Listen now on:
Steve Wynn’s first album was 1982’s The Days of Wine and Roses with The Dream Syndicate. Since then he has released over 30 albums as a solo artist as well as a member of bands such as Gutterball, Danny & Dusty, Smack Dab, and The Baseball Project. When he’s not making records or touring the world, he likes to take the time to return to his rock critic roots for the likes of Trunkworthy.
It’s a genre all its own. It’s a pretty obscure genre at that. In fact, it might just be a genre I invented and adopted when I was in my late teens. But at that point in my life—that age when you feel simultaneously empowered by newfound wings but also alienated, confused, and unsure of how and where to fly—I found my musical obsessions gravitating towards records by rock stars who, despite their fame, talent, and accolades, found themselves making dark records about their own uncertainty, confusion, and malaise. It was almost as if their way of confronting their fears of not being able to stand up to the spotlight was to shine a light deep into their troubled souls as they braved the demystification and guaranteed record-sale drops that would result from their troubled bummer records.
Okay, it’s easy to intellectualize it now. I didn’t analyze it too much when I was 19. But maybe I was looking to find heroes who not only mirrored my own doubts and fears but also allowed themselves to careen out of control. So the soundtrack for me included records like the following:
Tonight’s the Night—Neil Young
Plastic Ono Band—John Lennon
A Different Kind of Tension—Buzzcocks
Muswell Hillbillies—The Kinks
And then there was one more record that also fit in, but was a little different from the others. I found a new meaning, a new friend, in The Who’s The Who By Numbers. This was a record I had devoured four years earlier and enjoyed merely as a solid, rocking record by my favorite band, who were on the heels of several ambitious concept albums (including Quadrophenia, a lost, lonely bummer classic of its own). On the surface, it felt downright breezy, especially with the Trojan horse of a hit named “Squeeze Box.” That one pop radio entry to the album suggested The Who might have taken a break from the heavy and gone for a lighter, more fun route.
But The Who By Numbers was much more than that. If Quadrophenia glamorized and dissected the alienation of adolescence, The Who By Numbers was a downright dagger to the heart and soul of one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. Pete Townshend was going through some heavy shit. And, in retrospect—evidenced by confessionary songs, interviews, and his recent autobiography, as well as the occasional unsavory news story—it’s obvious that The Who By Numbers was both revealing and forecasting.
I mean, how about this:
I see myself on TV, I’m a faker, a paper clown
It’s clear to all my friends that I habitually lie
I just bring them down
…Have to drench myself in brandy
In sleep I’ll hide
But however much I booze
There ain’t no way out.
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 backs
I get the willies
People know nothing about their own soft gut
So how come they can sum us up
…How many friends have I really got?
But unlike the other delicious bummer discs listed above, the record doesn’t sound like a howl from the abyss. It features some of Townshend’s best guitar playing (the solo on “Slip Kid” is one of my all-time favorites); the band is crisp and lean. And Townshend always had the distancing device of filtering his thoughts through the vocals of Roger Daltrey, a great rock singer but one who doesn’t often allow himself to show cracks, damage, or vulnerability.
And that means the record is fun. It rocks. You can crank it on a Saturday night and bounce off the walls, but you can also put it on again the next morning, when the daylight is harsh and questions about the previous night begin to show their craggy face. It’s a great record and one that doesn’t deserve to be seen as an also-ran in the band’s catalogue. A stadium band on Trunkworthy? Believe it—and then go and rediscover this record.