Thursday, December 17, 2009

SONG #14 & 15-- Slit Skirts, Eminence Front

Also available on Live At The Fillmore, 1996

Also available on It's Hard, 1982

When the pod throws these up back to back, I can take the hint.  Warning:  this one might be a little lengthy.  As Townshend used to say when the band played Tommy straight through-- "Hope you enjoy it-- it's a long haul."

1981 is the year when I went from loving music to hearing music.  I was good enough at the piano to play a bunch of songs that I loved, and I had found a used record store (here's to you, Annapolis Record Exchange) that would sell me beat-up used records for 50 cents apiece.  That allowed me to acquire the whole Beatles catalog and memorize it (scratches and all) in about six months.  I had also made a friend who shared my love for music and who could play the drums, and I was spending a lot of Saturday nights at his house really learning how to play.  (Thanks, Chris.)

That year, sixth grade, a few important things happened for me.  First, everyone in the class grew but me.  I had always been the shortest, but now I was the shortest by a lot.  So short, in fact, that they started running a series of weird tests on me at Johns Hopkins to try to diagnose my slow growth.  I was suddenly much worse at sports in comparison to everyone else then I ever had been-- I had never been a star, but I had always been able to hold my own.  Needless to say, girls and I developed a silent understanding that I should check back in with them in five years.  I was smart, but wasn't enjoying school like I had before.  I felt like a tiny, loud lab rat.  I can't imagine I was much fun to be around all the time, and I was pretty damn lost; the next four years were rough, and suddenly that Beatles music seemed a little too upbeat for how I was feeling.  I needed something that could voice my sense of invisibility.

In 1981, The Who put out Face Dances, and made three videos for the fledgling MTV.  One Friday afternoon in the fall of 1981, a classmate mentioned that there was a new channel on cable that only played music.  I went home that night and surfed until I found it-- channel 33, or something like that (in those days that was the very end of the dial.  We had gotten cable about two months before after moving and realizing that we could only get two channels without it at the new place.)  I had an ambivalent relationship with TV at that point; I liked it, but I could also take it or leave it most of the time.  I found MTV and caught the end of "Freeze Frame" by the J. Geils Band.  I was unimpressed-- they were painting each other, and the song was all over the radio.  "I get it.  They play the top ten.  Whatever."  Then came the next video-- U2's "Gloria."  What the hell?  I had never heard of these guys, and they looked and sounded great and were a total mystery.  It was like finding a cool, lost radio station.  Next up was The Who's "You Better You Bet."  It was the first time I saw Pete Townshend play guitar.  I got the call from upstairs to turn off the TV.  But I'd seen enough.

The next morning, I got my folks to stop at the Record Exchange on the way home from whatever morning errands we had to do.  They had no U2 records (had never heard of them, actually) so I asked them what Who record to get, and paid twenty cents for a truly savaged copy of the singles collection Meaty, Beaty Big and Bouncy, took it home, and put it on.  The first three tracks were so scratched that the needle couldn't even groove the record.  It couldn't make any purchase until track four.  So what I heard was about ten seconds of snippets of music, scuffs, static, and... "I Can See For Miles."  For the first time.

And there it was.  The sound of my loneliness and arrogance and hopes and fears and shames and ultimate belief in my own self.  Can you remember where you were the first time music truly and utterly knocked you sideways?  This crisp Saturday early afternoon in October of 1981, standing in front of my stereo in my room, I heard myself played back to me.  I stood there just watching the old US Decca label spin around and looked at the album cover while "I Can See For Miles," "Pictures Of Lily," "My Generation" and "The Seeker" played back at me.

I looked a little bit like the kid in the back of the photo leaning against the door.  I spent the rest of the day playing those four songs over and over.  I didn't even bother to flip the record over until the next day.  By that night, The Who were my favorite band.  They still are.

The following fall, The Who came to the Capital Centre on their "farewell" tour (there have been seven tours since), and suddenly they were all over the radio, and every upperclassman in the school had Who fever.  By then, I had picked up copies of the all of the band's albums except Quadrophenia (just too expensive) and The Who By Numbers (I only knew the song "Squeeze Box," and didn't like it).  I knew I wasn't going to be able to go; I was twelve, it was a weeknight, and the ticket was too expensive.  But I felt the excitement of it as if I were going too, and eavesdropped the day after as the seniors talked about it.  I think not going and imagining the show turned out to be better than actually going.

