Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Who -- "I Can See For Miles" (1967)


The Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal 
Are mine to see on clear days
You thought that I would need a crystal ball

To see right through the haze . . .
I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles 
   and miles 

James Wood is an English literary critic who now teaches at Harvard and writes for the New Yorker.  (He fancy, huh?)  He wrote an essay about The Who's original drummer, Keith Moon, for the November 29, 2010, issue of that magazine.

That essay is one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing I have ever read.  It is so good in so many different ways that I hardly know where to begin.

Keith Moon
Wood's essay is mostly about Keith Moon, but it is also about rock drumming technique generally, about the emotional essence of drumming, about adolescence, about what it means to be an artist or a performer, and a lot more -- all in roughly 2000 words.

I've always thought "I Can See For Miles" is one of the most original and interesting rock songs of all time.  I would put it in my all-time "top ten" list of rock songs, and it would be as good a choice for #1 on that list as any other. 

"I Can See For Miles" was the Who's biggest hit single in the U.S., and reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Pete Townshend called it "the ultimate Who record."  Paul McCartney wrote "Helter Skelter" in an attempt to top "I Can See For Miles."  (I don't think he succeeded, but both are great songs -- both sound like nothing else ever recorded.) 

The best thing about "I Can See For Miles" is Keith Moon's drumming.  Years ago, I had a realization that this song was the only one I had ever heard where the drums were really the lead instrument.  That may sound like an absurd statement -- but I stand by it.  

James Wood says that all other rock drummers -- even the best ones -- are essentially timekeepers.  They take advantage of the small interstices between a song's phrases to insert brief drum rolls or other "curlicues,"  but the beat is the most important thing for them.  Like the bass player, the drummer is a supporting player -- not the star of the show. 

In Wood's words, "Keith Moon ripped all this up."  He believes that "[t]he first principle of Moon's drumming was that drummers do not exist to keep the beat.  He did keep the beat, and kept it very well, but he did it by every method except the traditional one."

Moon was not a supporting player, according to Wood.  Moon "saw himself as a soloist playing with an ensemble of other soloists."

Keith Moon's big-ass drum kit
Wood has hit the nail squarely on the head.  And calling Moon a soloist has nothing to do with drum solos -- Moon didn't really do drum solos, which are almost always a waste of time. 

I was pleased to see that Wood managed to work "enjambment" into his essay.  In poetry, enjambment is when a thought doesn't stop when there's a metrical break at the end of a line, but carries over into the next line.  I wasn't really familiar with that concept until I was writing my post about Patricia Barber's "The New Year's Eve Song," which is built on enjambment. 

In "Behind Blue Eyes," Wood notes that Moon doesn't just insert a self-contained "fill" during the break that occurs between the end of one vocal line and the beginning of the next one, but rather "fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues with his rolling break, over the [dividing] line and into the start of the next phrase.  Moon is the drummer of enjambment."  

Here's "Behind Blue Eyes" -- there are no drums until about 2:20 into the song:




Here's an isolated track of just the drums:


 
Wood believes that one reason Keith Moon was so appealing was that he was a drummer "who was the drums."  That's "not because he was the most technically accomplished of drummers but because his joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming.  He was pure, irresponsible, restless childishness."

Like Wood, I had a fairly extensive classical music education.  And like him, I really wanted to be a rock drummer.

I was a pretty good student pianist, but sometimes I played the piano like I was playing the drums.  I remember one performance of "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" by our high school jazz band where I was incredibly frustrated by the fact that the horns and drums were drowning me out.


I kept pounding out chords louder and louder, but it was to no avail -- even though I was playing on a big-ass Baldwin grand.  (Maybe the audience heard me, but I couldn't hear myself over all the effing trumpets and trombones and saxophones.)

Finally I just started ripping off glissando after glissando, which really tore up my fingers because I was digging into the keyboard so deeply.  

Wood actually taught himself to play on a friend's drum kit, and he knows a lot more about the specifics of drumming techniques than I do.  One of the great things about his article is how he describes in detail exactly what more traditional rock drummers (like Ringo Starr and John Bonham) do, but does so in such a way that almost any rock music fan can understand and appreciate even the finer points he makes.

All I know is that whenever I'm in the right mood -- and let's not kid ourselves: alcohol is one of the best ways to create that mood -- I become a drummer when I'm listening to rock music.  My thighs are usually my surrogate drums, although a car steering wheel works pretty well, too.  I don't really do air guitar.  I do drums.

James Wood
As I said, Wood's essay covers a lot more than just Keith Moon and rock drumming.  He describes Moon's playing as being "like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do; a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.  Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape.  And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body surrenders its awful self-consciousness."

Wood also says that while playing classical music, or writing poetry, or painting may result in "trancelike moments and even stages of wildness and excess, the pressure of creating lasting forms demands discipline and silence."  But rock music -- and especially rock drumming -- "is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theatre, showing off, truancy, pantomine, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity.  It is not concentration so much as fission."

Perhaps the most well-known line from any Who song is "Hope I die before I get old."  Keith Moon did exactly that.  He was only 32 when he died of a massive overdose of a sedative that had been prescribed to alleviate his alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  (He was trying to dry out on his own.)

I would never say that it was a good thing for someone to die at age 32.  But I'm glad I didn't see Keith Moon performing at age 63 with Pete and Roger at last year's SuperBowl.

Here is a link to an online abstract of the article. But you should really read the whole thing. 

 
Here's a video of the Who lip-synching "I Can See For Miles" on television.  Note that Keith Moon and his famous double bass drum kit have been positioned in front of the rest of the band:


 

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

 


1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. I'm somewhat of a Keith Moon fanatic, and have been since around 1976 when I was in Jr. High School and picked up 2 magazines commemorating the Who--one by Rolling Stone and the other by Circus. Just looking at the pictures made me an instant fan and I immediately made it my goal to acquire as many Who albums as possible. A daunting task for a 13 year old with no money (I had stolen the money to buy the magazines).

    You've made me want to read Wood's essay, but unfortunately it seems that w/o a New Yorker subscription it will be impossible. Still, I will put my web-savvy to use and try to find some means anyway.

    One thing about the "I Can See For Miles" clips. Of all the clips I've watched from TV shows with lip-sync'd/mimed performances, those are the only 2 I can remember where Keith even half attempts to look like he's playing the song. In fact even on the first clip, it appears that he doesn't have a bass drum pedal.

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