Knowing when to call it quits: The Who

June 28, 2011

Daltrey and Townshend. Photo credit Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

I just read an interesting article in Rolling Stone about The Who’s struggles with being aging rock stars. Lead singer Roger Daltrey is having trouble hearing himself and is unhappy with the quality of his voice. This may be a hearing issue, after years of aural abuse to their ears the band can’t hear so well these days. He blames it on the sound system and is investing in a new one. Good luck on that, Roger. Lead guitarist Pete Townshend said of Daltrey: “…he always ends up distraught, sobbing in a corner somewhere”–– which Daltrey doesn’t deny. Roger is also concerned about Pete whose well-known struggle with his hearing loss is making creating the old sound rather difficult as he/they can’t really hear what they are doing.

Is this our version of the famous moment where Beethoven stands before the orchestra playing his ninth symphony, stone deaf, but following the music, I assume, by watching the orchestra. Beethoven didn’t call it quits because of his deafness. He heard his music in his inner ear, and affixed it to notation for future generations to play. The Who doesn’t really have that luxury. They have their legacy set in vinyl and 1’s and 0’s in recordings. That is how rock stars pass down their legacy. In hopes of making more money and revisiting old times, greying bands do reunion tours. Some audiences don’t mind that it ain’t the same; others know that this may be the last time they hear their old favorite band and choose to remember the way it used to be.

My dear friend, Mark Carlson, posted an article on his blog announcing his retirement from playing the flute––an interesting read for aging performers.

I am retiring in a few days as Chair of the UCLA Department of Music, and will retire as a professor of music in spring 2013. I’m ready and will cherish my final time as a teacher. And I am confident that as I shut one door, others will open. I highly doubt that Daniel will find me collapsed in a corner of our new home sobbing, missing my time as Chair, nor when I retire from teaching. None of my colleagues have missed teaching after they retired. They celebrate their new found freedom.

Although I don’t know the financial health of The Who, I suspect that they could retire and be just fine for the rest of their lives.

A word to the [younger] wise: don’t fool yourselves in rock concerts–WEAR EARPLUGS. Remember that when you have ringing in your ears after attending a loud concerts, you have done irreparable damage to your hearing and it will never come back. I give this commercial to my students year after year and I fear most don’t believe me. I have mild tinnitus that comes and goes which I have learned to live with. I also have deafness in my family, so I know hearing issues may be part of my future.

Although they didn’t have hearing problems, The Beatles knew when the time to call it quits was nigh. The nostalgic millions wanted a reunion, but that never happened.

Pete, Roger, perhaps it’s time to call it quits. Grow old and accept your limitations. We will still love you, listen to and value your music.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Leonid June 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I’m not sure I like the word “retirement”. Some of my friends, lawyers and investment bankers, are “retired” at thirty-five. That doesn’t make them nostalgic and/or lost per se, it’s merely a characterization of their position vis-a-vis an area of human activity that they despise and no long have to be part of. As one of my professors used to say “You can call a cat a dog if you want, it’s a characterization issue”. Some would call it “retirement”, others would call it a starting point of self-liberation of the self.

Well, that’s the relative disadvantage of being a performer vs. composer. A composer is like an army general, he uses his intellect and tells other people what to do. He doesn’t need to to do twenty push-ups in a row. But a good performer has to be in good shape, the best performers have to be in always prepared for the unknown.

I would say, taking someone from the world of jazz, that, say Keith Jarrett, has to be not only well-trained like a Navy seal, but always ready to deploy his skill set as required (by the concert schedule).

A conductor, like a composer, is at the head of the chain-of-command. Conductors tend to live long lives. Why, well because he sucks up the energy of all of the “solder” musicians up the chain of command to his brain.

There are notable exceptions, such as, say, Metallica, or Arthur Rubinstein – and I apologize for being a little eclectic here – where respective performers tend to transcend the boundaries, set by stereotypes.

Speaking about transcending things that blocks us, there’s an interesting chap called Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche:

He uses the metaphors of Tibetian five-elements teachings to boost our creative blocks through the recombination of our life experiences techniques, transforming pain into what he calls the path.