The Who, of course, were not teenagers anymore in 1982.  They were jaded rock stars with drug and marriage problems.  Their 1982 tour was a pretty mirthless affair, resulting in a lot of good but not great concerts.  The album they toured behind, It's Hard, is a punching bag for critics; "It's Hard to listen to this one!"  Har dee har.  It is a bad record, though it's light years better than Endless Wire from 2006.  That is one howling dog.

Pete Townshend, the Who's guitarist and songwriter, was in trouble in 1982.  His life was falling apart (and not just because of his terrible haircut).  He wanted out of the band, and he made his point best by releasing solo albums in 1980 and 1982 that are far superior to The Who's own records.  While touring America with The Who, Pete put out All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.  It's hard to imagine a musician getting away with that now (Hey!  How about if I release a competing solo album at the same time as I'm touring with the group?  What do you say, fellas?)  He was drinking too much, disillusioned and confused what to do next.

These two songs, then, represent the world of Pete Townshend that year, and taken together, they're also a pretty great summation of how I was feeling in 1982.

"Eminence Front" is the better known song, perhaps the last popular Who track.  It's a classic Townshend creation, pushed foward by a rhythmic synthesizer pad that recalls "Baba O'Riley."  The busy rhythm of the synth is offset by the simple drum and single note guitar line that repeats through the whole song (an ostinato, if I remember my musical terms correctly).  Over that, Townshend wails about isolation  and indifference, meaning replaced by hedonism:  "Sun shines, and people forget."  It's one of my favorite first lines of a song.  In the end, the song for me is about greed and unearned confidence.  It's also wonderfully cynical-- no one has come to a realization of their unhealthy adapted behavior, and instead they "join the party dressed to kill."  It's a song about false bravado and entitlement: the rock star side of Townshend's life.  Musically, what pushes the song to the next level is Townshend's guitar playing.  Certainly one of rock's most engaging rhythm guitarists, on "Eminence Front" Townshend plays one of his greatest solos, angular and dissonant and at the edge of his ability.  I love how unhinged it is, and that it introduces the song.  It takes almost two minutes before we get to the first verse.

This version here is, I think, the best version of the song.  It comes from a soundcheck at the Capital Centre on that '82 tour, and tells so much about the band.  It's much more raw and unrehearsed than the album version, and because the band is playing with no intention of being heard, they play loose and free.  It's much more interesting than the official versions.  You can hear and see it here:


It's a performance video, but unlike most, we see the band arriving and preparing for soundcheck over the intro, and learn so much about the personalities of the individuals.  (And The Who were individuals-- this band was never "All for one and one for all.")  First up, there's Kenney Jones, newest and doomed member, alone on stage trying to look comfortable.  Roger arrives next, via limo.  He's all business, but smiley.  He a pro.  Next comes Pete and John, via Econoline van.  Pete looks distracted.  He stops to talk to the crew (that's Bobby Pridden with the balding head, longtime Who soundman and punching bag) and he's already obviously concerned about something specific in the show.  Behind him, John is all rock star-- leather jacket and leather man purse.  Once on stage, every man is an island.  Pete stops by to smile to John, but he's obviously bored.  Roger is trying to get used to his guitar; he looks awkward.  Kenney is still futzing with his kit.  It's not a glamorous presentation of the band-- it reminds us what touring is.  Seven hours of waiting, two hours of playing, drive all night, repeat.  It's work.  The Who is a job, and these guys are bored, distant veterans.

But over all of that bored band footage, Townshend rips off one of his best solos on tape.  When he comes in to sing at first, he seems disinterested, but then he can't help himself.  By the first chorus, he's lost in the tune.  Roger thinks they're having a laugh-- he's smiling and looking around, but Pete has his eyes closed, and by the end, he's playing as hard as if the arena was full.  And at the end, he's right back to business, talking to the crew; "I thought that was a bit better."

