First appeared in The Woolf
Tales from the Pit no. 4
Rituals: Fan Mail
Every summer, the ritual goes something like this: fly to the US, start the car my brother sold me for a dollar, cruise down patched-up suburban streets and listen to the radio. If the air conditioning acts up, what with the squirrel’s acorn stash in the vent, better to open the windows and let the wind carry in the noise. Power chords, sirens and mufflers on the fritz – these are the sounds of my roots.
With the radio tuned to one classic-rock station, every ride veers between nausea and joy. The playlists have barely changed since high school, though all else has. The anthems are mine but not mine. I either chant along or try for the hundredth time to hear the music. Still, I stick with it for the rush of catching the few gems that welcome me home. Only in America, I think as I slow to a stop, bucked by a pothole, and crank up the soundtrack of somebody else.
A long time ago, a kid in my class liked The Who, I liked him, and I reasoned that a highly informed and public adulation of the band would work in my favor. It didn’t. I moved on from the crush but not the music, true to the band’s main songwriter and guitarist, Pete Townshend. When I bought a double album of his solo rough cuts, an address in the liner notes prompted me to send him, via one of his handlers, a toe-curling handmade birthday card. Six months later, he wrote back.
I hung the letter and signed photo in my bedroom until college. Both eventually landed in a bin in my parents’ basement, where they sat until a few years ago. Mice had chewed through the cardboard mat frames. But the treasures, unlike the mice, were spared.
Thirty-four years after the letter, I find myself in the back of an SUV on the way to a Who concert. While my parents discuss dinner options from the front seat, I try in vain to forge a link between the teenage fan and the adult. There is no poignant arc between then and now, I conclude – just a sense that catching The Who on rock radio once a year no longer cuts it.
Yet when the first riff rips through the arena, I have to shut my eyes. The music is too close to process because it never left – and more exhilarating than those rare stretches of road where the deejay read my mind.
Four songs in, Townshend introduces the hit that broke through the US charts 50 years ago this week. Fifty. Roger Daltrey probably swung the microphone around then, too, maybe a little faster, with a bit less care. Pete, I know from my early research, has long thrilled crowds with his windmill, like he does tonight, whirling his arm, over and over, as high and wide as the rotator cuff allows. The guy three seats to my right, I would bet, used to stand for his air-drumming, with the brunt of his frenzy absorbed not by the people in his row, but the floor.
I hear the opening loop of one of their classics a week later. The piano thunders in as the light turns green. With my foot on the gas, I don’t think about the rusting chassis. I hope you didn’t give up on me, he wrote. The drums let loose, I turn up the volume and, hair swarming like gnats, I turn it up again some more.