The Real Me

It’s early June. I’m in the backseat of my car, returning from a week on the beach in California to the Arizona desert. We’ve already crossed the Colorado River and I’m staring into the wasteland outside, dreading the blast furnace that awaits me.

My twelve-year-old daughter sits next to me watching a movie. Suddenly, my body remembers when I was her age, how I’d be squished between my brothers in the backseat of our 1969 Chevy Impala on family vacations, my parents smoking up front. I’d get so carsick it would feel like I was going to die. The memory turns my stomach. I reach for my iPod and look for something to take my mind somewhere else. And then I realize there’s only one thing I can listen to: Quadrophenia by The Who.

Every year for the past decade I’ve made the same trip on the same week and every year I’ve found the return drive excruciating. I watch the mile markers move past the window. It seems like I’ll never make it home. But that’s true, in a way. Because even though I’m heading to my home, the house I work so hard to pay for, I know that my real home, for better or worse, will always lie behind me, where the sea meets the sand.

I press play, lean back my head and close my eyes. I hear the breakers roll in, bits and pieces of the music I know best floating up on the shore. The bone-dry world outside the car is forgotten. Once again I’ve taken refuge in that special landscape made of sound and history, the record I came to love when I was a twelve-year-old and the record of my experiences since I discovered it, songs that millions know by heart and songs that only my heart can sing.

The longer I listen, the more I need to share this album with my daughter, tell her about its importance in my life. I ask her to pause the movie she’s watching. Then I tell her that I discovered the album when I was her age and want to play her a song from it.

I no longer have favorite songs on Quadrophenia, because I like to experience it as a whole. Plus, it really is a rock opera, with motifs that return over and over, until the songs literally become parts of each other. But I remember that my favorite song when I was twelve was “Love Reign O’er me.” It makes sense that this was my favorite song because at that age I still believed in the possibility of love.

Later on, after I’d been thrown into the hard, loveless reality of the streets where I’d spend my teen years, sustaining such a romantic vision of the world became impossible. But at twelve I still had hope. Even if life at home was hard, even if I already sensed, however unconsciously, the class issues and rebellion that are woven into Quadrophenia, I was still innocent.

So the song about love was the one I played over and over. I’d lift the needle of the record player up and plop it down on the last song on the album, resting the needle perfectly in the groove between songs. My daughter loves hearing about my record player, something she has never personally experienced as a kid born in 1998, raised on CDs and MP3s. I pick up my ear buds. She puts one in her ear, I put one in mine and we listen to the song together. She rapidly learns the lyrics and we sing along:

Only love
Can make it rain
The way the beach is kissed by the sea.
Only love
Can make it rain
Like the sweat of lovers’
Laying in the fields.

Love, Reign o’er me.
Love, Reign o’er me, rain on me.

Only love
Can bring the rain
That makes you yearn to the sky.
Only love
Can bring the rain
That falls like tears from on high.

To see her eyes sparkle with the music, her complex young soul understanding the yearning it expresses, the two of us connected by a set of ear buds and a song of love, is to feel the twelve-year-old girl inside of me connecting to my twelve year old daughter. For a moment, I’m totally at peace with myself.

But when I sat down to write about that experience a few days later, how it had seemed to tie the loose ends of my life together, I started to come undone. Still, I forced myself to sit at the computer working on this piece. And the words piled up. The more I wrote, though, the less sure I was of what I wanted to express. I would come up with a few pages and breathe a sigh of relief, only to realize that I’d already covered the same points, in nearly identical words, a few days before. I even gave up for a time.

When I woke up on July 4th, though, my forty-ninth birthday, I could tell that something had shifted. I decided to put all my projects on hold and lie in bed listening to all of Quadrophenia again. That would be my present to myself. If I could just immerse myself in the record, instead of trying to analyze it, maybe I could get back to the serenity I’d found on my drive across the desert a month before.

Ever since I first discovered Quadrophenia, I’ve treated it as a refuge. The sounds of the ocean weaving in and out of the songs and the struggles of a working-class kid coming to terms with his identity have given me a place where I can go to rediscover myself when I feel like I’m drowning in my own reality. The album was a huge influence on my taste in music, my taste in art, the way I grew to understand class and aesthetics. It still is.

