(Two Essays Inspired and Linked by the Who)

I - Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball

Lately I've been on a pinball kick. It started when my pal Def Jeff and I were in the Terminal Bar on the same night that Oklahoma was winning the Orange Bowl, and he had the idea to play some pinball. So we grabbed our beers and some quarters, headed to the corner pinball machine, and played a few games. It was heaven to be in a dimly-lit bar, beer next to me, hitting those flippers, theorizing aloud about girls (we love 'em) and music (can't live without it.) All the while Jeff was warning me that I was gonna tilt the machine with my physical type of play. If you wanna make an omelet, I thought, then TILT. "Geez ... machine sure is touchy," I said as Jeff chuckled and said I told you so.

The next step came when I bought the latest Slobberbone album after seeing them at the 400 a few weeks ago. My favorite song on the album is "Pinball Song" and I played it so much that it resulted in damn near every time I passed a bar in South Minneapolis I would think: Wonder if they got a good pinball machine - the kind with a real plunger and not just a button you push to start a ball in play...

"Pinball Song" joins other great songs that are about or reference pinball, such as "Never Really Been" by Soul Asylum and "Pinball Wizard" by the Who. "Pinball Wizard" played an important part in my life. Besides being a terrific song, it saved me from video games by making pinball cooler to my ears and eyes than video games. Video games took over the minds and hearts of America's youth when I was a teenager, but I never played them much after Space Invaders faded away. I begrudgingly played Pac-Man once or twice, but Donkey Kong and Super Mario and all the others that came after are nothing to me but names.

Even if you take away the Who's endorsement, I still find pinball a more enjoyable pastime. It's more old-school-cool than a video game - it doesn't involve staring at a screen and digital images don't play an integral part in how the game is played. In pinball, you use the plunger to thrust the ball into play, then hold the machine in your hands while you sway your hips ... it tilts if you push too hard ... it's like a living thing responding to your body language. As opposed to video games, which mostly prepare kids for a lifetime as a desk jockey, staring at a computer screen and racking up repetitive stress injuries.

And hey: Where are the great rock 'n' roll songs about video games? Where's the video-game equivalent of "Pinball Wizard" or "Pinball Song"? There's probably as many great songs about video games as there are great songs about Japanese makes of cars. So pinball is also more rock 'n' roll than video games and that counts for major points in my book. My quarters left over after laundry will be saved for the Bally table and the jukebox, thank you.

II - Join together in the band

Ironically, the Who's last studio album showed a kid playing a video game on its cover. Maybe the cover of It's Hard is a statement - maybe the Who were 'fessing up to not being able to reach a new generation of listeners with their new material. Still, it's not the greatest cover and the album certainly didn't have their best music.

The album was released during my last year of high school, at the peak of my Who obsession. Through high school, the band was IT for me. Theirs was a sound of pure power - killer riffs and power chords set across the thundering brilliance of Keith Moon's drumming. The songs had tough-sensitive lyrics and an anthemic, exuberant sound. Throw in Pete Townshend's interview theorizing and the band's humor, and you've got the perfect rock heroes. It would take me years to fully appreciate the Stones' sleaziness or Dylan's humor, but the Who were a band I understood immediately.

I conveniently filed them away in the gone-but-not-forgotten category soon after they did their (first) farewell tour. And when they came back in '89, I ignored them. I had my reasons (bands who say they are leaving should stay gone,) plus their comeback seemed to be more about money than music. Over the years, I listened to them less and less. I only bothered to update one of their albums from vinyl to CD.

But the Who's music keeps coming back into my life. Most notably in 1999, when the war for their music was being fought between TV-commercial makers and movie makers. For every Nissan commercial that featured "Baba O'Riley" or "Won't Get Fooled Again," there was Spike Lee using the same songs in Summer of Sam. For every Gateway commercial that used "Magic Bus" or "Who Are You," there was "The Seeker" being used in both American Beauty and The Limey. Of course, the filmmakers' use of the music was more effective than the commercial-makers. How many young men have blasted "Young Man Blues" or "My Generation" or "I Can See For Miles" or "The Real Me" when being pissed at their job, at their parents, at a girl, at THE WORLD and thought: This is the soundtrack to my life? How many have sang softly along with "Love Reign O'er Me" or "Pure and Easy" or "They Are All In Love" under headphones in the dark where their eyes can't be seen?

The best use of a Who song in 1999 came in Rushmore, after Max Fisher has flooded Mr. Blume's hotel room with bees. There is a look of appreciation and then horror on Blume's face, you then hear the start of the last section of "A Quick One While He's Away." Cut to a shot of Max disdainfully slapping his chewing gum on a hallway wall - a true punk bent on revenge at all costs. The song plays out as Mr. Blume and Max go to war.

I think of this scene while a Who-using ad appears on TV and I wonder: How many people associate the glory and majesty and passion of classic Who with buying a vehicle or an appliance? I can just imagine the glee of the ad-company person that appropriated "Won't Get Fooled Again" for a TV commercial. This will be sooooo cool. I just know that at some point during production the phrase this totally rocks was used. But the use of rock 'n' roll in an ad does not make the ad rock 'n' roll. Instead, the ads are parasitic opposite-of-timeless creations. Ad creeps should crawl back in their little holes and leave the rock to the folks who won't knock it.

Throughout 1999, I kept hoping that Pete Townshend would head to Summer of Sam or Rushmore instead of brushing up on that Lifehouse project or finding more of his songs to sell out. But apparently it wasn't to be.

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