Many years ago, back when Terence Trent D’Arby was hot, Rolling Stone did a photo feature with artists who were currently on the charts and one of the artists that inspired them. D’Arby said of Pete Townshend, “He’s not much for solos, but he plays rhythm guitar as if his life depended on it.”* I can’t think of a more apt description of Townshend’s playing style than that. Considering his life, and the mental and emotional struggles he’s had, I wouldn’t be surprised if his life actually did depend on it.
Townshend is one of my all time favorite rock stars, and not just because he’s created some of the most searing, beautiful, and transcendent music in history. He’s one of my faves because of who he is (kinda like how I love Willie Nelson for the fact that he’s just Willie). He is brilliant and troubled, coming to some sort of peace late in his life, although I doubt he will ever find it completely. He’s never suffered from middle-age happiness like so many of his peers, so his music has stayed vital. I’ll admit I don’t love everything he does, but he never stops trying to push the envelope. Even when he’s touring with Roger Daltrey as The Who, playing all the hits to crowds who might not know anything else, he infuses new energy into songs he’s played thousands of time, bringing them to life with a wit and anger that maybe shouldn’t be possible for a nearly deaf guitarist in his sixties. He has no internal editor, no brain-to-mouth filter: If he thinks it, he says it, even when it contradicts what he said five minutes earlier. He’s gotten himself into some trouble with the law in the past for his extreme candor and his need to understand himself (I will not be rehashing the trumped up investigation from around fifteen years ago; just know that he was completely cleared of wrongdoing). But he never, ever, ever stops striving for answers to his questions.
I also love Pete Townshend because of a painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a Rembrandt titled The Raising of Lazarus.
Look at Jesus in that painting. Tell me he doesn’t look exactly like Townshend. He’s even got his arm raised up like he’s getting ready to do his windmill move.
This song, chosen in part because of the opening of the London Olympic games, is from his concept album Psychoderelict, which can be viewed as something of an autobiography. But Townshend is also one of those musicians that’s always writing about himself in some way, even when it’s a song about a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard. This is about an English boy, grown up on the streets, and all the pride and anger that comes along with him.
He really does need that guitar. Kind of the same way most people need gravity. It is the anchor that holds him to this earth. Thank god he found it.
*Note: This might not be the exact quote, but I was too lazy to look it up and be sure.