Four Part Harmony: Quadro Live

It could have been the three shots of tequila, my two college buddies, or the one long ride to the top of the Boston Garden, but it was probably all three. Whatever the reason, something inspired me to reach out to the ring of gangly guys queued on the escalator steps in front of me. “You dudes are what,” I asked, “19, 20 years old?”

“21 Bro.”

“And you’re Who fans?”

“Absolutely.”

I shook my head, smiled, and extended a closed hand. In less than a second it got a four-fisted bump in return. It was that kind of evening - a night when kids younger than my children sang and swayed side by side with geezers like me. Only music has that kind of unifying power – and for me – the biggest, baddest, nuclear reactor of the rock music I love has always been fueled by Pete Townshend and Company. But as much as I love The Who hits that form the backbone of any respectable classic-rock catalog, every one of my family member knows I’m not going mobile into my next life with anything from Who’s Next. There's to be only one requiem played at my funeral: Quadrophenia.

Even so, I almost missed my chance to see the band’s oceanic opus of teen anger and angst performed live a mere two hours from my home. The moment I heard the “Quadrophenia and More” tour announced, I set an iCal alert to buzz me on the hour the tickets first went on sale. But as I clicked through my bills the night before that deadline, I convinced myself that my obligation to my mortgage outweighed the distant call of rock and roll. At 54, I’d decided that the seminal soundtrack of my youth was a selfish obsession I could no longer afford to entertain. 

That didn’t mean I’d gone completely tone-deaf to the siren songs of my youth. Tooling around town, nothing can move my hand quicker from the steering wheel to the stereo knob than the oscillating sway of synthesizers that launch “Baba O’Riley.” Still, I rarely punch the song on my playlist these days. And I’m ashamed to admit my Pandora streams are dominated by the kind of ambient music that sits comfortably in the background so I can get my work done. 

In the end, however, the late-life drift from action to reflection that had cooled rock’s flame for me did the same for the hero who got it fired up again. At 67, Townshend has more right than I to turn the view on his life backwards. He did just that in his recently released autobiography: Who I Am. Night after night I sat rapt in bed, my face lit by the light of my ipad and Pete’s history of the people and passions that shaped the songs I’ve adopted as my own. One evening, as I pictured him strolling the beaches of Brighton with his reel-to-reel in hand, culling the sounds of surf that anchor Quadropenia’s score, I simply decided I had to pay whatever price I needed for my last chance to hear the music live. 

There was no way I was going to drive to Boston without at least attempting to corral the two lifelong friends that shared my Quadrapho-mania. The beat of Keith Moon’s drum had drawn Hutch and I to Cat’s basement dorm room three-dozen years ago. That meeting began both our lifelong friendship and allegiance to the band. As I framed my email to the boys I wondered just how long it might take me to convince them to buck their responsibilities for a chance to pretend that they were gone. The answer was the fifteen minutes it took the two of them to cc me that they were in.

An hour later I took three tickets out of my printer tray and tacked them on the wall where they stayed for the next month. I’d spy them when I looked up from emails and assignments and dream about my upcoming dive into the past. I’ve found that even the simplest of songs can be a ticket to that ride.  One tired top-40 ditty never fails to jet me across the country and the years to the sixteenth summer I spent in the Pacific Northwest. And Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” will forever be gilded in the golden Miami sunshine that frames the memories of my courtship of my wife. But an 82-minute, 17-song, sonic tapestry of rock, orchestral, and natural soundscapes is no petty pop-tune, and the 15,000 new friends that joined Hutch, Cat and I at the Garden were drawn by more than some vague desire to day-trip through the good old days. Proust may have had his tea-soaked madeleine as the pastry that put him in the past, but for us, the real doorway to our youth that evening opened with “The Real Me.” Then the story I knew so well unfolded in grand and unexpected ways. 

Quadrophenia splits the psyche of “Jimmy” - the troubled youth at the center of Townshend’s rock opera - into four personalities meant to represent each member of the band. Jimmy is a tough guy (Roger) romantic (John) Lunatic (Keith) and hypocrite (Pete). The traits Pete assigned to his band mates reflect the same sense of compassion I discovered in Who I Am. Given the outrageous behavior that defined his life, Keith Moon was probably proud to wear the lunatic label Pete gave him for his slice of Jimmy. And a tough guy and romantic are badges of honor for the few men lucky enough to strut and swoon upon a stage. But Townshend reserved the most contemptible quadrant of Jimmy’s character – the hypocrite – for himself. It was proof that the 27 year old who penned his anthem of alienation was much wiser than just any angry young man.

