When I was a sophomore at Rutgers University, I read an article in the school newspaper that mentioned an album that was very near and dear to my heart, The Who‘s 1973 masterpiece Quadrophenia.
And, because I was a serious music geek, obsessed with Rock & Roll on a scholarly level, and because I was majoring in English literature, writing papers on a nearly constant basis, I sat down at my typewriter and pounded out a letter-to-the-editor in response to the piece I’d read. Only, instead of the few column inches typical for this sort of thing, page after page after page spilled out, with at least a dozen quotes, transcribed from memory.
It was typical of me at the time. I put considerably more effort, my heart and soul really, into that letter than I did into the paper on Shakespeare or something that I should have been working on. It also took me a fraction of the time.
Well, much to my surprise, the letter was published in its entirety, as a full-on article, which was a terrific thrill and an enormous boost to my confidence as a writer. (So, I guess it was probably a good thing, after all, that I was procrastinating that Shakespeare paper.)
One of the reasons why that piece on Quadrophenia was so easy to write was because that album spoke to me and touched me so deeply. Though it was written all the way across the Atlantic, about people and events in a totally different culture, set right around the time I was born, its writer, Pete Townshend, had communicated the essence of what it’s like to grow up, how difficult and confusing and painful it can be, and, as it turns out, though 20 years and many cultural changes had come and gone since the fictional events depicted in Quadrophenia had taken place, so much of the coming-of-age experience had stayed the same, filled with all of the pressures to leave the innocence of childhood behind, to fit in, to get a job and keep it, and to find, if you’re lucky, sometimes against seemingly insurmountable odds, love.
In the video below, a documentary about the making of the album, The Who’s manager, Bill Curbishley, referred to this theme that Townshend had so accurately portrayed as “the universal adolescent problem”.
Anyway, as a father of a 15-year old son, I can see my boy wrestling with this universal problem just like I did, I can see him struggling mightily at times, and in some ways it’s more painful than when I went through it. Parents like me want so badly to protect our children from this kind of thing, and when we see it happening, regardless of our hopes and efforts, we not only feel the pain that our kids are feeling, we feel anger at the world for bringing it upon them, and sometimes anger at ourselves for having failed to protect them from it.
So, you might wonder, if this universal adolescent experience is so painful, why would we want to listen to an album on such a painful subject?
Thing is, we can become tremendously isolated at this time of our lives, born from a sense that we’re the only ones going through what we’re going through. We look around, everyone’s putting on their brave faces, posing their asses off, no one’s talking about their feelings and about how difficult it is to keep up this pretense.
When you hear Quadrophenia, then, it breaks through that isolation, letting you know that you aren’t alone, that you aren’t the only one to have experienced the difficulties you are experiencing, and there’s great relief and comfort in that. Add to this the intense, powerful, pulsing rock music of The Who, and the album becomes a vehicle for this catharsis, this release valve for all the pressure that’s been building up.
I very nearly owe my life to Quadrophenia, and so having stumbled across this documentary on the album was a real treat for me, stirring up considerable memories.
I hereby dedicate this post to my son, who has inherited my vinyl record collection, including Quadrophenia, and I hope that it provides as much comfort and inspiration to him as it did for me.