September 23, 2020

1986-01-11 – The Sydney Morning Herald

1986 01 11 The_Sydney_Morning_Herald_Sat__Jan_11__1986_

Pete Townshend, writer: no

longer a case of Who or why

HORSES NECK

By Pete Townshend
Faber and Faber, 95pp, $18.95
ISBN 0 57] 13541 2

Reviewed by LYNDEN BARBER

ROCK and literature never made the
most natural bedfellows. Rock music
(now creatively as near dead as dammit)
demanded an unchiselled sensitivity and
emotional discharge unfettered by the
deliberation of the serious writer.

Naturally. this didn't prevent rock
performers from cradling literary aspir-
ations (vanity being no stranger to the
dressing room). One thinks of the
Freudian mumbo-jumbo of The Doors‘
The End, the Dostoyevskyan pretensions
of Maga:ine's Howard Devoto or the
magnesium flare of mid-l9605 Bob
Dylan.
‘ But while Dylan was peerless. able to
get away with oblique metaphysics by
dint of an overpowering imagination.
rock was often at its most valuable and
intelligent when offering the insights of
the street-wise hustler, chronicling fast-
l moving times from the eye of the storm.
1 The Who‘s Pete Townshend comes to
7 mind as one of the masters of the pithy
statement. He was an unwriterly lyricist
— and all the better for it. His most
memorable lines have come to define
whole syndromes — "Hope I die before
I get old“ (disaffected youth): “We
won‘t get fooled again“ (disillusionment
at the end of the 19605): and “I can see
for miles“. worth a sackload of the
Beatles‘ dumb “newspaper taxis“ as a
symbol of the psychedelic onslaught.
. In interview, Townshend has long
been valued as one of pop music‘s most
probing commentators (the “Spokesman
for a Generation" of popular cliche).
Therefore, it comes as no real surprise to
learn 'that as a middle-aged man he is
able to sift through his experiences with
a keen philosophical eye.

This is his project in Horse's Neck.
Billed as a series of ”short fictions“ (as
opposed to stories), it traces earliest

memories, adolescent experiences. life
on the road, haunting dreams, stardom
and. most powerfully of all, his self-
destructive nature.

Rarely has the rock ‘n’ roll mythology

of “living on the edge” been debunked so
discreetly. Townshend spent the first few
years of the 19805 on a spiral of heroin
addiction and manic alcoholism, and
now, having cleaned himself up, has lent
his weight to an anti-heroin campaign in
Britain. Yet there is nothing moralistic
about his observations here — which is
perhaps why they are so quietly chilling.
Townshend pares back his protective
layers with a ruthless honesty, free of
self-pity.

The Horse metaphor crops up again
and again (it is, ofcourse. a slang term for
heroin). Pete dreams about horses pretty
often. it seems. He sees a trapped horse
running in circles in the crypt ofa ruined
church: "The circling horse was an
oblique warning that I would repeat the
same mistake eternally." he concludes.
“Nothing else in nature behaves so
consistently and rigidly as a human being
in pursuit of hell.“

Written between 1979 and I984, an
excess of adjectives clogs some of the
earlier pieces, like buns stuffed with an
over-abundance of cream. They give off
the feeling of having been pored over for
too long. a self-conscious drive up the hill
of Real Literature. Still, this problem!
clears up as the book — a slim volume of ‘
less than lOO pages — progresses. ‘

Make no mistake, Townshend can
write, notjust “write well for an old rock
star“. There are some beautifully dis-
tilled passages in this collection, some
haunting observations. A book of this
nature could so easily have turned into
the memoirs of a faded has-been, a
true-life confessions filled with anec-
dotes and morals. As he notes in the
preface, “I have never wanted simply to
tell my own story. But l have tried here
to attend to a wide range of feelings“. By
the end, we feel we know the man.

A number of standpoints and devices
are deployed. ln “Fish Shop“, the
narrator is a friend of the adolescent
guitar player, a witness to an event that
leads Townshend to break away from his
surroundings.

In working-class West London, there
are two ways of rising above your
environment — violence and music.
Townshend chooses music. "swinging
his guitar like a battle—axe“ while singing
how "real men" are those who “know
compassion and self-sacrifice".

“Winston“ — largely a speech by a
friend interrupting a gathering held to
commemorate the death of John Lennon
— tops even this. ”Stars are attributed
with intelligence they don't have, beauty
they haven’t worked for. loyalty and love
they are incapable of reciprocating and
strength they do not possess,“ he rants in '
a bullet of a speech.

Anyone guilty of sneering at Pete
Townshend‘s literary ambitions when he
joined publishers Faber and Faber as a
director “ill have to eat their words now
that he has joined the ranks of their
writers. ln Horse's Neck there is real
beauty. And it‘s been worked for.

Linden Barber is a journalist and music
t_rim' living m Sit‘dney.