I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)

 

Pigs in human clothing (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

american-psycho_m_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85-11I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.

Where Sweeney Todd and Hannibal Lecter are defined by their cannibalism, Patrick Bateman’s ingestion of human flesh is largely ignored. No doubt this is at least partly due to the infamously flamboyant brutality of his killings—consuming human flesh is relatively minor compared to the other unspeakable tortures he wreaks upon his prey, replete with nail guns and chainsaws and acid and rats.

Another possible reason is that, while both Todd and Lecter operate outside the social structures of their universes, Bateman is completely defined by his. Todd’s cannibalism is a form of rebellion—he strikes back at the industrial labyrinth that grinds him down through a particularly gruesome metaphor (though in doing so he inadvertently allows himself to become a cog in its machine). Hannibal’s cannibalism is both aesthetic and philosophical—he in his superhumanity is completely superior to the human swine that surround him, and his method of killing perfectly embodies this.

Bateman, however, neither rebels against his surroundings nor attempts to rise above them. His killings are the ultimate expression of the mentality that drives his society. Ironically, while American Psycho is commonly labeled a work of transgressive fiction due to the uproar its publication caused, Bateman’s actions are anything but transgressive. One of the ultimate questions raised by American Psycho is not Why is Patrick Bateman a serial killer? but Why isn’t everyone in Patrick Bateman’s social circle a serial killer?

The cannibalism that Bateman does practice is nasty, brutish, and short, to coin a phrase. There is none of Hannibal’s aesthetic touch present (and even Todd, for all the ugliness of his situation, notes the little details such as the “precious rubies” dripping from the silver of his razor). Rather, as in the excerpt above, we are treated to narration as devoid of personality and beauty as any of the rest of the novel. The attempted human meat loaf is the most involved Patrick ever becomes with the act of consuming human flesh; the rest consists of one-sentence descriptions of chewing on skin and bone, or the occasional phrase such as “the meat of her brain”.

Bateman is circling a truth here—the ultimate lie that is consciousness and humanity—but it’s not until his famous confession toward the end of the novel that he can grasp it. Rather, he struggles to view himself as superior to the life around him, a sort of second-rate Hannibal in his rants on proper attire and music and food. In the midst of the meatloaf killing, as he struggles to prepare meat patties from the flesh of his latest victim he says to the reader, “[T]hough it does sporadically penetrate how unacceptable some of what I’m doing actually is, I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”.  However, this attempt at superiority through cannibalism falls apart, the stripped flesh failing to cohere into a dish. It’s emblematic of Bateman’s ultimate problem: he is no better than anyone around him, and where Hannibal expresses his superhumanity through his consumption and Todd undermines the system through his, Bateman merely furthers the prison he’s trapped in by committing acts of violence. The people he kills are indeed no more than meat, but neither is he, and his corporate sadism continuously fails to hide from the reader the fact that Bateman’s person suit is nothing more than a bundle of rags. Where Hannibal is made whole through his killing, Bateman is simply further fragmented.

Eventually, Patrick realizes his status as a noncontingent human being, but misdiagnoses why this is.

I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

he says at one point. His error, here, lies in the humanization of his victims via his assumption that he has become dehumanized. Closer to the truth would be a hybrid of this admission of non-personhood with his earlier dismissal of his victims as nothing more than meat.

And indeed, in his final confession we get close to such a synthesis:

I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?

Here, Patrick grasps at the truth that Hannibal Lecter has fully realized: he is not, in any ultimate sense, “evil”, any more than his victims are “good”.  He simply is: a puppet made of meat, a ghost in the machine.

And still, this truth does not set him free:

But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .

Where Todd is a tragic figure and Hannibal a dark Messiah, Bateman is ultimately a pathetic creature. He recognizes the essential truth at the heart of consciousness, but in his weaker moments fobs it off as something unique to him and his echelon due to their societal brainwashing. Even in his more honest moments, when he realizes that society only aids and abets his inhuman nature rather than causing it, there is absolutely nothing he can do. Patrick lacks the drive necessary to rail against his inhuman nature, and lacks the capability to rise above it. His is a self-perpetuating existence, a perpetual motion machine of slaughter; he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it because he can’t get out of it. In that sense, all of us are Patrick Bateman.

