The thing I remember most about that basement is the waterbed.
I was probably six when it happened.
My parents always partied with their friends on weekends. Or, so it seems in my memory.
Us kids would be shooed into a bedroom or a basement, tucked away from the dirty words and pot smoke.
The Lamberts had the best basement.
Way more guest suite than storage unit, with the fancy waterbed and dimmable light fixtures. The faint musk of moist cement underlying the sandalwood incense and cooling pizza from our rations.
Mounted box speakers mimicked music from the turntable upstairs. A lava lamp’s erratic crimson clumps bouncing senseless shadows against wood panel walls.
A killer hangout for sequestered children under 10, free to their whims, save for random mom visits to replenish snacks and soda.
We would take turns belly-flopping into the waterbed as if it were a pool of Jello, laughing ourselves breathless while struggling to roll away before the next diver lept.
Squeezing into dark corners for hide-and-go-seek, performing silly dances, making up stories, and practicing jokes.
I guess we finally wore ourselves out because I can still see us there, sprawled silently on the wavy bed, eavesdropping the clamor of howling fun upstairs.
That’s when the song appeared.
Those opening notes in E-minor picked at a tempo determined to both stop your day and break your heart.
The breathy growl of a voice piercing the hypnotic melody, each syllable soaked in the pain of solitude and the swagger of redemption.
No one knows what it’s like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
I felt paralyzed with emotion.
Time froze and my skin tingled – a lump forming in my throat.
No one knows what it’s like
To be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies
There was no part of my five-year-old, brown-eyed boy’s life able to identify with the lyrics, but the sentiment of the song exposed my very soul.
Tears welled in my eye sockets like rain puddles and streamed over my cheeks faster than I could wipe them away.
I prayed the other kids wouldn’t see, and that nothing – no parent, or giggle, or burst of fun energy – would disrupt this moment.
The bassline dropped in, building the intensity…
But my dreams
They aren’t as empty
As my conscious
Seems to be
I have hours
My love is vengeance
That’s never free
Then a crash of anthemic chaos… jacked tempo… wailing guitars… the entire drum kit smashing rhythmically as if played by an octopus on an acid trip.
If my fist clenches crack it open
Before I use it and lose my cool
If I smile tell me some bad news
Before I laugh and act like a fool
Tears drying and heart racing, my wiry frame lay motionless while my insides bounced along what felt like the tracks of a carnival roller-coaster.
And if I swallow anything evil
Put your finger down my throat
And if I shiver please give me a blanket
Keep me warm, let me wear your coat
What… was… happening?
Was anyone else hearing this?
The tempo slowed again. Drums fading with a final splash. The sad acoustic’s refrain carried along by a slow-walking bass – back into the station to end the ride full circle.
The song was over, and my journey had now begun.
I’m sure I didn’t know the name Pete Townsend before that night, but at that moment, hovering weightlessly above a plastic bag of water in a shadowy basement…
… his song, written in a Denver hotel room after resisting a groupie in deference to the sanctity of his marriage vows…
… became the one that would awaken me to the power of music.
I don’t recall anything else about that night…
Other games we invented to amuse ourselves, what time we left the Lambert’s, or any subsequent song that made its way down into the basement…
But I’m sure I never heard music the same way again.
No longer a soundtrack to everyday life, but an opportunity for transformation.
My ears perpetually searching out the next Behind Blue Eyes moment to carry me somewhere I haven’t been, but will forever seek.
This is the artist’s gift to whomever receives it.
So, when you sit down to create something, do it with that same intention.
Becoming a legend is not the goal.
Creating an experience is the job.
P.S. The song Behind Blue Eyes was originally written as the “theme song” of the villain in a film project called Lifehouse. The film was never made, but the songs for it appear on The Who’s seminal album, Who’s Next. A good reminder that there is no such thing as time wasted writing because everything worthy finds its way into the world.