As a prequel to her forthcoming review of tonight’s Who concert at Forest Hills in New York, Lisa Seckler, my US Who correspondent, has sent me this account of the first time she saw them there.
It’s been said by many of our generation that the music we listened to as teenagers kept us alive, emotionally and physically.
From the seething rage of ‘My Generation’ to the nobody-forgets-their-first-break-up dilemma of ‘So Sad About Us’ to the unrequited passion of ‘I Can’t Reach You’ to the angelic beauty of ‘Sunrise’ the music of The Who resonated to the darkest and brightest levels of this teenager’s soul; the roller coaster of emotions EVERY teenager lives, every day. Listed on the jacket of the Tommy album, among the credits, was the name Meher Baba. Totally in love with the album, I didn’t give it a thought, not then anyway. Everyone was into spirituality in those days, whether it was Ram Dass, the Maharishi, Krishna or Sri Chinmoy. Chacun a son gout. Each to his own.
In February of 1970 the Happy Birthday collaboration album was released to celebrate the Avatar’s birthday. I didn’t think about it until November when Pete wrote an article for Rolling Stone about his involvement with Meher Baba called ‘In Love With Meher Baba’. I had copies of both, listened to Happy Birthday, read and kept the article, but didn’t heed it until… Forest Hills. The Who’s new album, Who’s Next, was scheduled for release in conjunction with the tour.
I was a good kid; a natural athlete and competition swimmer, surrounded by the drug culture of the late sixties and early seventies. Pot, hash and acid was available everywhere. Friends used to show up for class flying on acid, stinking of weed or so hung over they used to fall out of their chairs in class or off the top of the postbox in front of Madison High (literally) on Quentin Road & Bedford Avenue.
The summer of 1971 I was working weekends as a Day Camp Lifeguard at a local beach club. All the Lifeguards were college kids, most of them would smoke a bowl and then sit on their chairs guarding the pool. A couple of them were really big Who fans. Months before the summer 1971 Who Tour was announced – and I already had my tickets – it turned out one of the crew from the beach club wanted to go to Forest Hills with me.
It was a grey cut-the-air-with-a-scythe summer afternoon. Mike, my lifeguard, and I left home to take three trains to the tennis stadium. Every New Yorker knows the New York City subway system is aromatic on a good day; that day was particularly godawful due to the humidity and pending wrath of weather we were riding into. Of course, neither of the first two trains had air conditioning. I was wearing denim bellbottoms, and a gypsy white and red embroidered hobo top with those buffalo hide sandals made in India; Mike sporting his college swim team shirt, jeans and sandals, and toting a blunderbuss sized umbrella.
As we emerged from the subway at Austin Street, the air was so saturated there was a dank mist at street level, with a fine light rain falling. Mike and I kept glancing at each other as we trudged along under the umbrella, sharing that non-verbal communicative look that says “Uh-Oh”. Right on the tickets, in glaring block letters, were the glorious words ”RAIN OR SHINE”.
A false sense of security about the weather at ANY outdoor concert is pure folly. We had just that, completely convinced that we would stay perfectly dry under the satellite dish-sized umbrella, no raincoats.
We arrived at our seats in the stadium. Moments later the heavens opened. Not just opened, but it was as if the deity had turned on his shower full blast, combined with multiple lightning strikes everywhere and ground shaking thunder. Roadies were running amok on the stage, throwing what I recall were either plastic trash bags or sheet plastic over the gear, which kept blowing off.
The blunderbuss-satellite-dish sized umbrella lasted all of 10 seconds, if that. Prior to its demise – shredded from the ribs – we had lift off as the storm blew in, the force of the initial gust lifting Mike clean off his feet. In yanking it down, it fell apart in his hands. He turned to me: “My father’s going to kill him for destroying his golf umbrella.”
I was convinced I was going to die an Arthurian/Valkyrie death fried by lightning, envisioning Daily News headlines “Storm Fries Teenager At Who Concert”. It turned out to be prescient.
The tunnels at the stadium were jammed with wall-to-wall soaking wet people. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, as Martha put it. I have a vague recollection of a disembodied voice – probably Ron Delsener, the promoter of the show – stating the obvious, that there would be a “rain delay because we’ve sent people to buy the band and opener rubber boots”. RAIN DELAY? YA THINK?
My chest and upper arms had streaks of red running down from the embroidery thread bleeding dye. My feet turned black from those soaking wet buffalo hide sandals from India. Mike the same.
About an hour and half later, the show was able to start. Opening for The Who was LaBelle – Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx (a friend to this day) and Sarah Dash – pulling out all the stops as if to atone for that hour and a half of sheer misery no one could control. The crowd, as wet as a pack of hounds, refilled the stadium quickly. A goatskin wine bag was being passed up and down our row. Soaking wet and freezing, Mike and I were glad to take swigs. When asked, we were told there was Mateus inside. Anything to warm up!
I started feeling “funny” just as LaBelle’s set drew to a close and The
Who came on. I remember Keith somersaulting onto the stage, then jumping onto Pete’s back shrieking “Cockroach! Cockroach!”, whereupon Pete began jumping as if to crush the beast.
The Who settled in and launched into ‘Love Ain’t For Keeping’, the crowd roaring and rising to its feet, then ‘Pure And Easy’ which suddenly became very weird for me.
The music was taking on a rich and echo-y tone. I felt as if I was floating and INSIDE THE music. Mike and I grabbed each other realizing there was MORE than Mateus in that wine bag.
I was thoroughly GONE within minutes.
Entwistle became a cartoon caricature as he sang ‘My Wife’. ‘Can’t Explain’ and ‘Substitute’ had me dancing wildly, ‘Bargain’ and ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ had me in tears… but THEN…. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ had me seeing musical notes dancing in a chorus line, pulsing to the beat, hypnotically. I sat down for ‘I Don’t Even Know Myself’ and ‘Baby Don’t You Do It’, and an ecstatic and driving ‘Pinball Wizard’ and ‘See Me Feel Me’, during which I was hit with a bombshell revelation: Meher Baba had said, “All so called mind-expanding drugs are physically, mentally, and spiritually harmful.”
To this day, I can’t explain (!) HOW and WHY my thought processes brought this out, but I can tell you this – it was the LAST time I ever swigged from a wine bag, and the FIRST time I understood all I had read to that point about Baba. It all started to make sense at that moment. From that point on, I made the conscious decision to NEVER touch a recreational substance again, something I have firmly stuck to ever since. The music became the background to these revelations. I remember vaguely hearing ‘Water’ while this was going on.
I started coming down as The Who launched into thunderous versions of ‘My Generation’ and then closed with ‘Magic Bus’.
Mike and I were thoroughly soaked through and emotionally drained at the show’s end. It was a quiet, thoughtful, long ride back through the bowels of New York City.
I was irrevocably changed by that night. However… as strange as it may sound, I give FULL credit to Pete Townshend for “keeping me in tune with the straight and narrow” with regards to recreational substances, by giving me the gift of the philosophy, gentleness and sweetness of Meher Baba. A gift I hold in the closest recesses of my heart.
I go back to Forest Hills tonight, not mourning my lost youth, but rejoicing in the knowledge I was saved that night from turning down a path that could have had disastrous results. I had to “lose myself to find myself” which, as we all know IS a BARGAIN…. THE BEST I EVER HAD.