His generation

Pete Townshend didn't die before he got old -- he kept on living.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published November 17, 1998 6:36PM (EST)

There's a secret part of all rock 'n' roll fans that likes to see our old-time heroes doing well: recovering from their addictions; finding love and happiness or at least a kind of serenity; winning awards for recent work that they've done, even though we know that perhaps their best work is already behind them. Maybe these earnest vapors of well-wishing, something we send out across the land like weak radio waves, are about the best we can muster for our idols after years of making demands on them, entreating them to give us another hit song that will make us feel as good as the last one did. People who love Pete Townshend -- and I count myself among them -- should all be happy that he won a Tony Award in 1993 for the Broadway resurrection of his 1969 rock opera "Tommy," that he now keeps himself busy with solo touring and concept albums like 1993's "Psychoderelict." We all want to be reassured that it's possible to be a happy, productive and hip member of society even past age 30, if not 21.

But there's no escaping the brutal truth: When you have a sustained burst of greatness, as Pete Townshend did with the Who from the mid-'60s well into the '70s, it seems like misguided charity to applaud something as mundane as a Tony. What I love best about seeing the present-day Townshend -- even though I accept that like all of us, he had to grow up -- is how readily I can conjure the bratty kid with the big nose, wrapped in pre-punk Union Jack bunting. I love the look of the older Townshend (as well as the voice, if not always the material) precisely because I keep needing to see how he's turning out, now that he's had to live all these years with his most famous line trailing behind him like a comet's tail. When Townshend, the guitarist and premier songwriter in one of the groundbreaking bands of his era, wrote that line in 1965's "My Generation," he didn't really hope he'd die before he got old. The lyric wasn't even an act of misguided, youthful bravery. It was nothing but brashness, a kid throwing down a challenge that he could never take back. And it sounded great. Plenty of fans, cranky about the fact that the Who ultimately lost steam (the same kinds of people who never recover from the news that there's no Santa Claus), have held that lyric against him. But the line is smarter than even he probably knew at the time: Youth may be touching, but it isn't inherently interesting. Townshend was interesting. When a very young man is bold enough to write a line like that -- to make you believe that he'd really throw everything away rather than let himself be numbed; a line that's a time bomb set to go off in his face -- you immediately want to know: What kind of a man will he grow up to be?

Townshend was born in 1945 and grew up, like fellow future Who bandmates John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey, in the middle-class London suburb of Shepherd's Bush. He was an art-school kid who, like many of his contemporaries, immersed himself in American pop and R&B records. In 1959, at age 13, he'd started out playing banjo in a Dixieland band with Entwistle, later switching to guitar; he and Entwistle eventually ended up in Roger Daltrey's band the Detours, playing around London clubs in the early '60s. In 1963, the group landed a record contract and changed its name to the High Numbers; it also recruited Keith Moon, who'd been playing with a local surf band. Although the band began to draw a following among the young mod audience -- stylish, scooter-riding kids with a predilection for American R&B, a group Townshend especially felt an affinity for -- they went nowhere until they met Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two young filmmakers who took over as the band's managers. The group changed its name yet again to the Who (a name they'd used briefly earlier in their career) and began to build a bigger following, earning a reputation as brazen, pissed-off kids who played a particularly potent brand of R&B and smashed their equipment on stage. In 1965 the band released three U.K. top-10 hit singles, two written by Townshend (who wrote nearly all the band's material): "I Can't Explain," "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" (co-written with Daltrey) and "My Generation." From there, the band's popularity soared in Britain; in the States, the Who were revered mostly as a live band, and didn't sell an exceptional number of records until the release of the ambitious (and overblown) "Tommy" in 1969, which remained on the U.S. charts for nearly two years.

The Who -- which kept its original lineup intact until Moon's death in 1978, at which point Small Faces drummer Kenny Jones joined the band -- was a group of strong-willed individuals who often clashed (Townshend and Daltrey's bitter spats, sometimes played out onstage, were legendary). Townshend earned the reputation of being the brains behind the group. It's probably more accurate to say that the band together formed a collective soul, and it was Townshend who figured out ways to articulate its secrets, spinning them out into words and music. Townshend was the mastermind behind the ambitious, high-flying projects that the band took on first "Tommy" and later the more challenging "Quadrophenia" (1973), which actually makes a fair stab at the complexity that was always claimed for "Tommy."

