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Stardom's Outer Limits

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The Who

Lifehouse & Quadrophenia Demos

(Primadonna)

By Jim Dorling

Since the 60s rock musicians have fought to distance themselves from the banality of the larger entertainment industry--pop music is entertainment, but rock is a way of life. The total absorption of hippies, punks, headbangers, and Deadheads in their respective subcultures suggests that rock has more in common with contemporaneous cult movements, such as the Peoples Temple, the Moonies, Hare Krishna, and Heaven's Gate, than with any blatant profit-seeking enterprise.

Rock fandom shares with cult movements a dynamic wherein an individual or handful of individuals is deified by thousands of loyal followers, many of whom pour all their spare time, energy, and money into the effort. The difference, of course, is that in a cult the leader cultivates this adulation, whereas rock fans organize clubs, produce fanzines, and bootleg concert tapes, and otherwise spread the gospel quite independently of the star. But the more a star is distracted from his primary role as a recording artist by the spectacle of his fans' dependency upon him, the more he recognizes and manipulates it, the more fandom looks like cultdom. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the Grateful Dead. Their story is far less intriguing, however, than the story of a band that once stood on the brink of culthood and then turned back: the story of the Who and an uncompleted experimental rock opera called "Lifehouse," whose demo tapes and acetates are now available on an Italian bootleg CD.

The Who's first rock opera, Tommy, had been a parable about cultdom. Like Johnny B. Goode, who "never learned to read or write so well," but could "play a guitar just like a'ringin' a bell," Tommy is an unlucky kid who wins a fanatic following by playing a mean pinball despite being deaf, dumb and blind. After he develops a cult following, Tommy is magically cured of his handicaps, but is afraid to let on. His followers find out anyway, and abandon him. The Who's Pete Townshend, who wrote almost all the band's material, reveals in Tommy his belief in a rock 'n' roll catch-22--the advantages that stardom brings will inevitably eat away at the street cred that made you so appealing in the first place. Townshend is not alone in this belief; the Clash broke up when faced with this paradox, and it apparently drove Kurt Cobain to kill himself.

Which is not to say all rock stars share this anxiety. As Bob Dylan once told an interviewer, "I don't feel I have any responsibility [for my fans], no....I've never written any song that begins with the words 'I've gathered you here tonight.'" He asserted that his artistry, not his fans' admiration, defined him, and yet the sky didn't fall. When Tommy's fans abandon him, he breaks out "See Me, Feel Me," a song that states in no uncertain terms, Because you liked me I owe you everything. As Townshend saw it, the way to win back a following was to drop the tough-guy stutter that got you noticed in the first place and turn on the end-of-the-telethon charm, until there wasn't a dry eye in the house and you had all the suckers right back where you wanted 'em.

If Tommy was a paranoid theory on how to maintain stardom, "Lifehouse" was to be the clinical trial. It began as a film project, dreamed up in a meeting between Townshend and representatives of Universal Pictures in 1970. The huge box office success of Woodstock--in which the Who played a prominent role--convinced Hollywood that the concert film would put the counterculture in its hip pocket, and a flurry of imitations followed. The infamous free concert at Altamont was hastily planned in hopes of lending rock-festival ambience to a Rolling Stones tour film. Warner Brothers, which had purchased the film rights to Woodstock for a cool million, tried to repeat its success by staging a traveling festival solely to make a movie: the company concocted a band called Stoneground and bused it across the country staging rock festivals. In this climate, no wonder Universal promised Townshend and the Who a million dollars to fill the screen with ecstatic fans.

Townshend pitched them a concert film with hundreds, rather than hundreds of thousands, of fans. If the Woodstock audience had emerged as the real star of the movie, "Lifehouse" would do it one better, giving an audience the lead role right off the bat in a message-laden, postapocalyptic sci-fi thriller. (Dig it, like the Woodstock rain chant is Charlton Heston: "No rain! The brown acid is people!") The time would be 20 years in the future on an earth devastated by ecological disasters. As Townshend described to Nik Cohn in the New York Times in 1971, the rich would live underground "in special garments called experience suits, through which the government feeds them programs to keep them entertained," while the dregs of society prowl the surface. One of them would be an old roadie named Bobbie, "an electronics wizard who takes over a disused rock theater, renames it the Lifehouse, and sets up as an alternative to the government programs." There he'd stage the last great rock concert on the planet, one that would last for six months.

