Yesterday I wrote about the experience of singing Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia, including the odd feeling of being a backup singer for some of the biggest names in rock and roll and of being inside a rock concert at normally staid Tanglewood. But what about the work? Did it, well, work?
I should acknowledge, to begin with, that I was unfamiliar with Quadrophenia except by reputation before this all began. I knew “Love Reign O’er Me,” and I had heard Pete Townshend perform “Drowned” in a solo acoustic set as part of the video release of Amnesty International benefit The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. I knew the Mods/Rockers plot and the concept of multiple personal disorder that the title refers to (“Schizophrenic? I’m bleeding quadrophenic“). And I knew about the character of the Ace Face, because Sting played him in the 1979 feature film based on the rock opera.
But the material?
So, first of all, a rock opera isn’t an opera. The songs are songs, not arias. And yet… the musical themes carry from number to number (“Is it me for a moment,” “The Real Me,” and other motifs appear in several tracks, as does the chugging honky-tonk of “5:15”). The emotional arc of the show carries us from Jimmy’s bold statement of theme (“The Real Me” again) through despair and nihilism to a final desperate statement of hope.
And there is a real emotional story at the core, an exploration of what it means to be a man when all the supports for manhood are crumbling around you. Jimmy looks for approval from his father and mother but doesn’t find it. He falls back to the approval of his tribe (“Why should I care if I have to cut my hair? I’ve gotta move with the fashions or be outcast”). He looks at his Mod band idols to realize that they offer nothing more than the fashion he’s already growing disillusioned with (“You declared you would be three inches taller/You only became what we made you”). He takes a manual labor job and realizes that the workers are being abused but won’t stand up to protest (“The Dirty Jobs”: “My karma tells me/You’ve been screwed again/If you let them do it to you/You’ve got yourself to blame/It’s you who feels the pain/It’s you who takes the shame/…You men should remember how you used to fight”). He feels threatened by the changes to his society, the arrival of black immigrants taking jobs and the mechanization affecting even retail jobs (“Helpless Dancer”).
And so he turns to casual sex, and fighting, and ultimately slides into homelessness and despair, and strands himself on a rock in a torrential rainstorm, pleading for love to rain over him in a lyric that has echoes of The Waste Land (as well as the teachings of Pete’s guru Meher Baba).
Lyrically it’s a bleak journey but a fully realized one. Robert Christgau thought so: “… if Townshend’s great virtue is compassion, this is his triumph — Everykid as heroic fuckup, smart enough to have a good idea of what’s being done to him and so sensitive he gets pushed right out to the edge anyway.”
And as a classical crossover work? I think the real challenge that this production faces comes down to sound. For instance, there’s percussion aplenty — various drums including an enormous bass drum, timpani, snare — but if not mixed well you can still get complaints, as we did from one reviewer, that the drums weren’t there. But the visceral punch of the Who orchestration is traded for the grandeur of a full orchestral (and choral) treatment, as heard in “Love Reign O’er Me.”
And the songs are first-class earworms. I’ve had “The Real Me,” “Is It In My Head?,” “5:15” and of course “Love Reign O’er Me” in my head for the better part of two weeks now. With any luck, our rehearsals of the Berlioz Damnation of Faust will finally chase them away.