Don’t Ever Get Old, Pete!

Townshend

I finished reading Before I get Old, Dave Marsh’s excellent book about The Who and a couple of things caught my attention. Pete Townshend was wrestling with the pop versus artists’ vision debate within the band during their time of greatest popularity and Townshend felt trapped in the Who because of fan expectations. The fan base, particularly Mods, were loyal to The Who to a fault and that was part of Townshend’s dilemma. Could he please his muse as well as his fans? Although one of the main criticisms that Marsh points out in the book is aimed toward rock audiences that transformed from deciding what music and musicians they wanted to hear to becoming passive participants watching heroes that they placed on pedestals. Pete Townshend struggled to push the envelope after his rock opera Tommy became a smash success and he drove himself to the point of a nervous breakdown in trying to keep a fresh sound and a relevant band going strong. The Who came over in the British Invasion slightly behind The Rolling Stones and The Beatles but the climate for rock and roll bands having long term careers had not yet been established. So the weight on Townshend’s shoulders was considerable. He tried to please his core audience and also create inventive music to draw new fans and break through the limitations of live performance. He tried tape playbacks to simulate extra sounds but he could not duplicate the ingenuity of his music that was created in the recording studio. The frustration led to a brief fistfight with Roger Daltrey before the Quadrophenia tour but The Who stayed together despite the pressure cooker atmosphere they performed in. Certain parts of The Who story as told by Marsh made it seem like the current climate of lackluster album sales and absence of a rock and roll culture was inevitable, and the book was published originally in 1983. Meanwhile The Who are prepping for their 50th Anniversary tour with only half of their original members but still sounding like the powerful force in rock and roll. Townshend still faces the same problem in this century that he did in the last one, when records like Endless Wire are virtually ignored. No matter what an artist as experienced as Pete Townshend comes up with the fans desire for “the hits” won’t go away which explains why tours highlighting one classic album or combos of once popular rock bands are now the norm. Not many people want to hear anything new or even rearranged by their favorite performers. Would Townshend have kept going if he could have seen into the future and look at the nostalgia that he wanted to avoid having to perform over and over again in the 1970’s or would he have taken up doing movie soundtracks or start a new band? It doesn’t seem likely since he knew what he had with The Who was unique so he might have decided to embrace the inevitable and become an oldies act. Townshend’s famous line of “hope I die before I get old” gets a lot of ridicule when sung by a 70 year-old lead singer but it makes a lot of sense when you look at it from today’s climate. It’s a lot more difficult for surviving artists to stay relevant than their peers who passed away who always retain their integrity and cool (Hendrix, Morrison, Moon, etc.) because they died before they got old. Survivors like Pete Townshend are still on the pedestals that fans put him on but I think he’d rather be off of it already and make new music people actually want to hear.

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