This is why, ultimately, none of his attempts at cannibalism succeed in any meaningful sense. Unlike Todd, he isn’t delusional enough to utilize it as a tool against oppression. And unlike Hannibal, he isn’t superior enough to deserve it.

(to be continued)

Just for fun: Dante, Don Quixote, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Petrarch walk into a library . . .

m1176As part of my final for Classic Literature, I was tasked with composing a dialogue amongst five figures of the Renaissance period debating the highest virtue. This rather lamentable farce is the result.

* * * *

Extract Discovered in the Papers of the Late Miguel de Cervantes

The scene: the Berntsen Library, University of Northwestern—St. Paul. If there is an explanation for this anachronism, the papers do not give it.

The players: Don Quixote de La Mancha, an addled knight; Dante Aligheri, a poet and receiver of divine visions; Niccolo Machiavelli, a scoundrel; Francesco Petrarca, a poet of the starry-eyed persuasion; and Michel de Montaigne, a loghorreic essayist.

The dialogue: the highest virtue, its existence, & c.

All enter. Quixote trips on his own feet and collapses.

DQ: Good sir, would you be so kind as to help a noble warrior to his feet?

NM: (disparagingly) The noble warrior should regain his own feet, or he is not fit to go to war.

DA: You villain, do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

NM: I commit no violence, and he is not my neighbor.

DA: Excuses! A sin of omission is still worthy of being boiled in deep, deep blood, as broad flakes of fire shower steadily down upon you.

NM: Aren’t you a cheery fellow.

DQ: Perhaps you, then, court poet, would help a poor knight to resume his quest—

DA: (ignoring him entirely) Cheer! I care not for cheer. Love, love of God, is the only virtue which means anything.

FP: (shrieks and clutches at his chest) Love! Love! O love, tormentor of my soul! Love, highest virtue of all existence, and yet the highest pain!

(all stare)

DQ: I say, he’s not quite right in the head, is he?

DA: You besotted idiot, romantic love is nothing compared to love for the Creator of all the world.

DQ: But dear court poet, what about your Lady Beatrice?

DA: Silence, addlepate.

DQ: Of course, she is nothing next to my Lady Dulcinea, but then—

NM: You fools make me laugh. Has love ever conquered a frontier, unified a nation, shifted the power of one dynasty to another? If love is the highest virtue, it has done a pretty poor job of maintaining its position.

FP: O heartless, soulless wretch! O lizard, o fish, o creature of reptilian mien! You commit blasphemy against my beloved, my Laura, the only pure creature on the face of this earth, the power of amorous hope that sustains me in my bitter life.

DQ: There I must object. My Lady Dulcinea—

DA: And what is the highest virtue, then, you devilspawn?

NM: Now, now. If you’re going to call names I just won’t play.

DQ: If I may speak, my saucy tactician—

NM: You may not.

DQ: It seems clear to me that all three of you miss the mark. It is clear that valor is the highest of the virtues by a goodly margin. For well I know the meaning of valor: namely, a virtue that lies between the two extremes of cowardice on the one hand and temerity on the other. If I had to choose one image that best sums up the best of mankind, it would be the knight-errant who, traversing deserts and solitudes, crossroads, forests, and mountains, goes seeking dangerous adventures only for the purpose of eternal glory. It is valor that gives us the courage to do the impossible, to dream the unthinkable. It is valor that gives me the courage to rescue maidens from lions or wizards, that allows me without a second thought to tilt at the giants who would otherwise overwhelm the countryside of Spain. What I would be without my valor, I do not like to think.

NM: It seems to me you would be standing upright.

DQ: Let me be upright in heart rather than in stance.

DA: My clumsy friend, you have it all backwards. It is not our glory but God’s that must win the day. The Love that moves the sun and other stars must by necessity be that which draws the bulk of our adoration, else how can we call ourselves moral creatures? And after all, Satan himself has valor—one must be courageous to face the prospect of being buried with only half his chest above the ice, the frozen water burning all the same.

