Townshend's Horse Fetish

A Pete Townshend explains at length in his very short book, "Horse's Neck," it's not hard for a famous rock
By Jennifer A. Kingson

A Pete Townshend explains at length in his very short book, "Horse's Neck," it's not hard for a famous rock star to get laid. For Pete, however, it's not enough just to have a good time--each decadent experience has to highlight the superstar's intense sensitivity.

Take, for instance, the story "Tonight's the Night," whose one-night-stand theme is reinforced by the repetition of the title in a line of dialogue and by a reference to Rod Stewart.

Townshend meets a woman at a bar, he writes. She asks him if he believes in reincarnation:

"Pete was an attractive guy, and he was talented, but he didn't really know that much about reincarnation. He bullshitted along though, and the girl seemed eager to hear everything he had to say.

"Being a successful singer is like being a guru,' he said. 'Everyone wants to talk to you, be near you, love you.

'"That's nice for you,' she said, 'really nice.'

'"It can be really hard too. Responsible. You know?"'

In fact, the awesome responsibilities of being a fabulously successful, outrageously wealthy and widely worshipped rock star reveal themselves on every page of Pete's strange book.

The 13 bizarre poems and short stories in "Horse's Neck" are at best a sort of spiritual autobiography; at worst, shallow and meaningless.

Maybe it's just a little disheartening to watch the boy who once fantasized about "Pictures of Lily" grow into a man who writes graphically about screwing female horses on the beach.

Maybe the disenchantment comes from Pete's writing itself. Stylistically, the writing isn't bad; Pete uses short, pithy sentences and a couple of big words.

Since most of the stories rely on series of images, it is significant that all the best ones are drawn from his songs. Pete provides one of the book's more striking moments when he describes his feelings about a woman he loves by echoing the chorus of "Athena": "Just a girl. Just a girl. His broken heart was unfeeling, like shattered glass in an acid bath." (Coincidentally, the song, on the "It's Hard" album, was written at about the same time as the book.)

Although the images interspersed in the sketchy prose are sometimes provoking--such as the "fish-slippery pavement" or "champagne on the terraces"--Pete's poetry is absolutely atrocious. Surprisingly, the same artist who penned ballads like "The Sea Refuses No River" and "Blue, Red and Grey" during his songwriting career fails dramatically when it comes to writing verse unaccompanied by music. For no apparent reason, Pete includes fragments of his poetry at the book's beginning, bizarre stuff like:

"I conceived him

I breast-fed him

I screamed with him first

I adored him first

I rejected him first

What did I do for him?

Only what any mother would have done."

Townshend also frames a story called "Pancho and the Baron" with a similar kind of dull shlock. This is pretty mean of ol' Pete, since he knows that all his readers really want is juicy anecdotes about The Who.

While the short stories are considerably more readable than the poetry (some of them even border on interesting), none of them contains anything so recognizable as a plot, a conclusion, or even a point.

The most engaging tale is "Fish Shop," which recounts a teenage Pete's frustrating romance with a sleazy girl named Fiona, who may or may not be the cousin of Pete's unsavory friend Bonzo. Already an aspiring songwriter in Acton, Pete tries to distinguish himself from the sordid company of Bonzo and his thieving friends. It is finally his relationship with Jaco, the owner of a fish-and-chips shop and a former rocker, that redeems him by reminding him of the palliative qualities of making rock music.

But even in this slightly substantial story--which comes across as almost a prose interpretation of his bittersweet anthem "Stardom in Acton" on the "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes" solo album--Pete vacillates and destroys his message.

On the one hand, he tries to explain how meaningful his music was in extracting him from his humble background: "The band began the song and Pete sang venomously. The words celebrated men being real men; real men didn't need to display their toughness but needed to be able to know compassion and self-sacrifice."

On the other hand, he feels obliged to describe what a stud he is: "In the weekday summer afternoons they would often make love in his parents' bed. Fiona would actually weep in frustration when he fell asleep after reaching his own climax." Is he as sensitive and profound an artist as his songs would suggest, or is he really just out for some action?

Perhaps even Pete would admit that he takes himself a little too seriously in this slim volume. Certainly, he must snicker just a little when he rereads the last line of his preface: "Each story deals with one aspect of my struggle to discover what beauty really is."

