It’s almost impossible to avoid describing Rough Mix as devotional music, but it’s equally difficult to reconcile that description with some of the album’s components. Townshend’s stinging guitar on “My Baby Gives It Away,” the chugging. Faces-like title instrumental and the wailing saxophone coda on Lane’s Fifties-style “Catmelody” are hardly typical of spiritual music. But then matters meditative have never before been fully integrated into the ugly, angry sounds we call rock & roll. Their juxtaposition here, in fact, might be one meaning of Rough Mix; it certainly ain’t smooth.
The Who’s Townshend and former Face Lane come by their rock & roll inclinations honestly, and obviously, but spiritual inclination is their long suit here. Both men are followers of Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master who died in 1969, and this has given the album a sort of humility — not to say modesty — which is its special virtue.
Not surprisingly, almost everything Townshend does here owes a debt to the Who. “My Baby Gives It Away” is one of his improbable sexual misadventures, like “I’m a Boy” or “Pictures of Lily.” “Misunderstood” is more understated musically — just voice, guitar, harmonica, cowbell and a drum machine — but belongs with his best boasts, in the tradition of “My Generation.” “Just one want to be misunderstood/Want to be feared in my neighborhood.” Ten years ago, this probably would have been called a Dylan parody, but the resolution of the lyric is actually a lot closer to the self-doubt of The Who by Numbers.
“Street in the City” is helped by Townshend’s marvelous acoustic guitar, but it is dominated by an utterly unlikely horn and string arrangement. It is schmaltzy enough to pass for an outtake from Days of Future Passed, and as the album’s longest track, it is simply its most vexing.
“Keep Me Turning” is a spiritual parable that is undoubtedly much clearer to its author than to any other listener. The organ, guitar and drum interplay makes the song exciting, but what draws me back time and again is the yearning and vulnerable quality of Townshend’s vocal. This is spiritual rock & roll in the very best sense: it doesn’t always make sense except in the heart, which won’t ignore it. Its wit and charm strike beyond the confusion of its verses to the heart of the chorus, where the devotional imagery is most complete, and the guitar part at the bridge, which is among the most supple and liquid Townshend has ever done.
Lane’s songs reflect his recent work with Slim Chance; his last album, which has not been released in the U.S., had a hint (“Harvest Home”) of what is fully realized here. Lane has moved past straight rock & roll — although he makes his share of it on “Catmelody” and “Rough Mix” — into a merger of rock with Irish ballads and Scottish and English folk music. There is a kind of wisdom and assurance to these songs, and when he sings, “God bless us all,” or, of “all of my family and all of my friends,” he does so with sincere conviction. More wonderfully, there is no distance, no sense of trying to recapture something lost in a modern age. In addition, as John Prine once said of Jackson Browne. I don’t know where Lane gets his melodies. but I’d sure like to go there.
Lane makes his music with guitars, fiddles, banjos, drums, harmonica, electric bass. Although that sounds like a formula for folk rock, there is nothing of the haunted quality or joyousness of the greatest folk rock. Instead, there is a meditative air to the music, captured eloquently in the opening verse of his best song here, “Annie,” which might merely be “Harvest Home” with lyrics:
Old rocks stand tall, Annie
Seen the world grow small, Annie
But when they fall, Annie
Where will they be?
What Lane does is hardly unprecedented. Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Eric Clapton’s 461 Ocean Boulevard, even Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” share a part of its wise and ancient spirit. (Clapton brings a blues guitar to “April Fool” that is its prettiest touch.) Townshend has made his share of songs with a similar feeling — silly as it was, The Who by Numbers’ “Blue, Red and Grey” had it — as has Lane himself: listen to the Faces’ “Debris.” What’s important is that the dedication and beauty of the music is as crucial as the homage it pays to its masters and traditions.
So the final numbers on Rough Mix, among the few true collaborations on the record, have a special flavor. Don Williams’ “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry” is a country love song, but in this context — and considering Baba’s love for Jim Reeves’ “There’s a Heartache Following Me,” which Townshend did on his first solo album — it is clearly a tribute to the master.
“Heart to Hang Onto,” written by Townshend but on which Lane sings the verses and Townshend the choruses, wears an even thinner veil. There’s a brutal war going on in the song’s midsection between Townshend’s Tommy-like guitar and John Entwistle’s brass arrangement. This is the perfect musical expression of the cosmic quest — this is the real “The Seeker.” The lesson here is stated through a series of metaphorical characters, the most tragic of whom is Danny: “Danny, he wants to save for a new guitar/He’s gonna learn to play but he won’t get far.” Implicitly, Danny’s not going anywhere because he hasn’t made the connection; he has no “heart to hang onto,” which is to say he lacks the spirit to make the music move.
The glory of this album and of the work of Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane throughout their careers is that art and the deepest spiritual aspiration are completely intertwined. Often, of course, that makes for a rough mix, and a rougher life. But it’s worth the turbulence, for it touches closer to the heart of the rock & roll experience than almost anything I know.