DQ: This Satan would make a fine knight.

DA: O blasphemer, get thee hence!

(DA kicks DQ in his armored ribs; DA grabs his foot and hops about, bellowing, while DQ moans and attempts to shift himself to a more comfortable position)

NM: For shame, my friend. Do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?

(DA makes a highly worldly gesture)

FP: Such is the unhappy fate of one whose heart is cold.

DQ: Precisely, my afflicted friend! One’s heart must burn with valor if he is to truly live a virtuous life. I say, would you mind giving me a hand—

FP: No, no, no, simpleton! I spit on your valor, I give not a fig for your valor.

DQ: Why should I want a fig?

FP: My Laura’s eyes are like figs, you know. Dry and shriveled and capable of producing a highly edible paste—(frowns)—that simile doesn’t work, does it?

DA: (still clutching at his injured foot) It certainly doesn’t scan, either. Amateur.

FP: It isn’t my fault you wouldn’t recognize good art if it were to drag you through hell.

DA: (affronted) If that is an insinuation against the great Virgil—

DQ: Lady Virgil? I thought it was Lady Beatrice.

FP: Virgil was a heartless bastard. To force Aeneas to leave Dido a suicide, all for the dream of some distant empire which fell to barbarians anyway! How could he have sailed, blown by winds of grief from the course he ought to steer? I could never use my Laura so, even if I were offered a thousand empires. Had Aeneas remained with Dido, perhaps no epic would have been written about him, but he truly would have seen what a virtue love is.

NM: (chortles) I was prepared to simply sit back and observe, as does our dear Montaigne, but this is really too much. Aeneas give up Rome for a woman! The mind boggles.

DA: Perhaps it’s the size of the mind in question that’s the cause.

NM: Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear Dante.

DA: You still have not answered my challenge, heathen. What is the greatest virtue, then, if not love of God?

FP: Or love of one’s beloved?

DQ: (muffled, as in endeavoring to rise he has fallen on his face) Really, I still feel that valor—

FP: No one asked your opinion, Spaniard.

NM: You are all equally correct, which is to say you are all entirely wrong. You operate from the wrong premises. There is no virtue.

(DA and FP gasp, horrified; DQ spasms, his armor rattling)

DA: Good knight, slay this demonspawn.

DQ: Oh dear, my sword seems to have fallen out of reach. Perhaps if you could help me to my feet—

NM: The good Don was almost correct in one thing, at least. I don’t know how good a knight Satan would make, but he’d be a first-rate prince.

DA: A prince of darkness, yes! A prince of villainy, of damnation, of—

NM: Virtue exists insofar as others around the prince believe it to exist. It is necessary that he be prudent enough to understand how to avoid getting a bad name because he is given to those vices that will deprive him of his position, of course, because to be deprived of rule is to fail; but were the virtues he held believed to be vices and the vices believed to be virtues, he would have to reorient his apparent moral compass lest it interfere with his image. Moreover, he should not be troubled if he gets a bad name because of vices without which it will be difficult for him to preserve his position. For the survival of the nation, unity must be achieved; I don’t much care how it is achieved.

DQ: Villain, I would smite you across the head if I had the use of my legs!

NM: Imagine yourself a new pair, why don’t you. Or blast me from across the room with your valor.

DA: Even for you, scoundrel, this is absurd. How is the populace to be kept under control if there is no virtue to guide them?

FP: How should I live without the virtue of my love to sustain me?

DQ: How should I win glory without virtuous deeds to perform?

NM: Hard to worship your beloved God if there are no churches being built for him due to a lack of government donations. Hard to write poetry about your beloved Laura if you both are part of separate, squabbling sub-provinces. Hard to be a knight if you have no lord for whom to fight. Hard to be an essayist (he inclines his head to MM) if . . . well, on second thought, Montaigne, I don’t believe that any circumstances could force you to put down your pen.

FP: Well, here’s a fellow we haven’t asked yet! And it’s said the French are beginning to do truly great things with deduction and science. Surely he’ll know!

DA: I do not think that is such a good idea.