His grapplings with beauty become fairly obscure among Pete's serious-if-weird musings on God, alcohol and drug abuse, getting laid, and being famous, which contain not a trace of the attractive, let alone the beautiful.

More accurately, Townshend's search seems to be not for the beautiful but for the esoteric. In his overtly Freudian sketch "Horses," Pete presents one of the many dreamlike situations offered by the book: "Confronting the white horse I put out my hand and brushed hard down the flank as if to smooth away the mark of a girth strap. As I did so, the skin fell away, and the dry white bones of the rib cage appeared. Beneath the ribs, living within the body of the horse, moved a massive snake. Its skin shone green and blue. It was bloated and overfed; full of the heart, the liver, and the intestines of my perfect horse, my symbol of purity. It moved within the body of the horse in a circle."

Even from Jim Morrison, this anecdote would be puzzling. More curious, though, is the way in which the "Horses" chapter ends, with the line, "Nothing has anything to do with you or me." Pete obviously thinks he's pretty deep, but this adolescent profundity works better in his pithy songs of the 60s than in a thin, overpriced book.

In case Pete's sentiments and strangely convoluted prose forays don't convince people that he knows a lot about Life's Important Questions, Townshend peppers his stories with a bibliography of the Very Impressive Writers he knows about. He refers to Proust and Joyce. He lists Conrad, Burgess, Bashevis Singer and Balzac as writers he's keen on, as well as P.G. Wodehouse and H.E. Bates: "I read fairly heavy stuff. To mention all the authors might make me sound pretentious, so I won't."

Despite his declared identification with the literati and his scorn for the "layers upon layers of cheap nightclub hypocrisy," Townshend writes more about cheap sex and drinking bouts than about great ideas or great thinkers.

The book does contain some incisive clues about why Pete adopts his pseudo-profound attitude. His bouts with booze and drugs--briefly noted in these stories--have simultaneously weakened him and awakened him to all that he couldn't notice while his senses were dulled.

In one revealing chapter, "A Death in the Day of," he writes as himself and also assumes the persona of a reporter assigned to a story about him. Pete uses this format to extemporize about his daily life, and says, "In spurts I answer fan mail and business letters, play snooker, strum my guitar into a cassette machine, pray for forgiveness and think about what a total mess I've made of a life that had everything, and everyone, going for it."

How disappointing a sentiment this is from the formerly passionate mod who hoped he died before he got old and who wrote, in the rock-opera "Quadrophenia": "If you let them do it to you, you've got yourself to blame/It's you who takes the blame/It's you who feels the shame."

Who fans get the feeling that, after all his own warnings, Pete let them do it to him.

The plaintive self-indulgence of "Horse's Neck" is reminiscent in tone of some of Townshend's solo musical efforts. When writing and performing with The Who, Pete comes across as a team-player, a rough-and-tumble rock star who would ringlead the type of debauchery described in "Long Live Rock," in which "someone takes his pants off and the rafters knock" and a "fifty-inch cymbal falls and cuts the lamps."

But in his solo endeavors, he takes a more mournful, sensitive-guy stance: the haunting acousticals of his album "Scoop" and the lonely lyrics of "Empty Glass" present an altogether different image of Pete the misunderstood and miserable loner. "Horse's Neck" omits mention of any other members of the band, yet it does describe certain aspects of the rock scene; in all, unfortunately, it stresses the reflective, not the rowdy, Pete.

The volume's title and its prevailing horse theme pose more problems. Townshend never included his horse fetish in his music, so why does he choose to rhapsodize over the animals in his prose debut? The last chapter, "Lagune. Valentine's Day, 1982," is an imagistic digression extremely reminiscent of "Equus," only more graphic. Pete writes, "The horse is beautiful. Its mane is flowing and clean, its coat brushed and smooth. Its eyelashes are long and curved. The horse is now before me, it bares its teeth and its tongue flicks out. I hold the great, gorgeous head in my hands. Then I walk behind the beautiful creature and, brushing aside the tail...."

Keep it to yourself, Pete.

Just as Townshend spent his adolescence writing songs about the angst of growing up, he has turned his attention lately to writing vignettes about the angst of middle age. Fortunately for all fans of The Who, he churned out his greatest music before trying to prove himself as a writer.