Something strange goes on between Pete Townshend and his fans. Other cults engage in the same worship and advocacy, but die-hard Who fans don’t stop there. Perhaps because Townshend is a compulsive anthem writer and pronouncement maker, his fans ponder every word. But unlike most pop listeners, they’re not searching for themselves in the songs; they’re checking out Townshend’s current state of mind by adding up fragments and drawing connections like a million shrinks.
Not all of Townshend’s listeners do that, of course. Townshend the musician is even more formidable than Townshend the word slinger, and by now even his minor efforts can penetrate FM playlists. Still, he acts like someone in therapy, coming across as sincerely and forthrightly as he can, using the apparatus of rock stardom — airplay, interviews — as one big couch. After all the Who exegesis of the past decade, no wonder Townshend expects everyone to be fascinated by how he’s getting along.
He’s troubled. Very troubled. Townshend’s latter-day version of career-as-therapy isn’t working too well. Through the Seventies, the gap between his extroverted Who songs and his more private solo efforts almost disappeared, and his output has been a crescendo of anxiety: insecurity, fear of aging, anger, sexual confusion, job worries. On the surface, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes is calmer and more didactic than Townshend’s 1980 Empty Glass and the Who’s 1981 Face Dances. Half the time it’s a disquisition on stardom and power. It’s also a mess of contradictions.
It’s a listenable mess, to be sure. In fact, there’s hardly a misplaced note on this album. Townshend’s arrangements surge and subside as gracefully as anything in rock; they’re neither static nor jolting. Although the tunes and chord changes won’t surprise most Who listeners, they sink in fast, from “Stop Hurting People” (“The Song Is Over” rocks out) to “Slit Skirts” (“Slip Kid” grows up). Townshend adds a few rhythms to his portfolio — reggae in “Exquisitely Bored,” triplets in “Communication” and a ruffles-and-flourishes march in “Uniforms.”
Since Townshend’s synthesizer orchestrations and guitar whip-cracks govern the sound, and since Keith Moon’s drum eruptions are no longer there to challenge him, it makes little difference whether Townshend’s rhythm section is the Who or session players. Chinese Eyes has the same disciplined punch as Face Dances, chugging a bit more on the bottom and tinkling (thanks to former Family member Poli Palmer’s glockenspiels) up above. The biggest change is Townshend’s vocals, which are now absolutely secure all the way up his range, with an angelic serenity at the top. He sounds entirely in control.
But what does he think he’s saying? In “Communication,” over a whirlwind instrumental track, the (throwaway?) lyrics dissolve into gibberish — a cute joke only if Townshend realizes he’s done more or less the same thing throughout the album. Although some lyrics stay unified for the length of a song — “Exquisitely Bored.” “Uniforms,” “Face Dances Part Two,” “Prelude” (a four-line suicide note?) and “North Country Girl,” a postatomic variant of the old folk ballad — it’s apparently a strain, because the longer songs invariably go haywire. “Stardom in Action” starts out as one of Townshend’s clearer summaries of the position (“Stardom — I want a hit Want my tan, want my cash, want my innocence”) but derails in the last verse, while both “The Sea Refuses No River” and “Slit Skirts” are jumbles of eloquent lines (“Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts”) and head-shaking incoherence. Except for “Stop Hurting People,” which veers unpredictably between self-mockery and devotion, the songs build earnestly toward climaxes that barely make sense.
One explanation may be that Townshend’s musical vocabulary is too emphatic: he’s used to bash-it-down frustration (“I Can’t Explain”). mystic faith (“Pure and Easy”) and flag-waving (“Join Together”), all of which sound overwrought when backing mature, day-to-day concerns. To me, however, it seems more likely that Townshend assumes that every word on the album deserves a showcase. Much as he distrusts stardom, he’s hooked on it — he’s used to fans who echo his self-involvement. As far as I’m concerned, every bit of Townshend’s malaise about stardom may be true, and earned, but it’s just not my problem. “Let me tell you some more about myself,” Townshend sings to lead off the most cracked verse in “Slit Skirts.” No thanks, Pete — but I can give you a referral. (RS 375)