FP: (to MM) My good man, which of us is correct? What is the virtue that rests above all others—(glares at NM)—assuming, of course, that virtue exists in the first place?

MM: I thought you’d never ask.

It seems to me that all of you fellows’ philosophies, each admirable in its own way, operate from the wrong premises. The question is not “What is the chief virtue?” but “What way of life is most conducive to virtue?”

FP: That’s really venturing outside the scope—

MM: (overriding) It is no mistake, good Dante, that your own Virgil wrote: “These manners nature first ordained.” If we would only follow the example of the cannibals in the New World, our society would instantly revert to a primitive stage in which the absolute best in us is allowed to flourish. You, good Machiavelli, claim that virtue must subordinate itself for the good of unity, of order, so that society may be preserved, churches raised, love experienced, knights provided for, etc. I counter that you, along with our poets here, could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could you believe that our society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder.

NM: You’re right, I cannot.

MM: (as if NM has not spoken) It is simply that the windows of your perception are too small! If we were to strip ourselves naked—

DA: Horrors! Damnation!

MM: (see previous descriptions) —and transplant ourselves to the jungles of the New World, how much better off we would be! Never would we grow sick and die, or find ourselves bent in old age. Resources would be plentiful, and with no industry there would be no need to squabble over such things as money or property or women.

In fact, this reminds me of a coach I once rode through the streets of Paris, an experience which left me profoundly sickened. If only I’d not had the opportunity to travel on a coach, I never would have been sick! And if I had not been sick and home abed, who knows what multitude of good deeds I could have performed!

DA: I do not see how this is particularly relevant—

FP: (simultaneously) I would fight for my Laura regardless of whether or not she were considered property—

MM: (overriding) I must emphasize to you all the importance of this. Take boating, for example . . .

Lights fade down over the course of several seconds as MM continues speaking.

Several hours later, the lights fades back in, dimmer. Night has fallen outside the library. DA, NM, and FP have slipped away in pursuit of a more taciturn moderator. MM has not noticed. DQ twitches every so often; he has somehow become trapped beneath a chair. His entangled position has not improved.

MM: . . . and this incident with the squirrels clearly demonstrates the essential frailty of the human condition! It is a perfectly logical progression. Wouldn’t you say so, Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: . . . Machiavelli?

(silence)

MM: Alas, it seems I have worked myself into a trance and they have vanished. A pity; Francesco in particular would have appreciated my metaphor about the viaduct and the blood libel, I think. (sighs) Well, I must be getting home.

DQ: (faintly) Excuse me, my good man . . .

MM: Good heavens! Is this to say you’ve been lying here all this time?

DQ: Indeed, and I’m not at all sure what will become of my Lady Dulcinea without my lance to protect her from the giants. Or Sancho, for that matter.

MM: My dear fellow, I completely sympathize. This situation reminds me of the meat-vendor who I once encountered while walking down the street on a Tuesday evening . . .

DQ: (to himself, as MM continues to speak) And just think. The entire time the highest virtue was that of cannibalism, and now I’ve no one to tell. I suppose I shall have to start eating my enemies once I’ve dispatched them, in order for my valor to increase. (considering) A giant should make enough to feed the entire castle. I shall have to tell Sancho at once.

(he attempts to rise, groaning, and collapses once more)

DQ: Essayist? Essayist?

Fade to black.

Hope I die before I get old: The Who at 52

1401x788-gettyimages-5136150802016

The entrance to the Target Center. The air reeks of secondhand smoke built up over the decades, even in the absence of any active cigarette-wielders. I stand behind a pillar, hands in my pockets to ensure no one takes my phone or my wallet, occasionally tugging at the neck of my t-shirt. The shirt bears the likenesses of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon, all in their prime. A sort of monument to days gone by, under the circumstances.

As I wait for Heather, I people-watch. The usual scalpers amble up and down the street, demanding for someone, anyone, to sell them their extra tickets. Security, made up of mingled Target Center officials and actual police officers, makes sure they don’t get too close to us. Every time someone ducks inside the building, I glance in their direction to make sure Heather isn’t slipping in past me by mistake—in five minutes, three girls who can’t be over ten years old pass by and rush inside, which drags a smile out of me.