Although I’ve made this confession many times over the years, it hasn’t been easy to explain why or how Quadrophenia became so important to me. I haven’t just listened to the album. I’ve lived it. But that makes putting my feelings about it into words all the more difficult.

The part of me who loses herself inside the music says, “This is okay. This is music functioning at its best capacity, providing identification and escape in song.” The part of me who is a cultural critic, who thinks I should analyze the album says, “Can’t you get some critical distance?” The answer is “No.” I can’t get critical distance. It means that much to me.

So there I was, lying in bed on my birthday, tuning out everything but the music. I’d heard the record hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. Yet today, of all days, I was suddenly able to hear it as never before. Suddenly, I understood why Quadrophenia has served as the soundtrack of my life.

Because I first discovered Quadrophenia on the cusp of adolescence, it makes sense that it would somehow represent my coming of age. But since my passage from childhood dreams to grown-up realities was especially abrupt and dramatic, the album served that function many times over.

It provided the soundtrack for the moment when I understood my position within the working class; the moment when I rebelled against everything that growing up in my blue-collar home did to stifle and control me; the moment when I found myself alone on the streets, struggling to survive without the comforts of home; and the moment when I realized that my past would never stay past, but be a constant presence in my life no matter how hard I tried to block it off.

It’s no accident that Quadrophenia had this effect on me, with my unique set of experiences, because even though it’s set in England — a place I’ve never visited — and at a time I witnessed with the eyes of innocence, it still seemed to mirror the world I knew. A story of class, rebellion, music and the sea, of how hope turns to disenchantment, it prefigured the changes that I would go through and also gave me the tools to cope with them.

The album follows a young man who deals with the drunken rage of his working-class parents, who uses music as a means of rebelling against them, who flees to the city, faces the hard truths of the working world, experiences loss, death, rage, and despair, and finally cries out painfully, beautifully and sincerely for love. And that’s exactly how my life story has played out, whatever the differences between him and me.

That connection makes it impossible for me to write objectively about it in the detached language of the critic. So I’ll tell you about the album and me instead, because music is a way for us to understand our lives, hearts, and emotions. You can theorize it all you want, but when you close your eyes and let the music take over you, it does become personal. The music pours into your ears and fills your body, then you digest it from your unique perspective. This is my perspective on Quadrophenia.

I discovered Quadrophenia in a little storefront library at Linda Mar Shopping Center in Pacifica, California, the working-class town where I grew up. I had no shortage of records back then. I lived for music. Every week I rode my bike down to Mr. Music, the local record store and spent my allowance buying 45rpms, many of which bore the famous blue Motown label.

I was a girl who listened to pop radio and soul, a girl who bought singles about love and sang along to songs about the first time I ever saw your face, how there wasn’t any mountain high enough to keep my love from getting to me, and how me and Mr. Jones had a thing going on. I didn’t listen to albums. I listened to songs. When I didn’t have money for records, I went into the little library down the strip from Mr. Music to see if there was any music I could bring home.

I remember the day I found Quadrophenia as clearly as if it was yesterday. I looked down in the bin on the floor where the records were and spotted the grainy black and white cover with the ragged edges of the booklet sticking out. By the time I was twelve, I had watched hundreds of black-and-white classic movies, so something about that cover drew in the part of me that loved old movies.

I had no idea who The Who were when I sat down on the floor and lifted the photo booklet out of the album. I sat cross-legged on the library floor and flipped through photos. Suddenly I was drawn into a familiar place. The pages flicked by like frames of film: a solitary young man walking by the seaside; working-class parents wearing their exhaustion on their faces; a plate full of food with a coffee cup and ashtray; the same young man hauling garbage, then lying down in a sea of it.

Everything in the booklet seemed to be wrapped in a fog of loneliness through which the gritty life of the working class loomed out. It was just like the world right outside the library. A few doors down was The Linda Mar Lounge where my parents spent their Friday nights, often leaving me and my brothers to our own devices. Across the road from the library, the Pacific Ocean pounded the rocky shores of Linda Mar Beach. I couldn’t help seeing the connections between the world inside the booklet and my life. I couldn’t wait to go home and listen to the album. I checked it out from the library, put it in the basket of my bike, and pedaled home.

