This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of Pete Towshend, guitarist and song-writer for The Who, who celebrates his 67th birthday today. I love learning that the classic rocker who is credited with starting such iconic features as heavy feedback sound, the windmill arm strum, and guitar-smashing in concerts started his musical career with former schoolmate John Entwhistle in a dixieland band called the Confederates, with Townshend on banjo and Entwhistle on horns. All it took was hearing Steve Cropper playing on Booker T and the MGs’ hit, Green Onions, though, and his musical trajectory changed dramatically, as did the history of rock and roll.
For a look at Towshend’s contributions to the songbook of freedom, we can first turn to 1971’s Who’s Next, the band’s fifth album. By this time Townshend was several years into his study of the religions of India, and had declared himself a disciples of the Indian guru Meher Baba. Songs like Bargain are interesting, because on face value, they sound like simple love songs, but they were actually written to describe his love for God. Believers in God, from any tradition, would be able to appreciate the mystical devotion expressed in these lyrics:
I’d gladly lose me to find you
I’d gladly give up all I had
To find you I’d suffer anything and be glad
. . .
I’d call that a bargain
The best I ever had
The best I ever had
. . .
I look at my face in the the mirror
I know I’m worth nothing without you
In life, one and one don’t make two
One and one make one
And I’m looking for that free ride to me
I’m looking for you
On that same album, the haunting ballad, Behind Blue Eyes, gives us another example of the freedom he sought through religious devotion. Originally intended as part of a rock opera, Lighthouse, that never came to fruition, this song was to be sung by a villainous character who struggles to find freedom from his personal angst and anger. The middle section (if I swallow anything evil. . .) was written as a prayer, and it speaks to the life-long struggle Townshend had with addiction.
I can’t write about Pete Townshend and the 100+ songs he wrote without giving a salute to the great rock opera that did find fruition – 1969‘s Tommy. Here in this archetypal allegory of a Messiah complex writ large, the deaf, dumb, and blind kid, the pinball wizard, is miraculously “cured” when his mother breaks the mirror he has been staring at, and the newly enlightened, soon to be messiah figure leaves home, singing of his newfound freedom:
If I told you what it takes
to reach the highest high,
You’d laugh and say ‘nothing’s that simple’
But you’ve been told many times before
Messiahs pointed to the door
And no one had the guts
to leave the temple!
Pete Townshend certainly had the “guts” to point many people to the door, influencing numerous bands and artists to leave the confines and expectations of what rock music was supposed to be and experiment with new sounds and new forms. May he continue to do so in his 68th year.