The video sums up Pete in a nutshell; he is both a pampered, bookish dilettante who has been famous since adolescence and is used to having it all, rolling into soundcheck after the heavy lifting is done and lost in his own head.  At the same time, he's disgusted by his own shallowness and wishes he could hold himself to a higher standard; he's a true artist who wants the band to push itself.

That's the same tension that informs "Slit Skirts."  If "Eminence Front" is Townshend on his yacht, then "Slit Skirts" is Townshend looking, soberly, into a mirror.  It's the voice that kept Townshend relatively sane, the one that kept him surrounded by the same group of true friends since art college.  "Eminence Front" explains how Townshend almost ruined his life; "Slit Skirts" is why he's still with us.

Unlike the petulant partier inhabiting "Eminence Front,"  Pete admits here how lost he is:  "I was just 34 years old, but I was still wandering in a haze."  Taken together, the two songs form a modernized version of "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.  In "Slit Skirts," Pete is like "a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floor of silent seas."  He can't commit to friends, to lovers-- he's restless and bored, and feeling disconnected from himself.  More than anything, it's about not knowing how to age gracefully.  "Can't pretend growin' older never hurts."

I felt like I had great insight into the mid-life crises of my friends' parents after listening to that song.  I could see the dads and moms of my friends try to come to grips with aging and no longer being children of the 70s.  In those marriages, "recriminations fester[ed]" and we kids had to make sense of it, make our own rules of how to be good to one another.  I also think "Slit Skirts" served as a warning to me in high school about not partying my way out of my own personal discomfort.  I never have been much of a drinker, and part of why is hearing about the morning afterwards in songs like this one.

The songs are linked musically-- "Slit Skirts" ends with one of Townshend's most pithy solos, and his vocals on both tracks are among his most careful.  Sometimes Townshend's vocals feel tossed off, but not on these tracks.  The main difference between the tracks, really, are the bands themselves: on "Slit Skirts," Townshend is using a younger, hungrier set of musicians, and it shows.  Even on a track as deliberate and arranged as "Slit Skirts," you can feel the thrill of the musicians to be playing with him.  (The rhythm section was from the one-hit wonder band Big Country.)

To Townshend's great credit, he has never written to any audience but the one that grew up with him.  There's nothing more embarrassing than musicians in their sixties writing about girls and rocking and going all night.  Townshend wrote his last anthem about the power of rock when he was 26 years old; since then, he's been exploring what it means to grow old and try to hold on to that love for rock music (a topic he shares with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, another one of my favorites).  "Slit Skirts" has aged better than most songs written in the 80s, mainly because that feeling of "wandering in a haze" is hard to shake.

Some songs you grow up with, and some songs you grow into: it's always a little bit of both with me and The Who.

Slit Skirts link:


  1. Randomly I am a huge Eminence Front fan. It's Hard was the first Who record I bought and it wasn't hard to pick out the very best song on that record. Over time I eventually bought or acquired pretty much all of the rest of the catalogue (often due to the generosity and/or peer pressure of a Mr. JKS). Eminence Front has weirdly remained one of my 5 or 10 favorite Who songs. It wasn't overplayed on the radio. It's a powerful, non-linear song with weird lyrics. This live version is revelatory, even better than the record.

  2. PS The fact that Eminence Front is one of my five or ten favorite Who songs is currently causing Jeff to lose his mind and wonder where he's gone wrong in life and our friendship. after all the hours he has tried to educate me on the Who this is how he's repaid. I guarantee there are about 97.3 songs he would list ahead of Eminence Front and if he were in the room with me he'd be listing them right now, possibly red faced and sputtering.

  3. Great read and a wonderful ride to my musical past. Thanks for the collective memories and for being an influence and co-pilot on my early musical journey! p.s. I still love The WHO!

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  5. Great post, Jeff.

    And, Ben, you paint the perfect picture of his exasperated proselytizing. After all these years, Pete Townshend still falls in that category of artists that I appreciate but with whom I just can't quite manage to fall in love. A few things they do get me really excited, but the rest leaves me cold and annoyed. As a sports fan, I find that some athletes are like that for me. Here's a sample dual list:

    Steely Dan
    Neil Young

    Tom Brady
    Roger Federer
    Dirk Nowitsky

    I guess what I'm saying, Jeff, is that Pete Townshend is the Dirk Nowitsky of my music collection.

