In a new BBC Radio 2 documentary about his career, the Who’s Pete Townshend says he can’t write songs anymore. For followers of his work, this is sad but not surprising: In spite of a relatively new Who album (Endless Wire), a regular touring schedule and a Super Bowl Halftime show, Townshend’s actual songwriting output has dwindled since his string of solo albums in the 80′s (Empty Glass, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, White City), making fans less intrigued by the prospect of more songs and more by the possibility of new live shows–the Who’s forte–of which there will be a string in 2012, according to Rolling Stone.
But, the larger issue here is why his songwriting abilities have declined. How is it that the writer of two dozen mod hit-single mainstays (Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy), two influential rock operas (Tommy, Quadrophenia), an incredible classic rock album (Who’s Next) and the fabled Lifehouse project (which includes Who Are You, Relay, Let’s See Action) finds himself unable to express himself at the age of 66? In the radio documentary, he says:
Today I just wish that when I walk down to my studio I could sit at my piano and be able to organize my thoughts, pull out one of the sheets of lyrics I have got in front of me, finish the song, record it and put it out on an album. But it’s not how life is today. I don’t know why. When I stray into familiar territory I feel uneasy. I feel I am not breaking new ground. And that’s bad. I am expected to break new ground.
Based on this quote alone, we could argue that he’s not writing because he’s afraid of breaking new ground. But this man is an opinionated, courageous, headstrong musician who has labored over countless groundbreaking demos in his studio. It must be something else:
There is a fabulous book somewhere, or at least there should be, about great works of art that were created under the influence of mind-altering substances. The earliest example I can think of is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn. According to the poet, he sat down to write one evening, took some opium for his back problems, passed out and awoke several hours later having written this poem. Here’s a fragment:
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
The question we have to ask now is, Did he really write it?
If you listen to old Neil Young songs, or specifically “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” there’s a feeling that this music and these words are coming from someplace else. Someplace… beyond regular everyday sensibilities.
Blind man running through the light of the night
With an answer in his hand,
Come on down to the river of sight
And you can really understand,
Red lights flashing through the window in the rain,
Can you hear the sirens moan?
White cane lying in a gutter in the lane,
If you’re walking home alone.
Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Just find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.
Is there a reason why Neil Young–in spite of the countless incredible songs he once wrote and continues to write–never wrote anything to compare with that stunning song? The reason could be drugs.
I’m not saying that Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and so on wrote great songs simply because they were high. But the question is out there.
If you go back a little ways… as far back as Mozart, let’s say. Or even as far back as Bach or even Purcell. You find that these composers progressed as they aged, in the sense that their greatest, most complicated and endearing works were among the last they composed. Like, right before they died. Wagner, Puccini, Verdi, Mahler, Schubert–all of these artists wrote music until they died and almost unanimously wrote at a very high level of endurance.
And, to the best of my knowledge, none of them needed any kind of assistance. However, that could be taking too narrow of a view. Bach, for example, was inspired by God, and his spirituality inspired and informed nearly everything he wrote. Wagner’s monumental ego fueled his fire and Puccini wanted to be wealthy.
But, anyone who has sat down to create something knows that fame, money, recognition–whatever the byproduct of artistic success–are not true sources of inspiration. So, why is it that Paul McCartney, later in life, is unable to write new music that captures the collective conscience in the same way he did in the 60′s and early 70′s? Maybe it’s not the rock songwriter’s fault at all. Townshend says above, “I am expected to break new ground.” Who expects him to break new ground?
Maybe it’s us, the audience, who inspire these songwriters, and once our attention shifts they lose their ability to create what we were demanding in the first place.