For Pete’s sake

By JAMES PARKER  |  October 25, 2006

WHO KNEW?: Townshend and Daltrey have now proven they can come treading out of the dim vales of rock-and-roll dotage with a more-than-effective album.
Lifehouse, even after 30 years, evades description. A precariously envisioned blend of sci-fi and social engineering, it involved at one end a rented theater in London, a very long Who concert, and an audience wired into music-generating “experience suits.” At the other end it was a story about a man called Bobby who “puts on a six-month concert event” that inverts the repressive social order and concludes with a mass ascension into rock nirvana. Sort of The Matrix meets the Rapture. No one was understanding Townshend at this point, the doughtiest of his allies balked, and the project went belly-up, the musical flotsam from it being assembled into 1971’s Who’s Next.

Endless Wire, and in particular the mini-opera Wire and Glass, reprises certain of Lifehouse’s themes: “Mirror Door” concerns (so the press release tells us) “a children’s play in Central Park that is webcast to the entire world for charity” and that eventually “turns everyone into music.” Wire and Glass has something to do with Townshend’s novella The Boy Who Heard Music, which is available on his blog. But don’t go there. Please. I did. “The sweeping sound of Abba’s ‘SOS’ soars across the ether in multi-coloured sheets. Junk. Sublime. And it works like sublime junk, it fills the gaping hole in my solar plexus. Is this my favourite song? Will it soothe my irritated, subverted spirit? Can I retarget and refocus my meditative energy? No.” The narrator is a man called Ray High, an old rock-and-roller who is “suffering from Alzheimer’s and also has drug flashbacks.” On Pete’s blog you can find in addition a participatory musical program called “The Method,” which seems to be a Webbed-up version of the old “experience suits.”

But Endless Wire, even as it pops in and out of these mental wormholes, is a musical experience, and musical directness is the gift Pete Townshend was given to compensate him for being such a difficult bastard. This is definitely a “mature” sound — sad/proud tunes are the rule, drums skip and flutter, and now and then a ukulele clucks like a benevolent ghost. In its tasteful bareness it rather recalls The Who by Numbers. Daltrey fiercely pumps the aged bellows of his voice, sounding more committed than he has since about 1973: his performance on “Man in a Purple Dress,” Pete’s rebuttal to those who condemned him during his little computer fiasco in 2002 (he was arrested for downloading images of child porn — for research, he said — but not charged), is a windy triumph. “How dare you be the one to assess/Me in this godforsaken mess . . . ?”: it’s moving to hear Daltrey raggedly boosting his old pal thus. The very beautiful piano ballad “In the Ether” is sung by Townshend in two voices, one a blubbery Waitsian parody, the other his own, full of naked pathos. And “Mike Post Theme” straightforwardly salutes the TV composer Mike Post and the twinkling everydayness of his music — “Late at night in the underground train/Through endless suburbs and endless pain/Deep in the tunnel under the London rain/Suddenly we hear Mike Post again.” One imagines that Mr. Post (Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files) must be rather gratified by this.

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