Seeing The Who’s Quadrophenia performed by its composer Pete Townshend and his main living musical partner Roger Daltrey recently gave me a deeply emotional experience. As a piece of highly orchestrated rock created nearly 40 years ago, it has taken on sheen of timeless relevance like a classical symphony by one of the great masters like Bach or Beethoven. In the 21st century, the brilliance of Quadrophenia shines through more as a composition than how it is performed. It does not matter that Daltrey and Townshend come nowhere close to the power and intensity in performance that they were capable of in the early 70s (how could they possibly do that well into their 60s even if the utterly irreplaceable Moon and Entwistle were still alive?). Quadrophenia is a masterpiece with a deeply spiritual undertone about the universal experience of growing up and redefining one’s identity and because of that it is still powerful to this day. I loved this album so much when I was 16 years old in the early 80s for reasons that I did not understand back then. With 30 more years of perspective to hear it with, I have a far greater understanding of its themes and why the music resonated so deeply with me then and still does to this day.
I’m sure I’m one of a multitude of people in the world who feels like an outcast from their family (mine are all fundamentalist religious zealots or narcissistic alcoholics). Even with the surrogate “families” of friends I have sought out and surrounded myself with there are still barriers of fear that too often keep us from total connection. For us who on some level feel alone all the time and also love rock ‘n’ roll, the music serves a special purpose: it gets us. And that is no small thing because I believe that all humans have a deep need for connection with others who understand and accept them without judgment. Most of us are not spiritual masters, nor are our friends and families, so unconditional acceptance and understanding is not something that is easy to get from people. But music and literature and art can provide it. If you are like me, you have at times felt the truth behind the words “…the music is your only friend, dance on fire as it intends…”
Water is a pervasive motif in Quadrophenia and I believe it represents life force in all its permutations. The Sea is the source of all life, where life begins and where it ends, the alpha and the omega, the Divine, the Universal One. In rain and fog, rivers, lakes, and streams are bits of The Sea on a journey that will eventually lead back to the source.
“Let me flow into the ocean, let me flow back to The Sea, let me be stormy, let me be calm, let the tide in and set me free! I want to drown in cold water.”
It’s not a complicated theme, nor is it new or unique; in fact it’s what Joseph Campbell would call an archetypal myth, one that crosses all time and all cultures, universal and deeply resonant to all humans and human societies. This is what Townshend tapped into when he wrote Quadrophenia and this theme of the spiritual journey we are all on whether we realize it or not is a lot of what gives it its power, I believe.
I may know and understand a lot more than I did when I was 16 but I don’t feel much differently now at 45 than I did then. I still crave to be understood by my family and I still feel alone much of the time and those feelings will probably be with me my entire life. To be in the presence of the composer of that music and two of those artists whose music made me, both as a teen and even still now, feel understood and not so alone in the world was incredibly joyful. To appreciate the massive contributions of Moon and Entwistle, two of the greatest rock virtuosos that ever will be, and to mourn their loss added another layer of sadness and gratitude. To hear that fantastic majestic piece of music performed by a full rock orchestra was awesome. To have a deeper understanding of the composer’s intentions and motivations and why the music moves me so much took this far beyond just a rock concert. To hear it build through the first stage-setting half into the power and bombast of the second half was thrilling. When Doctor Jimmy finished and the music slipped into The Rock with the first hints of Love Reign O’er Me, I could feel the impending glorious crescendo of redemption. The spiritual theme of Quadrophenia is the antithesis of the religious hypocrisy that I was force-fed yet rejected as a child. I realized in a more complete way than ever before that this music speaks eloquently yet subtly the truths that have always been in my heart and my mind as far back as I can remember, ones that no one in my family will ever share with me. Townshend, as the composer of these songs, not only understands the things I believe, but he believes in their importance enough to make it his life’s work to express them in music, a potent combination of big truths and grandiose powerful music. To hear it played by him was to be validated, accepted, understood. All these feelings swirling around, expressed in movement, rocking out, air-guitar, fans joining together with the band, out came the tears, weeping in pleasure, sadness, joy, relief. There it was, the transcendent experience that The Who had delivered to so many thousands of fans over the years, the highest level that a rock concert can attain, Townshend’s life work coming to fruition yet again, a symbiotic union of band and audience joining together to have a spiritual transformative experience, just like on the 1969 and 1970 tours, just like what he tried but failed to achieve again for the Lifehouse shows in 1971 and the ill-fated Quadrophenia tour in 1974. So much gratitude coming out of me for his music and what it means. It was truly a priceless, overwhelming, soul-cleansing experience of catharsis that doesn’t come around all that often and one that I am deeply grateful and extremely fortunate to have experienced. I’m so glad that I lived in the times when the great masters of rock still played their masterpieces
Long Live Rock!