I put the album on the record player, dropped the needle, and the minute I heard the opening sounds of the album — the sounds of ocean mixed with music and an overall melancholy yearning, those lyrics “Is it me for a moment?” bleeding across the ocean waves — I knew I’d discovered something I’d been looking for all my life.

Fifteen miles up the highway my dad was pulling iron and busting his body working on skyscrapers. Across town my mom was punching a calculator at a trailer park where she worked as a bookkeeper. In my neighborhood, class came in a single shade: blue. Every house had a work truck parked in the driveway. The men who drove them were carpenters, plumbers or ironworkers like my dad.

This wasn’t the Hollywood vision of life on the beach, California-style. Yes, the ocean pounded the shore. But the sun rarely came out. The fog made it hard to see too far ahead and so did the working-class economic reality it seemed to condense. After work each day, my dad would take out his rage by drinking cans of beer and pounding on his kids while my mom passed out on legal pain killers. Then on Fridays they would head down to the strip mall and try to forget it all at the Linda Mar Lounge.

When I huddled up in my basement that afternoon with Quadrophenia for the first time, the cold gray fingers of fog  rolling in over the mountains, I felt myself solidly situated in my blue-collar family and my coastal working-class town for the first time. It may not have been completely conscious, but listening to the album when I was twelve provided me the first outlet for class identification, and I soaked it in like I was looking in the mirror for the first time:

The cracks between the paving stones
Look like rivers of flowing veins.
Strange people who know me
Peeping from behind every window pane.
The girl I used to love
Lives in this yellow house.
Yesterday she passed me by,
She doesn’t want to know me now.
Can you see the real me, can you?

To this day, Quadrophenia remains the only album that I listen to as an album. It completely changed the way I listened to music. I was no longer rapidly moving from single to single, but stayed immersed in the world of this one album, a kind of alternate universe totally separate from my life but also totally connected to it. I admit that I occasionally lifted the needle to hear a favorite song over and over, but more often than not I’d listen to the whole thing.

People ask me what my favorite song is on the album, and I can’t answer. I say Quadrophenia is not about individual songs. It’s about experiencing the album as a whole, as its own universe of experience through music. Maybe that’s why The Who have avoided it when putting together their greatest hits collections. And maybe that’s also why it was so easy for me to project my own narrative onto it.

Music has always been a huge part of my life. When I was a kid, I’d say that music was more important to me than anything else. More important than television. More important than toys. More important than friends. In fact, music was my friend. The one I could count on. The one who was always with me. The one who spent hours and hours and days and days with me when I was alone in my bedroom on restriction for one of the many offenses my dad would punish me for, like forgetting to dust the chair legs, missing a crack on the stairs when vacuuming, or leaving dirt in my window track.

Discovering the album Quadrophenia and listening to it as a whole album was a huge turning point for me, a girl who got her steady music diet from a little transistor radio. Before it, I would spent my days listening to Top 40 on the local radio stations. In the early days, I stuck to KFRC, but later on I matured into KYA. I learned to switch back and forth between the two stations to find out which one was playing music I liked more. I have to tell you that growing up in the 1960s, Top 40 music was really good. I was a singles girl. I liked the songs I heard on the radio, and I listened to songs, not albums. I bought 45s for the singles, and I rarely listened to the B-sides.

Even after I discovered Quadrophenia, I remained more song than album-driven in my tastes. I still own a terrific vinyl collection, but it is utterly beat to hell because I used my albums like 45s, picking out the tracks I wanted to hear. Fifteen years after I last used a record player, I can still hear the pop and scratch of the needle hitting the vinyl over and over when I would try to find the perfect groove right before the song I wanted to hear.

I’d pull the albums out of the sleeves, drag the needle to the songs I wanted to hear, listen to the songs, drop the album on the floor, then pick up the next one and drag the needle to my next selection. By the end of a music binge, my floor would be a carpet of black vinyl and record sleeves heaped in utter chaos. I’m the same way now with CDs. The good thing is that I am an enthusiastic listener of music. The bad thing is that I use music to take me away and transport me to a different world, so I’m not really interested in maintaining neat, orderly, alphabetized order in my collection.

