Love, reign o'er me
In Quadrophenia, Jimmy wants the sea to rush over him. It's easy to see why.

'Quadrophenia' lets the tide in


A special benefit to my recent move is that I’m once again living along the water, reaping the benefits of the south shore of Massachusetts. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I don’t necessarily deal with beach crowds that well, either. Honestly, I’m not great in many crowds, but that’s neither here nor there.

Despite my lack of aquatic expertise, I’ve always found water, specifically, the ocean (and, in my very specific case, the Atlantic Ocean), to be an amazing force. It’s at once relaxing and thrilling. It provides instant inspiration, and when necessary, allows the brain to just turn off and be. A pastime I’ve picked up since I came back involves me getting in my car, driving to some spot of water, sitting on a rock on the edge of the shore, and scribbling in my notebook for a page or two or three. It’s not the most involved ritual ever, and it doesn’t even necessarily last that long. But that hour or so can be incredibly therapeutic, not to mention critical to the creative juices.

And, as such, there’s music to go along with it. Sometimes I bring my headphones with me, sometimes I don’t. But there’s always music in the car on the way over. One very water-based album in particular is an all-time favorite, and has been a continuing source of inspiration. Yes, it could only be the Who’s Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend’s 1973 masterpiece.

I have plenty of music that’s inspired by water, from the Beatles (“Rain,” “Yellow Submarine”) to Neil Young (“Through My Sails,” “Cortez the Killer”) to Pearl Jam (really, half of the songs Eddie Vedder has written). But none of them can hold a candle in the water department when it comes to the Who. Pete Townshend has long used large bodies of water as a metaphor — the song “Water” comes to mind, for example. But Quadrophenia takes the entire experience to a new level.

Large bodies of water are majestic spaces. Watch the sun peek up over the farthest edge of the ocean, or witness as it descends in the west, and anyone could begin questioning life, God, whatever. But water is also threatening. People are lost at sea each year, people drown at the beach, people fall out of boats. There’s really no shortage of emotions and feelings that can accompany simply sitting out and taking in the stuff that covers 70 percent of the plant. And, therein, there’s plenty of source material to work with.

Enter Jimmy, Townshend’s protagonist in Quadrophenia. To paraphrase Townshend, Quadrophenia is basically the story of a kid who has a bad day, rows out to a rock, and gets rained on. Simple enough. But within that outline lies the story, albeit somewhat convoluted, of a kid who’s desperately trying to fit in to his Mod crowd, who’s battling his family life and, ultimately, is fighting to figure out exactly who he is. Through it all, water is a unifying theme. a physical reminder of his place in the world. He declares himself to be the sea in the album’s overture. He wants to drown in the cold water of love. And, in the record’s climax, he tries to find solace in taking a handful of pills as he takes a small boat out to a rock in the middle of nowhere.

As he states in the liner notes, it doesn’t work out as planned:

“So that’s why I’m here, the bleeding boat drifted off and I’m stuck here in the pissing rain with my life flashing before me. Only it isn’t flashing, it’s crawling. Slowly. Now, it’s just the bare bones of what I am.”

But his discontentment isn’t the end. The rain comes pouring down, and in the story’s coda, he throws his hands up, praying for love to reign over him. It’s a final plea to the mighty force that he’s put so much faith in.

It’s not hard to understand why he does this. As Townshend writes, nothing is planned by the sea and the sand. The shoreline shrinks and grows each day. New items are washed up along the beach, only to be taken away later. It rejects no questions and offers no answers. It just is. As forces of nature go, it’s not a bad one to put all your chips in.

The Who sum all of this up, and much more, beautifully on Quadrophenia, It’s grand, sweeping, introspective and biting, and it contains the best songs of their career. And, as such, it provides the soundtrack to my own excursions to the ocean, composition notebook in hand.

Let me flow into the ocean, let me get back to sea.
Let me be stormy, let me be calm,
let the tide in and set me free.

July 20, 2009

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