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Pete Townshend

Empty Glass

Pete Townshend (Jack Fordyce /
174 0

“My life’s a mess, I wait for you to pass I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass”

That’s when you know something is truly wrong, when you no longer go to the bar for conviviality, but the escape.

My father owned a liquor store, Bay Package, right off the Turnpike in one of Bridgeport’s worst neighborhood. He and my mother had a drink every night, but although my sister Jill had parties where the stash was sampled, I only drank at Passover.

And then came marijuana.

It was illegal you know. Just like it took time for people to switch sides, to be against the war, it took time for people to smoke dope. And by time I graduated from high school, drinking was pooh-poohed, it was all about drugs. But when I was a freshman in college Vermont gave all rights to eighteen year olds, not only voting, but drinking, and we partook. We hung at the Alibi, down by Otter Creek, where beer was a quarter and the vibe was malt shop, it was one of the best things about Middlebury.

Our classic rockers were thinking people. They had something to say. They told us what they experienced so we could identify. Loneliness is cured by music, when done right. When the people making it are not the cheerleader or captain of the football team, when they’re not being foisted upon us by their parents at an ungodly young age. You see rock is an independent pursuit. The other. Today you become a brand and part of the fabric, the continuum of techies and billionaires, they’re all the same people. But they didn’t used to be. Musicians were singular. Structure was abhorred. Get up when you want to, do the drugs you want to, have frequent premarital sex, not only throwing caution to the wind, but abandoning institutions. That’s the problem with the Grammys, they’re an institution. Rock was all about blowing up the institutions, searching for truth in a new way. Being the other and going down the road less taken.

If you don’t know the first Pete Townshend solo album, “Who Came First,” you should. For “Pure and Easy” if nothing else. And certainly “Nothing Is Everything (Let’s See Action).”

After that came “Rough Mix,” with Ronnie Lane, with the exquisite “Street in the City.”

But most people consider, or think, 1980’s “Empty Glass” is Pete’s solo debut.

The Who were essentially played out. There were a couple of Warner Brothers albums yet to be released, but the decade had changed, MTV was nascent. You heard “Eminence Front” on the radio, but Townshend would trash the band members and Keith Moon was dead and Pete was invested in his solo career, doing it all himself, singing all the songs, forgetting Roger, with no battles, all from his head onto the tape, and it was tape, which is ever so much more difficult to employ.

And by this point, 1980, a year before MTV, radio, AOR radio, was king. You needed a single. It wasn’t like ten years before, when the album was enough, you had to introduce the public to the sound. And “Rough Boys” burst out of the radio and got people to buy the album…and then there were people to whom the single was irrelevant, deep fans, who needed to hear what Pete Townshend had to say in its entirety, from the get-go.

And the best song on “Empty Glass” is in the middle of the second side. “A Little Is Enough” is one of the absolute best tracks Pete has ever done.

But then comes the title track.

“Why was I born today
Life is useless like Ecclesiastes say”

Alienation… A core building block of classic rock. These were not people who went to college first, it was not on their horizon, they knew they were different and they didn’t care, although they wanted to show that they were worthwhile, and boy did they.

“I stand with my guitar
All I need is a mirror
Then I’m a star”

And unleashed from the institutions they could question the system, be depressed. We loved rock because it was 360. The musicians were gods. That’s why there were groupies.

Alcohol’s a funny thing. Smoke dope and recede, fall out, go to sleep. But alcohol? It revs you up before it depresses you. Alcohol is about possibilities, hopefully the best night of your life. Your inhibitions fade away, you think you’re your best self. And then it gets the better of you. Because you keep chasing that peak experience and it’s oh-so-rare.

I’m not talking about casual drinkers, I’m talking about people who get drunk, who sometimes can’t remember what happened the night before, never mind where their car is parked.

And ultimately it gets sad.

And you find you’re that guy at the bar.

But then comes the change.

“Don’t worry, smile and dance
You just can’t work life out
Don’t let down moods entrance you
Take the wine and shout”

You want to be high all the time, positive, but that’s not how life works, you can’t have the peaks without the valleys, but when you have those peaks everything comes clear, it’s just about the moment, now, the experience, live it. Life doesn’t make sense. And the older you get the more you realize this. It’s all b.s. and no one will be remembered. If you’re doing anything to impress others stop right now, they really don’t care, it’s only about you. And this requires you to create your own precepts, your own boundaries, rock set us free, put us on the path, rode shotgun on the journey.

So, Pete’s down in the dumps, depressed, having poured down too many drinks. And then he feels his power, the power of a rock star, the belief he can climb any mountain, beat any challenge, conquer the world. He ultimately reaches a point of equilibrium, he’s thrown off the shackles, he can see clearly now, he’s in the moment, he’s smiling, and then…

“My life’s a mess I wait for you to pass I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass”




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