Quadrophenia, however, has always held a special place amid this musical chaos. When I put Quadrophenia on the record player, it was there to stay. It meant that I was making a commitment, like I was going to watch a movie. In fact, since I’ve been working on this piece, I realize how much my love of movies informed my experience of the album. Listening to it has always been a cinematic experience for me.

Looking back, I realize that it was my love of film that drew me into the album. Even before I’d put the needle down on the record, those grainy black-and-white images in the booklet were familiar to me not just because they reflected aspects of my working-class life, but because they reminded me of all the films I watched on television as a kid huddled in the basement on cold, foggy days.

There was familiarity in both content and form. The refrain of the sea — in the sounds between the songs as well as the lyrics — moved me through the album in a familiar and comfortable rhythm as the sea down the road from my house ushered waves onto the shore. Sounds of tea kettles, television sets, and traffic provide mise-en-scène within the album just like they do within a movie. I could listen to the album to relax the same way I’ll watch an old film noir. For years, I thought that I had seen the Quadrophenia movie, but realized recently that I never had. It’s just that my relationship to the album is so cinematic that I experienced it as a movie.

I see now not only how that black-and-white booklet played off my love of film but also how it helped shape the aesthetic I’d be wedded to for the rest of my life. Its spin on postwar “Kitchen Sink” Realism with grainy depictions of rebel kids in the gritty streets were a precursor to the punk sensibility that would inform my own art and writing.

At the time, I didn’t realize how much Quadrophenia was fueled by a narrative of outsiderness. In retrospect, though, it was critical for giving me my first sense of voice through music. I was able to articulate my own sense of being an outsider within an aesthetic context by connecting myself to the music.

At twelve, I had already aligned myself with the “rebel kids” at my school. I’d smoked my first pot, drunk beer behind the baseball dugout, and stolen my mother’s cigarettes. My older brothers had already gone down the path of booze and hard drugs. The parents of the bad kids met at the local bar on the weekends, while their kids rolled joints and drank beer at the rest area at Linda Mar Beach just across from the bar, our Northern California take on the world of Quadrophenia.

I guess I was one of the bad kids, but it’s not like I had a lot to go on. I was making do. Pacifica, California was my home. The fog, the rebel kids, the rough working class-edge: this was what was familiar to me and I liked it there. When my parents sold the house I grew up in and uprooted me from my fogged-in home, they tore me away from everything that made me feel connected to a home even though my actual home — the house I lived in — was a miserable place to be.

The day they packed up the last of our things, and we drove down the hill from our house, I looked out the back window of our Impala and cried my guts out. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt such deep grief and loss. And I have never let go of that moment, of being pulled away from my home by the beach, even if it was a gray, cold, working-class beach:

Here by the sea and sand
Nothing ever goes as planned
I just couldn’t face going home
It was just a drag on my own

They finally threw me out
My mother got drunk on stout,
My dad couldn’t stand on two feet,
As he lectured about morality.
Now I guess the familiy’s complete,
With me hanging round on the street
Or here on the beach.

When I immersed myself in Quadrophenia on my birthday this year, I was struck more than ever by how thoroughly the album is saturated with the sea. The sound of waves ushers in songs. Lyrics talk about going back to the sea or getting kissed by the sea. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’ve been trying to get back to the sea since I was pulled away from it at age thirteen, not long after discovering the album.

Since that day at the Linda Mar library, I have lived Quadrophenia’s narrative. I ran away from home and lived on the streets. I adopted punk as my outlet for freedom and rebellion. I worked no-end of shit jobs to make do. And I spent many nights and days lying on the cold, foggy shores of the ocean trying to find myself.

