Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hope I Die 'fore I Get Old

It's the birthday of Pete Townshend, the lead guitarist of The Who, writer of operas, smasher of guitars, editor of books, born in 1945. He wasn't as handsome as bandmate Roger Daltrey or contemporaries Lennon and McCartney, or as sexually perplexing and magnetic as Mick Jagger. He was simply an angry working bloke with a mean guitar. Still is. Nowadays he is also an important fundraiser for the hard of hearing.

Rock stars are interesting to chronicle because their lives are one long battle against age. Loud Peter Pans who refuse to outgrow tight pants, criminals who write poetry, travel armed with guitars and banned substances.

Townshend broke his first guitar in concert at age 19. It was an accident, but the crowd loved it, so he made it part of the act. On his twentieth birthday, on a train between London and Southampton, he wrote the anthem of his generation, which featured the nihilistic line "Hope I die 'fore I get old."

But he didn't. Keith Moon and John Lennon and others did, becoming permanent youthful icons. At 31, Townshend suffered permanent hearing loss during a concert at Charlton Football Ground. At 35 he nearly died of a drug overdose at the Club For Heroes. At 38 he dissolved The Who and became an employee of the publishers Faber & Faber. Did he become a man of letters? Not really. Eventually he went back out on the road, as all rock stars do. Is that Townshend I sometimes see pitching Time Life Rock 'N Roll collections on late night TV? When you live that long and play that hard it becomes harder to surprise people.

Rock stars are my favorite subcategory in A Book of Ages. Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Lennon and McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Pete Townshend are our Keats and Shelley and Byron. Doing outrageous things, but somehow managing to remain poetic, funny, sometimes tragic, always interesting.

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