Pete Townshend wrote his most famous lyric – “Hope I die before I get old” – in 1965, allegedly on the very day he turned twenty: May 19th. Thirty-nine years later, “My Generation” remains rock’s greatest fuck you song, and Townshend is not only alive but writing and recording his first new Who music in decades, in the defiant belief that half a Who – now just him and singer Roger Daltrey (and friends) – is better than none.
On Then and Now, Townshend has history on his side and in his face. The record is front-loaded with eighteen greatest hits, from 1965’s “I Can’t Explain” to ’81’s “You Better You Bet”: a still-exhilarating parade of power-chord might and a thrilling lesson in the elevated poetry of revolt and interior conflict. The album then ends with the first fruits of the Who’s latest sessions, and it is a perilous juxtaposition. “Old Red Wine” – written by Townshend in homage to John Entwistle even as the Who kept touring after the bassist’s death in 2002 – is a big, tumbling elegy with gale-force echoes of Quadrophenia. Daltrey’s voice, a deeper, huskier instrument now, heats up the mourning in Townshend’s fond references to the mad old days at the Fillmore and the Cow Palace in San Francisco. But that loss is more keenly felt in “My Generation,” “Substitute” and the live “Summertime Blues.” Entwistle was not only the stoic emotional anchor of the Who; his bass was the real melody instrument, the firm linear boom inside the atomic pop. The more conventional thunder under Daltrey and Townshend here makes it hard not to wonder how much of a Who they will truly be without the Quiet One.
“Real Good Looking Boy,” the other new song, proves that this is a very real, if different, Who. For Townshend, the original Who – he, Daltrey, Entwistle and Keith Moon – were more than a band; they were a bright, loud way into a harsh, judgmental world. A soaring mix of swing, crash and an explicit touch of Elvis Presley, “Real Good Looking Boy” is Townshend’s celebration of the identity and salvation he found in rock & roll as a boy and an auspicious promise of how much fight and life he still has left.
This story is from the April 29th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.