Kronomyth 4.0: A PAIR GIFTED. I would tell you that this collaboration between Ronnie Lane and Pete Townshend is a happy accident except, of course, there are no accidents. What we see as chance and happenstance is the will of God moving (or choosing not to move) invisibly in our lives. Thus, you could see Rough Mix as a gift from God. I don’t say that lightly. Music is an articulation of spirit. It plays a vital role in our communication with and worship of God. And because God has foreknowledge of everything, he knew the words and lyrics to “Annie” and “Heart To Hang Onto” from the beginning of time. Our familiarity with these songs is considerably shorter but, once heard, the music of Rough Mix isn’t quickly forgotten. What began as a Ronnie Lane solo album became a half album each from Lane and Pete Townshend, who was originally tapped by Lane to produce the album. The material from Lane is some of the best of his career, likeable rockers and acoustic numbers reminiscent of The Faces that include “Annie” (one of the sweetest songs you’ll ever hear), “Nowhere To Run” and “April Fool.” Lane has a gruff voice, but its working-class sensibilities can be disarming in the best way. The material from Townshend is also some of the best of his solo career, which came as a surprise to me. “Heart To Hang Onto,” “My Baby Gives It Away,” “Street In The City” and “Misunderstood” should be considered essential additions to any proper Who collection. Maybe the labels didn’t know what they had with Rough Mix, but the whole thing was packaged and marketed like some incidental side project. Had it been given the herald of Empty Glass, “Annie,” “Heart To Hang Onto” and “My Baby Gives It Away” might have become classics. The radio running in our heads is the only important one, though. If you haven’t tuned into this music yet, now is your (not) chance. In 2006, Hip-O added a few bonus tracks to the mix, including Lane’s old-tymey “Only You,” which is a treat to hear.
The songs that Pete Townshend wrote in the wake of Keith Moon’s death didn’t appear on any album by The Who; rather, they were released on Pete’s first “serious” solo album, Empty Glass. Fans and radio stations were hungry for some musical statement from the spokesman of his generation in the post-Moon landscape, and what they got sounded very much like The Who. While the album has its share of quieter confessional songs that recall The Who By Numbers, the record also featured a number of rockers that mixed Pete’s patented fire with a more contemporary sound. It was these that captured listeners’ limited imaginations: “Rough Boys,” “Gonna Get Ya” and “Let My Love Open the Door.” (In fairness, “A Little Is Enough,” which is one of Pete’s prettiest songs, did break the US Top 100.) The rest of the record is intelligent filler, although it has since come to light from various interviews that some of these songs allude to the artist’s own confused sexual identity, which pretty much sucks the fun out of them. Elsewhere, the title track and “I Am an Animal” join a long line of self-deprecating songs that strip away the gloss from the singer’s star image. The backing band may lack the fire of The Who in their heyday, but they’re not far removed from the post-Moon incarnation of the band; in fact, drummer Kenney Jones even plays on one track (“Rough Boys”). Unfortunately, Townshend’s solo career has since been bogged down by big ideas, and his songwriting has generally suffered for it. Empty Glass remains the best bet from his solo catalog to please fans of The Who, though there are some who still can’t reconcile that band’s spirit of invincibility with Pete’s own vulnerabilities.
I’ve had the odd fortune to run into some real ramblers in my day, but even they didn’t talk my ear off the way All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes does. The Who were a band of action, but Pete Townshend on his own overanalyzes, overscrutinizes and overstates his emotions, overshooting his audience in the process. It’s too bad that this album numbs the listener so early, because isolated moments on here are brilliant, from “The Sea Refuses No River” to “Somebody Saved Me.” Given time, the more subtle arrangements manage to weave their magic, but who had the time? Radio stations salvaged “Slit Skirts” from the bookshelf and let the rest burn. If it’s not his best album (and it’s not), Chinese Eyes is a valiant effort: the insecure poet debilitated by his own failings but finding hope in the light at the end of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, the album sounds a lot like It’s Hard, released by The Who three months later. And while some of The Who connections are obvious (“Face Dances Part Two,” “Stardom In Acton” re-cast as “I’ve Known No War”), Pete’s clearly trying to be himself on this album. The trouble is, a lot of Who fans didn’t want to watch their hero pick at his own wounds; self-deprecation is one thing, self-immolation quite another. And yet I find myself oddly captivated by Chinese Eyes’ flip-flopping between optimism and cynicism, like an internal dialogue being played out in a troubled but conscientious mind. It’s a thoughtful record, and some of the thoughts are dark, and some are deep. Fans who appreciate Townshend for who he is, and not who he was, will enjoy this in a different way than Empty Glass, but they will enjoy it.
Okay, Who fans, you’ll want to have your programs out for this one. Pete Townshend is a ten-year-old boy (Hogarth) who befriends a large robot (The Iron Man, John Lee Hooker). Hogarth has a conscience (The Vixen, played by Deborah Conway) and a cadre of friendly woodland creatures (including Brother Simon as The Owl) to guide him. The Iron Man is first pursued by angry locals (led by Hogarth’s father, Roger Daltrey) and finally challenges a giant space dragon (don’t ask) to a duel, which frees Hogarth’s beloved. The message here is, well, I have no idea what the message is. A Freudian might have a field day with a giant space dragon that harbors a beautiful young girl or a conscience called The Vixen. A Freudian with a lot of free time, anyway. This musical is based on Ted Hughes’ story “The Iron Man,” which I believe was adapted for an animated film here in the States. It’s wonderfully packaged, tastefully produced, intelligent, ambitious and, ultimately, baffling. White City excelled as an album of new music and failed as a film. Psychoderelict tried to do both in the audio format and failed at both. The Iron Man stands somewhere in the middle. The songs lack the portability of White City but are infinitely easier to excise from the story than Psychoderelict. “I Won’t Run Anymore,” “Dig” (one of two tracks to feature John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey) and “A Friend Is A Friend” are what you would expect from a new Pete Townshend album. Despite criticism to the contrary, I think the songs are strong. But hearing them sung by John Lee Hooker and Nina Simone separates them from Pete’s previous body of work. Some day, if Pete decides to tackle an “I Eat Heavy Metal” or “Over The Top” on his own, I’ll bet you it turns out pretty spiffy. On a lot of fronts, The Iron Man (The Musical) was doomed to failure before it took its first steps, but Townshend remains determined to elevate the musical medium. It’s a fitting occupation for a living legend, a holy grail worthy of the grey knight. If you’ve come this far in the adventure, don’t stop now.