Even now, when I’m trying to fall asleep at night in the desert, I sometimes listen to Quadrophenia and imagine myself alone at the beach. The album has given me a home when I had no home. Listening to it has allowed me to claim something that was taken from me while also giving voice to my experiences. More than anything, it makes me feel grounded in the familiarity of my class background and the specific geography in which it manifested itself:

Let me flow into the ocean,
Let me get back to the sea.
Let me be stormy and let me be calm,
Let the tide in, and set me free

Listening to the album on that drive from San Diego to Tucson had the same effect it’s always had. The sound of waves crashing in the opening of “I Am The Sea” poured through my ears, and I immediately felt like I’d come back to my true self. The horrid wasteland outside of Yuma was gone. Instead, my head was filled with a hall of mirrors reflecting fog and the dirty toes of the Converse sneakers I wore when I was that twelve-year-old kid sitting in my basement playing the album on my old record player.

As I leaned back, my eyes closed so I could see the beach instead of the desert, I was overwhelmed with emotion. With daughter sitting next to me, I couldn’t help feeling like I I’d been transported back to my own twelve-year-old body. It was as if Quadrophenia had become my own heartbeat. It’s amazing that a record album can carry so much emotional weight.

Sometimes I feel so at odds in my life. My working-class childhood gets me through the practical side of life. It’s what allows me to work my ass off at a day job to take care of my kid, why I’m able to pitch a tent when I take my daughter camping, why I can fix things when they break, and why I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, yet my connection to that twelve-year-old girl walking through the fog smoking her mother’s cigarettes and drinking her father’s beer sometimes makes me feel that no matter how many pieces of broken furniture I fix or how many tents I pitch, I’m still a lost girl trying desperately to cling to the only thing that feels like home.

Quadrophenia is where I go to ground myself. It reminds me of who I am more than ever. But sometimes I wonder if that’s always a good thing. It tears my heart to shreds to think that I will never transcend my twelve-year-old self, that stoned girl walking through the fog in a beachside town. Sure, I’ve been sober for years, but it’s not pot and alcohol that made me who I am. It’s my life, and I’m wondering what kind of effect my past is going to have on my daughter. I’ve never given up on the rebel inside me even while struggling to provide her with the things I never had when I was young.

My daughter’s life couldn’t be more different than mine at her age. She just completed her first year of middle school with shining colors. We celebrated by having a girls’ day out. I told her that when I was her age, my mother never took me to do a single thing we did that day. I wanted her to understand how special the day was for me. But inside I was full of doubt. I still worry that the twelve-year-old girl inside me who found herself through Quadrophenia somehow overrides all the good I do as a parent. Yet that girl is part of me, and I can’t let go of her.

Now that my daughter is older, I sometimes talk to her more openly about my feelings, my life, and my past. She likes to know. It helps her understand me as a person. But those experiences are not her burden to carry. When I played that song for her in the backseat of the car, she reminded me that she’d really like to go to that little storefront library in Pacifica and see the place where I discovered my favorite album. I’d like to show the physical building, but I don’t think I really ever want my daughter to see the place inside me where I fell in love with Quadrophenia.

As I was preparing to write this piece, I learned many things about the historical significance of Quadrophenia, things like how Brighton relates to my experience as a kid in San Francisco Bay Area. But my connection to the album isn’t about my knowledge of Brighton, or mod culture or Kitchen Sink Realism. It’s about that twelve-year-old girl carrying the album home in the basket of her bike, the one who used it to explore the world inside herself and make sense of the circumstances that were already closing in on her future.

I have too much personal investment in the album to write about Quadrophenia’s place in rock history. I can tell you how much I love it, what a great record it is, but there’s nothing objective in that assessment. All I can do is write about how the album has provided a soundtrack for my own history. Quadrophenia has stuck with me through my childhood, my teen years on the streets, fighting my demons with drugs and alcohol, my struggle for sobriety, giving birth and raising my daughter. Explaining that isn’t going to make other people feel the same way. But at least it can remind them that music has the power to make the hard parts of life easier to bear. We just have to take the time to listen.


  1. A very moving appreciation – I love the convergence of you and your 12 year-old daughter (and maybe your 12 year-old self, too?) sharing earbuds. And now I’m going to listen to Quadrophenia in a whole new way. Thank you.

  2. I loved your story.(had to wipe a couple of tears) The album certainly gets into the soul – I first heard it through my big brother in 1975 when I was 12 and it has felt like the soundtrack to my past life too. Working-class upbringings! Hope you know you are fabulous and your daughter is a lucky kid. Keep smiling and singing together.

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