In any event, let me say that finding a good composition teacher is not easy. I took three counterpoint lessons from a professional composer. It was interesting. However, his hidden irritation with me was so intense, that I felt I had to quit. I am now refreshing elementary theory on my own, using KBA software and Auralia, but I have yet to find a good guide.

I am finding that harmony is a strange discipline, and even though I remember the chord classifications and inversions from childhood studies, from elementary theory, I am now wondering whether it’s REALLY a composer’s discipline. It’s clearly a part of musical erudition, but it strikes me more as reverse-engineering existing works. It’s not really a method of creating new material, which is , after all a composer’s subject matter, while the music scholar’s subject matter is classification (much like the relation between writer and philologist, who later puts him in a particular category).

In any event, one piece of advice of this young composer that I took on board was: “Even as you study this [crap?] strict counterpoint, keep writing what your write, otherwise you will be overwhelmed by what could seem like something obsolete and useless”.

Well, now it’s getting completely out of control, because I have no time to study counterpoint, I lost my chance to study with that composer (who teaches polyphony, by the way), and now I have to write as I please, which results in pseudo-counterpoint:

I plan to return to studying counterpoint, which I think IS the composer’s discipline. I think it’s important to transcend our fears and unblock our access to the energy generating reservoir of boundless space, something I hope to grasp from Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

Roger Bourland June 29, 2011 at 6:57 am

I agree, Leonid, about retirement. I have been referring to that word as my “post-UCLA reality” a term I prefer. If I have another 20-30 years to live, the notion of retiring from everything is nonsense so I try to avoid that word. Thanks for your thoughts!

comporgan July 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

There can be a point where a composer is ready to retire but as with conductors their longevity is much greater. The norm is composers do not have to attain the levels of a professional performer. However, their is a hidden assumption, that performers must have a high degree of virtuosity to make a living. Well, I have heard some organists and wedding bands and the performers do not need that much virtuosity to perform the literature. Rather, the skill set today is more in line to what was required of performers from Classical/Early Romantic and earlier eras – improvisation being the central keystone, arranging/composition, and then some virtuosity. This is why Bach is a bit of a freak as he encompassed both at very high levels. Nevertheless, most of his virtuoso keyboard works were written early in his career when he was the organist/music director at a church. Later in his career he moved more to a role of a conductor/music director/master contrapuntalist as well as composer. Returning to my point the rise of virtuoso performers from the late 19th to mid 20th century can be said to be over – in part due to trends in composition (the resurgence of improvisation in composition – thanks going to Jazz). And yet even in that exceptional time of the virtuoso performers several like Horowitz were fantstic arrangers and several you adept at preluding – that is improvising little intros to some classics.

As for counterpoint and Harmony. Well, I think composers should understand harmony as it arises from counterpoint. I do prefer the jeppenson text to study Palestrinian counterpoint because it is a counterpoint moving toward the harmonic/continuo based trends to come in the 17th century and remaining quite conservative for its time.

From such a point, you can move toward harmonic practices found in late Baroque (and in them the seeds of late Romanticism, just listen to Bach’s St John Passion). Finally, to understand a good deal of modern masters such as Ligeti, it actually is best to study 13th and 14th century ars nova. You must remember for years Ligeti was a counterpoint teacher in Eastern Europe before he abandoned the social realism style and found his own way. Check, Naxos CD of all the Ligeti string quartets to hear his early quartet written in the social realism style. Even Schoenberg wrote several choral works based on German folk tunes (again check naxos for the recordings) in the 20’s and later in the 40’s when he was in the US. The language could easily be found in Praetorius’ or Schutz’s contrapuntal works.

And in the end, your composition teacher is write – you study the models as a researcher would study past case studies over huge spans of time. From there you hear the things you enjoy and find out why. It may be an old model that you find something new. And then you forget following the rules to the letter. That is composition.

comporgan July 8, 2011 at 9:33 am

Egad, pardon the typos and length of the above post! Your comment Leonid touched on a few favorite subjects of mine.

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