There was a lot of contentious shouting in our apartment throughout my childhood, so much so that it could be heard the moment I stepped off the elevator—I’m talking thunderous, mean-spirited bickering. All of it—every word—was filtered through the tinny speaker of the AM/FM radio that sat atop our refrigerator.
My father listened daily to The Bob Grant Show—at top volume. He didn’t particularly agree with Grant’s conservative politics, but he loved a good argument. (I wonder if he’d feel the same today, in this era of ‘round-the-clock cable-TV squabbling masquerading as news?) When he wasn’t listening to Grant in the kitchen, he had it blasting from the radio in our Plymouth Duster. I didn’t understand much, if any, of what was being debated, but I laughed every time Grant hollered, “Get off my phone, you jerk!” (He did so often.)
The endless caterwauling from Dad’s favorite station prompted an antithetical reaction in my mother (whether intentional or unconscious I do not know): When she had control of the radio, we listened almost exclusively to 106.7 Lite FM. Up till the age of ten or so, “easy listening” was effectively the only genre of music, save classical, I was aware of. It was probably upon hearing Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” for the thousandth time (or maybe it was Journey’s “Open Arms”—like it even matters) that I finally asked out of both frustration and genuine curiosity, “Doesn’t anybody sing about anything besides love?”
My mother considered that for a moment. “Love is what makes the world go ‘round.”
It wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, and perhaps on some subconscious level she herself recognized that, because the following Christmas—this was in ’86 or ’87, I think—she gave me a cassette copy of the Who’s 1978 album Who Are You (which I recently rediscovered while cleaning out my childhood closet).
I’d had no awareness of the Who before that; Who Are You was my crash course in progressive rock, a style that came to speak to my more philosophical and intellectual proclivities throughout high school, college, and beyond. I didn’t always understand what the songs meant—many of Pete Townshend’s lyrics, I suspect, are a mystery to all but (perhaps) himself—but that was exactly the point: The music of the Who is a Rorschach—a receptacle into which you can pour you own feelings and experiences, and from which take your own meaning and catharsis. The lyrics—and the narratives of the band’s operatic concept albums—are so specific to Townshend’s particular imagination, but the broader themes are universal. Take any given Who song, and I doubt it means the same thing to any two people.