Who's Next | Life House : notebook dump

The stars are all connected to the brain

Who's Next | Life House : notebook dump

I apologize for a lack of proper newsletter this week but this is why.

Now that the editing is done and the review is published, I wanted to write about everything I couldn’t fit into 1000 words for review and I also wanted to write about what it is like to carry these massive troves of information in your head for decades and about the responsibility of accurately disseminating that information 50 years later. I always just want to get it right, even if most of the people who will read it will not know the difference. It is the motivating factor that made me start publishing fanzines, that drove me to start a band website, that pushed me to the place I sit now and in an ideal world I will be the person trying to get it right until I die. At this point this is not hyperbole, you know? But it is one of the elements I most carefully watch for when getting edits back from editors: I can’t say that because it’s not entirely accurate or That isn’t quite how it happened, how’s this instead.

“I was at my most brilliant and I was at my most effective and when people say I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about what they’re actually doing is revealing their own complete idiocy, because the idea was SO FUCKING SIMPLE! It is not complicated.”

Yes, Pete, that is why you have never stopped trying to realize this project over the ensuing decades and need an 11-CD box set with two 100-page books as part of it!

The only person I have to blame for taking on these massive box sets is myself, but I do it because I am very good at seeing micro and macro and then explaining it to people. It was the skillset that made me valuable as a technical project manager. But I got the press release on this, promptly dug out anything I owned that had the words “life house” on it, and then put my pitch together and sent it along. I was obsessed with this project the first time I read about it, this idea that all human beings have their own individual note and I already understood the idea of the collective energy of a concert audience.

But the idea was not simple which is why it never happened. Pete rightly blames his managers becoming drug addicts and him not having the feedback mechanisms he needed, but Kit Lambert was doing heroin and Tommy was an insanely profitable cash cow. So many lesser bands would have trotted out Tommy forever, Roger in the Woodstock suede fringed vest and the curls and those abs that he still had at his 50th birthday at Carnegie Hall, where he wore basically an open tuxedo vest. Pete showed up and performed songs from Psychoderelict in arrangements that were unrecognizable to almost the entire row of super-fans I was seated with, up in row B when Roger heard that the scalpers bumrushed the ticket line at the box office.

Right, I was talking about Tommy. Sorry. I am just opening doors in my brain and airing out thoughts. Here’s some more early review draft that got thrown out:

This box set confirms that Townshend needed to align himself with a science fiction writer who could have helped him streamline the story. In his mind, it’s simple! it is not complicated. but where Life House fell down time and time again was in his articulation of the story. in 1970 there were still going to be a large majority of people who felt that he was daft, but this was also the same artist who created the idea of a rock opera and wrote one about a deaf dumb and blind child who becomes a messiah. Similarly to Life House, Tommy also had a solid basis of a plot -- the trauma of a small child who witnesses a horrendous event and then must never speak of it -- but then added so much extraneous business that was critical in Townshend’s mind. What rescued him in Tommy were the songs and the Who’s performance of them. The same thing could have happened with Life House if he could have gotten out of his own way even a little bit. And he’d once again repeat this same mistake with the Who’s next project, Quadrophenia, by insisting on overcomplicating the story and being adamant that if he only explained it well enough everyone would have an epiphany and confirm his genius when all they really wanted to do was rock, a thing that the Who were phenomenally proficient at in a way that was singular and unique to that particular group of four men. It wasn’t enough for Pete, it’s still not enough, but that ever-present, unceasing drive towards artistic self realization is the essence of what makes Pete Townshend Pete Fucking Townshend, bless his heart and may he live to be 120.

I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to any live Quadrophenia shows (the original run) but if you think he talks a lot on the Young Vic show that’s included in this box set then you have absolutely no idea. It drove the audience nuts and it drove the band nuts and if he had gone out with the full version of Life House it would have been the same only worse because Pete cared about this concept more than anything else he has ever done. And nobody’s been able to talk him down or steer him in another direction.