But for all the acclaim and respect those projects earned, if you're going to try to trace the brilliance of Townshend and the Who, the best way to do it is to pick up the threads of individual songs. "My Generation" may have been an anthem for kids who were coming of age circa 1965, but it has more layers of complexity than most anthems: Townshend wrote, "Why don't you all fade away?" as a way of ordering his elders to step aside. Yet even as one of the fresh new voices of his era, he's borrowing (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) their words to make his statement. Nearly a decade before, Buddy Holly had sung about not fading away -- he was talking about keeping a love affair alive, but his followers took the song to heart as a pledge to keep rock 'n' roll thriving, past the stage of being a fad. In that context, "My Generation" is more than just a fuck-off anthem; it's a way of picking up the torch -- but not before giving it a shot of gas.

In his career with the Who, Townshend's songs achieved a delicate balance of brashness, tenderness, humor, brittle anger and wily intelligence. The gravelly crunch of Townshend's guitar in songs like "My Generation" was only part of the band's hallmark sound. Although the Who were first and foremost a rock 'n' roll band, they knew how to be a pop band, too, and were never ashamed of it, spinning out surprisingly delicate harmonies in one of Townshend's most bittersweet masterpieces, "Pictures of Lily" (1967).

"Lily" is a love song not to a real woman but to an image: She exists only as a pinup on a wall, until she drifts into the singer's arms, in his dreams. The song represents the flip side of what early feminists called "objectification": Sure, Lily is idealized, a goddess whom no real woman can match. But "Pictures of Lily" takes all that psychological stuff about how men are "visually oriented" when it comes to sexual excitement and puts it in undeniably human terms. How can you blame a kid for dreaming a beautiful woman up as a refuge from his loneliness?

Townshend and the Who pushed into new territory well into the '70s. "Live at Leeds" (1970) stands as a gorgeously rough-edged document of the band's ferocity as live performers, and Townshend's guitar is the thing that anchors the record's sandy swirl of sound. His broad metallic strokes are almost painterly -- big and bold without ever being sloppy, they have the shaggy grace of dandelions about to go to seed. His sweeping, woolly phrases could sound alternately prehistoric or futuristic (a sound beamed from another galaxy of pissed-off lads), and sometimes both at once. The 1971 LP "Who's Next" -- released two years after "Tommy" and shortly after Townshend's overly ambitious film project, "Lifehouse," fell apart -- is one of the band's most astonishing and consistent albums.

And on LPs like "The Who by Numbers" (1975) -- the very title an acknowledgment that the band members were aging -- Townshend sketched out his disillusionment and weariness with a heartbreaking purity and grace. For me, the exquisite beauty of "Blue, Red and Grey" -- featuring Townshend's eggshell-fragile vocals, backed by a ukulele and a cloud-soft horn section -- is more than enough to make up for the party-down clunker "Squeeze Box." On "Blue, Red and Grey" (written in the tradition of English music-hall songs), Townshend tells us with an almost childlike innocence, "I like every minute of the day" -- a thinly veiled assertion that there are benefits to growing older, that he now knows things he couldn't possibly have known when he was 20.

In the 15 years since the breakup of the Who, Townshend has released a handful of solo albums, worked for a publishing house, published a book of short stories, brought "Tommy" to the Broadway stage and reunited with the other members of the Who to perform a version of "Quadrophenia" (a scaled-down version, with Townshend playing acoustic guitar, since years of playing maximum-volume rock 'n' roll has left him partially deaf). Of his solo albums, two stand out: his first, the blissfully delicate "Who Came First" (1972), which was conceived as a tribute to his spiritual guru, Meher Baba, and the stunning 1980 "Empty Glass." The Who had recorded a version of the lovely "Pure and Easy," but I consider the solo version on "Who Came First" to be the definitive one: The song is broken down to its essential elements, a guitar sound at once bruised and resplendent and Townshend's quavery, fragile voice. "I listened and I heard/Music in a word/And words when you played your guitar," Townshend sings, a compact summation of the way words can sing and music can speak. And on "Empty Glass," Townshend summons a rage that sounds anything but tempered by age and experience, taking apart rock journalists Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons on the lacerating "Jools and Jim": "Typewriter tappers/You're all just crappers/You listen to love with your intellect," he sings, with acid in his voice, as a response to the obit the career-climbing Burchill and Parsons wrote for Keith Moon claiming there was no reason to care that such a decadent has-been had died.

Like no other performer of his generation, Pete Townshend stands for all the messy contradictions of youth, and for the necessity of figuring it all out as you go along. You could say he set himself an impossible task, making that one defiant statement so early in his career and then spending the rest of his days trying to outrun it, as if he'd carelessly made a pact with the devil -- with each passing year, he had to work harder to justify his own existence. Townshend was long ago paid up in full. Finally, the hellhound on his tail had best leave him be.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------