Just before Heather shows, a very Midwestern man wearing a tractor cap strikes up a conversation with me, asking if I know anyone who needs a free ticket—his buddy, who was supposed to be here, threw his back out yesterday. I decline, but we talk for the next ten minutes anyway. The Who, he tells me, were his very first concert, all the way back in ’82. Even then, in the midst of what was generally considered to be their personal and professional nadir—it would be the year that saw the first of their many farewell tours—they played what he says is still the greatest show he’s ever been to, though he admits the weed he smoked for the first time that night may have influenced his taste. He invites me to share a bowl with him later in the evening, just as Heather shows up. I decline to decline, rather just shake his hand and tell him I hope he enjoys the show.

st0902121546412010

I stumble onto “Pinball Wizard” completely by accident. It’s in the “Related Videos” sidebar on YouTube, next to the Green Day song I’m listening to; I have just discovered them, and they’re the first Real Band I’ve ever loved. I’ve heard the name The Who (always in the company of The Beatles and The Stones, those other members of the holy trinity), and maybe I’m curious, or maybe I just want a break from Green Day for a while. Regardless, I click the link.

It’s the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, Pete already growing the beard that would remain with him throughout the next decade, John dressed in a skintight skeleton suit—not that I know their names. “The guitarist”, then, begins strumming a progression, strangely quiet and timid-sounding against the vast crowd. Gradually, though, his tempo increases, the strumming gaining in apparent confidence. I’m mildly enjoying this, I think, but it doesn’t seem particularly similar to Green Day.

Then the bassist strikes his strings, blaring forth a lead-guitar line that has been delegated to him for lack of studio overdubs. Even at fourteen, with next to no musical experience, I know there’s no way that instrument should be playing that loud. This could get interesting.

The singer comes in, his voice ragged and worn but crackling with power, never mind the nonsense lyrics he’s spitting. And then the drummer enters, spraying his sticks all over the place, and I’m thoroughly entertained.

It isn’t a big eureka moment. The heavens don’t open, my world doesn’t change right then and there. But it is a pretty damn good song.

2016

The opening act, a blues-rock band with the dubious name of Slydigs, is thoroughly decent, but they feel perfunctory. Joan Jett was intended to open this concert, but due to Roger’s coming down with a case of viral meningitis the band had to postpone the date to seven months later than planned. Losing an artist of her stature and instead recruiting a bunch of (comparative) nobodies seems like it could be a bad omen.

After all, it’s not as if the band hasn’t had bad tours before. From 1967 to 1978 they wore the title of Greatest Live Band in the World, bestowed upon them by critics and fans alike, as a badge of honor, but even toward the end of that run Keith Moon’s deteriorating health resulted in occasionally erratic evenings. After Keith’s death came a demoralized and unhealthy few years; Kenny Jones should have been a perfectly serviceable replacement, but replacing Keith with someone perfectly serviceable was a disastrously wrong approach. And then, the reunion tours. The 1980s saw the tenure of a bloated, embarrassing incarnation of The Who; brass bands and far too many backing musicians took all that gave the band their fire and crushed it. Sure, they’ve recovered from that black hole, but they’re old now. Who knows? What if it’s not good? What if it disappoints you?

Slydigs takes their leave, and half an hour passes. Heather and I talk, and browse on our phones, and wait. The crowd, relatively thin during the opener, swells until empty seats are nearly invisible. The giant screen behind the stage plays a slideshow of Who history. The lights remain stubbornly bright.

Finally, the Target Center is plunged into near-darkness. Figures start making their way onstage, lit by spotlights, but from this distance it’s hard to tell who’s who. Do I cheer yet? Is that Pete or a backing member? It looks like Pete, but I know his brother is on guitar as well…

Then, an explosion. I’ve been told they open every show of this tour with “I Can’t Explain”, so “Who Are You” takes me entirely by surprise. The synths shake the house, Zak Starkey’s drums rattle in my teeth, and then one of the old men on stage leans toward his mic. High backing vocals come in. Who are you, hoo hoo, hoo hoo.

I grin. It’s Pete, all right.