With a storyline so intimately linked to each band member, Pete and Roger found a way to bring their two departed band mates back for the 2012 tour. Each one appeared in the central circular Jumbotron that was part of the set of screens that framed the 10-piece band. Video of a young Keith had him singing lead vocals on “Bell Boy” while the band played to his recorded beat. John’s turn came in the form of video shot late in his career. I sat open-mouthed as I watched his fingers fly across the fret board, a frenzy of movement that contrasted with the beatific smile that shone from a face framed by a mane of long, gray hair. That blistering bass solo on “5:15” was one of the most amazing demonstrations of musicianship I’ve ever seen - good enough to allow a dead man to steal the show. 

Those two cameos underscored the singular chemistry that made the original four members of the band so much greater than the sum of their parts. Most rock tunes have my attention squarely focused on the lead singer, with my ear turning to the lead guitar at the scripted moments designed to feature that instrument’s roar. But in a Who song I hear each instrument as both a single voice and member of the chorus. The band’s music forever destroyed my misconception that the rhythm section is doomed to play second fiddle in a band. Ringo’s son Rich Starkey and the bass veteran Pino Palidino played inspired drums and bass in their performances that evening, choosing wisely to interpret - not mimic - the music of the men who helped shape the music they played. There’s not a drummer of bassist on earth who could have recreated the lunacy or romance of the music of Keith and John.

The portraits of those rock icons were only part of the images that floated in the Garden to underscore Pete’s score. The circular screen they appeared in was flanked by two more, and complimented with three larger rectangular monitors below. This suite of screens shaped a shifting collage that changed in form and function all evening long. At times they were linked to create a single, segmented zoom-view of the band below. At other times a spotlighted musician was featured in an individual window that captured the fingers and faces that moved with the music that played the band. And sometimes the frames were filled with a rich palette of cultural, historical, and natural videos and stills. Boldly colored Who graphics and portraits of the band in their early days were spliced between shots of the rival Mod and Rocker gangs featured in Quadro’s storyline. And golden seascapes and iconic images of 20th century conflict faded in and out to expand upon the small war for peace that reigned in Jimmy’s soul. 

As I watched and listened, I came to my own interpretation of Quadro’s four-part structure. A Who concert is much more than an auditory exercise - it’s a full-body experience that leave its listeners fired and wired from head to toe. And when that happens, somewhere between the stage and our seats, the band becomes our body. Pete is our brain, the instrument that filters meaning from the mess of life and shapes it to sing from his songs and strings. Roger is our lungs, drawing in our fear of isolation with each new breath before giving voice to the common truths that comfort and connect us. Keith is our heart, both the steady beat that sustains us and the jackhammer jolt that shocks us from complacency to remind us that we’re alive. And John is the balls of an unapologetically male band - the primal drive that can strip the thin veneer off the “respectable” behavior of an arena full of middle-aged men and women to unleash their inner teens. I was certainly one of them, shouting myself hoarse just like the matronly bleached-blonde beside me. I don’t think I saw anything more beautiful than her that evening. I watched the years and pounds disappear from her smiling face as she bopped and beamed to every single song.

That same ageless grace was also echoed down below. At times Roger struggled to hit the high notes, and the soft falsetto that had served Pete so well for so many years had deepened into an inspired growl. But nobody really cared. Both men and the rest of the band delivered what we came for: a performance that captured the ebb and flow of joy and pain that runs through their songs and our lives. They were old men playing young men’s music, reminding us of the distance we’d traveled with them from our prime to that night. Their voices and faces may have been worn rougher by time, but it made the signature dances of their bodies that much sweeter: Roger still spun and launched and caught his mike. Pete still windmilled through the power chords.

Quadrophenia was - is - the perfect music to take me back. Back to the birth of the friendship of the two men I sat beside, a friendship born in the easiest of places: the carefree womb of college, but that has weathered separation and change to prove the strength of our eternal bond. And even farther back, to the hi-fi in my childhood living room, where the stack of vinyl records first revealed the sonata form to me. Where Mozart and Tchaikovsky taught me that music could be realized as a grand thematic idea – expressed in exposition, elaborated in development and resolved in recapitulation. It was a structure I’d rejected in my teens for the quick, hot, hit of mainlined rock and roll. But the moment I sat in Cat’s basement dorm, I found and fell for the singular score that married those two forms.

And in the end, Quadrophenia takes those of us who love it back even further, back to the endless ocean that runs like the tides throughout its score. The video artist who painted the final screens for us that night understood the primal beauty of that place. Somehow Roger found the voice of his youth for the end of our evening together, hitting every high note of “Love, Reign O’er Me” as we watched the shimmering blacks, greens and whites of a digital fractal-waterfall stream down the screens that surrounded the band.

The music stopped, but didn’t. I was carried by its memory on the wave of the crowd, down and down and down the stairwells that led from the top of the Garden, hearing laughter and song and not a single angry word. Then the doors opened and we poured out into the bright cold of the November night, breaking apart in rivers and streams, running across the city and to our homes, where we carried the memory of that evening and its music into the rest of our lives. I can hear it even now:

Let me flow into the ocean,
Let me get back to the sea,
Let me be stormy and let me be calm,
Let the tide in, and set me free.

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