The album is a weird, wonderful, conceptual mashup of identity and rage, mixing tensions between the four original band members with a progression of drug use and dissociative identity disorders: specifically schizophrenia and split/multiple personalities.
Just like high school; at least how high school feels for many of us much of the time.It didn’t help that I’d seen the Quadrophenia film as well, starring the young Gordon Sumner (aka Sting) as the Ace Face. Between the time of the film’s release in 1979 and 1982, Sting had shot to global stardom with The Police and already had four albums out. In the film, Sting is the coolest of the mods and his conversion from rebel mod on his groovy vespa to sellout middle class bell boy provides the album/film’s protagonist with the identity crisis that drives him to cliffs of Brighton.
In the film’s closing scene you see the Vespa careen down the cliff and smash at the bottom. But I don’t know anybody who reads the scene as a suicide since you’ve already seen Jimmy walk away from the cliff in the film’s opening scene (if I remember it correctly). What he jettisons is his mod identity symbolized by the Vespa.
But the film won’t tell you what new identity he picks up, which is precisely the question my 16-year old self wanted to hear answered. It’s a kind of Catcher in the Rye question: if bourgeois phoniness is death, then what is life?
And you couldn’t very well look to these rockers for answers. By 1982, Sting was already headed towards tantric putzville. He had pretty much become the pop equivalent of bell boy role, jettisoning the early Police vibe for what sounded increasingly like mainstream pop-synthesizer music. Within a year of 1982, The Police had pretty much disintegrated, crashed and burned with “synchronicity.”
Let’s not forget that the UK’s biggest export sensation in the waning hours of 1982 was Wham!
To my 16-year old brain, Pete Townshend believed in his music so much that he bled for it. Yeh, the recent years haven’t been so good for him, but in ’82 he was still beautiful, harnessing all that anger and mayhem in giant windmilling leaps.
I wasn’t completely surprised when they announced that 1982 was the end for them. Moon was long dead and they seemed to be drifting. One last spin across the pond for the big farewell tour and they were history. I desperately wanted to see them. So when they came through Chicago in October and I couldn’t go, I was pretty devastated. I don’t recall why I couldn’t’ go exactly but they came and they left, and I stayed home cranking out 5.15 repeating the lines “magically bored / on a quiet street corner / free frustration / in our minds and our toes.”
In late November, my girlfriend showed up with an early christmas present: two tickets to the December 8 add-on show at the Rosemont Horizon. We took my dead father’s brown Oldsmobile Delta 88 up the tollroad to Rosemont for the evening. I think it was the first time I saw a big show in a large venue and it was magical. They opened with “My Generation” (of course they did) and moved into “I Can’t Explain.” Towards the end they played a couple from Quadrophenia: “5.15” and “Love Reign O’er Me,” which for me was a kind of fitting end for my obsession with the band.
Not long after the concert I smashed my Who-identity-Vespa on the rocks below and moved onto to other bands, trying out other identities.
For the band, it wasn’t their farewell tour at all, even if I still have a bandana from the show that proclaims it. They’re still kicking as their performance in today’s Super Bowl halftime boomer nostalgia show proves. Maybe the “Farewell Tour” concept is/was just another phony act cooked up by some suit in an ad agency.
Eventhough I don’t listen to them anymore, I keep my original Quadrophenia LP framed on the wall of my office. And I still have a couple hundred The Who tracks lurking in my iTunes library but they rarely see the speakers.It still came as a bit of a surprise to me one day coming upstairs in our house to find Grace, my 11-year old, jamming out to The Who while hula-hoopin’ with a blond wig. “Check it out dad, my Roger Daltrey wig,” she called out over the speakers.
Now, finding my daughter hula-hooping or wearing wigs (even a man-wig) isn’t surprising. She scours thrift and costume stores for groovy wigs and is building a nice collection. She’s got a Liz Taylor wig, two Amelia Earhart wigs, a Paula Dean wig. Her Roger Daltrey wig is her only man-wig. It’s the combination of the wig and The Who and what those things meant to me in my own identity-formation that took me back a bit, equally as much as hearing my guileless pre-teen daughter belt out “we’re all wasted.” I pulled out my phone and took a few photos which she gladly obliged and yucked it up.
She wears the wig more than she listens to the music, which is fine by me. In time, she’ll discover her own bands and go to her own concerts and try on new wigs and new ways of moving through this weird, wonderful mashup, with or without her father’s playlist.
But for today, we’re both excited today’s flashback halftime show. The wig is out and ready for a serious halftime air-guitar performance.