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I mention to my youth pastor, Nick, that I listened to a Who song I liked pretty okay the other day. “Dude,” he says, “check out ‘Teenage Wasteland’.”

On YouTube, again. It takes me a few minutes of searching to find what I’m looking for, but eventually I realize that calling “Baba O’Riley” by “Teenage Wasteland” is a mistake that’s existed since the song was first played in 1971. That settled, I open one of the thousands of uploads of the song and hit “play”.

The opening synth line will never be anything but magical. Pete commented on that in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, in a decidedly more sentimental mood than is usual for the old cynic:

One of our best songs is “Baba O’Riley.” I spent three or four weeks in the studio cutting bits of tape up of this synthesizer-y, synth-processed organ, turning it into what felt like a replication of the electronic music of the future. When I took the tape to Glyn Johns, who was one of the finest sonic engineers at the time, he said, “Pete, we can’t improve on this, it’s fantastic.”

The guitar doesn’t come in until about maybe two and a half minutes into the song. So when I’m onstage with the Who, out comes the recording that I made in my home studio. There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, “I fucking did that. I wrote that.”

Everything about the song is perfect. The echoing crash of the piano chords coming down over the liquid synth riff, Roger’s roaring, defiant voice contrasting with Pete’s soft, high, wistful one, the entire band accelerating to a frenzy as Nick Arbus plays his violin for all it’s worth in the jam-session coda. Listening to it, I can’t believe it’s the same band. That’s not to say that “Pinball Wizard” was incredibly inferior to “Baba O’Riley”, just that the latter is so different. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

From there, I find another song. And another. And I’m hooked.

2016

The band is certainly bigger than the four-person juggernaut that existed prior to the death of Keith Moon—in addition to drums, bass, Pete’s guitar, and Roger’s vocals, there’s an additional guitarist (Pete’s brother Simon) and three keyboardists. But the song isn’t horribly bloated, swollen with horns and strings and god knows what else, like in the 80s. The band sounds lean, powerful. And loud.

Roger’s voice is audibly deeper, more strained—an old man’s voice—but he’s learned how to use it. Pete’s guitar playing is as fluid as ever, and halfway through the song he throws a windmill like the old days and the whole place cheers. I was worried that when this moment came it would feel cheap, as if we were applauding for a fragment of past glory, but this feels right. This feels real.

They transition to “The Seeker”, and then Roger says a few words about how great it is to be in Minneapolis again. He jokes that the hotel windows still won’t open, and Pete, acerbic as ever, grumbles that it’s probably so some twisted old fuck wouldn’t throw himself out the window.

The next few songs are all from their pop singles days in the ’60s. “My Generation” is the only one that falls a little flat. Pino Palladino’s competent bass playing can’t hide the fact that it’s not John Entwistle playing that thunderous bass solo—indeed, it’s hard to even hear it, where Thunderfingers would’ve had it blasting louder than anything else in the hall. And the inescapable irony of a 72-year-old man growling that he hopes he dies before he gets old is ever-present. But they rescue it—at the end of the number Roger smiles sheepishly and says, “My generation. What happened?! We failed!”

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Keith Moon is the first person to really make me sit back and pay attention to a single instrument’s part in a song. There are no superlatives I can add here that haven’t already been used elsewhere a thousand times; he claimed he trained himself to play the drums by listening to guitar riffs rather than other drummers, and no one else has said it better. He is the lead instrument in nearly every great Who song; everyone else simply follows him. John Bonham’s rock-solid beat is often rated the more impressive of the two, but while Bonham has probably influenced more drummers, no single drummer is more distinctive or more exciting to listen to than Keith.

John Entwistle is the first person to demonstrate to me why the bassist matters. It’s easy not to notice his playing in much of the group’s studio stuff—he always complained about being too low in the mix, and on Tommy especially it’s a crime against humanity that he’s practically inaudible—but once your ear picks up on it it’s impossible to unhear. Melodic, nimble, eccentric, a complete contrast to the man onstage. And live, it’s the sound of a rampaging locomotive, matching Pete’s guitar for power and volume.

