“Rough Boys”


I just love this song.  Pete Townshend’s musical exploration of his probable bisexuality is also one of the great Rock songs, period.  Like much of Townshend’s ouvre, “Rough Boys” is also an angry song.  There’s no room for tenderness here.  This is about a quick hook up in a back room or an alley.  As a result, it also feeds into some nasty stereotypes about homosexual behavior, but I don’t think that was Pete’s intention.  There’s a particular perspective to this song, a point of view born not only from Townshend’s sexuality but also from his rage.

I don’t know if he ever actually fooled around with any guys, but Townshend himself has admitted bisexual feelings.  And there’s really no denying the content of the song.  “Tough boys, come over here.  I wanna bite and kiss you” isn’t exactly subtle.  Of course, there’s also a couple of references to a “her,” so it could also be from the perspective of a woman picking up some rough trade.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.  The woman referenced is probably the wife or girlfriend of the male character in the song, who is ignorant of her man’s desire to fuck other men.  I kind of hate using the word “fuck” here, but that’s what the song is about.  Remember, there’s no room for tenderness in this hook up.

This is actually a pretty provocative song.  Released on 1980’s Empty Glass, it was a pretty bold choice as both a track and a single (it failed to make the Top Forty, however).  This was not the kind of thing mainstream Rock stars sang about.  Heck, Rob Halford of Judas Priest hadn’t even come out yet.  The video is also provocative, but much more sly about the sexual innuendo.  There’s a lot of glancing and pushing and aggressive/suggestive pool cue wielding.  It’s very smartly done, keeping the spirit of the song alive without directly offending any sensibilities.

Another interesting possibility raised by “Rough Boys” is the fact that on the album’s liner notes, Townshend dedicated the song to both the Sex Pistols and his children.  I get the Sex Pistols.  If anyone could’ve been called rough boys, they could’ve.  I’m not quite sure how his two daughters fit into it.  (His son Joseph wasn’t born until 1990.)  But the dedication raises the idea that it’s more of a generational thing.  Which makes it a song about a creepy middle-aged guy, probably married, picking up some young dude(s) in a bar for some extracurricular activities.

“Save It for Later”


I wonder what the story behind this song is.  There’s got to be more to “Save It for Later” than a catchy chorus and infectious beat.

If you’re looking for some kind of meaning in this song, the lyrics are pretty cryptic.  Did the lover “run away and let me down,” or was that plea preemptive?  Just what was the decision the singer had to come to?  Keep the wayward lover?  Let him/her go?  Pull the plug on grandma?  There’s a crisis of some sort happening in the lead character’s life, but it’s never really made clear.  What mistakes have been made?  Why are there “Two dozen other stupid reasons why we should suffer for this”?

Part of me has always felt like this was from a female perspective, and she was debating whether or not to get an abortion.  I don’t have any evidence other than the song to back this up.  The explanation Dave Wakeling gives here (fifth paragraph) is plausible, but this feels more substantial than a generic “coming of age” thing.  The feeling of crisis is what gives this song its urgency, what propels it even more than the ska rhythm.  It’s a dark tune, moodier than the cheerful music would let you believe.

Of course, I’m free to read anything into it I want.  That’s the nature of art.  When you put something out there, it doesn’t just belong to you anymore; it belongs to everyone who loves it.  Or hates it.  Or experiences it in some way.  Most artists are pretty comfortable with that.  Even when it’s something intensely personal, it takes on new and different meanings when an audience consumes it.  So whatever Dave Wakeling and the rest of the English Beat meant when they wrote and recorded “Save It for Later” is one thing.  What listeners hear is another . . . a multitude of others, really.

Pete Townshend adds a whole other dimension to the song with his version (and I love that he seems just as confused about the meaning as I am).  His performance gives it some bite, as well as some additional sadness.  The emotions range more wildly in Townshend’s version, but I like it just as much as the original.

Ultimately, I think the ambiguity is what makes this song great.  There has to be room for the listeners in good music, room for their lives and loves, room for a whole world of meaning.  The story doesn’t have to be clear, it just has to make you pay attention.

“After the Fire”


I love this song, but the video represents everything that’s wrong with music videos.

Totally ignoring the gratuitous shots of Roger Daltrey shirtless (pretty though they might be), it’s so literal as to be laughable.  Burning trees and school buses.  Ash and embers floating in the wind.  The thing with the match at the beginning (oy vey!).  I’m having trouble believing anyone took this crap seriously.

Frankly, it mars the song a little bit.  It’s synth-heavy 80s production doesn’t do it any favors, either.   “After the Fire” is a wonderfully introspective song, a man looks at himself approaching middle age and wonders what the hell is going on.  (Roger Daltrey performs it; Pete Townshend wrote it.)  He knows there’s still life left, but he’s not sure what any of it means.  His youth–that mythical time of endless passion, conviction, and energy–is gone.  He feels lost: “Now I’m cycling all my videotapes, and I’m crying and I’m joking.  I’ve gotta stop drinking, I’ve gotta stop thinking, I’ve gotta stop smoking.”  It’s the remembrance of things past, “The memories smolder, and the soul always yearns,” that’s got him wondering if there’s anything left for him.

You wouldn’t know this from the bombastic images and production.  To be fair, Pete’s live version from about the same time isn’t much better in terms of production.  I swear I thought I had an acoustic version of this.  It’s begging for an acoustic version.  (If anyone out there has one, I will pay postage and provide the blank CD for you to record it onto.  Or tell me what album it’s on so I can buy it.)  It needs a little peace and quiet.

“English Boy”


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.

“I get excitement at your feet.”

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.

I can raise the dead, y’know

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.