LP Review: Pete Townshend’s ‘Who Came First (Deluxe Edition)

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“They call me the seeker, I’ve been searchin’ low and high, I won’t get to get what I’m after, til the day I die…” – “The Seeker” by the Who, written by Pete Townshend

A momentous event happened in the United Kingdom last Saturday, May 19th. The event wasn’t really contained to the UK, it was something the entire world celebrated. Lead guitarist, 2nd vocalist, and main composer of the Who, Pete Townshend had his 73rd birthday this last Saturday. Oh, yeah, and some other young “Royal” couple got married over in the UK too… I forget their names. I thought I would celebrate by focusing a little attention on his first solo album, Who Came First which was recently released in a “Deluxe Edition,” with some additional music. It seems Pete’s first solo album is a lot like the Who’s album Odds and Sods, which seems to get longer and longer with each release. When I first bought Odds and Sods it was because I loved the songs “Long Live Rock” and “Naked Eye,” (and I bought it on vinyl), and it was only 11 songs long. I recently repurchased it in a digital format and it has 23 songs now.

When a member of an established act, especially an act the magnitude of the Who, releases a solo album it can be fraught with all sorts of expectations and drama. It really shouldn’t be surrounded with all that bullshit, typically an artist just wants to change it up a bit. Working with the same musicians can probably get boring. The usual fear when someone releases a solo album is, will the group he’s in break up? Often it can definitely be a sign a band is breaking up. When Sting released his first solo album it spelled the end for all of us hoping the Police would get back together. Typically you don’t even see a solo album from somebody until well after their main group has broken up. The Beatles all found different sorts of drama facing each of their early solo releases. They all reacted in different ways – Paul went literally solo and recorded a quiet little record at home all by himself while George Harrison put out an epic three album long mini-box set. Even more evidence those guys were all headed in different directions.

Somehow, it seems, in 1972 Pete Townshend didn’t face any of that drama. The Who were coming off their greatest commercial success, 1971’s Who’s Next, and nobody seems to have freaked out about Pete doing a solo album. In fact, if I’d been asked as late as college, what Pete Townshend’s first solo album was, I’d have answered with the complete conviction of a religious convert that it was 1980’s superb Empty Glass. I bought that album on cassette so I could listen to it in my car. It remains to this day one of my favorite albums. “Rough Boys,” “Let My Love Open The Door,” (which was a song about God), and “Gonna Get Ya” were all given heavy rotation on local radio. Each of those songs are amongst Townshend’s best. It wasn’t until college that I discovered, probably at the used record store, that there’d been this earlier record.

As evidenced by one of the Who’s earliest songs, quoted above, “The Seeker,” Pete Townshend was a spiritual searcher of sorts. He eventually discovered Meher Baba, a guru from India. The 60s were an interesting time. Everybody was looking for a spiritual leader. LSD and other hallucinative drugs were opening everybody’s mind. Even the Beatles famously traveled to India to spend time with the Maharishi… although it seems that stuff only stuck with George. Meher Baba, ironically was the first spiritual teacher in the 60s who thought psychedelic drugs were bad. Townshend was a big convert… You might recognize Baba’s last name as it’s part of the title of one of the Who’s biggest songs, “Baba O’Riley” named for Meher and Tim Riley, a minimalist conductor Townshend admired… and to think for years we all thought that song was named “Teenage Wasteland.” Another early convert was Ronnie Lane, bass player for my beloved Faces and he and Townshend became very good friends.

In honor of Meher, Townshend had recorded a few small, barely released albums as gifts to Baba. Neither was circulated widely, but they were being bootlegged. The record company finally came to Townshend and asked if he would put them together for official release. These recordings, which were never meant to be for widespread consumption are homespun affairs. They’re mostly acoustic, although most are fully realized songs, these aren’t demos. Years later, Townshend acolyte Eddie Vedder would site Who Came First as his template for his first solo album, the soundtrack for Into the Wild. I had never really heard much of this album except songs that were later released on greatest hits packages. One of my favorites was “Sheraton Gibson” a song about being a musician on the road… in Cleveland no less. I’d also heard Townshend’s early version of “Lets See Action,” but I do like the Who’s fully realized version more. I’d also heard the superb “Parvardigar” which was just a beautiful song.

When I saw that there was this new deluxe version of Who Came First I finally, belatedly, sat down with this record. As I said, it’s a quiet little acoustic album, but what I really liked is that it’s a spiritual statement. Well, it’s certainly Pete’s spiritual statement. If we’re going to celebrate Dylan’s “Christian Period” (Review: Bob Dylan’s ‘Trouble No More: Bootleg Series Vol 13, (Deluxe Edition)) why not celebrate Townshend’s Baba period. The original album is full of songs about contentment (which is a lovely statement of purpose here), “Content” and spiritual joy, “Parvardigar.” “Time Is Passing” is probably my favorite song here. It’s a brilliant track. “Pure And Easy” which the Who finally got around to doing, is here in an early form, but the Who tracks aren’t the best ones. The only weird tune is a country cover, “There’s a Heartache Following Me” recorded because it was a favorite of Baba’s. Ronnie Lane even shows up and redoes “Stone” from the Faces’ first album as “Evolution.”