I was also struck by how much he did in so little time and also by the climate in which a musician could just try and fail and keep trying. You could only do something like this now if you self-funded it. When I got a dozen texts from friends asking me if they “had” to buy the upcoming Twilight Singers box set, which had a price tag of around $500, I said yes, this is what it costs when you don’t have a label backing you and if you want to do it the way you want to do it. 1

When I tell you that the book of liner notes in the SDE box set is worth the price of the entire thing I am not exaggerating. As soon as I finished my first readthrough I went online and looked at the Quadrophenia box which had escaped my radar for reasons I cannot explain, and promptly bought a copy. Bands need to have archivists they trust, who are neutral enough that they don’t make the project about them but care enough to get it right and know what the fans are going to want and then have a climate in which the band are going to allow the archivists to give it to them. It’s also remarkable how Pete and Roger just absolutely do not give a flying fuck about what people think and the amount of candid unglamorous detail we get in this story. Like, I have read every word ever written about Life House so I know there is not much missing!

Aside from Pete trying to not completely throw Kit Lambert under the bus because he was his friend and his mentor -- the comment about how Glyn was “handed a very wonderful project on a plate really” because they had done “some very good structural production work” in New York at the Record Plant. DID YOU LISTEN TO THOSE TAPES, MR. PETER TOWNSHEND, they are TERRIBLE. Thank the goddess that Glyn Johns had the bottle to say “yeah Pete that’s fine but I think it’s better if we just start over again” and had sufficient standing in Pete’s mind so that PETE LISTENED TO HIM. That was not guaranteed! This could have gone south so many times! -- aside from that area which feels a little bit like revisionist history (and in Pete’s defense he was not in good shape at the time, he almost jumped out of a hotel window -- we get the truth here. Facts.

I kept trying to draw a line between the idea of Life House and the connection between the band and the fans, and Pete’s belief that it was his job to write songs for his audience inspired by his audience. It was a little too precious to work in this context.

Townshend has always been a voluble and articulate communicator when it comes to his work, and the essays and explanations in the 100-page booklet are for the most part direct and accessible to anyone who cares enough to buy a 10-CD set of this particular project. He’s not talking down to anyone but he’s also assuming that the listener is coming to the table with some idea as to what this is and why it matters. Kent and Neill are historians but they’re also Who fans and they let the latter guide them in their presentation of the work; they know what’s important, they know the pressing questions, they know what the fan and the listener want to understand from this compilation of music. There’s nothing worse than buying a giant box of music and then being left completely on your own to make sense of it, whether that’s from lack of accompanying documentation or liner notes that are written without an understanding of who they’re meant to serve. Like Life House, these written narrations are inclusive and welcoming. They’re also newly authored, and don’t just recycle ancient interviews without explanation or context.

My favorite part of the liner notes book is Pete’s notes on the demos. “Those Who fans who are archival bootleg collectors will probably be irritated by this,” he writes, noting that his definition of “Life House demos” may be different than other people’s. He then explains about his studio in his house in Twickenham:

“The studio I was using for the main demos was in my family home in Twickenham. This was (and still is) a modest Georgian home built in 1721.”

This is from my first trip to the UK in 1983, when I stayed with friends who had been in London for about a year at that point and had already scoped everything out. If I remember correctly, one of them pointed out that it wasn’t really all that hard to find the house if you read enough interviews with Pete. The house is on the river. It’s near Eel Pie Island and you can see it through the upper windows. It’s next to a pub.

Like I didn’t care at all about running into Pete (and would have definitely crossed the street or hid behind a tree if it had happened), but HE WROTE LIFE HOUSE IN THIS BUILDING. This is why I cared. There should be a blue plaque on the house, dammit.

I had no room for this wonderful quote about the piano:

If you grew up on a diet of the burbling baba o’riley synth and near-martial cadence of the who’s next version, this demo will either alienate or mystify you. “I love the piano sound on this demo…I tuned my piano myself. I got it in tune, then detuned one of the three strings of every note very slightly. I had heard this is what Brian Wilson had done on Pet Sounds and I wanted that particular sound, it sort of ripples.”

you know, as one does.

Mostly now I’m happy that I can spend time with the box set now as a fan, instead of “I have to digest this all as quickly as possible to write a decent review” which is a much different approach. I’m lucky that I at least knew where to go and what I needed to hear and re-listen to, but tonight I’m gonna take an edible and listen to the San Francisco show at full volume. If you have questions or other things you’d like to hear about this set or the Who in general or Life House, hit ‘reply’ or use the comments.

I’ll leave you with this photo of me in front of Pete’s studio proper (and the Meher Baba centre) and some other Who-related tourism.

  1. (I also said “I’d rather fund Greg Dulli’s retirement than buy Jessica Springsteen another horse,” which is also true.)