Like Bob Dylan and a few others, Peter Townshend understood the 20th century version of the successful artist, which combined the cultivation of a pop sensibility and the cash it brought with some vein of purity in exploration. As the Who has recycled a long strong of Townshend’s pearls – on TV, in advertising, in compilations, on their latest geezer tour, and in the new biopic Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who which premieres in the U.S. at the Paley Center for Media next week – so to has its master creator continued to explore.
Townshend’s latest rock opera, The Boy Who Heard Music, took shape as a blog, a dissembled convocation of voices brought together online. Earlier this year, Townshend put the algorithm behind the synth opening for Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again online and let musicians (including me) upload pieces of recorded music and get back synthesized loop patterns. The Who made the cash, and a commercial legacy that keeps in giving, but throughout the band’s 20-year dry spell Townshend worked as an artist, and still works into his 60s.
Was Townshend’s best work was in his 20s? Perhaps, like Dylan’s. But he keeps on, like Picasso an aging combination of pop sensibility and persona, continuing to work. Paul McCartney, a comtemporary, wrote his own epitaph, a grand old painter’s evocation of his death. Townshend still flays the guitar and his Internet explorations – at present, silent – have given his work a new flavor, and a direct channel to his audience.
But Townshend’s finest work was his most complete as an artist – and not particularly successful commercially, but it endures. Quadrophenia is the one Who record I still return to year after year; a complete story with recurrent themes, and a fantastic composition and performance. Quadrophenia grows and I grow with it. Into my 40s and Townshend’s 60s, it still feels relentless and lasting.
In October, 1960 in New York, at the annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf – the traditional gathering of politicos and Catholics – Senators Richard Nixon and John Kennedy wore formal white ties and made jokes, as is the custom. Here’s a taste of JFK’s monologue:
Cardinal Spellman is the only man so widely respected in American politics that he could bring together amicably, at the same banquet table, for the first time in this campaign, two political leaders who are increasingly apprehensive about the November election [laughter] who have long eyed each other suspiciously, and who have disagreed so strongly, both publicly and privately, Vice President Nixon and Governor Rockefeller [laughter].
Mr. Nixon, like the rest of us, has had his troubles in this campaign. At one point even the Wall Street Journal was criticizing his tactics. That is like the Observatore Romano criticizing the Pope. [Laughter.]
But I think the worst news for the Republicans this week was that Casey Stengel has been fired. [Laughter.] It must show that perhaps experience does not count. [Laughter and applause.]
On this matter of experience, I had announced earlier this year that if successful I would not consider campaign contributions as a substitute for experience in appointing ambassadors. Ever since I made that statement I have not received one single cent from my father. [Laughter and applause.]
Kennedy was the lighter side of 1960 politics, the playboy Democrat – but Mad Men‘s creators chose the dour Republican who, though of the same WWII generation, clearly represented the dark side, and not just in retrospect. Nixon is the one for Sterling Cooper and it’s a choice that informs the whole series, which concludes its first run tonight. History records 1960 as a bright, forward-looking year, a time of optimism and possibility. Despite the Soviet fears and our own internal struggles over race, the dawn of the 60s was a time of sleek design, bright colors, consumer culture.
How ironic that an iconic show about Madison Avenue – the ground zero of this bright consumerism – is so dreary and dark and filled with death and failure and loathing. Why did they choose the darkness – which could have, in surer hands, been more interesting – and why did they create a 1960 ad agency with no bright ideas, populated by hacks and frat boy towel-snappers?
Tonight, Mad Men hits Thanksgiving, post-election, post office orgy, post-heart attack, post-suicide, post cowardly sniffling by the unmanly Don Draper. While those big balloons floating down Central Park West change the mood? Back soon to find out.
And here we go…
As Jim Wolcott notes: “Since the series has been renewed for a second season, tonight’s homemade popcorn party will be able to unwind without any valedictory notes muting the festivities, and the program is being presented without any commercial interruptions so that the actors on screen can squeeze in an extra smoke or two.”
Will there be a Harvest of Shame reference? Edward R. Murrow’s famed TV documentary on working conditions of migrant workers aired Thanksgiving weekend, 1960.
I remember my grandfather bringing out those carousel slide holders on Thanksgiving and showing al the grandkids pics from his travels. I still have some stored away.
Geez, Glen lost a tooth.
The shunning of flesh and blood, Don passes his curse of ambition to Peggy (via Ayn Rand).
Ten minutes into last night’s House, one of the famed doctor’s underlings gave their gravely ill patient a couple of pills and said: “Take these, you’ll be better within an hour.”
I turned to my daughter, a major House junkie.
“He’s a dead man,” I said, and so he was, but not for another 48 minutes, a time punctuated by the kind of medical madness that would cause the closure of House’s hospital even in less-regulated states than New Jersey. House is yet another occasionally brilliant show done in by its premise – by which to say, its formula. In year three, it’s clearly run its course and not even Hugh Laurie’s convincing portrayal of an American can save it. Continue reading “House and the Kiss of Death”
Last week, I just missed Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad up at Columbia, but I did dodge the motorcades and frozen zones around the United Nations, and undergo the requisite pat-down at the Clinton Global Initiative. What a wild week in New York, and it reminded by a little bit of 1960, the year of our blogging discontent.
A year after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill dodged assassins under the gaze of Hitchcock at the UN in the clearest stylistic model for Mad Men, Cuba’s Fidel Castro hit the streets of New York and the right-wingers in the press went wild. Castro spoke to the UN the last week of September, 1960 – by my estimation a month or so after the current episodes are taking place (I’m going by the comparison of the Nixon and Kennedy ads post-convention).
Castro went a bit north of Morningside Heights, staying in Harlem at the Theresa Hotel, where he held court for notables from Malcolm X to Langston Hughes. Ahmadinejad didn’t speak in Harlem, but he did mix things up at Columbia, bringing the tabloid fangs down on the University, much as they descended on the entire Harlem community in 1960.
I wonder if the writers will work in a Castro/New York reference in one of the final three episodes of this first run like they’ve felt compelled to cram in every 1960 pop signpost – “hey, how about that Psycho, huh?” Tonight, Sterling Cooper deals with the near-fatal heart attack of a partner and tries to hold on to its clients. The agency feels like it’s in a spiral right out of Vertigo, and man, that’s not a great vibe for the canyons of midtown, believe me. Back shortly – we commence at 10, and tonight I’ll keep my thoughts strictly in the comments section. Just easier that way.
Here’s the lead: Bruce Springsteen’s deep and nourishing Magic, released today, isn’t on a par with Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s firmly on the next level down, alongside The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle, Nebraska, The River and Tunnel of Love. And that’s saying something for a rock star of 58 years in age who has nibbled around the edges of pop music for the last two decades without fully wading in.
Magic is a self-referential work of mature genius, a work of its time, and a record built on the foundations of others, from Brian Wilson and Roy Orbison to the Byrds and Dylan and Phil Spector. Unlike The Shamus, whose terrific review appears below, I’ve spent several weeks with Magic and have listened to its best tunes dozens of times – it’s frankly brilliant, and worthy of the best in the Springsteen canon. It’s the work of an older man, the rare record recorded by a star in late middle age who drops the teen angst and captures both those long decades and the deep pop groove, filled with happy hooks and fills.
Further, there’s a darkness there that I admire deeply – a writing in the shadows that rekindles what I first loved about Bruce Springsteen’s writing, when I was a skinny teen and he was a skinny 25-year-old. Continue reading “Springsteen and the American Muse”