I Can’t Explain

July 23, 2010

I Can’t Explain (The Who, 1965).
I Can’t Explain (Bowie).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Pete Townshend checked Bowie at every turn. In 1965, when the two first met in Bournemouth, Townshend gave Bowie some condescending criticism about the latter’s songwriting, which Townshend noted was rather blatantly ripping off his own songs, and badly (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”). The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973 Bowie covered two early Who songs on his new record, while Townshend was revisiting the ’60s as well, finishing up his Mod opus Quadrophenia.

The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them—these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing…via [Roger] Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you—and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen.

Marcello Carlin, on Who’s Next.

“One of the things [Bowie] does very well is find the strong parts of other artist’s “acts” and appropriate them into his own persona,” wrote an insightful, anonymous person in this ILM thread on Bowie. But Bowie never could figure out Townshend. Townshend was a playwright as much as he was a songwriter, with bizarre, first-person psychodramas that required a group to act out, whether it was a cad dumping his pregnant girlfriend (“A Legal Matter”) or a kid so fraudulent he may not even exist (“Substitute”), or masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding (“Pictures of Lily”) or the utterly bizarre and wonderful “I’m a Boy,” a rock single Philip K. Dick could’ve written. Townshend’s perspective was usually that of another, whether it was lyrics for Daltrey to sing or stories for an audience to piece together. The vocals on Who tracks—Daltrey’s growl, Townshend’s reedy tenor, John Entwistle’s near-soprano (or basso profundo)—sounded like the pieces of a single voice, joined together for a few minutes.

The group is a fairly simple form of Pop art. We get a lot of audience this way. Off stage, the group get on terribly badly.

Townshend, ca. 1966 (interview clip from The Kids Are Alright).

Did anyone believe in rock and roll as much as Townshend did in his youth? He was an evangelist whose audience had converted him, so much that he ended Tommy, his record about false messiahs, by submitting to the crowd, the true religion. He nearly had a breakdown writing a rock opera in which the audience would input their vital stats—climacteric charts, personal appearance, beliefs, etc.—into a computer, which would then convert the data into personalized musical signatures, with the hope that all of these signatures, played at once on quadrophenic speakers, would form one final, “universal” note or chord.

Townshend’s hope for the ecstatic universal in rock music was as far removed as you could get from Bowie, who, despite how much he relied on creative partners (from Mick Ronson to Eno to Reeves Gabrels), remained entirely singular. His songs could be empathic, but they were also unmistakably his perspectives. At the end, you always find yourself outside his songs. Bowie and Townshend were of irreconcilable minds, of irreconcilable worlds, and perhaps that got to Bowie, who had so capably absorbed so many other of his influences.

Is that why Bowie’s cover of The Who’s first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” is such a disaster? It’s an act of vandalism, as though Bowie intended to strip the song of everything that gave it power—Keith Moon’s whirlwind drumming, which is the track’s lead instrument; the surf group backing vocals in the verses; the pilled-up beat—and then watched it die. Ronson, rather than trying to one-up Townshend’s guitar solos, sounds neutered.

The most perverse misreading is in Bowie’s vocal. “I Can’t Explain” is sung by a kid who has never been in love, maybe he’s never even been attracted to another person before in his life, and suddenly it’s happening, and his life no longer makes sense. As with most of the early Who singles, “I Can’t Explain” is entirely of the present, with the singer trying to trap something unknowable and new into words—he should rush out the lyric, push against the flow of the music, sink under it. The vocal should be dizzy and frantic, and far from sensual. Instead, Bowie sings “I Can’t Explain” slowly, coolly, teasing out the lyric, lingering on phrases like a cabaret vamp: he’s appalling in his confidence.

Recorded July-early August 1973. Bowie performed it on his 1980 Floor Show TV special in October 1973, and he brought “Can’t Explain” back a decade later for his “Serious Moonlight” tour. The song still eluded him.

Top: Keith Moon conquers London, 1973.