Introspective. Elegant. Angry. Honest. Powerful. Disturbing. Uplifting. These and a host of other terms come to mind when I think about the work of my favorite songwriter, Pete Townshend, whose birthday is marked today. For this kid, who grew up inspired by the words of Jewish tradition and the lyrics of rock’n’roll – PT emerged for me as the poet laureate of his generation. The ancient sage Hillel proposed “If I am not for myself, who will be for me,” as Pete declared “Don’t pretend that you know me – I don’t even know myself;” Hillel continued “If I am *only* for myself, what am I?” to which Townshend responds “Can you see the real me?” Knowing our understanding evolves, Ben Bag Bag (with perhaps the most fun name in Jewish tradition) taught regarding Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it;” a tormented PT offers “the music must change.” Torah demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may long live and endure…” and Pete screams, “Long live rock!” Ultimately, we are urged to “love our neighbor as yourself,” as the poet pleads “Love, reign o’er me,” and we are transported to the world that ought to be.
The timeless and the timely again intertwined in the oeuvre of a beloved, conflicted, struggling artist. Beautiful and ironic, as we celebrate the 70th (!) birthday of the guy who splashed onto the scene some 50 years ago with the iconic youthful anthem “hope I die before I get old.” The rabbis, with their own sense of mocking wit, have declared “at seventy, one reaches the fullness of life.” And rather than lamenting his perseverance, Townshend has grown into an elder statesman of our musical world. And he continues to move and arouse us. There is still no one who can match what he and Roger can accomplish on stage – with his fiery playing, arm-swinging guitar bravado, and plaintive vocal virtuosity.
PT has spent a lifetime tilting at his own windmills like Don Quixote (ooh, see what I did there?), and teaches us what it is to be comfortable struggling with our own demons. Without his angst-driven emotional explorations – with both guitar and pen – we would not be blessed with the hard rock, heavy metal, punk and grunge as we know today. No one exemplifies the extremes of expressive possibility of gear and jargon as he has for the last half century.
Pete – as you continue, as the rabbis urge ad me’ah v’esrim – until 120 – may it ever be for you that
You know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say