Saturday, January 23, 2010

Jane Loves Keith

Life, Death, and the Drums

Jane loved the Who.

She had all their albums. She'd seen them live twice. Once I caught a glimpse of a tattoo she had that said "Maximum R&B."

But it was the 70s and the Who were in serious decline. They'd followed the brilliance of their late-60s mod singles with the genius (and pomposity) of Tommy, the incoherence of Lifehouse -- which still somehow birthed the amazing Who's Next -- and the insane power (and borderline incoherence) of Quadrophenia.

And then came the slide. Everyone was fighting with everyone else. Pete Townsend's hearing was shot. Roger Daltry thought he was a movie star. John Entwistle was spending money like it was going out of style. And Keith Moon was drinking. A lot.

The Who By Numbers was aptly named and contained the insufferably awful "Squeeze Box." Solo albums by various members started appearing and Keith Moon seemed more alcohol- and drug-fueled rampages with Ringo, Harry Nilsson, and others than in making music. He'd collapsed drunk onstage during a show. He'd gained a lot of weight. He had trouble breathing, could barely play his drum parts correctly, and was openly talking about who should replace him in the band if "anything happens."

Jane camped out in front of a local record store in the center of town so she could be the first one to buy Who Are You the day it was released. (She could have saved herself the trouble, slept in comfort in her own bed, and arrived at any time that morning -- by 1978 there was no sense of urgency or mad rush to buy a new Who album drenched in synths.) Jane talked about going to Los Angeles where her cousin lived (and knew all the places Keith liked to drink). She didn't think it was unreasonable that she and Keith would someday marry; after all, she was almost 18 and he was barely 31. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

And then...

Keith Moon started taking a prescription drug to lessen the effects of alcohol withdrawal. The maximum dosage was 3 pills over the course of 24 hours. He was told to take one whenever he felt the urge to drink, so one night in September he took 32 pills. And died.

Jane came into school the next day wearing a black armband.

When the Who toured the next year with the drummer from the Small Faces, Jane didn't even bother to get tickets. "It's not really the Who," she said. When festival-seating crowds in Cincinnati stampeded and killed 11 fans, Jane took it as a sign that the band was cursed and shouldn't carry on without Keith.

I didn't know her that well, so I never talked to her about this. Until 20 years later, when I ran into her on a visit back to my hometown. We both found ourselves inside a Starbucks located at the exact spot where a great record store once stood.

She remembered the black armband, but told me she wasn't so much mourning for the band. "I'd started drinking at parties," she said. "And when I got drunk, Keith's drumming seemed mystical, like he was an out-of-control shaman sent from the other side. And I wanted to be out of control, to get beyond our suburban lives, to be like Keith. Until he died. And after that I didn't have a drop to drink for 5 years."

She admitted her cousin in Los Angeles had never seen Keith Moon. And her "tattoo"? Stenciled in semi-permanent marker that took three weeks to completely wash/scrape off. When I teased her about her boasts that she'd someday marry Keith Moon, she just smiled. Because she did get married -- to a drummer. A solid, dependable guy who worked in a bank and played in a cover band on weekends. "He may not be known all around the world," she said, "but he's healthy and alive and dependable."

We spent maybe a half-hour together. We talked about people we knew and the ways the town had changed. By the time we finished our drinks, we ran out of things to say and exchanged information with vague plans to keep in touch. We both got up to leave and heard the familiar opening of an old Who song on the sound system. But not one of their great songs. Not even one of their good songs.

Standing in that Starbucks, in the spot where I'd spent hours flipping through used records when I was younger, I winced at the intro to "Squeeze Box."

I looked over at Jane and we both said (at exactly the same time) "I always hated this song." Long Live Rock, indeed.


Anonymous said...

It's two words: Squeeze Box. (Still a crappy song though)

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Confession: I never hated Squeeze Box, and in fact have notes in my blog folder that would have me including it in a Whoamusanyway Top 10 List of Songs of Outrageous Sexual Innuendo that for Reasons Unknown to Man Got Radio Play Anyway.

For me, it's a light song, a fun, dirty, witty song. I mean who else would dare broach the unthinkable concept to teen fans that their moms and dads were having a hell of lot more good sex than they were?

It's just not a great Who song.

In other words, while it for sure would not appear in my Top 25 Who Songs, neither would it appear in my Top 100 Songs I Hate by Good Bands.

I love your story of the Who girl by the way -- I'd have been her slave had I met her in high school. :-)

And I dunno about you, but your Who Are You video -- done well after their prime -- strikes me as just wonderful.

God the Who were great.

And so is your blog -- another in a long streak of great posts, Alex.

Alex said...

Who Am Us, okay... now you know I'm jonesing for that Top 10 list!

I guess if I hadn't heard "Squeeze Box" a million times on the radio, I wouldn't dislike it so much. It's kind of like Chuck Berry's "My Ding A Ling": annoying and clearly not in the same league as their great stuff, but probably not worth getting too upset about.

Thanks for reading & for your comments.

JackBurns40 said...

Sad to say, I've always had a soft spot for Squeeze Box. Maybe I'm just getting old.