A little over 10 years ago, Pete Townshend outlined detailed plans for a new musical he planned on calling Floss. “I want to take on aging and mortality, using the powerfully angry context of rock n roll,” he wrote on the Who’s website. “Floss is an ambitious new project for me, in the style of Tommy and Quadrophenia. In this case the songs are interspersed with surround-sound ‘soundscapes’ featuring complex sound-effects and musical montages…Floss will be heard in concert for the first time in 2011, at a venue and date yet to be established. I am already having talks with producers in New York.”
Like many of Townshend’s grand ideas over the years, it took much longer than he expected to come to fruition and it morphed in surprising ways along the way. But the first part finally came out earlier this month when the release of the book The Age of Anxiety. It’s Townshend’s first novel, though he released his memoir Who I Am in 2012 and a collection of short stories entitled Horse’s Neck in 1985.
“I didn’t have a desire to write fiction,” Townshend tells Rolling Stone. “I wanted something that would allow me to go off in a number of different directions. It’s a multi-stranded story that touches on a number of different things which I feel will help me to produce interesting projects that rise out of it. Floss was the working title, but I changed it about halfway through.”
The book centers around a young rock star named Walter who sells his band’s music to Ford for millions and leaves the industry behind, his wife Siobhán, her sister Selina, and their friend Floss. It’s narrated by Louis, a dealer of outsider art who’s the godfather and mentor of Walter. Everything unravels when Louis is accused of raping Floss years earlier at a wedding, though he has no memory of the night.
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“I wanted to write a book where the female characters were as strong as the men,” says Townshend. “I also wanted them to be really authentic. One of the things that happened is that the women in my mind, the women in my life and the models I used for the female characters, they are much, much stronger than the men. My first wife Karen, for example, is an incredibly strong person. One of the reasons our relationship broke down after a long, long marriage, over 25 years, is because I was the weak one, not her.”
The book was largely finished before the beginning of the #MeToo movement, but Townshend doesn’t think it reads differently in this new era. “This isn’t about celebrities or powerful men having sex with younger women,” he says. “It’s about rape, at least that’s one of the strands, and the insinuation of rape. It’s about the possibility of it when people are at a wedding, they take drugs, they get smashed and they have sex. Who is responsible if both people are smashed?”
Writing about a sex scandal is likely to raise some uncomfortable comparisons to Townshend’s own controversy in 2003 when he was cautioned by British police for using his credit card to access a child pornography website. He claimed he was conducting research to prove that British banks were profiting from child pornography, and investigators confiscated all of his computers and there were no trace of illicit images on any of them.
“When I was arrested and still waiting for the police to deal with a huge number of computers I had in my life, they said to me, ‘This will never go away,'” he says. “That is the case. It will never go away. And I don’t feel completely vindicated because people look at headlines and don’t bother to read Wikipedia. If you read Wikipedia, you’ll see how it unfolded and I was, in a sense, vindicated.”
The alleged rape is only one aspect of The Age of Anxiety. The book is also about music. “I didn’t particularly want to write a book about music,” says Townshend. “I didn’t want to write a book about where the tagline would be, ‘Pete Townshend’s new book — sex, drugs and rock & roll.’ They would have said that if I had written a book about fucking landscape gardening. ‘Sex and drug and landscape gardening!'”
He continues: “But in fact the book is about music and it is about sex. There are people in this book that actually have sex. Now isn’t that bizarre? And it’s about rock & roll. So, hey, sex and rock & roll? Where are the drugs? The drugs are there too! Because, lets face it, everyone in the world has sex. Everyone knows what rock & roll is. And everybody takes drugs. Everybody! There are no exceptions, though there might be a few Buddhist priests that don’t.”
Townshend has been busy gigging with the Who throughout much of the year, but now that the group is on break until March 2020, he’s beginning to think about the next step in the saga he began with The Age of Anxiety. Plans are still in in flux, but he’s envisioning a stage presentation of some sort tied into the book. “I think I might do it as a one-man show,” he says. “I’ve been experimenting with a reading and I’ve been creating a libretto. I wouldn’t read the whole book. It would take weeks. But I’ve created a libretto out of the novel. Maybe there would be an orchestra that performs the music that Walter hears.”
His time window to get all this together is rather limited since the Who are playing all through England in March and April before heading back to America to make up a handful of dates they postponed this year due to Roger Daltrey’s vocal issues. “We were hoping to tour in [mainland] Europe in June,” says Townshend. “That’s not going to be possible for various reasons, mainly for Roger’s need for vocal rest. So we’re probably going to push that [European tour] back to September.”
Somehow in the middle of all this work, Townshend managed to record the Who’s new album (simply titled Who), which comes out December 6th. They’ve been playing two songs from it on tour. “We’ll probably try to include a few new songs [next year] from the album, but maybe not,” he says. “I don’t know. We don’t have much time to build that.”
Right now, he’s just looking forward to finally getting back to England after a long American tour. “I’ve been away now for 65 days,” he says. “I’m coming up to 75 years old. This is a crock way to earn a living. I might as well go live on an oil rig. It’s no fun.”