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An Open Letter to Pete Townshend on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday

05/15/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

Dearest Pete,

First off, happy 70th.

This must seem a surreal sentiment considering you will forever be known for having written that you hoped to die before you...well...you know. However, in a very distinct way you never really did get old, did you? I mean, of course, we're all careening towards oblivion, but what never gets old is integrity, passion, impetuous adherence to art and an unflinching, unrepentant pursuit of truth. You know the stuff that makes us nod our collective head and go, "Yeah...yeah" - this is what has allowed you to remain true to your screed.

But I did not write this to belabor the obvious. Seventy years is quite a run for a 60s rock star. As you have broached eloquently in many an interview, too many of your contemporaries and half your band are no longer with us, and it is not as if you did not face the effrontery of the rock idiom with any kind of caution. If anything, it is something of a miracle that you are still with us, not as much a miracle as say Keith Richards, which is a Lourdes level of divine agency, but we both know this foray into the form was something of a gamble for all of you and it is on this occasion that I think we can comfortably state that you have come up aces.

Mostly, though, I wanted to thank you.

And I do so not just for myself, but my generation - the one at the butt end of the Boomer one or the premature birthing of X. I was born in late 1962 and was way too young for "My Generation" or Monterey or Woodstock or Viet Nam, etc. But I was also a little too cynical to be influenced by MTV or Nirvana and the spate of psychographics defined by sociologists for people selling zit cream and video games. I first heard Tommy at age nine in the attic of my friend's grandparents' house in the Bronx, NY. It was his older brother's copy. I did not yet know about acid or transcendental meditation or sensory trauma or messianic delusions. I only knew I was moved. Really moved.

So I want to thank you for Tommy. Much later in life the film, a really horrible thing, but one that shook the world at my feet and changed the way I would ever view or listen to music again, and ended up becoming something of a life-altering experience for a twelve year-old. I remember my parents being puzzled at my week-long trance over it. And I remember feeling good about that, even 40 years hence. It still makes my nads tingle and brings me to a place filled with youthful exuberance that is beyond mere nostalgia. No one can take that feeling away. I'll take that one to my grave.

And I want to thank you for "Young Man Blues". I thought I liked heavy music and distorted defiance and rebellion and neighborhood-shattering noise, but then I heard the live version of "Young Man Blues" as it was released in my junior year of high school on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack for the film that would impress me but only hold deeper meaning three years later when my beloved grandmother died; the first concussive sense of loss I endured. I spent ten straight hours playing the VHS version over and over and over until I was tired of crying. But that has nothing to do with the first time I experienced The Who's cover of "Young Man Blues". It rendered all other rock music to flimsy argle. Shit, man, I don't know how one can be an adolescent and explain oneself properly without it: manic, chaotic, relentless power and volume, as if this monstrosity you unleashed had become nuclear; a weapon of mass destruction - clean, brutal, unyielding. I am blasting it right now writing this. Ouch. Goddamn it, man. What revelation you wrought.

Thanks for "Won't Get Fooled Again", which some enterprising DJ played on the final minutes of the 1970s when it was hard for me to grasp that there could be another decade and what the 1980s would do to me as a young man, and what The Who and all of your songs and records would do to influence and calm and direct me. That song resonated at two crucial points when watching you perform it. The band's first of several "final" tours in the late-summer of 1982 at Philly's JFK Stadium, this stone monolith packed to the rafters with sun-drenched middle-class Caucasians of all ages, and me and the friends had managed to get ourselves in the press booth and watched as the throng of some 90,000 kids clapped in unison over your legendary pre-programmed synth piece that you pained over in this little box studio in west London over a decade before. It was what it must have felt like to be part of the Roman Legion right before the plunging of a city - this insatiable hedonistic lust for dominance. Oh, and the other was when you played solo at the Beacon Theater in 1993 and you did the song as an encore and was so completely loony you hit the ground - ba-tannnng! - guitar screaming with feedback, the crowd apoplectic to get at you, intercede with whatever jolt of electricity you were channeling.

Yeah, we all knew it was electricity. It had to be. The windmill, ahhhh...the windmill; how that right arm could rise up and come whipping around and around to smack those power chords and how you couldn't say you lived until you were in the room when that arm went up and came striking across the strings and the crowd exploded as if it was in there somehow. And we knew that soon you might splinter that thing into hundreds of tiny pieces and how A-D-E chords never sounded better - teenage wasteland and all that; those ungodly beautiful sounds that careened through my skull at the end of "Cry If You Want". What the hell did you do to get that sound? How did you know that was the resonance of our fury, our longing, our corruption?

And I thank you for Horse's Neck, because that book is a mutha and it is way underrated and proved your worth as a man of letters, beyond Tommy and Lifehouse (and I sure do appreciate your releasing all those demos of it in the 2000s, because that is silly good), "Slit Skirts", and of course Quadrophenia.

Oh, yes, Quadrophenia. For this one I evoke my dear college friend, Jake Genovay, for whom we would offer one sentence to those who needed Quadrophenia (and you know who you are) - "Do you know?"

It is the guiding principle of rock music, isn't it? I know you were exorcising demons with that one, and it shows, and so it was used to exorcise a few of mine and so many of ours. It is, for my money, your manifesto and the arc of our youth - the one that got me through high school and that I quoted on beaches to dozens of girls and the ones I sang with friends after too much revelry and the ones you dragged out of mothballs in 1996 and prompted this review of mine that began "Pete is God", 'cause that was what we used to blurt out during "Love Reign O'er Me" when you can't quite say what you're thinking and fear that you might end up amounting to the hill-of-beans they all promised because the power and volume might not be enough anymore. But, hell, you made that all seem palatable. Of course it wasn't. It was anything but okay. It was life. And life is grand and life is shit and life is the alternative to...well...you know.

I hope I die before I get old.

And that, my dear man, is what all the art and music is for, right?

Right.

Sincerely,

The Rest of Us


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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of "Deep Tank Jersey", "Fear No Art", "Trailing Jesus", "Midnight For Cinderella" and "Y".