Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Who's Dilemma

There is a moment in the middle of "Baba O'Riley" that locates both the advantages and pitfalls of Peter Townshend's approach to his audience. The song begins with the most eloquent of all the simple tributes to pastoral escape in the aural literature of rock: "Out here in the fields/I fight for my meals/I get my back into my living." Sung by Roger Daltrey, a slum kid who really did escape to the country--when he's not touring with the Who, Daltrey works his own farm in England--they take on special poignancy.

But the pristine appeal of the song quickly breaks down under the pressure of Townshend's passion for reality. The chorus resolves the tension of the verse musically while heightening it verbally: "Teenage wasteland, it's only teenage wasteland." There is no indication of where the teenage wasteland is, or whether Daltrey has really escaped it, but it's possible to guess when he breaks in with a comment of his own. "They're all wasted!"

That has to be one of the bitterest lines in rock and roll, the final comment of non-doper Townshend on what one of the more popular slang equivalents for high might really mean. When Daltrey sang the line early in the first of four sold-out Who concerts in Madison Square Garden this week, half the audience cheered. Some of the Who's fans were no doubt cheering ironically, reveling in the line's double meaning--dope as the only escape available--just as they love the protagonist of "My Generation" for the stuttering semi-competent he is. But others just yelled automatically for yet another marijuana anthem.

And that is the Who's dilemma. Although they celebrate teen rebelliousness critically, they inevitably attract uncritical celebrants, whether those celebrants will ever understand their own plight as Townshend does is moot at best. This doesn't matter to him because he loves and hopes to channel their energy. Last night, during "See Me, Feel Me," the group turned the super-troopers on the audience, so that we became the band's source of enlightenment. We couldn't see the musicians, just as they ordinarily can't see us. One girl said that now she knew how they felt, but I doubt it.

It was not an especially exciting Who concert, especially after it moved into more recent material. Toward the end, there were empty moments that appeared unrehearsed, not just the respites necessary to any well-organized hard rock experience. After an hour and 45 minutes, a hefty chunk of no-solo time, the group left the stage. For the next 10 minutes an angry audience yelled for an encore, throwing cherry bombs and debris in its frustration.

But I was satisfied--I figured Townshend had finally made his point. He really does want to let his audience know that rebellion rarely works, and if you can't get it to them verbally, you will deny them the extra music they selfishly believe is their due. You can't always get what you want is a good theme for more than one great rock band.

N'day, June 11, 1974