Artistic intent versus audience interpretation

Ray Liotta is a working actor, but we’re not paying his bills.

new-yorker-cover-bert-ernieOne of my favorite Pete Townsend solo tracks is Let My Love Open the Door from his 1980 album Empty Glass. I recall that there was some conversation about whether the song was religious in nature, as Townsend occasionally hinted. or a romantic song.

Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t matter. Whatever the artist’s vision of the work, how the audience perceives it will usually carry the day.

So I found the whole rather vigorous discussion of whether Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street were gay – it made several mainstream news stories – as rather beside the point. As Muppeteers Frank Oz and the late Jim Henson came up with them, the characters reflected their friendship.

When Sesame Street scriptwriter Mark Saltzman noted in an interview that he wrote Bert and Ernie with his longterm relationship with film editor Arnold Glassman, that was his process. He clarified to the New York Times, “As a writer, you just bring what you know into your work. Somehow, in the uproar, that turned into Bert and Ernie being gay. There is a difference.”

The Sesame Street folk responded, initially awkwardly. Ultimately, the audience decides what it chooses to believe.

Another showbiz buzz this month involved Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens found working at a Trader Joe’s market. Beyond the pushback against some trying to shame him is a more basic reality; you don’t always get that next job in the entertainment world.

It’s not for me to judge if GoodFellas costar Ray Liotta does a commercial for Chantix, an anti-smoking drug. He’s a working actor, but we’re not paying his bills. If he needs the money or loves the product or both, so be it.

Working actress Blythe Danner is still in those ads for Prolia, an injection to fight osteoporosis. Ditto for her.

That said, I STILL wish the flood of pharmaceutical ads would end in the US. But we’re quite unlikely to see that genie put back into the bottle.

Pete Townshend is 70

‘A little! That’s good. Love is universal. Limitless.’

townshend_pete_best_of_pete_townshendAs I’ve noted, I really enjoyed the Pete Townshend autobiography, Who I Am. It was a warts-and-all look at his family and other relationships, his music, and especially his not-always-appropriate behavior.

I’d previously noted my favorite songs by the Who. Here’s just a few Townshend solo songs, mostly from two albums, though I own at least eight of them, mostly on vinyl.

6. Give Blood, from White City – A Novel. As a long-time blood donor, I approve of the title, though that’s not what it’s about. In fact, the song’s construction was quite peculiar. From my second-favorite Townsend album.

5. Heart to Hang Onto, from Rough Mix. This is from the album Pete did with Ronnie Lane in 1976. During the recording of it, Lane was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; he suffering from the disease for 21 years, before dying in 1997 at the age of 51.

4. Empty Glass, from Empty Glass. Back in the days when my friend Fred Hembeck was living in Rensselaer County, across the river from Albany County, I once took a bus to visit him. On the way there, I walked by some department store, and went inside, for some reason. (I THINK it was raining.) I found the Empty Glass album as a cutout. (If you’ve never seen a cutout album, it has a slit into the cardboard in the upper right corner.) In any case, I LOVED that album, and still do.

3. A Little Is Enough, from Empty Glass (#72 in US Billboard). Townsend himself prefers this song to the larger hit from this album (see below). Pete tells this story: “Meher Baba’s secretary Adi Irani made a visit to London around this time, I tried to get his advice. ‘My wife doesn’t love me anymore,’ I said. ‘What should I do?’ ‘She doesn’t love you at all?’ he wobbled his head as he spoke. ‘She said she loved me a little.’ ‘Ah!’ Adi clapped his hands and smiled. ‘A little! That’s good. Love is universal. Limitless. So even a little is enough.'”

2. Face the Face, from White City (#26 in the US). This is a loud, bodacious song, especially the percussion near the beginning, with a big band feel. Townshend’s daughter Emma Townshend sings some parts.

1. Let My Love Open the Door, from Empty Glass (#46 in the UK, #9 US). I got annoyed with Townshend for being such a scold with his public for thinking this was a romantic love song. He claimed that was a spiritual treatise, and that “Jesus sings” on the track. Incidentally, there was a remake of this song – the E cola mix – and like most of these musical makeovers, I think it’s a lesser effort, though it’s twice as long.

Book Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townshend

Townshend foresaw a day when music would be delivered digitally long before it happened.

I was a fairly big fan of the band The Who. I never bought any of their singles – I wasn’t much into 45s – and the first album I picked up wasn’t until Tommy (1969), but I purchased every studio album since, the earlier The Who Sell Out, as well as Live at Leeds and a couple compilations.

The lead guitarist of The Who, Pete Townshend, has written an extraordinary book, Who I Am. Part of the great strength of the book is based on Townsend’s fortunate habit of keeping journals.

The first part has amazing detail about his parents and grandparents even before he was born. I’m jealous; I wish I had such information about my recent ancestors. Then he talks about the development of the band. I’ve read a number of rock biographies, some of them quite good. It’s different, though, when one hears the story from the point of view of one of the participants, especially one who writes so well and so thoroughly.

The development of the rock opera Tommy is fully explained. It utilizes, as a jumping-off point, some of the actual abuse Pete experienced while in a grandparent’s care. He added the pinball motif fairly late in the game, in order to get a better review.

Teenage Wasteland

He explores the stresses on the now successful band, after Woodstock, Live at Leeds, and the Who’s Next album. In some ways, the pressure was just as great as when the band struggled to find an identity. The smashed guitars were an artistic expression, not just random mayhem.

Somewhere in this period, particularly after Who drummer Keith Moon died, I was hoping that Pete would stop with the sex and drugs, and stick to the rock and roll. His (now ex-)wife Karen must have been a saint. He could not quit the booze until 1994, though he had tried as early as 1981.

Townshend summarizes, right before his successful abstinence: “Although my marriage was failing, I had a beautiful son as well as two beautiful daughters who were doing well at university, I had fallen in love, and the girl I had found was slowly falling in love with me too. And I was rich. So what was messing me up?

“It would be easy to point to alcohol, but the problem wasn’t the booze; it was the fact that it longer worked as a medicine to fix the dire consequences of my self-obsession, overwork, selfishness, and manic-depression.”

I enjoyed watching his interaction with a variety of musicians, from the evolving relationship with Who singer Roger Daltry to folks such as Joan Baez, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon.

A great read, which he started way back in 1996, and once Pete got his head on straight, I wanted to read more. The false accusation that he was dealing with child pornography wounded him greatly. He foresaw a day when the music would be delivered digitally long before it happened. An interesting feature, mostly in the latter half of the text, are footnotes to The Who website, probably in part a function of having to reduce the manuscript from 1000 pages to 500.

Highly recommended.


Rolling Stone book review.

Pete Townshend receives 2013 Les Paul Award.

Lefty Brown reviews Quadrophenia.


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