In a recent issue of AutoWeek (11/19/01), GloNo‘s own sab created a brilliant piece of writing, essaying the Vespa ET4 scooter, which begins, “For all of you Ace Faces who don’t fancy grubbing up your trousers tinkering with a fiddly and ancient Italian scooter, your day has arrived.”
While it might strike some people as log-rolling to give props to one of our own on this site, I should note that (1) I have personally caused sab undoubtedly the most grief vis-à-vis his prose renderings and have no intention of stopping and (2) it seems to me that a “brilliant piece of writing” is something that causes you to be sufficiently gobsmacked so that you are forced—yes forced—to take action as a result of your reading.
And in the case of the Vespa piece, it drove me to pull out Quadrophenia.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the reference (or as sab describes them in the Vespa piece, “Above Average Joe/Jennifer Jobsworth, you who might think Quadrophenia is something you take Zoloft for”), it is the quintessential Who recording. Whereas Tommy has unquestionably greater visibility and acknowledgement (disc, film, and even Broadway stage spectacular), and while it has been uniformly lauded for being the first “rock opera,” Quadrophenia is beyond comparison. (Which could bring us back to the argument about whether a group’s most popular recording is its best, but I won’t trod down that path for now.) Superficially, Quadrophenia is about the Mods, the likes of whom ride scooters (“I ride my GS scooter with my hair cut neat”) , and the Rockers. Townshend identified with the Mods, who tricked out their scooters in a manner analogous to the way that Civics are being tuned in SoCal today.
While listening, again—and again—to Quadrophenia, I began to think about what makes it such a phenomenal piece of work. It has little to do, I think, with the form, with the fact that whereas most groups circa 1973 were turning out recordings that were discrete bits under four minutes and The Who was out there with something that arrived on two black discs that has a story arc. Rather, I think that what Townshend had exactly put his finger on is something that is rarely captured in music, at least semi-popular music: the feeling that many young men (yes, I realize that this is a sexist approach, but I know no women who are as taken with Quadrophenia, so I can only posit this from my point of view) painfully experience, regardless of time and place.
Consider: Pop music about Women + Men + Love tends to equal something wherein (a) everything is wonderful, (b) one of the parties misses the other who may have fallen out of Love with the other, or (c) well, there doesn’t seem to be a (c). In this formula, the parties are equal. But in Quadrophenia, Jimmy realizes that he’s not equal, that there is a longing for a girl:
The girl I love
Is a perfect dresser,
Wears every fashion
Gets it to the tee.
I got to match her
She knows just how
She wants her man to be
Leave it to me. (“Sea and Sand”)
“She knows just how she wants her man to be,” but it becomes clear that despite his best efforts—
My jacket’s gonna be cut and slim and checked,
Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck.
I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat,
Wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet. (“I’ve Had Enough”)
—he isn’t going to achieve what he’s looking for. There is always something that isn’t quite right in his attempts, he’s always frustrated. He asks himself,
Why do I have to move with a crowd
Of kids that hardly notice I’m around,
I have to work myself to death just to fit in. (“Cut My Hair”)
Yet note that he is working to fit in. What else can he do? The girl he loves clearly moves in a crowd that he’s not a part of, a crowd where the people are somehow different. He asks,
Where do you get
Those blue blue jeans?
They hold secrets so tight.
Where do you get
That warcoat so neat?
Your shoes and your shirts
All just right. (“I’m One”)
Even though he has his own wartime coat, one that he was undoubtedly proud of when he got it, he recognizes that it somehow doesn’t measure up. He knows that his jeans aren’t quite what they should be, especially as the girl he loves “Is a perfect dresser.” And who among us hasn’t had this experience, this personal questioning, at a dance when we were in our teens:
So how come the other tickets look much better?
Without a penny to spend they dress to the letter.
How come the girls come on oh so cool
Yet when you meet ’em, every one’s a fool? (“Sea and Sand”)
Somehow it is the other guys who have been able to pull it off. Somehow the other girls—well, given their rejection, we can only be dismissive of them in order to hold onto a shred of our own ego. “They are stupid, not worth it,” we tell ourselves. Otherwise, we have doubts. . .
I’m dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can’t explain
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain. (“Cut My Hair”)
…we have that “uncertain feeling.” He asks, “Why should I care, why should I care?” and he knows, as we all did, that it goes back to the unrequited love. We dress up. We act the part. We drive the scooter. We act tough. We do what we think will make the different. Yet often,
Here by the sea and sand
Nothing ever goes as planned (“Sea and Sand”)
I can remember clearly when Quadrophenia first came out. I was in my first year of college. And I think my behavior, actions, attitudes were not far away from these. I still see Her every now and then. None of it worked. And I am better for that.
How can rock and roll change your life? I don’t exactly know, but I do know that as I listen to Quadrophenia, sometimes a knowing chill runs down my spine.
Thanks for making me listen again, sab.