Music has changed for me over the years.
It does for everyone. It’s a fact – or at least, it’s as close to fact as three generations of marketers have been able to determine – and since a lot of them got very rich, they must have known something.
When I was in music radio, a program director told me that programmers and music companies track demographics by when listeners reached adolescence; teenage emotions and hormones and angst and lack of perspective (between ages 12ish and 25ish) combines with whatever music happens to be happening at the time to create a bond that tends to follow people through their lives. Which is why “classic rock” stations are so huge, and “college rock” and “alternative” stations traditionally were not; they like to catch people with their adolescent memories about the time that they also start to earn lots of money to spend with advertisers.
Of course, somewhere along the way that emotional connection and immediacy fades. People get perspective. They grow up. They get other emotional focuses – children, careers – that depend less on big hyped up emotions than on being slow, steady and there.
So I don’t feel music the way I used to. Oh, I still love music – but it’s different. It’s more mental. I take apart a song’s production, lyrics, the mechanics of the whole thing in a way I didn’t when I was a teenager. I enjoy playing guitar (and a few other instruments, too). I don’t get the highs and lows from music the way that I did when I was 17 – but now that I have a 17 year old, I can see all the things about that age that I don’t miss, too.
Few songs illustrate the change, for me, better than Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass. Townshend’s first solo album came out thirty years ago today.
The album – recorded as Townshend and The Who were recovering from the death of Keith Moon – was a grab bag of different themes, which could be summed up as “I’m Pete Townshend. I’m almost forty, and nobody knows anything about me other than via the band I’ve been in since I was 18 – which has just collapsed. Who am I?”
Who was he?
He was a chain yanker. Even if Townshend had been a musical nonentity, I’d love him for his love of yanking writers chains; reading his old interviews were like watching a Monty Python sketch unfolding in real time. (Dave Marsh’s essential bio of The Who, Before I Get Old, has a zillion stories about Townshend’s love of popping the media’s balloon). And he yanked madly on Empty Glass; “Rough Boys”, dedicated to the Sex Pistols and his daughters, started the whole “uh, is he gay?” thing…:
He was also a pop songwriter. “Let My Love Open The Door” was inescapable in the summer of 1980
And he was a big chunk of The Who; a few of the songs (Gonna Get Ya, Jools and Jim) played like Who demos.
Most intriguing, though – back then, to me as a Christian who oozed rock and roll – was that Townshend was a relentlessly inquisitive spiritual seeker whose music had always knocked about the idea of faith. While Townshend was still a few years away from sobriety, the best parts of Empty Glass are all about his relationship with his higher power – “A Little Is Enough” and especially the title cut, which oozes fatigue for the distractions of this world…
Why was I born today
Life is useless like Ecclesiastes say
I never had a chance
But opportunity’s now in my hands
I stand with my guitar
All I need’s a mirror
Then I’m a star
I’m so sick of dud TV
Next time you switch on
You might see me…oh.what a thrill for you
I’ve been there and gone there
I’ve lived there and bummed there
I’ve spinned there, I gave there
I drank there and I slaved there
I’ve had enough of the way things been done
Every man on a razors edge
Someone has used us to kill with the same gun
Killing each other by driving a wedge
The song was originally recorded as a demo by The Who – and it was a lot more nihilistic; “Killing each other, then jump off the ledge”.
And yet at a time in his life when he was drinking a bottle of Remy Martin a day, Townshend saw God as the eternal bartender:
My life’s a mess I wait for you to pass
I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass
And truth be told, I’ve seen worse explanations. (And on his subsquent solo albums, we’d see better – but we’re a few years away from that).
And so while the windmilling, guitar-smashing attempt to make art out of adolescent angst long ago wore thin on me, Empty Glass, and “Empty Glass”, still click for me. Not the same way they did thirty years ago. Maybe better, in their own way.
NOTE: Among conservatives who are too young to remember Townshend’s musical glory days, he’s perhaps, tragically, most famous for his arrest on child porn charges a few years back. Althought Townshend was never charged, and the police took pains to say they believed his story about researching the subject for a book exploring alleged abuse when he was a child, some social-conservative bloggers don’t believe it.
To which I reply “where the hell have you been?” Does anyone believe there’s a crime anywhere in Western Civilization where the police are less likely to accept “I was doing research!” for an answer without some pretty good reason, and mountains of proof, than anything to do with the sexual abuse of children? That a prosecutor is likely to give up on a career-building celebrity case, on one of the most emotionally-wrenching topic there is, without damn good reason? It’s a crime that is as close to “guilty until proven innocent” as any in the Western justice system; people look crosswises at you for uttering the phrase “Kiddie Porn”. And yet the police, and the prosecutors, let Townshend walk away without a single charge or a slap on the wrist.
What does this tell the discerning observer?
At any rate, I’m writing this to say that the post is about the album; any discussion of the kiddie porn incident will be deleted without any warning or fanfare.