Like Bob Dylan and a few others, Peter Townshend understood the 20th century version of the successful artist, which combined the cultivation of a pop sensibility and the cash it brought with some vein of purity in exploration. As the Who has recycled a long strong of Townshend’s pearls – on TV, in advertising, in compilations, on their latest geezer tour, and in the new biopic Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who which premieres in the U.S. at the Paley Center for Media next week – so to has its master creator continued to explore.
Townshend’s latest rock opera, The Boy Who Heard Music, took shape as a blog, a dissembled convocation of voices brought together online. Earlier this year, Townshend put the algorithm behind the synth opening for Baba O’Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again online and let musicians (including me) upload pieces of recorded music and get back synthesized loop patterns. The Who made the cash, and a commercial legacy that keeps in giving, but throughout the band’s 20-year dry spell Townshend worked as an artist, and still works into his 60s.
Was Townshend’s best work was in his 20s? Perhaps, like Dylan’s. But he keeps on, like Picasso an aging combination of pop sensibility and persona, continuing to work. Paul McCartney, a comtemporary, wrote his own epitaph, a grand old painter’s evocation of his death. Townshend still flays the guitar and his Internet explorations – at present, silent – have given his work a new flavor, and a direct channel to his audience.
But Townshend’s finest work was his most complete as an artist – and not particularly successful commercially, but it endures. Quadrophenia is the one Who record I still return to year after year; a complete story with recurrent themes, and a fantastic composition and performance. Quadrophenia grows and I grow with it. Into my 40s and Townshend’s 60s, it still feels relentless and lasting.