Pop Eye - Rock 'n' Wreck by Richard Goldstein
A look at The Who's 'Murray The K' shows and smashing equipment
In the backstage halflight of the RKO 58th Street Theatre, Peter Townshend awaits his cue. Stagehands pace furiously, shouting orders in bizarre New Yorkese. A stray go-go girl stands rubbing her op-art eyes until they redden and streak. A struggling Blues Magoo, a soggy member of the Mitch Ryder Band, a distant Mandala, mill about like condemned men waiting for the padre. High above, streaks of blue and magenta soar across the ceiling. Onstage, Murray the K is doing his patois while the audience shouts: "We want…we want…" anyone.
It is the fifth show of the fourth day in Peter Townshend's week. He cracks his knuckles; his throat. Peter is making his American debut as lead guitarist and composer of the Who. Murray the K is about to introduce him to that pulsating mass of squealing, squirming THEM.
Muffled scratching is audible from behind the stage door. The Groupie brigade. They bribe the doormen with a wink, a kid-giggle. You can never lock them out totally. They squat outside the dressing rooms, scratching like exiled cats. "Let them in; it's a party, isn't it?" The big one with braces and a huge distended tongue is eyeing Keith, the drummer. Paper cup in hand, he slips on the corridor floor. "Better watch it," she murmurs.
"Why?" Keith laugh-answers.
"Cause I might jump you."
Even though this is New York and it is cold and rainy out, the groupies are scratching. In Germany, Peter had to haul off on an especially demonstrative cat. In London, they rip clothing. In New York, they scratch on doors. The big one raced down the gray stairwell, past Mitch Ryder in his purple see-through plastic shirt, ("He sat on me," she exalted. "Keith sat on me.")
Peter brushes past a livid Murray and turns on his guitar while Keith Moon—famous Keithy of the pop-art tee shirt and the rubber wrists—mounts his drums. The bored curtains creak open and the Who blast off.
They do their song—"My Generation"—because it is basic and easy and it gives Roger Daltrey a chance to pucker his lips and shout: "Why don't you just f-f-f-fade away" while the kids gasp "Didhesay? juheahthat?" Also, "My Generation" is one of the least challenging of the Who's creations and in a treadmill show like this, nobody does anything real. Even the best material becomes routinely strenuous played five times a day, ("10:15 a.m." says the sign beneath Peter's dressing room. "Fines if late.") So, they sing: "People always put us down/Just because we g-g-g-get around," and they roll the vowels a bit for variety and they twang the magic twanger.
Peter Townshend pulls hard on the wire which connects his guitar to its amplifier until a flash of light explodes behind the echo box. It is what everyone has come to see. Because the Who has built a reputation, not on their compositions or arrangements, but on their ability to attack a song. Every night, they smash the stage up a bit. Sometimes a guitar neck splits, or a drumstick goes awry, or an amplifier bursts a blood vessel. But any real destruction is coincidence. Mostly, the Who manage to set off a minor chemical flash and an impressive cloud of smoke which rises overhead and stinks up the backstage area (disgruntled, the go-go girl holds her nose and mutters: "I smell the Who"). Then, Roger takes his microphone and rubs it affectionately against Keith's cymbals while Keith flays the air with a half dozen drumsticks. Peter cracks his guitar over his knee, usually avoiding the stress points. He waves it overhead and throws it crashing to the ground. It survives.
The Who's act ends with Keith shoving the drums from under him until they tumble like loose wagon wheels all over the stage. When the curtains close, everybody rushes in to assess the damage, while the crowd whistles: "More." By which time, Peter is backstage and into the gray again. It is comforting—all that brick passivity. By the time the fifth show is over, one begins to look at any wall that doesn't glow as a bed.
(Peter unbuttons his Who-face as the go-go girl mutters something like: "You smelled great tonight.")
"John," she is sobbing. "I love you. More than anything in the world." She leaps at her idol with a groupieclutch (something like a half-nelson with love). She is squat and curly with an over-lipsticked grin set against the peacoat uniform. She knows everything about the Who—especially about John Entwistle, the one who never breaks anything.
"Herman got on the radio and said you were ugly with no talent," she confides. "All of us hate him, anyway." She whips out a camera and snaps away, pausing every roll or so to wind the film. John stands paralyzed by her side, arms around her shoulders, shushing whenever she cries. At last she looks up from her vantage point within John's armpit and tells Peter: "Ya look sad. Don't worry. I got a big nose, too."
Peter winces and sips the dust off a gin and tonic. It is the Hotel Drake, sequestered in provincial endtables and bowing busboys—the ideal place for a group to hide. So naturally, the groupies discover it in no time. Thirty professionals assault the lobby. Inevitably, three make it into the room where the Who are holding court for the American press.
