The Who’s best songs are intense and immersive experience: the music and vocals swirl and seethe with reckless energy, bringing life to insightful lyrics that range from angrily defiant to painfully introspective. As a rock songwriter, Pete Townshend is without peer.
Townshend is one of the genre’s most cerebral and ambitious writers, yet he never mastered the art of long-form storytelling. “Tommy” and especially “Quadrophenia” overflow with brilliant songs (“Pinball Wizard,” “The Real Me,” “5:15,”) and succeed as concept albums, but neither tell a fully coherent story. (To create films, screenwriters had to flesh out the stories.) Most famously, his grandiose “Lifehouse” project collapsed under the weight of its pretensions, while still yielding classics like “Baba O’Riley,” “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” As a solo artist, he continued struggling unsuccessfully with narrative on “White City: A Novel” and “Psychoderelict.”
Last month Townshend published his first novel, “The Age of Anxiety,” just weeks before The Who released, “Who,” its second album in 37 years. Guess which announcement inspired anticipation and excitement, and which inspired trepidation. (Hint: “Horse’s Neck,” his 1985 collection of stories and poems, had not left fans clamoring for more.) Townshend’s declaration that his novel fit into a larger project — including an eventual art installation and an opera — raised further alarms.
This is where a reviewer playing that misdirection trope would reveal that despite this negative buildup, the novel is an unabashed success. Unfortunately, “Age of Anxiety fulfills the fears of his fans.
The book is narrated by Louis, an aging dealer of Outsider Art, who has battled addiction and now is getting rich off a new client — Old Nik, a former rock star who went mad and painted apocalyptic masterpieces — while helping his godson, Walter, an up-and-coming musician, cope with aural hallucinations. Walter is loved by his wife, her sister, her sister’s friend, and Louis’s daughter, Rain. At least one of those women ends up with Louis and another appears to end up with Rain.
Townshend explores some big themes about creativity and sanity and identity but without the concision, haunting imagery, and wit of songs like “The Sea Refuses No River” or “However Much I Booze.” There are some entertaining scenes involving sex, drugs, and rock 'n’ roll; but the only truly original writing, the stuff that makes you stop skimming and sit up, comes in the “soundscapes” that are haunting Walter.
“When a really large sheet of plate metal begins to lean, breaks free of its popping restraining bolts, falls and hits the ground, the noise it makes is quite unusual. A clean sound, without the anticipated deep thunder. A kind of open-mouthed barking sound, slowed down by some digital device: arrrwraaannggargh.”
Beyond that, the eyes are left to scan for occasional reflections of the real world. The book opens with a description of Old Nik back when he was Paul Jackson, a rock star acting in a movie. In the film, he’s about to take flight in a hang glider. Townshend writes, “A man is standing with his back to us, arms outstretched. He is naked to the waist. His hair is golden, curling, shoulder length... His hair creates a halo.”
To Who fans that’s not Paul Jackson, but Roger Daltrey in his glider scene in “Tommy.”
Louis’s drug use recalls Townshend’s; Jackson’s band is called Hero Ground Zero, matching a song title on the new Who album; Walter’s drummer is named Patty Hanson, while Keith Richards’s wife is Patti Hansen. The most amusing meta-reference comes when Walter is selling one of his songs for a small fortune to be used in a Ford commercial. One bandmate is furious, spitting: “We aren’t the [expletive] Who. We don’t [expletive] well sell out.”
This tongue-in cheek commentary on Townshend selling his songs for commercials and TVs while also referencing the band’s 1967 satirical “The Who Sell Out” concept album, stands out because it is one of the few funny or even light moments in the book... and it underscores how badly missed this tone is elsewhere.
The book suffers from flat dialogue and an overload of exposition — including scenes where one character explains to another an event that the reader has already witnessed. After a meandering narrative, the story rushes to a climax with one hard to swallow soap opera twist after another. Maybe these over-the-top reveals are suited to opera, but here it involves tangential characters (some disappear for chapters at a time) who lack depth — they’re no better fleshed out than Ivor the engine driver in Townshend’s mini-rock opera, “A Quick One.”
It’s not a terrible book, just disappointingly boring. The songs from Who show far more life and originality. Instead of spending five or six hours to read these 264 pages, you can listen to Townshend’s newest songs... plus 75 of your favorite Townshend solo and Who classics.
THE AGE OF ANXIETY
By Pete Townshend
Hachette, 264 pp. $28
Stuart Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.