HOW MANY FRIENDS HAVE I REALLY GOT?
This is a review of the classic rock album The Who by Numbers. But it's also a reflection on love and loss and change. Please comment nicely!
I was a high school senior in the spring of 1981. At that time music was the most important thing in my life. Every day after school I went home alone and listened to records. One particular album called The Who by Numbers was a special favorite. I loved the hard-rocking numbers on this album, like "Slip Kid" and "Success Story" and "Dreaming from the Waist." But my favorite song was the shimmering penultimate track, "How Many Friends Have I Really Got?"
The title grabbed me. I had no friends. In high school I wasn't just shy, I hated people. I wasn't the kind of outcast who acted out, however. I studied hard and kept to myself. My grades were close to perfect (except in Math) and I rarely got into beefs with teachers or other kids.
But secretly I hated people. Not so much the poor kids, or the kids who struggled in school. They were okay. They had a reason to hate themselves. The people I hated were the popular kids, the successful kids, the kids I had to interact with in the kind of classes I took. I hated how much they seemed to enjoy being together, just being friends and connecting.
"I'm feeling so good right now/There's a handsome boy tells me how I've changed his past/He buys me a brandy/Or could it be he's really just after my ass?"
Forty years ago, those words electrified me. Rock and roll usually presents the rock star as a roadrunner, a king bee. He's a hoochie coochie man. He's a voodoo child. He gets all the girls and he still can't be satisfied. "Come on over baby, Jerry's got the bull by the horns." But here was my hero, the leader of the Who, singing about being different. I was different. For four years, all I ever heard in the locker room was guys calling each other queer. Now I always hated myself for not getting girls. Deep down I agreed with the guys who called me queer. I mean I agreed that I was different, that I was worthless. But Pete Townsend didn't care what other people thought. He wasn't afraid to be different. That gave me a lot of courage, and it helped me to endure a lot of pain.
But looking back, I'm appalled at some of the other lessons I took from this song. What I heard wasn't so much, "it's okay to be different," but more like, "no one can be trusted, everyone is an exploiter. Anyone who shows any kind of interest in your feelings must be out to hurt you in some way."
The handsome boy in the song is a fake. He's a fake because he's trying to connect with another person. The kids I hated most were the ones who found it easy to connect with other people. And the song told me they were all dangerous, precisely because they were capable of being interested in other people. But if those kinds of people were dangerous, who was safe?
Who was real?
My father was the center of my life in those days. He was my hero because he loved books, because he knew so much about history, literature and music. He never smiled or showed emotion. He just smoked and drank and sat with me in the kitchen. He taught me all the lessons I needed in life. He encouraged me to feel like I didn't need friends. I didn't need anyone. I was just like him. Then he tried to kill himself, and the whole roof fell in.
But that's the problem. The whole roof didn't fall in, because I coped. I kept right on going to school. I kept right on being angry. I kept right on listening to music. Hating the other kids allowed me to ignore how much rage I felt about what was going on at home. I didn't understand that everyone at school had something to offer, and that the price I was going to pay for shutting them out was going to be very high.
"When I first signed a contract/It was more than a handshake then/I know it still is/But there's a plain fact/We talk so much shit behind each other's back!"
Forty years ago those lines didn't really grab me. I thought they were funny. And I admired Pete Townsend for telling the truth. Most rock legends are all about how much the guys in the band love each other. Think of the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, running around together like a bunch of kids. My life wasn't like that. I'd see three or four guys walking down the hall at school, laughing and joking, and I'd literally want to tear them apart.
But of course I couldn't talk about that kind of anger. I'd spout off to my father, saying how much I hated everyone, but he just laughed it off. He said I was all talk. Deep down he made me feel like even more of a coward.
The funny thing is, when I look back now those lines are more about my father and me than me and the other guys. My father tried to kill himself, which scared me and hurt me in ways I'm still trying to deal with after forty years. But what did I ever do to him? I was always a good kid. I was the kind of kid every parent dreams of, never in trouble, no friends, no staying out late, no parties, nothing. That was how my dad wanted it. We had a contract. I kept it. He broke it. And what did I do about it?
I did nothing. I told no-one how I felt. I talked to no-one about my feelings. I never broke our contract, and I never talked any kind of shit behind my father's back. That was loyalty. And I paid a very high price for my loyalty, since I never got the help I needed until years after my father's death. And my loyalty went unrewarded. My father did not change his ways. And he never thanked me for keeping our business private. To him that was just how it was. Nobody talks, nobody gets help. No one here gets out alive!
So here I am, all alone, aged fifty-seven. I may not have lived a happy life, but I never hurt anyone the way my father hurt me. I have feelings, and they matter. And I'm not afraid to share them. I put on Who By Numbers, and I hear so much more in the music than I did at eighteen. Not all of it is happy, but all of it is true. Long live rock. Long live the Who!