With the Kinks releasing a strong record and Mick Jagger a great one, the harder-core Brit Invaders have been rocking lately. Now Pete Townshend, the most ambitious musician of the lot, returns fiercely. A tamed Tommy is a Broadway smash; with trademark willfulness, the Who’s former main man gives us Psychoderelict, a rock opera that both echoes and undercuts his classic.
Dark and agonized, Psychoderelict sputters and bellows, but its clangor gives it power. Formatted as a sci-fi radio play, substituting an Orwellian air of virtual-reality apocalypse for Tommy‘s pinball pathway to glory, it’s not the coming of age of a deaf, dumb and blind boy messiah but the comeback bid of a shutdown idol. Damned as a “psychedelic flower-child turned alcoholic vegetable” by rock-press vixen Ruth Streeting, Ray High is holed up (à la the aging Elvis), craving a hit and redemption. Alternately an archetypal bitch and mother, Ruth plots with High’s manager and flunky father figure, Rastus Knight, to yank Ray back into the spotlight.
Predictably, chaos ensues. Yet the story, for all its cliché and bombast, allows Townshend to explore themes that have long obsessed him. A compulsive seeker whose questing sometimes recalls John Lennon’s embarrassing honesty, Townshend has flourished a gift for examining life’s trials as well as its instances of painful possibility — the pathos of desire, the fight for identity and community, the fanatic urge toward truth. Leading a cast of actors and musicians featuring Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and Mark Brzezicki on drums, Townshend’s strong voice shines on “English Boy,” a youth cult anthem of the sort he invented with “My Generation,” and the lovely ballad “Now and Then,” while his guitar work fires up big instrumental numbers dedicated to his guru, Meher Baba. Sound effects and dialogue meld with songs to fashion a kind of aural movie; it’s a collision that underscores one of Psychoderelict‘s themes, the tension between truth and technology. Ultimately, the opera’s characters place a guarded final faith in music as the avenue toward transcendence.
Driving Psychoderelict, that faith continues to make Pete Townshend’s career one of rock & roll’s finer stories — brave, desperate and open.