The Who, The Who By Numbers, 1975
Somebody Saved Me, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about narcissism lately. First, I’ve been teaching the OJ: Made In America documentary to my African-American Lit class, so I’ve been reading Jeffrey Toobin’s book, watching and re-watching the film, and living in the headspace of Los Angeles’ wild combination of liberated self-invention and ruthless racism in the 20th century. Second, it’s been a crazy first month of the 45th President’s term, and I’ve found far too many of his politburo’s moves to have the infected taint of malignant narcissism.
Plus, I write a blog about my musical feelies and believies because I think the world needs to know what I think about The Eagles.*
I think we can all agree that narcissists are an enormous pain in the ass, but it’s also true that some of our greatest artists are guilty of unapologetic solipsism. Take Mr. Townshend, for example, who remains one of very favorite musicians on earth, present or past. I think Pete’s work is endlessly fascinating, and he’s a great interview, and he’s brought so much depth to my life, and I’ll bet he’s a terrible prick to deal with if you get him on a bad day.
Here are two of Pete’s weirdest songs about his self-obsession, both songs that teeter on the edge of honest self-loathing and unforgivable selfishness. They’re both about friendship, one from 1975 when Pete had a breakdown at age 30 and tried to leave The Who for the first time, and another from 1982 when he left the band for the second time. It’s interesting to hear both what’s different about the tracks, and also what has stayed the same for a man who by this point had spent half his life in a space of adoration.
“How Many Friends” is one of the weakest tracks on Numbers, which is a strange Who album. I happen to love it (surprise) but it’s a total unknown in their catalog for casual fans. The single was “Squeeze Box,” an accordion-as-vagina throwaway that probably took less time to write than it did to play. There are some fantastic songs on Numbers, including one of my all-timers in “Slip Kid,” but Side Two is really hit and miss. This song shows Roger trying to bring gravitas to Pete’s whiny self-indulgence, and mostly failing. In the first verse, Pete fluctuates between flattery and discomfort as a man hits on him (maybe), one of several homoerotic stanzas in Pete’s catalog. “He’s being so kind, what’s the reason?” Pete then goes on to guess that his list of true friends is tiny, unsurprising considering the pity party he’s throwing. But then, things take a turn, and the song becomes about our collective emptiness, a song more about the 70s than about any individual person. If Pete’s aware of his bad behavior, and confessing it here, then the song is far more interesting. In the end, it’s hard to tell, and even though the band bashes away with a great effort, “How Many Friends” is unlikely to make anyone’s greatest hits mix.
Lots of things are different by the time Pete records “Somebody Saved Me.” For one, he’s making solo albums that matter more to him than Who albums: just compare Empty Glass and Chinese Eyes to Face Dances and It’s Hard. He’s also gone from being an alcoholic in 1975 to a recovering hard drug user in 1982, and it’s brought out a new level of honesty in his writing. Perhaps, in fact, a little TOO honest: “Somebody Saved Me” is an even darker, more depth-plumbing track than “How Many Friends.” It doesn’t go for the sweeping collective statement as “Friends;” instead, it’s so personal that it feels uncomfortably confessional. Both songs start with conquest (and both embarrassingly use the word “ass” in the first verse) but this time it’s Pete making the pass, and what saves him is dumb luck. Throughout the song, Pete chases the wrong woman, or the wrong scene, and ends up saved by someone else’s intervention. By the end, he’s caused a friend’s death, and lived to see another series of misadventures. Like “Friends,” it’s artfully constructed and performed (Pete’s playing on his solo albums from 1979-1985 is really underrated) but it leaves the listener out in the cold.
Unless, of course, you’re a total narcissist. If you are, then dig in!
* Search for “One Of These Nights”