  6. Wow, what a jolt this post is. And I mean that in a good way. Boy, does it paint a very vivid picture of an exact moment in time.

    I remember that 1982 Who show, too. I was too young, but James and Ty tagged along with the older folks. I remember being positively green with envy over my older brother's concert t-shirt, and him saying that Daltrey's harmonica solo on "Baba O'Reilly" was the loudest thing he ever heard.

    James had a two-tape (tapes!) bootleg of a Who concert, and I used to beg him to play it during long car trips. (Side note: Remember when bands could put out double live albums, and they'd be worth listening to? I'm thinking of Skynyrd's One More From the Road and the Kinks' One For the Road. Ah, arena rock!)

    I too loved the Who right away, and not because of their 1980s output. (Kenney Jones, he of the 2 and 4 beat. Notice how shocking those two little syncopated beats sound on the live Eminence Front clip? Like a metronome...) I loved the scale, the ambition, the wildness, the frenetic energy channeled through virtuosity.

    And, since JKS was one of the older kids, I was paying close attention to the music he was listening to. I really credit Jeff with opening my eyes to the whole genre of singer-songwriter, and my CD shelves are full of artists he introduced me to. Tellingly, I have most of Townshend's solo catalog on CD.

    I think Jeff gets to the core of why being a Townshend fan is so complicated. It's easy to love the great songs, the amazing playing, the orchestral ambitions and intellectual underpinning to his music. But then he falls into the ready-made role of "Rock Star," and says and does some pretty boorish things.

    I remember reading an interview with Pete where he said that during the height of the Who's popularity, he would pick one girl in the audience who was staring at Roger with do-me eyes, and play towards her for the entire set. The show was a success in his mind if she was staring at him by the end of the night. Jeez, Pete, it isn't always all about you! Can't you just enjoy making amazing music for a few hours without turning it into a giant ego contest?

    But his music has aged incredibly well, and is still a rewarding listen. And say whatever you want about Pete, he has never rested on his laurels. I am incredibly grateful that I saw them in 2000 at the Garden in NYC; Entwistle still allive, and Townshend hell bent on showing the world that in addition to being the greatest rhythm guitarist in rock, he's an amazing lead player as well. He played electric the whole time, and ripped off solo after solo that made my jaw drop.

    Did anyone else notice the matching telecasters in the Eminence Front soundcheck? You think Pete just said, Ah, hell, Rog, just use one of mine!

  7. Well said, brother.

    And you know, what really gives you away here as the disciple you are is that you scanned that iconic/ironic RS cover and uploaded it to the iTunes artwork for the song.

    I remember the excitement in the upper school around that 1982 show (the tour kickoff, I think) like it was yesterday and you captured it. My own epiphany came later that year, listening to my new LP of "Who's Next" for the very first time on a cold gray afternoon when I was alone in the house. I was wearing headphones and when I heard Moon's drums kick in on "Baba O'Riley," the world changed.

  8. By the way, Jeff, I'm terribly excited about the 21-minute version of "Wire & Glass" they are preparing for the Super Bowl halftime show ...

  9. Wow. Just signed on for my first read and looking forward to spending some time catching-up though I may pass on the "Oh Sherrie" post.

    The first album I bought - "Pieces of Eight" by Styx. The next twelve were Who albums plus the copy of "The Who Sell Out" you gave me for my 14th(?) birthday. It all still starts and ends with the Who for me. Underrated favorite of mine is "A Quick One While He's Away" especially when Wes Anderson played it over Max Fischer and Herman Blume sabotaging each other in "Rushmore".

  10. One of the all-time best uses of music in a movie ever, I agree.

  11. very cool video to see and hear. kenney shows up early to the gig; he's the new kid in the band, eager to please. roger takes the caddy stretch limo while pete and john rock the econoline.

    the biggest question i have is... who is the mysterious woman carefully toting the bulging leather satchel at 0:56? she looks around like she's got the president's nuclear codes in there as she disembarks the van closely behind pete.