Fire chief O'Reilly reporting for duty!

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Fri Jan 2 02:46:51 UTC 2009

>From Michael Tomasky's blog in The Guardian:

Fire chief O'Reilly reporting for duty!

Last night, the annual Kennedy Center Awards were broadcast on American television. The awards pay tribute annually to a selected group of artists and entertainers who've contributed to American culture, and honorees need not be American by birth. So last night's group – which featured Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, George Jones and Twyla Tharp – also included Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey.

It's fashionable to dismiss these shows as so much corn, and of the course the scripted encomia are weighted to death with clichés and other dross, but I also find these events pretty moving. All of the honorees may or may not be my cup of tea, but they're all amazingly talented people who've given the world a lot of happiness.

And it's pretty great also that we've definitively reached the point where the distinctions between genres mean almost nothing. When I was a kid, there were clear walls between rock and Broadway and country and jazz and, of course, classical. I bet Streisand, back in the mid-60s, barely knew who The Who were, and to the extent that she did know, she probably just thought they made a terrible racket. Last night, they showed real admiration for each other, Yitzhak Perlman applauded enthusiastically for Townshend and Daltrey, and Randy Travis did the same for Streisand. So why am I writing about this? Here' why. Baba O'Reilly.

You may be only dimly aware of this in England, but in America, one of The Who's most memorable performances is their set at the McCartney-assembled post-9-11 concert at Madison Square Garden. It was a short-ish set, maybe five or six songs, but they clearly put everything into it. They were old, and you could tell they were tired. Daltrey strained for some notes, but they didn't cheat by, say, dropping Baba down a couple of keys, which would've made it easier on him. They were pros – and incredibly moving.

New York firefighters and cops were given the best orchestra seats. The cameras cut away to shots of various cops and (much more often) firemen screaming ecstatically as the band played, madly pumping their fists into the air, yelling "it's only teenage wasteland" at the top of their lungs, retracing steps back to their youth, a journey rendered all the more poignant in light of the recent events. Baba O'Reilly, even more that night than Won't Get Fooled Again, was the apex of their set, and their set was the apex of the show.

Now, as many of you probably know, Baba O'Reilly was written as part of Townshend's aborted Lifehouse rock opera, which was to be the follow-up to Tommy. Baba refers to Meher Baba, an Indian mystic who died in 1969 and who was influencing Townshend's thinking at the time. The O'Reilly part refers to the minimalist composer Terry Riley, whose work with then-new synthesizers Townshend was emulating.

But the song qua song has a very specific intent, as it was one of the opening numbers of Lifehouse, which was about a future society in which people's emotional lives were programmed by a central totalitarian system. The only challenge to the system comes from, of course, rock'n'roll, still played by some rebel groups, who are planning a big concert in London to try to break the system's power, or something like that. Ray, the singer of Baba O'Reilly, is a Scottish farmer who is coming down to London for the concert with his wife, Sally (hence, "Sally, take my hand/we'll travel south 'cross land").

That's the literal meaning, which is more or less reflected in what I've taken to be the song's cultural meaning over the decades: personal freedom, liberation from convention ("I don't need to be forgiven," and so forth); personal purity, in a way, or the state of being reborn into a higher and freer consciousness. I assume that the famous bridge ("it's only teenage wasteland") was intended as counterpoint, and a disapproving one, to Ray and Sally's sought-after pure state (Baba was anti-drug, and I think I've read that Townshend largely eschewed substances at the time; he went wild in the mid-70s).

But such were the times that the mere mention of the words "wasteland" and "wasted" seemed like an affirmation of getting wasted, so I think for most people the lyric boiled down to, achieve a liberated state by getting f---d up while listening to Who's Next.

And that's what Baba O'Reilly was about, until September 2001, evidently. Because last night (the show was actually recorded December 7), Rob Thomas performed Baba O'Reilly, and pretty lamely I must say – he couldn't begin to hit the notes Daltrey hit and must've dropped the key down three steps, which made the song lose much of its anthemic power (you can switch keys around all over the place in standards, but in rock'n'roll, the key matters a lot).

But toward the end, the curtain behind the musicians lifted, and there stood about 50 or 60 New York firefighters and cops! With an American flag-influenced image behind them. And they repeated the "teenage wasteland" refrain over and over, and they screamed "They're all wasted!" The crowd went wild. And Townshend and Daltrey stood and clapped and even saluted—Daltrey more enthusiastically, but both of them for sure! I couldn't help but laugh. Surely Pete was thinking: "Well, this wasn't quite what I had in mind at the time, but…okay."

So I guess this is what Baba O'Reilly is about now. Firefighters and cops remembering their carefree, alcohol-fueled youthful reveries. Some would say a time of innocence, but I wouldn't, because for me that automatically raises geopolitical questions. The United States hardly existed in a state of innocence before 9-11.Anyway, it was kinda moving but it was also pretty weird. What does Baba O'Reilly mean to you? By the way it's certainly, for me, one of the 20 or so greatest rock songs ever, for reasons Icould spend another 800 words explaining.

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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