Pete 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.
Silver Tongues – “Black Kite” (2011, Karate Body)
Louisville’s hidden treasure Silver Tongues, and their debut album Black Kite, serve as a glorious throwback to classic rock bands, where a debut album could freely experiment by dabbling in multiple genres. Today’s bands so frequently have to hit the ball out of the park on the first try and then repeat the success or fail to gain traction in the business, but Silver Tongues seem to take pleasure in twisting listeners’ expectations. There’s nothing taken for granted, and it’s not as if the band’s taking unnecessary risks with their musical direction. They’re just willing to admit that, when a band’s getting its feet wet, sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than pushing the envelope and trying a variety of sounds. And with an independent label backing them up, it’s a safe bet they’ll get the chance to build their musical reputation on their own terms. This is the work of a band which may not find its “hit” until a third or fourth album, but give them that time to grow and the rewards will be immesurable.
Not that I’m saying their songs aren’t worthy of wide exposure, because that would be a mistake. “Wet Dawg” sounds like Kings of Leon if they actually dared to let a song speak for itself rather than burying the lead in a mess of pseudo-pop trappings. What makes it clear Silver Tongues is worth supporting is their ability to transform the song into an addictive live gem. I was lucky enough to catch the band live at Headliners in Louisville back in January and, even as a co-opening act playing before the supposed “big draw,” they immediately roped the crowd in with a live performance which showcased the music above the hype. There’s plenty of pop hook buried in there to keep the songs reverberating in your head, but that the band’s out there working the road and building these songs in a live setting as well proves they’re not happy merely letting the studio versions speak for themselves.
Speaking to the album’s quality, however, is the fact that every song plays its role in the cohesion one finds immediately appealing about Black Kite. “Warsaw” would be perfectly at home on a Coldplay album, with its frantic string backdrop, but the vocals are pure seventies classic rock, with layered harmonies and an arrangement coupled with a slow-build climax which is immediately accessable and repeatedly listenable. The album’s opener, “Highways,” has an unforgettable backdrop of organ drone and handclaps-meet-bass-drum percussion, providing a thunderous reason to immediately fall in love with what the band has to offer. And the album’s title track, “Black Kite,” and the beautifully melodic “Hope For” manage to successfully bridge the gap between bands like Mumford and Sons, with the ethereal vocals and simple acoustic arrangements, and today’s more modern pop-leaning bands where the hook comes first above all else.
The result is a nine-track album which plays well both as a coherent, well developed debut and a template for a band willing to push its exploratory envelope in pursuit of a long-term career. Black Kite came out too late in 2011 to make my list of best albums of that calendar year, but it has already won a place in my heart as one of the most interesting efforts I’ve heard during this one. I expect to hear big things from this band; like the Black Keys before them, they seem destined to build a respectable basis for long term success on their early indie records. And with the right push, they’d seem poised to have a similar mainstream breakthrough once their material has time to develop to its full potential. Put simply, Silver Tongues is a keeper, and their impressive debut has legitimate heft and staying power. You won’t want to miss it!
A recent Rolling Stone article brought to the forefront the horrifying fact that a #1 rock hit reaches only 13 million listeners, compared to 138 million reached by top 40 pop hits. That, coupled with thousands of DJ layoffs across the country and stations switching allegiances, leaving several cities without a rock station at all, continues to prove that rock radio is dying a slow painful death.
That said, Radio Moscow arrives to give us all a wondrous flashback to the prog-rock and psychedelia of the late 60s and early 70s, when bands actually dared to have a rhythm section, an understanding of the blues and the willingness to push the envelope from album to album. Their latest album, The Great Escape of Leslie Magnafuzz, would be a rock radio wet dream if there were rock stations left to give new bands a push. “Little Eyes” is a prime example of what makes the band work, featuring the best elements of Zeppelin, Hendrix and Clapton shoehorned into a song so ear-crunchingly raw it’s positively refreshing.
Without rock radio DJs to help give bands like them the push they deserve, it is up to us on the Internet to show that great rock music isn’t dead and gone. Even with just a cursory listen I think you’ll agree, Radio Moscow’s got its fingers on the trigger of what rock fans need as we head into 2012.