Peter Townshend Gets Old Before He Dies

The leader of the Who has been questioning his role in the youth cult for most of this decade.

September 24, 1979
 PETER TOWNSHEND IS A 34-YEAR-OLD MAN who has devoted his life to the sound of glandular disturbance. Last week he reasserted that devotion with a series of Who concerts—the band’s first in America since the death of Keith Moon a year ago—that demonstrated convincingly their readiness to go on. With timeless power chords and searchlights arcing over a sea of fists, their five performances at Madison Square Garden were designed to realize arena-rock’s potential as youth-cult celebration. The ironies of the situation — that Townshend has been questioning his role in the youth cult for most of this decade, that new wavers have been challenging his contribution to its music for the last half of it, that neither he nor anybody else onstage could actually be considered young any more — were acknowledged in the songs but not in the performance. For the average fan it was rock and roll as usual, with a new man in the drummer’s seat.
In choosing Kenny Jones to fill that seat, Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle (who as teenagers had picked Moon to replace another drummer 15 years earlier) found an interesting way out of a very tricky situation. Moon was as close to irreplaceable as a drummer can get: his performing style was not only utterly unique—instead of laying the foundation for the group, he kept them from settling onto one—but central to what the Who was about. Onstage or off, it was Moon’s function to confound gravity, to make chaos happen. Jones is an excellent but conventional rock drummer, exciting but not inspired, who’s done mostly session work in the four years since the breakup of the Faces. In no way does he compete with Moon’s memory. But since the Small Faces, Jones’s old band, were getting started in the East End of London while the Who were playing for the Mods in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, his selection has its own kind of historical resonance.

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It makes sense in another way, too. Simon Frith suggested in this section a year ago that Moon’s role in the Who had ceased to exist by the time he died — that a decade in the international rock establishment (imagine that) had induced an ossification in the group that he could neither live with nor prevent. There certainly was an inevitable quality to Moon’s death: He was afraid to go on the road because he knew it would start him drinking again, yet when he overdosed, it was on the drug that he’d been given to help cure his alcoholism.
Last June, when he was doing promotional interviews for The Kids Are Alright, the film retrospective of the Who’s career, Townshend told Wayne Robins of Newsday that if Keith had lived, the Who might never have played together again. Far from ending the Who, as many people initially expected it would — it did, after all, come in the midst of an advertising campaign touting the band as the sole musical remnant of the ’60s still intact — Moon’s death seems to have ensured its continuation. Whether it did so simply by enabling them to tour again or by removing a more complex sort of blockage is almost irrelevant. Any way you look at it, Keith’s time had run out.
The word from MCA Records is that the Who scheduled their current spate of performances — New York and New Jersey now, the Northeast and Midwest in December (after the Quadrophenia film has opened), the Wembley Festival last month, other dates in England and on the Continent throughout the summer — to keep The Kids Are Alright from becoming their epitaph. The new shows come with a “surprise” in the form of a horn section that hovers over an amplifier bank and a keyboard player who adds organ flourishes at all the right moments. Kenny Jones is installed in a drum kit that must have been inspired by the St. Louis arch and looks as if it might start revolving but doesn’t. Selections from Quadrophenia, Townshend’s last grand project for the Who, are played for the first time since the year the album was released. But the biggest surprise is that there are no surprises. The Quadrophenia songs don’t sound all that different from the other material. The new drummer is a technician who stays in the background and pushes the original members out front. The audience is still dominated by adolescent males whose appearance suggests a vague identification with late-’60s youth-cult ideas — Woodstock Nation II. Nothing much has changed.
On the one hand, we’re lucky to have the Who at all. Ever since Quadrophenia their albums have been morbid with self-doubt: “I write the same old song with a few new lines/And everybody wants to cheer it.” Keith Moon is dead. Townshend’s hearing difficulty has gotten worse; he’s been warned that if he continues like this he can expect to have trouble with normal conversation by the time he’s 38 and to lose his hearing completely sometime between 40 and 50. (His doctor said he should learn lip-reading.)
On the other hand, it’s always a little disappointing when stasis is presented as an achievement. Granted, Kenny Jones has just had 15 years’ worth of songs to learn. But horns? Organ flourishes? At a time when less is more, and not without much breast-beating, the Who have decided to slather it on. Self-doubt is thus buried, if not erased.
It’s true, as Townshend suggests in Who Are You, the group’s last album, that the new wave is going back to what the Who did 15 years ago. But that’s the point. New wave returns to basics, to raw adolescent throb, stripping away the superstructure Townshend has spent 15 years trying to build. This is, after all, the creator of the rock opera. Yet too often what he’s ended up with is adolescent throb with orchestra.
It’s not that Townshend is incapable of creating adult music—his Rough Mix album with Ronnie Lane, the Small Faces’ bassist, speaks to his own generation as directly as My Generation did 15 years ago. It’s more that he seems to view the Who as a means of intellectualizing the teen experience for the benefit of today’s teenagers, and thus continuing his communion with them. I mean, none of those guys with their fists in the air looked to be 34.
Putting the Who back onstage is one way Townshend can continue to indulge his obsession with youth, but the forthcoming Quadrophenia film (already a hit in London, set for mid-November release in New York) is a far more provocative one. A straight narrative film—that is, not a film like Tommy—set in the London of Mods-and-Rockers days, Quadrophenia traces the psychic disintegration of a Shepherd’s Bush youth as he becomes progressively more detached from society, his family, and his fellow Mods. This film could become the Saturday Night Fever of rock and roll—it’s that tough, and except for the setting and the ending it’s the same story of gang fights, frustrated sex, and the teenager’s desperate urge to escape the living death of adulthood.
The ending makes quite a difference, however. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta transcends his outer-borough origins and the future they imply when his girlfriend leads him to the sophisticated never-neverland of Manhattan street addresses. In Quadrophenia — a much more thoughtful film — Travolta’s London counterpart is spurned by his girl as by everyone else, witnesses his personification of coolness in defeat, and responds by sailing his idol’s Vespa motorbike off a very high cliff. “Hope I die before I get old” indeed. But the message here is the same as the message in that song, even though it’s delivered from the other side of the age divide: Youth cults — any youth cult, whether it’s Mods or rockers or hippies or punks — have only the choice between death and surrender. Adulthood is surrender; only in death is there eternal coolness.
There’s one way out, however, and that’s through a band like the Who. Rock and roll might kill you, but if you play the game right it can be the fountain of perpetual adolescence. That’s the secret of Townshend’s devotion. His face may look lined and tired and old before its time, but you should see how he dances, you should watch him whip himself around by the neck with his own chords. Naturally, there’s a price. So chalk up one life for the Who, with a sense of hearing soon to come. ■

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