Review: Pete Townshend’s ‘The Age of Anxiety’

Words by Pete Townshend
Graphic by Supplied

If Pete Townshend has been defined by anything, it’s his desire to take rock music further. After all, it was him there, leading the Who, when rock ‘n’ roll grew to become a new, mature and serious artform. Putting philosophical slants on rock ‘n’ roll’s wild energy, Townshend was part of a generation of musicians who became artists. As these figures were growing up, changing and smoking dope their creative focus traveled further and further from songs about parents, cars, and the summertime blues. Townshend along with Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began singing not just the what of life but the why as well.

Their music still used guitar, bass, and drums, but could safely afford to be eclectic, deliberately borrowing from any outside influence, idea or emotion they saw fit and infusing it with the artist’s own personality. Rock underwent the shift from teen entertainment to revolutionary force. Lyrics became heady and recordings ambitiously complex. Albums became experimental playgrounds, vehicles for delivery of the truth.

There was more that could be said. There was more than needed to be said. Those who were saying it wanted to keep pushing the concept further. And with Tommy the Who did. Many call it a ‘rock opera’ or ‘concept album’ yet these are simply labels to throw around transcendence. But this is as far it went. despite achieving this elevation, the Who and those around would soon discover that, try as they might, could go no further. As Pink Floyd’s former members have often voiced, Dark Side of the Moon set out to achieve everything the band had ever wanted. And for all their brilliance the Beatles could never escape the shadow of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandTommy was the same for Pete.

Where do you go from there? A creative mind is driven by the need to build upon and consolidate its strides. What happens when that next step is simply an impossibility? Townshend and his peers pushed rock to the top of the mountain and in doing so took it as far as its body, organs, and the immutable laws of gravity would allow. And still, Pete wanted to put more of himself into his medium of expression. Ultimately though there was too much of it to fit. Even today with millions of dollars, orchestras stadiums full of fans, Townshend and those like him can’t seem to kick rock any further than he already had done so some fifty years before.

Deep down inside this must be deflating. The dream of continued progress, expansion, and untamed creativity rings hollow, in its place a protracted form of living death in which people like Townshend are cursed to spend the remainder of their days endlessly reperforming the spectacle of past achievements. And equally pounding away in a head like Pete’s is that voice of a teenager who played small clubs in a rhythm and blues band who saw that doing any more than that would be selling out.

As much as anything, The Age of Anxiety is a book about Pete Townshend’s frustration with the exhaustion of rock’s ideas. Townshend’s narrator is Louis Doxtader, at times little more than a thin disguise for Pete’s own ruminations on life. As Louis, Pete takes the reader further into his innermost thoughts on sex, drugs, art, and above all music. The most compelling lines come from what a reader could assume is Pete’s own inner dialogue, statements like, “Drugs had opened a door for me too, and slowly, as that door had closed, I settled down to live a more normal life. But I could not forget what I had seen, what I had experienced.”

Animating this journey through Townshend’s mind is Doxtader’s relationship with godson Walter and former Rockstar turned artist Nik. Louis, Walter, and Nik are connected not just by circumstance but by mysterious and disturbing visions. These hallucinations along with several unlikely intertwining of personal affairs converge to catalyze the next step in rock’s evolution.

Walter and Nik play in bands which occupy what must be the two extremes of the Who, if not the rock industry as a whole, in Townshend’s own mind. Walter’s group Big Walter and His Stand is an unlikely collection of rhythm and blues purists, replete with a bandmate who only listens to the same six records and is critical of the Who for becoming famous. Nik’s former outfit is Hero Ground Zero a facsimile of prog rock behemoth Pink Floyd mingled in with elements of the late era Who.

These three characters – and please call them main characters as the women of The Age of Anxiety seem only to find definition through the desires of Townshend’s men – interact as a result of a serviceable string of melodramas. What is most compelling though is how Townshend’s own twisted imagination plays out upon these pages. His thoughts trace their way through a story not unlike Tommy. There’s a lingering specter of war, transcendent visions, and sexually abusive relatives. As with Tommy, The Age of Anxiety is not always comfortable to behold.

In Pete’s fantasy Walter does eventually push music to the next level. He finds a transcendent sound at the cost of self-destruction and years of creative paralysis. At times this feels like Townshend consoling himself for stepping back from drugs and madness before paying the ultimate price for his art. At others, it feels closer to him reassuring himself his greatest creative stroke may yet fall. To find this out through the reader must make their own journey between The Age of Anxiety’s pages.

With this book Townsend seeks to project more of his personality alongside some of rock’s ambition upon the novel’s form. While Townshend might not be able to penetrate nor take this medium further than he has with rock, there’s a romance within that ambition. Even knowing that so great of an undertaking as The Age of Anxiety amounts to something less than what the direct, emotional and life altering experiences which sit between the vinyl grooves of Tommy or the three minutes and 41 seconds of ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ or, ‘Pictures of Lily’ it still holds some pleasing moments. Pete Townshend wanted to put more of himself into rock music. A curious fragmentation of Pete Townshend and rock’s own ambition, The Age of Anxiety captures some of that overspill.

You can order a copy of The Age of Anxiety here.

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