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The first time I saw The Who was almost by accident. My friends and I were four teenage scouts who knew that our scouting life was almost over. I was having a hard time with the blind patriotism the organization insisted on and my friends were turning their interests to the world of girls and music. However, we still liked to camp out and were just a little afraid to tell our dads that the scouting life was over. So we played along, pretending to our parents that we were good scouts and at the same time always looking for a way to turn our scouting trips into something more interesting. So when we came upon the ten mile traffic jam on Route 29 going towards Columbia, Maryland, we were quite curious. There were longhaired young people walking along the road, hanging out of car windows, flashing peace signs, and (as I found out a year later when I was handed a joint while listening to a street singer in a subway station in Frankfurt) smoking pot. One of my friends reminded us that there was a Who concert that evening and the four of us in the car decided that the concert sounded much more interesting than the swimming trip we were planning to take. So we moved into the flow of traffic and ended up in the parking lot of the concert site. Although we did not have tickets, we stayed on the fringes of the crowd and listened to the band. The Woodstock festival had occurred only days before and we wanted to be part of the newly formed Woodstock Nation. I didn’t know that Pete Townshend had tossed Yippee Abbie Hoffmann from the stage, but had a greater sense that somehow the culture and the politics were not so far apart, despite their differences of opinion about how to reach the promised land.
The highlight of that show was the song “I’m Free” from the rock opera Tommy. In the opera the song is a celebration of a new awareness from the autistic protagonist, but to me and millions of others the words “Freedom tastes of reality” echoed the place we were trying to get to. Freedom from the stultifying past of our parents and the culture of war and the gray flannel suit. Freedom from the rat race of profit and credit and the politics of fear. From today’s perspective, it’s cleat that we haven’t made it there, but in 1969 it certainly seemed possible.
The next time I saw The Who was in 1973 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The album Who’s Next was riding the charts and “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Baba O’Riley” were our anthems. Like most rock songs, the lyrics were ambiguous. Libertarian capitalists could find their sentiments in “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” and so could us leftie-anarchists. The concert was in the Kongresshalle and the music was the loudest I have ever heard. It must have been the acoustics of the place. Townshend recently commented that the song was not an indictment or a judgment, but a prayer. Hence the lyrics “I’ll get down on my knees and pray…”
He made this statement on his blog in reaction to the song being named the number one conservative rock song by National Review online. In his statement, he acknowledges that it was written back in 1971 as a reaction to the constant requests from leftist groups to play benefits for their various causes. That perspective changed in 1985, he writes, to a refusal to be judged by people he found jaded and compliant in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The blog entry ends with Townshend’s observation that he is only a songwriter. What people make of the song after he gives it away is often something completely different from the writer’s original intentions. From his bandmate Roger Daltrey’s vocal interpretation to that of each individual listener is a long and often strange journey. At times, even twisted. To illustrate his point, Townshend mentions the use of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by Spike Lee in his film Summer of Sam. Lee told Pete that he “deeply understood Who music.” Like any listener, however, what he really understood was his understanding of Who music. A perhaps better known example of Townshend’s point would be Charlie Manson and his understanding of the Beatles White Album.
Given the nature of rock and roll and its multilevel impact/interaction with its fans, songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” will always be open to whatever interpretation one wishes to make of them. Even when they are used in corporate advertising it is possible to place them in a context other than that intended by the advertiser. Indeed, who remembers the product that used the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” I certainly don’t. However, if one of you readers do, that only proves Townshend’s point–these songs are understood from the point of view of the listener. That’s part of what makes a good rock song a universal one.
As it turns out, Townshend later said that he was pissed about being interrupted at Woodstock, not about anything Abbie Hoffman said. Of course, back in 1969, the episode was not only the topic of many a counterculture radical conversation, the discussion took up hundreds of column inches in underground papers throughout the western world. In the twenty-first century, rock music is also the music of many on the right. Even Chrisitan rightwingers have rock festivals. When they tip their hat to the new revolution, we better be sure to get down on our knees and pray.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: email@example.com