Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Whooopee!

Three weeks ago Peter Townshend had the good fortune to kick a cop in the balls on the stage of the Fillmore East. Roger Daltrey contributed a shove. The Who always put on a show. As the officer did not identify himself and might well have been mobbed to death if he had, I thought his reaction was less than polite: he charged the two longhairs with various misdemeanors relating to their disrespect to his person. For a while he could not be persuaded, even by other protectors of the law, to abandon the prosecution. This was not only impolite but ominous, because it portended the imminent banishment of the third great English rock group. Now, however, Daltrey is off and Townshend's charge has been reduced to harassment. He will plead guilty, and if he is careful not to harass any more policemen he can continue to upset the balance of trade. Actually, you get the feeling he thinks the next policeman he harasses will be his first. He now wears a button which says "New York Cops Are Tops," and in the cagiest political comment in recent memory explains: "I thought he was one of the Motherfuckers."

Like everything else, it is all for the best. With a little help from Albert King and Chuck Berry, the group sold out an 11:30 weeknight show at the Fillmore last week. It was billed "The Triumphant Return of the Who," and triumphant it was. Townshend added a high kick to the wings to his stage repertoire of leaps and flails, which should be just the touch that will turn the group's current American tour into a royal procession. The reviews of the new opera, Tommy, have been ecstatic, and it is bulleting and starring its way up the charts: certain Top Five, probably Number One, already an RIAA-certified million-seller. The Who will peak just as all the other great groups enter their dotage.

Townshend, Daltrey, and John Entwistle (who played horn with Townshend in a pre-rock trad band) have performed together since 1963; Keith Moon joined a little later. This longevity is deceptive, however; the Who didn't record until 1965 and only hit their stride in the States on the tour which followed Happy Jack in 1967. Since Townshend is a master of commercial usages, the indifferent success of his group is a curiosity. Despite his creative equipment, he has always required guidance. Until he met his first manager, Peter Meadon, he never thought in terms of image, and until he hooked up with his present advisers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, he didn't try to extend the images musically. The whole mod youth violence thing which Townshend perceived at the center of rock--and still does: the live set always includes "Summertime Blues," "Young Man Blues," and "My Generation"--finally came together on the great "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," recorded in May 1965. (It is not on any American lp, though the single is available on Decca.) The lyrics redefined the punk machismo of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "The Wanderer," and the instrumental--pioneer feedback which has rarely been surpassed--enforced the mood.

Furthermore, the song epitomized the group's break-'em-up visual presentation, though it has since been replaced by "My Generation." Both were made for Roger Daltrey, the punkiest of all rock singers. Daltrey apparently cares about nothing but girls and spade music--he watched most of Albert (The Interminable) King's warm-up at the Fillmore while Townshend amused himself with the pinball machine Graham had installed in the dressing room--and has offended many with his James Brown imitations. Reportedly, Townshend has a genius for uncovering the good--the great--in conditions others would reject as intolerably confining, transforming necessity into freedom. The tendency in rock has been toward the prima donna and away from the group, but Townshend has resisted it, even moved in the other direction, thus preserving one of rock's most interesting qualities: the group as creative unit. "The only reason I'm successful as a writer is because I'm a writer for the Who," he says. "The only reason I'm successful as a talker is because I'm a talker for the Who." He manipulates the group as skillfully as he manipulates words and music. Each stage personality modulates Daltrey at the center. Daltrey projects the grimy heart of rock and roll more purely than Townshend ever could: he is a not-too-bright tough, not much of a singer, but absolutely cocky, swinging that mike, missing sometimes and who cares. Keith Moon has the same intensity, but he is playful instead of dangerous. Townshend, on the other hand, projects the danger at a more cerebral and self-conscious level. And John Entwistle is the burgher on the other side of every J.D.: he just stands there and earns his paycheck.

Youth rebellion--not merely asserted, but understood and in a sense indulged--infuses the Who. The same defiance underlies most white blues, but whereas the constrictions of rock are used by the Who to strengthen and complicate the message, the open-ended aab structure of blues lends itself primarily to demonstrations of stamina. White blues is physical music to the same extent that folk was intellectual. The unique virtue of the Who is that it is both, which makes the group, as Townshend says, the only rock and roll band left. A group like Crosby, Stills and Nash ("They're gonna save us from English blues," an usher at the Fillmore predicts happily; I suspect there are very few blues freaks among those who have to hear four shows a weekend) incorporates rock physicality into its music, but with just that kind of deliberation: as with all the tight bands, it is minimized and brought under control. (Exceptions: the Band and the Airplane, which is suddenly revealed as a tight band. There are also white blues bands which manage to transcend the purely physical.) Without surrendering any subtlety, Townshend screeches and gronks though the whole anarchic routine and Keith just never stops.

All this has been obvious from the beginning. One reason the Who seems to have been around for so long is that the Who became everybody's secret band upon one hearing of any record. The problem was getting the record. The Who made bad mistakes with American labels. They signed first with Atco and released "Substitute" with the line "I look all white but my Dad was black" turned into "I take one step forward and two steps back." (The original version is still unavailable here.) Then they switched to Decca, which hadn't owned a hit rock group since Bill Haley and the Comets. Until recently, Decca has confined its services to collecting the funds which accrued whenever Kit Lambert, Chris Stamp, and publicist Nancy Lewis came over from England to push a single like "Happy Jack" or "I Can See for Miles" or "Magic Bus." After "Magic Bus," Decca also put together an album of tracks from the can and songs lifted from earlier lps, disillusioning many unwary Who fans. But now the label has instituted some personnel changes and old hostilities seem to have softened. The packaging on the current album is elaborate and a special set of 45s for radio play has been distributed. As a reward, Decca owns the group of the year.