The deluxe edition brings some early and alternative versions of songs from the original, but it also has other, what I would deem critical tracks. “His Hands” and “Meher In Italy” are both beautiful acoustic instrumentals. There’s an acoustic version of the Who’s “The Seeker” that rivals the original. “Day of Silence” is driven by a cool harmonica. “I Always Say” is a nice bluesy change of pace. “Begin the Beguine” has a loungey vibe.  I really liked “The Love Man” and “There’s a Fortune In Those Hills.” There’s an early version of “Baba O’Riley” as an instrumental that clocks in at almost 10 minutes. I think it’s getting the most attention, but it’s a nice to have song, if you’re a completist, but it’s certainly not essential. Townshend even does his old friend Lane a solid and adds a live version of him doing Lane’s “Evolution” at a tribute show for Ronnie Lane.

While this album is probably only for completist and Who or Pete Townshend nuts like me, I was really taken with this album. The deluxe material is definitely worth investigating even if you’re one of the few who have the original. I just wish Townshend felt this moved today and put out something new.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Classic Album Sunday: John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’

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Sunday I had to pleasure to once again leave the confines of my home and slip down to the Waldo area of Kansas City. In the back room of the fabulous Waldo Pizza, I found a small crowd huddled together like early Christians, sharing tables, food and drink. All of these people had come together on a unseasonably warm and beautiful Sunday to huddle in a dark room and listen to vinyl. I couldn’t help but think, “these are my people.” I was struck by the diversity of the crowd. The demographics cut across race, age, and gender.

Yesterday’s Classic Album was the amazing selection, “A Love Supreme” by the genius John Coltrane. I enjoyed yesterday almost more than I did the Led Zeppelin “Houses of the Holy” session I attended a month ago (which was my first CASunday). After we’d heard Coltrane’s masterwork the host for the day mentioned that some of us in the crowd had likely never heard the entire album from start to finish. He wasn’t asking for a show of a hands for the uninitiated, but I raised my hand, thus was my awe and excitement at having heard Coltrane’s quartet’s virtuoso playing for the first time. I’m ashamed to admit that when it comes to music, I have a bit of a jazz blindspot. I never thought I was smart enough for jazz. Don’t get me wrong, I love to go to a club and hear live jazz, but I never knew what albums to buy, which artists were key etc. I mean, I knew Coltrane and Miles Davis but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.

That’s what made yesterday’s CAS that much better for me: I learned something new. I looked across a pizza and beer strewn table at my friend Doug and said, I know this much about jazz and held my fingers about an inch apart. In the three hours we were there I learned more about jazz than I had known in my entire lifetime prior. A lot of credit must be given to Teddy Dibble who was our guest speaker for the afternoon. Teddy’s depth of knowledge about jazz and Coltrane specifically was great, but what made yesterday so special was the passion with which Teddy spoke about the music and the man. There was a song they played, “Alabama” that may be my new favorite jazz song. Teddy teared up as he read his pre song notes for that song. A moving moment indeed. Never underestimate the power of music on your soul, folks.

Unlike last week, where we started with influences of Zeppelin, and then went to contemporaries, the musical selections focused solely on Coltrane’s work. The focus was from 1957 to 1964, the years that saw a huge transformation in Coltrane’s artistry. He kicked heroin and booze in ’57 and began a serious spiritual awakening. The pieces selected were superb. I can not say enough about the stereo equipment these guys set up to play these records. This being a presentation of vinyl records, I was highly amused when one of the albums skipped. Be still my beating heart… a skipping record… now that takes me back. I love every pop and hiss on my vinyl collection and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, skips and all.

Just like last month when they played “Houses Of The Holy” I glanced around the room during “A Love Supreme” to see closed eyes and bobbing heads. Teddy had done such a great job of setting up the story of the record I felt like I totally understood where Coltrane was coming from. Ecstatic at the arrival of his son, Coltrane locked himself in a room for 5 days and came out with the foundation of “A Love Supreme.” You can tell that Coltrane was inspired by the Divine as you listen to the religious ecstasy in the first three segments. The album ends with Coltrane sounding out a poem he’d written and it too came across like a prayer at the end.

I had no idea what to expect from his record. I agree with my hosts yesterday, this was a work of art on par with anything, in any medium that has ever been created. It’s a towering, giant album. They ought to be teaching this record in school.

I urge any of you who love music, or wish to learn more about music, to check out this website:

http://classicalbumsundays.com

There are chapters of this group from Oslo and London all the way to California. Even if you are just curious about music, trust me you can learn something. I know I did. Next month, March, will find CASunday playing “The Velvet Underground with Nico.” Alas, I won’t be able to attend as my corporate overlords have me traveling. The way they’ll curate that record is take a musical journey backwards, through all the bands the Velvet Underground influenced, back to the VU’s first, brilliant album. That will be a fun day.