Townshend secured use of an experimental theater space in London called the Young Vic to stage the concert. His audience would be "part theatrical hangers-on, part freaks, part Who fans." Here's where it gets bizarre: writing in his own column in Melody Maker, Townshend explained how he actually wanted to shut the group and the audience in the theater for the full six months. He'd subject them to the latest electronic hardware--lasers, holograms, synthesizers, and quadraphonic sound--and just let things happen, because he didn't want to "get into another fantasy thing like Tommy."

He wanted to test the theories of a Sufi mystic named Inayat Khan, who believed that music and vibration were the essence of the real: "Every person is an instrument in the orchestra that is the whole universe," Khan wrote, "and every voice is the music that comes from one of its instruments, each instrument being made distinct and particular, so that no other voice can take the place of that particular voice. If, then, with the instrument that God has made and the music of God intended to be played in the world, one does not allow that music to be played and develops a voice that is not one's own, this is naturally a great loss to oneself and to others."

"I've seen Who concerts where the vibrations were becoming so pure that I thought the whole world was going to stop, the whole thing was becoming so unified," Townshend wrote. "But you can never reach that state, because in the back of their minds everybody knew that the group were going to have to stop soon or they'd got to go home or catch the last bus or something."

But if Townshend wanted to be open to anything, he also had a screenplay full of specific predictions, such as "All the sounds merge into one, like a massive, insane square dance. And everyone starts bouncing up and down, faster and faster, wilder and wilder, closer and closer and closer. Finally the energy gets too much." At the end of the six-month concert, the universal chord is finally struck. Just as government storm troopers break into the theater, the concertgoers "actually leave their bodies. They disappear."

Townshend assured Cohn, "I don't mean that I seriously expect people to leave their bodies, but I think we might go further than rock concerts have gone before." But he obviously had some sort of real-life transcendental experience in mind. He planned to take people out of the audience at the Young Vic and feed information--height, weight, astrological details, beliefs, and behavior--about them into a synthesizer. The synthesizer would then "translate the person into music." (In the end, the only person so translated was Townshend's guru, Meher Baba; whose bleeps and burbles in "Baba O'Riley" can still be heard in heavy rotation on classic rock radio.) The six-month concert was to be used to gradually work up patterns for each participant and integrate them into a whole--the "lost note" Townshend refers to in the pivotal song "Pure and Easy," which eventually ended up on Odds and Sods. It's at that point that the vibrations would peak and, it seemed, that Townshend really did expect something to happen.

The power Townshend attributes to synthesizers to make the secrets of the soul tangible parallels the power Scientologists attribute to their E-meters to locate and gauge painful memories. The discovery of every participant's unique music parallels transcendental meditation's practice of giving every member a unique mantra. The idea that by reaching harmony through technology we can physically leave our bodies and ascend to a higher level of being almost perfectly parallels the theories of Ti and Do (who called themselves after musical notes), leaders of the Heaven's Gate cult. Finally, the fortification of a group in a specific location over a long period of time, isolated from normal social intercourse, with an intensification and codification of members' interactions, in expectation of an apocalyptic end, is a thread that connects "Lifehouse" to Jonestown, MOVE, the Branch Davidians, and again Heaven's Gate.

A thread, of course, is all it is, because the experiment at the Young Vic did not go on for six months but just two consecutive Monday nights, after which, due to the growing skepticism of the rest of the band and their awkwardness in communing with the audience outside of the standard relationship, the whole project was scrapped. "Lifehouse" marked the creative apogee of Townshend's career; when it fizzled, he had his first nervous breakdown. Afterward he let Glyn Johns turn the wreck of "Lifehouse" into the good sensible rock album Who's Next, and threw himself right into another ambitious rock opera called Quadrophenia. But next to its intensely futuristic predecessor, it was a step backward, a retreat into the nostalgia of the world of mods and rockers from which the Who had emerged ten years earlier.

Townshend had wanted to commune with his audience without giving up the social and economic privileges of being a rock star. He wanted to take them all up to his level, making them "the first real superstar...that deserves the name." Since he couldn't give them the material success, he tried to give them a spiritual equivalent. But ultimately, the less-than-uplifting message of "Lifehouse" was that the gulf between rock star and fan is so great it could only conceivably be bridged by something on a par with a mass suicide pact.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover.

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