Peter Townshend

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Dave Marsh

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

As a fundamentally religious artist, Pete Townshend fashions his music from sermons and confessions. (p. 71)

What makes Townshend singular is his insistence on not separating his most transcendent spiritual convictions from gut- and gutter-level rock & roll. It's been suggested (by Townshend, even) that rock itself is a religion, but that's not quite right. Let's say instead that rock is a spiritual medium as much as a musical one…. For Pete Townshend then, playing rock & roll well becomes an act of grace, while playing rock & roll badly is a brutal test of faith.

Townshend has been in a near-continuous state of spiritual crisis since Tommy, and you'd think that his feelings of self-pity and remorse (which have dominated later Who LPs) would have been intensified by the deaths of Keith Moon and "the kids" in Cincinnati. But he seems to have been strengthened rather than weakened by such overt turmoil, and the result is that he speaks with tremendous clarity here. If Empty Glass' very title questions Townshend's worthiness to receive grace, the shape of his music leaves no question that he's willing to accept whatever fills the cup.

Empty Glass contains the least stiff-necked music that Pete Townshend has made in ages. Indeed, you'd have to go back to The Who Sell Out to find him so consistently self-confident…. Empty Glass may be an album without much innocence (not even in "Rough Boys," the rousing rocker dedicated to his children and the Sex Pistols), but that's only because Pete Townshend is past the point where he can fake acceptance. (pp. 71-2)

Thus does Townshend the preacher step down from his pulpit to wander once more through his peculiar parish. And we don't have to wait long for his first pronouncement: "Gonna get inside your bitter mind," he sings in "Rough Boys." No longer trapped between an ocean of transcendence and a bog of misery, Pete Townshend is far less insulated these days….

[Coming] on the heels of "Rough Boys," ["I Am an Animal"] encapsulates the record's tensions: songs of reality and songs of spiritual imagination, songs of doubt and songs of faith, songs of experience and songs of devotion. What's missing (again) is innocence, and it's about time he's lost that. For quite a while now, Townshend has been threatening to dispense with the pose that he never really knew what both hands were up to, what actions they were taking. He's certainly done so here. Empty Glass isn't just an album with vaguely religious connotations. It's as consciously spiritual as any rock & roll record ever made.

Not that everything is exactly what it seems. Pete Townshend remains rock's master illusionist. The love songs, especially "Let My Love Open the Door" and "A Little Is Enough," might sound purely romantic on the radio, yet their imagery is shaped by religion….

Empty Glass' two most-discussed tunes, "Jools and Jim" and the title track, are no less deceptive. "Jools and Jim" (nice Truffaut pun there) could simply be Townshend's aural poison-pen letter to the New Musical Express' rock-critic enfants terribles, Julie Birchill and Tony Parsons. Yet whether intentionally or not, Pete Townshend's rage is finally more far-ranging as he delivers a scathing critique of the puritanical and self-righteous streak in the New Wave…. Just as the furiously punkish drumming that kicks off "Jools and Jim" symbolizes the end of his defensiveness toward punk's usurpation of the spotlight, the quiet verse in which Townshend confesses his own hypocrisy establishes his determination to let no one off the hook.

"Empty Glass" is a complex attempt to resolve...

(This entire section contains 1042 words.)

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the questions posed by the final verse of "Jools and Jim." On one level, it's an extension of the dialogue, begun in "The Punk Meets the Godfather," between an old rocker and a new one (or what's left of the elder's idealism, which comes down to the same thing). But juxtaposed as it is with "A Little Is Enough," "Empty Glass" suggests Townshend's acceptance of new limits to his role playing (and new vistas in his songwriting)…. (p. 72)

Just as important, "Empty Glass" provides Pete Townshend's extremely condensed rock & roll version of the Book of Ecclesiastes (not so ironically subtitled "The Preacher"). Ecclesiastes, of course, is one long rant about the futility of everything under the sun, particularly human creation. To a Who fan, it can read like the secret liner notes to The Who by Numbers.

As a confessional, however, "Empty Glass" offers little that we don't already know….

In a way, Ecclesiastes offers two texts for "Empty Glass." The lines in the first chapter about "One generation passeth away and another generation cometh … and there is no new thing under the sun" are obvious enough. The second text is more significant. It appears at the very end of the book: "Vanity of vanities saith the preacher; all is vanity. And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he gave good heed, and sought out and set in order many proverbs."

There's little there that couldn't be puzzled out from an Eddie Cochran single: the pointed pointlessness of life is precisely why there ain't no cure for the summertime blues. What's really important here is Pete Townshend's abilty to express his reconciliation with futility in rock & roll terms (he matches the Bible almost symbol for symbol). Like a lot of the greats, Townshend has had to live down a certain sense of shame about the worth of the genre itself. One measure of Empty Glass' success is that he seems to have crossed that hurdle now….

[If] Empty Glass suggests anything, it's that the new Who music might be very different, without sliding into the pomposity of "Music Must Change." Pete Townshend's current songs are mostly quiet declarations, not strident ones—another sharp departure from his past. And, after all, those of us who still hold out much faith and devotion for rock & roll at this point must grasp at any straw. The ones offered here are far stronger than most, because they're bonded with real love. (p. 74)

Dave Marsh, "Rock & Roll Religion the Hard Way," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 320, June 26, 1980, pp. 71-2, 74.


Patrick Carr