The group looks tired, but tolerant. Peter is wearing the pants to a beige suit. The jacket is wired with Christmas lights, but the buzzer which keeps them twinkling, is too much to keep track of during an interview. No broken drumsticks litter the carpet and Keith Moon, reclining in a pair of pink pants and a ruffled shirt, looks like a choir boy in winter underwear.
"Groupies lack something," he explains against the sound of diminishing squeals from down the hall. I pump him on the subject. Fans are something most pop musicians hate in person, but adore in principle. "What's your ideal groupie?" I ask. It is my trademark question: open-ended enough to provide a flawless self-portrait. Sometimes she is sexy, sometimes appreciative, sometimes tender. Keith eyes the lime in his drink and answers: "Someone who writes for a national paper."
The Who know who they are. They make no bones about their place in the XXXXXXXX and the established groups splitting and re-forming like some anomic galaxy, the Who has become a major influence on the new English sound. They grudgingly admit ancestral ties to the Yardbirds (with whom they share a penchant for rave-ups, distinct bridges of codas, and jagged electronic feedback). But theirs is a toy music, with massive drumming and a vocal that sounds as though someone's batteries need changing. There are bleeps and crashes, falsetto and absurd bass effects, al merging into a screeching tunelessness. Their lyrics lack the offensive moralizing of many a Yardbird opus; it is all for laughs, like Tomi Ungerer set to music. The new album, "A Quick One," contains some of the group's best efforts, and some of its most mediocre. Among the good stuff, "Whiskey Man" is nicely perverse; "Boris The Spider" is an engaging vignette right out of "In His Own Write" and the title song is a zany Townshend excursion with ambitious cross-parody of vaudeville, country-Western, and English church music.
On the meaningful side, the Who's 45 rpm galaxy includes a startling look at sexual sublimation, "Substitute" ("I'll substitute for my mum at least I'll get my washin' done") and a ballad-of-the-absurd, "Happy Jack."
But even with music which shrieks for itself, the Who will probably earn its bread here—as it has at home—on the strength of its schtick, which just happens to be destruction. Peter Townshend tells how it all came about:
"We'd been playing together for some time. We used to get near to smashing things—I'd knock my guitar about quite a bit. Then, one night, it snapped by accident and I didn't want to blow my cool so I made believe it was done on purpose."
Given the sexual content of rock 'n' roll—especially when it's live and wiggling—it's your guess what such musical pillage signifies. Most musicians treasure their instruments and regard the Who's approach as supremely auto-destructive. But Townshend says: "I like to think when we've finished playing, that we're the last thing on people's minds when they go to sleep. We don't let anything stand in the way of the visual. Music becomes precious when you think too hard about what you're doing. We avoid that by flipping out every night."
He adds, for the lead graf: "I like to leave a wound."
Townshend's blitzkrieg has proven a lucrative distraction from his real skills as a writer and musician. It wasn't long after they discovered the power of rock 'n' wreck that the Who became fixtures in the Mod firmament. In their wake, a baker's dozen has arisen; groups with names like the Pink Floyd, the Cream (a Brian Epstein production), and the Move. I have no evidence of destructive tendencies in the first two groups but the Move shatters refrigerators and television sets onstage. Keith Moon calls that bogus pillage. He has no comment on the rumor that the next English super group will set fire to itself while squatting over a blowtorch, but he admits smashing instruments has its personal hazards. There have been lacerations, bruises, blood, and minor gore. During one especially exuberant performance Peter Townshend left such a wound with his guitar that his head required three stitches.
Such is the price of fame. Auto-desctruction has become a staple of the English avant garde. Not long ago a major festival paid homage to the artist's ability to rip asunder. And an honor guard of directors are scouting sunny South Kensington these days for a rock group who will smash something—anything—on camera.
Part of the reason the Who are down on the Yardbirds is the latter's performance in "Blow Up." "Antonioni wanted us for the part," Peter says. "But we were too genuine. He likes to manipulate his actors. He wants to make films about himself."
Whatever the symbolic value of a moribund guitar, its reality lies in the evolution of English cool. The great danger for British pop music is a rigid preciousness. You find it creeping into some of the Stones' snazzier compositions. It's the special mystique around being colored which makes every Welshman who can say "dem" and "doze" a soul singer. Or the mini-cult around Old Timey music. The English went at it the way Marie Antoinette approached peasant life. They built a pop chateau, stuffed it full of flapper drag and outmoded slang, and pretended it was real. What is missing from most English music today is spontaneity and modesty. The scene seems almost too cool to make real music.
And whatever happened to the real English popstar? "The truth is that everyone in England is in a group," Peter explains. "But you have to back up a little to find friends on the scene. I mean, I used to dream about doing this—really. In grammar school, I'd dream about driving a big car and people getting out of my way and girls coming up to me. Now it's all happening. But, y'know, I still can't hold a conversation with the Beatles. I'm too worried about what they think of me. It's all over my face. And I guess…they can't be [part missing].