It's no act: Pete Townshend is still bitter, angry and brilliant .



The Who redefine bittersweet


The first time I saw the Who, I spent most of the encore trying to hide the fact that I was struggling not to weep. I could feel the onslaught of emotion overcoming my carefully honed, razor-sharp persona. The moment the crowd caught the gleam of those picturesque tears clinging to the corners of my eyes, it would all be over. I would be banned from rock n’ roll for life.

The Who always leave me feeling as though there are countless reasons to cry – none of them justifiable to the other members of the ecstatically energized mob. Some are obvious: each time Zak Starkey and Pino Palladino perform, the crowd can’t help but be reminded of the absent Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Existential reasons abound, too – the obvious aging of a band that was iconic of youth culture brings the specter of creaking joints, receding hairlines and death ever closer. Mostly, though, I was choked up for selfish reasons. Pete Townsend is practically deaf, and no amount of weight lifting will erase Roger Daltrey’s 64 years. They can’t perform forever; each tour threatens to be their last. But no band in the modern era has stepped up to fill their shoes, and I’m starting to doubt that one will. Where is the Who of my generation? Will I always need to commandeer my parents’ rock stars? I feel, intrinsically, that I have been gipped.

At the VH1 Rock Honors in Los Angeles this past weekend, a handful of bands applied for the position. The Foo Fighters performed an incendiary rendition of “Young Man Blues,” and Pearl Jam played with the kind of reverence usually reserved for places of worship. Tenacious D and Incubus defined lackluster, but left their butcher knives at home. And the Flaming Lips let Wayne Coyne enter in his giant bubble before breaking into an eccentric medley from Tommy, designed to create widespread euphoria. It was a sensational evening. But despite orchestras, horns, guest vocalists, and introductions by Hollywood glitterati, none of it compared to the streamlined brilliance of the Who’s finale.

Pete Townsend is the type of musician who can make an ukulele sound ferocious. He can write a rock opera and inspire a genre. He can maintain an almost inhuman level of rage even though his life, by most people’s standards, has been wildly successful. But Townsend is also a spectacular saboteur, because he has set an impossible precedent. While I adore Be Your Own Pet, nothing they have ever done has inspired me to light a candle and sit down to meditate on their music. On those days that I am disgusted by my suburban life, my steady paycheck, and my utilitarian wardrobe, there is no modern album that provides suitable catharsis. When Pete Townsend groans “Have to drench myself in brandy / In sleep I’ll hide / But however much I booze / There ain’t no way out,” I feel like I’ve reached the pinnacle of miserable, self-indulgent rock. Once or twice through The Who by Numbers and I can put down my baggage, remember how much I love not being homeless, and self-medicate through his electric guitar and gin.

As much as I’d like to deny it, there is a lot of mediocrity in my life. I eat low-fat yogurt for breakfast. I watch some television most evenings. I read the Arizona Republic on Sundays. Whenever I watch the Who, I am reminded that there are some things that
are still truly inspiring. Perhaps the Who has not yet influenced the musicians that will overtake them, or at least allow them to retire without guilt. Before that day, make it a priority to see one of the greatest bands that has ever played.

The VH1 Rock Honors celebrating the Who will air on Thursday, July 17.

July 17, 2008

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