Thursday, August 18, 2016

Time Travel with Talking Heads & The Who

Pete Townsend at the apogee of a jump. He'll put the force of his landing into a strong chord on his guitar. Houston, 20 November 1975.
A few months ago I discovered that a Who concert in Houston that I attended on November 20, 1975, was available on DVD for only $9. I had attempted to make money off this concert by scalping tickets through an ad in the paper, but made back only slightly more than half of what I spent. When I reached the Summit—at the time, a basketball arena that also hosted concerts, now it's Joel Osteen's church—I found a guy who was scalping tickets on site. I traded him what I had to get some of his best tickets for twelfth-row seats. The twelfth row put me at an intimate range with the groups on stage.

When I came in, a black guy with clothes and cap in Rastafarian colors and big-lensed sunglasses was jumping to a reggae beat at the mic. The air was thick with marijuana smoke, and the man at the mic totally controlled his audience. I have always remembered him as Peter Tosh, but Tosh's touring history doesn't seem to exist prior to 1977, so now I'm not sure. The Houston show for The Who, perhaps because it was videotaped, is abundantly documented across the Internet, but from everything out there, I might think they were the only band to play that night. They definitely weren't. The Who might have been coming on later, but at the moment there was no doubt that someone else with a message and a music of his own was rocking the Summit. So strong was his control that I intuited that some part of this audience had come specifically to see him and got The Who as icing on the cake. But clearly, even those like me who had come to hear The Who, were enthusiastic about the reggae band. In that period, a couple of typical college roommates on a weekend night at home would listen to some mix of music that would likely include both The Who and various reggae artists as well as people like Eric Clapton who were recording gently rocked reggae music ("I Shot the Sheriff"), so the guy onstage was a tad exotic, but not a stranger.
The Who's play list from 20 November 1975.

Then came The Who, and their show was fantastic. They did most of their hits, which could fill up the two hours they had on stage. I was close enough to see the sweat on their brow, the nuances of expression in their faces, and the strains in their faces when they stressed a note or pled their love. This show was the first on the North American leg of their world tour, and they were fresh. This was back in the day when instruments and mics had cables that ran to amplifiers, and part of Roger Daltry's showmanship to balance Pete Townsend's flying leaps and windmill chords was to twirl the microphone in a vertical circle over his head, then yank it out of its orbit at its apogee. He was supposed to catch it, but he dropped it two or three times and beat our ears with an amplified thud, but everyone took it in stride because the Who took the rock genre to its peak. I'm not talking so much about the rock & roll that the Stones did—and which sometimes crossed the line into pure rock—but rock was a music by hook or by crook made entirely British. Whatever its origins, The Who made the genre completely their own—angry but with an energy that felt like flying a hundred feet off the ground. And it was loud, had to be loud, and if anyone questioned that, the natural response was "Why don't you all just f-f-f-fade away / And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say..." The stuttering always sound like drug use deliberately self-inflicted just to piss off the outsider, like a parent or even a girlfriend. Just fuck off.

Even if I could write perfectly and poetically about that night, you could not experience it through my words vicariously. That's why I've included a playlist. Better yet, though, buy the video and see and hear the thing for yourself.

When I watched the DVD for the first time, I wondered how much of the audience I would see, and I thought how strange it would be to see 1975 myself at 20 through my 60-year-old eyes. That wasn't why I bought the DVD: I got the disc because I wanted to experience the concert again, but the strangeness of seeing myself crossed my mind.

Armadillo World Headquarters front office. Beer garden
and concert hall entrance was around back.
Photo by Steve Hopson. Licensed by Creative
Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic License.
It crossed my mind again tonight because a friend of Facebook shared "Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads, and I remembered how I had seen them at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a venue that made up for its smallness with an über-hip cosmic coolness. As if we were on some secret tour guide for the rich & famous, celebrities dropped by with no other need than curiosity to see us. So it is that one of my claims to fame is that long ago in a galaxy far away I smoked marijuana with Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers, a.k.a. Wally and the Beave. It was the kind of place that everybody played when they were teetering on the edge of fame—Talking Heads, B-52's, Bruce Springsteen—and it was the kind of place that musicians who were maybe not superstars but venerable pillars of American music played—Ray Charles, José Feliciano, Count Basie, Taj Mahal. Van Morrison played there even though he could fill a much larger venue from, as far as anyone could tell, pure eccentricity, but it was the Wavelength tour and the best show I ever saw there, and I saw a lot of good shows in the Armadillo.

I Googled when the Talking Heads played the Armadillo, and that was November 15, 1979. I stood right at the edge of the stage through the whole show. Google told me something amazing: someone videotaped this concert as well, and it's on YouTube. The picture quality is poor, and the sound is fair. I braced myself for the possibility that I might see myself here too—tonight I wasn't in the mood for running into my youthful self: it would have been like bumping into a girlfriend from long ago. I watched carefully, but the camera focused exclusively on the musicians, and it was dark in front of the stage where I was standing. Yet it was great fun to run through that concert again.




Jerry Harrison & David Byrne; Talking Heads August 25 & 26, 1978, Jay's Longhorn Bar, Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Michael Markos. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.