Contrary to his expressed intent, Pete Townshend did not die before he got old. Instead, the bloke is pushing 70.
But old is as much a state of mind as chronology. That fact provides the fork in the long road of the life of The Who’s singular founder, he of the prominent schnozz, the wrecked guitar, child porn allegations, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and whatever else he has been able to cram into the decades. Or have shoved at him.
I don’t maintain that The Who were somehow better than the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or any of the other great bands of the 1960s and 1970s. I’m fans of all of them, but The Who was my core band from the start. The reason may have been as simple as timing: the Beatles were on the way out (at least in the way we all knew them) about the time Who’s Next came out, complete with the innovative “Baba O’Riley” and the stunning “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I was about nine, and starting to make my own musical decisions, instead of drafting off whatever my brothers were listening to.
I’d like to think there was more to it, though. The Who had a working-class grit about them, a rawness of sound that appealed to me. And Townshend, the band’s chief writer, laid it all bare. From my ears, he seemed to hold back nothing. That which bothered him would be broadcast; whatever failings he saw in himself would be on display for all of us.
This is why I wanted to throttle the pundits who took Townshend to task for being too introspective, such as on the Who By Numbers album. (Dave Marsh wrote a more searching review for Rolling Stone.) What is art for, if not to lay bare the soul, so it can search through the loneliness and find as many connection points as possible with other souls? When rock-star Townshend writes (and sings) “I just can’t face my failure/I’m nothing but a well-fucked sailor” (the song is “However Much I Booze“), he wrestles with the same feelings of inadequacy, real or imagined, that billions of others do.
Not that it’s all darkness and bitterness in Townshend’s world. From the exuberance of “My Generation” to the rustic tenderness of “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” there’s an emotional gamut being run here. For better or worse — mostly the former — it has run through my musical and spiritual life for years.
Townshend’s 2012 memoir, Who I Am, is on my daily reading table now. He’s an engaging and self-deprecating writer whose easy fearlessness radiates from the pages. If he held anything back in this, or in his songs, he sure fooled me.
Jagger, McCartney, Plant — Pete Townshend was never seen in that class of rock stars, even though all three of those and more respected him not just as a rocker, but as an artist. Underrated? Maybe. But I don’t think Pete Townshend cares. He’s too busy living the life of an artist, which by definition, we all get to see.♦
A few more (out of hundreds of) Pete performances worth a look/listen, these from solo albums:
“I’m One,” from Quadrophenia
“And I Moved,” from Empty Glass
“Give Blood,” from White City: A Novel, this live version featuring Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour
© 2013 Adam Barr except linked music