Peter Townshend

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Frank Rose

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

It's true, as Townshend suggests in Who Are You, the group's last album, that the new wave is going back to what the Who did 15 years ago. But that's the point. New wave returns to basics, to raw adolescent throb, stripping away the superstructure Townshend has spent 15 years trying to build. This is, after all, the creator of the rock opera. Yet too often what he's ended up with is adolescent throb with orchestra. It's not that Townshend is incapable of creating adult music, his Rough Mix album … speaks to his own generation as directly as My Generation did 15 years ago. It's more that he seems to view the Who as a means of intellectualizing the teen experience for the benefit of today's teenagers, and thus continuing his communion with them….

Putting the Who back onstage is one way Townshend can continue to indulge his obsession with youth, but the forthcoming Quadrophenia film … is a far more provocative one. A straight narrative film—that is, not a film like Tommy—set in the London of Mods-and-Rockers days, Quadrophenia traces the psychic disintegration of a Shepherd's Bush youth as the becomes progressively more detached from society, his family, and his fellow Mods. This film could become the Saturday Night Fever of rock and roll—it's that tough, and except for the setting and the ending it's the same story of gang fights, frustrated sex, and the teenager's desperate urge to escape the living death of adulthood. The ending makes quite a difference, however. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta transcends his outer-borough origins and the future they imply when his girlfriend leads him to the sophisticated never-neverland of Manhattan street addresses. In Quadrophenia—a much more thoughtful film—Travolta's London counterpart is spurned by his girl as by everyone else, witnesses his personification of coolness in defeat, and responds by sailing his idol's Vespa motorbike off a very high cliff. "Hope I die before I get old" indeed. But the message here is the same as the message in that song, even though it's delivered from the other side of the age divide: Youth cults—any youth cult, whether it's Mods or rockers or hippies or punks—have only the choice between death and surrender. Adulthood is surrender; only in death is there eternal coolness.

There's one way out, however, and that's through a band like the Who. Rock and roll might kill you, but if you play the game right it can be the fountain of perpetual adolescence. That's the secret of Townshend's devotion. His face may look lined and tired and old before its time, but you should see how he dances, you should watch him whip himself around by the neck with his own chords. Naturally, there's a price. So chalk up one life for the Who, with a sense of hearing soon to come. (p. 74)

Frank Rose, "Peter Townshend Gets Old before He Dies" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 39, September 24, 1979, pp. 71, 74.

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