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one
Hit me

[Chorus]
99 Problems but a bitch ain’t one
If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one
Hit me

[Verse Two]
The year is ’94 and in my trunk is raw
In my rear view mirror is the mother fucking law
I got two choices y’all pull over the car or
bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor
Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with Jake
Plus I got a few dollars I can fight the case
So I…pull over to the side of the road
And I heard “Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?”
Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low
Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo?
“Well you was doing fifty five in a fifty four”
“License and registration and step out of the car”
“Are you carrying a weapon on you I know alot of you are”
I ain’t stepping out of shit all my papers legit
“Do you mind if I look round the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked so is the trunk and the back
And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that
“Aren’t you sharp as a tack are some type of lawyer or something?”
“Or somebody important or something?”
Nah I ain’t pass the bar but I know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit
“Well see how smart you are when the K-9′s come”
I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one
Hit me

[Chorus X2]

[Verse Three]
Now once upon a time not too long ago
A nigga like myself had to strong arm a hoe
This is not a hoe in the sense of having a pussy
But a pussy having no God Damn sense, try and push me
I tried to ignore him and talk to the Lord
Pray for him, cause some fools just love to perform
You know the type loud as a motor bike
But wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight
The only thing that’s gonna happen is i’mma get to clapping
He and his boys gon’ be yapping to the captain
And there I go trapped in the kit kat again
Back through the system with the riff raff again
Fiends on the floor scratching again
Paparazzi’s with they cameras snapping them
D.A. tried to give the nigga the shaft again
Half-a-mil for bail cause I’m African
All because this fool was harassin’ them
Trying to play the boy like hes saccharin
But ain’t nothing sweet ’bout how I hold my gun
I got 99 problems but being a bitch ain’t one
Hit me

[Chorus X3]

You’re crazy for this one Rick
It’s your boy