Roger is a paradox—the frontman who’s almost always overlooked in discussions of the band due to his proximity to three of the greatest rock musicians ever to play. But the sheer fire in his voice, especially in the band’s recordings of ’71-’73, can take your breath away. In a sense, he could be seen as the most easily replaceable of the band, but thank god we never had to come to that point.

Pete is their greatest strength and their weakest link. His ambition in songwriting reaches dizzying heights at its best and comes off as pompous and affected at its worst. His introspection is incredibly powerful, or incredibly navel-gazing, depending on the album. His spiritual ideals can be quietly beautiful, as in “Bargain”, or nonsensical and pseudo-profound, as in most of Tommy. There’s no question, even with the bad days considered, that he’s one of the four or five greatest songwriters of all time. And while everyone praises his guitar playing primarily for his rhythm, he’s one of the criminally underrated great lead guitarists.

Put them all together, and you get a four-man army. Listening to Live at Leeds, you would believe that they were all possessed by the devil.

2016

One of my biggest worries going in to the concert was that it would be a mere greatest hits rehash with no real personality. The setlist is indeed mostly comprised of singles, but the band refuses to let it turn into a re-run of past glories. “My Generation” ends with an extended jam session, Pete’s windmills morphing from a perfunctory whirl every now and then to really meaning it. And after his solo rendition of “I’m One”, the band launches into a blistering rendition of “The Rock” from Quadrophenia that ascends and ascends in scope. The screen behind them hints at Pete’s more unfortunate pretensions—a montage of world events up to and including 9/11 scrolls across the background, and I’m not at all sure how an instrumental about a teenage boy fleeing to the sea is supposed to relate to such global events—but it doesn’t matter, the guitar playing overwhelms it. The jam is similar to the studio version, but it’s not a note-for-note copy; all the musicians are improvising, Pete flailing away at his guitar and Zak Starkey pounding for all he’s worth. And then we transition to “Love, Reign o’er Me”, and Roger stuns us all by screaming the final chorus as if he’s young again, and all is right with the world.

The mini-Quadrophenia set gives way to “Eminence Front”, and then the inevitable Tommy run begins. “Sparks”, as ever, is ferocious, barely controlled chaos. “Pinball Wizard” is great fun.

And then the lights go down, and Roger begs us “See Me, Feel Me”. There’s a group of teenagers directly in front of me and Heather, and one of them has her arms raised to the sky, in the grip of seeming religious mania. The moment is pure Tommy, a sort of over-the-top pseudo-spirituality that’s completely absurd, but I think back to all the teenagers who did the exact same thing in front of this group in 1969 and all of a sudden I’m almost choked up.

2011

First Baptist School does not like rock music. Thinks it’s literally of the devil, in fact. I’m one of the lucky students; my parents have no rules about the stuff at home, and my mother is quite fond of The Who herself, so I’m in the clear. But nevertheless attending school there makes me love the band in a new way. There are people out there who would love to kill their art, who have had rock music burnings in the past, and that makes the music so much more important to me.

One day, apropos of nothing, one of the sophomore students asks me how many Beatles albums I have. Not many, I reply, Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul and that’s it. She asks if I’d like to borrow the rest of them and burn them to my computer, and I accept. At the time I’ve no idea just how cool this makes her, a.) because The Beatles are virtually tied with The Who in terms of The Greatest Thing Ever, b.) because her father is not someone who takes kindly to rock music, and so in addition to smuggling the CDs into First Baptist she’s been hiding them in her closet as well.

I want to return the favor, and so I find some discs and burn as much Who stuff as I can onto them. I ignore everything past Keith Moon’s death save The Kids Are Alright, and there are other sacrifices I have to make. “Drowned” is slashed from Quadrophenia simply so it can all fit on one disc. The Who By Numbers and Who Are You have to share one. And most of the albums aren’t proper recordings either, but mp3 rips of YouTube videos; the idea of simply borrowing the CDs from the library hasn’t occurred to me at this point in time. In a way, that makes it more special, for me at least—the albums are homemade patchworks constructed with the help of other music fans, and there’s something charming about the shitty quality; it’s the equivalent of watching a bootleg concert on VHS. (This is largely nostalgia talking; I wouldn’t trade in my proper Who albums for those YouTube rips for anything these days.)