Get out there and buy some vinyl! CASundays is a joyful affair! Seek out your local chapter.

Cheers!

Paris Attacks: My Heart is in the Bataclan #ParisAttacks

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I am not a religious person. I’m like Lloyd Bridges’ character in the movie “Cousins”, when he said, “God makes me nervous when you get him inside.” Maybe it is better summed up by Sting when he sang, “men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one.” I was raised a Catholic but as I once told my daughter, “I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I had enough practice as a kid.” I have always looked at religious preference like sexual preference – practice whatever gives you peace and joy but a) don’t tell me about it (or preach to me about it) and b) don’t try to convert me. I guess you could find me at the Christopher Hitchens end of the aisle.

I have to admit, despite all that, I have seen some value in religion. One bizarre weekend a life time ago I was the best man in a wedding and then attended a funeral. I remember careening my neck around at the wedding and seeing the crowd, joyfully focused on the altar, where the nervous couple was saying their vows. By an odd circumstance, and this is what I mean by bizarre weekend, someone I knew passed away and I found myself in a funeral merely 3 days after the wedding. Once again I felt myself looking around the crowded chapel at people sorrowfully watching the folks on the altar who were eulogizing the deceased. It was then that it dawned on me that the sense of community that religion brings was something palpable. These two separate groups of people had come to celebrate a union of a new couple and to collectively mourn the loss of a man way too young to die. “I get it,” I finally thought. That’s what this is all about, the sense of collective joy or grief.

Despite my heathen nature, there are some things I hold sacred. In it’s simplest form, sitting down to a meal, “breaking bread” if you will, is something that is sacred to me. I don’t eat with people I don’t care about. I eat with family or friends or I eat alone. There is something intimate and almost holy about sharing food and laughs with family and friends. I feel the same way about sitting in a cafe and having a drink with friends or family. “Bourbon” is in the title of this blog. Sitting down in a darkened bar, with music playing in the background and sharing a drink is almost a sacrament in my mind.

One of the most sacred events in my universe is the concert. I remember the first concert I ever saw – it was a triple bill, three great bands, well 2 great bands and 1 moron (yes, talkin’ to you Ted Nugent) – and looking out into the crowded arena and seeing the crowd lift their lighters (this was long before cell phones) and I felt like I was in a church of sorts. I was connected to these people through the music. The communal vibe of people coming together to see a band, to listen to music, to celebrate that music and life itself is imprinted on my very soul. Again, it was that sense of community that I felt most strongly. Once my musical tastes became more sophisticated I found myself in smaller and smaller venues but that feeling of community and connection while the music played remained strong in me. The program in my childhood church said, “Singing Is Twice Praying.” Maybe they did get something right there after all…

While I sat in my home last night, a world away from Paris, my heart broke. To think that someone would shoot people in a restaurant or a cafe staggered me. There is a lot to be upset about last night, too much to put in a blog about bourbon and rock music, but what struck me the most was the attack on the Bataclan. I know nothing about the Eagles Of Death Metal, but my heart goes out to them and all the concert goers and their families. I read on Rolling Stone magazine’s twitter that “ISIS says they targeted Bataclan because it featured “hundreds of idolaters together in a party of perversity”.” You can not come up with a more fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening in that concert hall. People coming together in a joyful way to celebrate music and community has nothing to do with idolatry. Music is something that has been celebrated in every community since the dawn of man. Heartbreaking. Simply, heartbreaking.

They came into my church last night, the concert hall, and attacked. Senselessly.

I’d like to say I’m going to #prayforparis but that is not in my skill set. Like I said before, I’m not a religious person. And it would appear prayers and religion might be what fundamentally caused this horrific act. Perhaps a quiet drink and a tasteful toast would be more appropriate. My heart broke last night for the Bataclan crowd and the people of Paris. My thoughts, my heart, my very spirit is with those concert goers and with all of Paris. I think of the crowds I’ve seen in concerts my whole life and I can’t help but think of all the people who went out for a night of communal good times and met an untimely, senseless death. My despair over all the attacks in Paris last night is endless. These people were doing things we all do – dining, having drinks and listening to rock music – and they paid for it with their lives. It just makes no sense.

I am feeling a host of emotions. Despair, frustration and of course, enormous amounts of anger. The only fear I am feeling tonight is the fear that my thirst for vengeance brings. It will be easy for us to want to knee-jerk react to these senseless acts of violence and cowardice. Yes, cowardice, it doesn’t take guts to walk into a cafe or theater and shoot the unarmed and the innocent. It’s important to stand by our principles as civilized societies and make a measured, calculated response to this senselessness. Let’s not let these bastards take away who we are, or what we stand for.

Tonight, I toast Paris and I toast France for their loss and for their courage in the face of this outrageous act. I toast for the Eagles of Death Metal, who must be in shock and despair tonight.

Hang in there people. It’s a dark ride. Let’s not let the thugs and the lawless drag us down.

Cheers.