This kind of business hassle has destroyed many groups, but Townshend is grateful, in a way, because it forced him to concentrate on the stage act and keep in touch with the audience. What's more, because it forestalled the group's impact, the Who is now competing in an open field. No one else can offer violence and control and a touch of pretension all in one package. Suddenly, the group is alone on top, which will mean at the very least some of the enormous money they should have been earning two years ago. "Kit is going crazy," Townshend says of his manager and producer. "'Peter,' he says, 'we've finally done it. It's the bonanza, the bonanza I tell you, Madison Square Garden!' Madison Square Garden--ugh!") It also means a pre-eminent artistic position from which to create--but what? Tommy is the last of the grandiose rock masterpieces, a throwback to that mythic era of the distant past, about 18 months ago. Whatever follows will be an anticlimax--an exciting anticlimax, no doubt, but still an anticlimax.

Tommy is not the first rock opera. (How did you miss The Moth Confesses by the Neon Philharmonic and The Amazing Story of Simon Simopath by Nirvana?) But except for the Mothers' We're Only in It for the Money, it is the first successful extended work in rock. Like Frank Zappa, Townshend has his parodic side, but Townshend's parody is more profound and equivocal. Tommy doesn't take itself seriously, which would be fatal, but it doesn't poke such obvious fun that all of those who want to take it seriously can't. Townshend knows that the first duty of the popular artist is to try and please everyone. All his skill would be less compelling if it weren't tempered by this overriding necessity, which like all the best pop is simultaneously self-serving and humane. Tommy is deliberately constructed so that pieces of it--songs--can be enjoyed individually, and the two long instrumentals (both of which function narratively and as delicious comments on all the Claptonesque furbelows of the typical rock solo--they just go on and on, as peaceful and vital as a heartbeat) come at the end of sides so they can be rejected with no loss. The kids can take it as a parable of drugs and mysticism and clamor for "Smash the Mirror"--the group has apparently abandoned literal smashing, by the way, while the rest of us contemplate how Townshend has taken these commonplace elements without being taken in by them. Townshend knows he is no reincarnation of Eddie Cochran. He is a complicated person with a bohemian past who grows one year older every 365 days. All of that is present in the music. Yet he has remained true to the kids.

This determination to give his audience what it wants without burying his own peculiarity--this constant, even perverse, formal struggle: it may be, after all, that Townshend is more dedicated to rock forms than his audience is, though his interest in singles proves that he wants to reach beyond the Fillmore crowd--is typical of Townshend. The Who has always been elevated above your everyday anarchist foursome by a charity which is fairly simple but never credulous. From the time of "The Kids Are Alright" he has shown a rare compassion for men-in-general, but of course he can't just write about loving everyone. Anyone who loves all men automatically is either slightly loony or doesn't know a whole lot of men. And so the Who performs many songs about apparent human dregs--beach hermits and dipsos and fratricides and tattooed men and girls with shaky hands--which have more than a touch of humor but are always filled with love.

Happy Jack and Mary-Anne with the Shaky Hands are true heroes, and specific in a way the Fool on the Hill is not. "A Quick One While He's Away," on the other hand, renders a petty working-class infidelity with sardonic understatement until the finale, in which the words "you are forgiven" are repeated in a litany that turns the song around. The repetition, of course, is pure rock, as are the nonsense syllables which close "Tattoo," the only words which could possibly end that woeful tale: "Rooty toot toot/Rooty tooty toot toot/Rooty tooty toot/Tattoo too."

As part of his love of freaks, Townshend has always shown a cockeyed interest in the older aspects of religion. He now opens the group's live sets with a song (I don't know the title) that presents a child's version of Heaven and Hell--scary, but funny. He is also a longtime fan of the Meher Baba, the Hindu mystic who vowed silence until he was ready to die, when he would reveal the secret of life to the world. Unfortunately, there was no one around to listen when he finally crapped out, but that doesn't stop Townshend from wearing his Meher Baba pin. The crazy are wonderful. In "Rael," a fanatic sails to fight the infidels on the island womb of his religion and instructs the captain of his yacht to rescue him if things get thick. After he is gone, the captain says: "He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again./He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again./He's crazy if he thinks we're coming back again./He's crazy anyway." But the song ends with the fanatic's instructions repeated, and they sound a little more wistful this time. Townshend clearly doesn't expect the captain to return. But he feels sorry for the crusader.

In Tommy, this religious vision, if you want to call it that, combines with Tommy's fascination for misfits and respect for the commonalty. The deaf, dumb, and blind boy is straight out of the tradition of the sainted fool. His disabilities do render him almost divine. But who wants to be divine if it means being deaf, dumb, and blind? Tommy makes the error of genius. He assumes that just because people want to follow him, they should, and he is punished for it: the rabble that hisses "We're not gonna take it" have achieved their own enlightenment.

"I'm not a mystic," Townshend says, explaining the ending. "But there are mystics in the world." Not quite, Peter. In a sense, you are a mystic. Your music is far more complex than many of those who love it will ever understand. But you don't make Tommy's mistake, because you let them take it however it suits them best.


Last minute editing for space garbled the final few paragraphs of my MC-5 column, in which I suggested that the group might be called the Male Chauvinist 5 and commended Rob Tyner for his great stage ability, especially his warmth, which undercuts all the violent bullshit and leads me to hope that the MC-5's revolution will actually be musical. More on rock and politics next time--the air has to be cleared.

Village Voice, June 12, 1969