Thus, inauspiciously, begins a friendship that continues all the way to this stage, five years later. I’d say we turned out okay.

2016

Throughout the show, Pete has been in a better mood than usual, smiling and cracking jokes and being generally expansive. Before the final run, he looks into the audience and says, “You know, we’re really far too fucking old to be doing this. And most of you are far too fucking young! Shouldn’t you be listening to—” he drops his voice— “Justin Bieber or something?”

The boos are immediate, and he smirks. “Oh, he’s not that bad. ‘No, Pete, no, I’m informed, I know all about good rock music!’ No you fucking don’t.”

There’s a deluge of laughter, and he himself chortles, but I almost hope he’s genuinely mocking us. It’d be perfectly in character.

“Baba O’Riley” is—well, there’s not much I can say. It’s transcendent, always will be. I almost tear up again here, because when Pete comes in on his guitar I’m reminded of another quote from his recent Rolling Stone interview:

It plays, and then I deliver myself this amazing moment of being able to play this guitar. You talk about it as though it’s a song from CSI [laughs]. For me, the interesting thing is that it’s entirely mine — much more mine than anybody else’s.

I just hope that on my deathbed I don’t embarrass myself by asking someone, “Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of ‘Baba O’Riley’? I just want to do it one more time.”

I find myself wondering how far off that day is, and am so grateful I got to see this, the last chance I’ll probably ever get.

Two full hours have passed, and all of us know the evening is drawing to a close. When “Won’t Get Fooled Again” starts up, I’m excited but a little crestfallen—what about “I Can’t Explain”? “Slip Kid”? “5:15”? “Magic Bus”? There are still so many left to do!

But the subsequent ten minutes are absolutely stunning—this rendition of the song is fiercer, harder, louder than anything else they’ve done this evening—and when Roger nails the final scream everyone roars.

* * * *

the_who_umgIn a 1980 interview with Greil Marcus, Pete commented on the future of his band.

But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab—a deep, instant grab—which lasts… forever. It’s not like a fad. People who get into The Who when they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don’t necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation—as each batch comes up every year—but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.

There have been greater artists than The Who. My favorite album is not Who’s Next but Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator), and just below that is Abbey Road. And it’s true that what I watched that night was really only half a band, albeit with very competent replacements for missing faces. And yes, songs like “My Generation” and “Pictures of Lily” just can’t be sung by old men and keep their power.

But all that fell away that night. Even if the show hadn’t been the best concert I’ve personally been to—and it was—it would still be the most powerful.

In 2010, at the age of fourteen, I discovered The Who by watching a video of a live performance recorded forty years prior. They inspired me to get into music the exact same way they inspired countless teenagers in the 1960s and the 1970s. I met one of my absolute best friends by passing their music back and forth, the same thing fans would do with bootlegs decades before I was born. And a few nights ago, I and thousands of others sang every word along with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend just like they did at Leeds, or Hull, or the Isle of Wight, or Woodstock. There aren’t words for that.

I expected to be overcome with a feeling of awe or magic when I saw Roger and Pete take the stage. Instead, there was a wonderful sort of familiar delight: “Oh, look, it’s Pete! Hey there!” Because the band aren’t gods to me in some great towering sense. They’re better than that. Through reading their interviews, and watching them perform, and learning about them in books and websites and documentaries, and most important listening to their music over and over and over again, they’ve come to be more familiar to me than many people in my personal life. They’re my friends in a very true sense. Of course if I were to encounter Pete Townshend on the street I wouldn’t be able to do anything but babble, and he’d probably tell me to fuck off and go back to whatever it is he’d be doing. But on that stage, he was someone I’d known for years and years.

In several years, Pete and Roger will both be dead. But their music will endure and will change lives, just as it still does more than fifty years after “I Can’t Explain” first hit the record stores. And I’ll be able to say that, for just one night, I took part in the mythos that’s built up around them. I am an infinitesimal part of the history of my favorite band. That’s all a music fan can ever really ask for.