Come to the Lifehouse: Pete Townshend’s Unfinished Utopia – Philip Bounds

Mar 16th, 2007 | By FEO Admin | Category: Comment

Philip Bounds

One of the most cheering media events recently has been the release of the Who’s first studio album since 1982. Recorded over a period of three years and well received by the critics, Endless Wire shows that Pete Townshend – the Who’s sixty-one-year-old songwriter and presiding genius – retains most of the gifts which enabled him to revolutionise popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. Its most intriguing feature is a nine-track ‘mini opera’ entitled ‘Wire and Glass’. As Townshend acknowledged in a set of explanatory notes distributed to the press, ‘Wire and Glass’ is the latest instalment in the so-called Lifehouse project, which has occupied him intermittently for over thirty-five years. What I want to suggest here is that Lifehouse is one of the most significant examples of what might be called the unfinished utopia – a form that radical critics would do well to take seriously.

The story of Lifehouse is a notoriously tangled one. It was originally projected as a musical drama back in 1970, when Townshend was trying to write a sequel to the Who’s path breaking rock opera Tommy (1969). Despite the fact that Universal Artists commissioned a film version at great expense, the project was abandoned shortly afterwards and eight of the songs appeared on the album Who’s Next in 1971. Judging from the characteristically expansive interviews that Townshend gave to various rock journalists at the time, it is clear that the original Lifehouse was intended as a response to the emergence of the counterculture in the 1960s. Heavily influenced by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was supposed to depict a Britain laid waste by nuclear war and governed by a sinister totalitarian regime. At the heart of the abandoned plot was a conflict between two distinct styles of cultural politics. On the one hand, anxious to reinforce its power by atomising the population, the government manufactures a popular culture which imposes strict limits on human interaction. Nearly everyone in Townshend’s totalitarian Britain is isolated in an ‘experience suit’ which delivers food, entertainment and even sexual stimulation through a pipe controlled by the authorities. (Not for nothing has the experience suit been regarded as an early metaphor for the internet.) On the other hand, opposition to the government is sustained by a small group of counter-cultural misfits who recognise what Townshend has called the ‘importance of congregation’. The locus of the counterculture is a secret venue in London, known to initiates as the Lifehouse, where an unstable genius called Bobby aspires to unite the power of the crowd with the power of music.

Bobby’s ambitions are nothing if not grandiloquent. His goal is to create a form of music which can bind his audience together by inducing an ecstatic awareness of cosmic unity – a typical counterculture theme. Like the Sufi aesthetician Inayat Khan, whose writings exerted a massive influence on Townshend in the 1960s he speaks of a ‘Lost Chord’ whose rediscovery will restore the ties between God and man. If the film had ever been made, it would have ended with an epic scene in which the mini-utopia of the Lifehouse wins a conclusive victory against the state. At the very moment when government troops begin to break down the door, Bobby and his cohort of dissidents finally achieve nirvana and dematerialise onto a higher plane. The ethic of community triumphs over the regime’s anaesthetised culture of fake individualism.

In spite of suffering a nervous breakdown after failing to complete Lifehouse, Townshend has returned to the project on a number of occasions since 1971. Songs from it appeared not merely on Who’s Next but also on The Who by Numbers (1975) and Who Are You (1978). Ray High, the protagonist of Townshend’s musical drama Psychoderelict (1993), spends much of his time working on a fictionalised version of Lifehouse entitled Grid Life. And in his intriguing internet novella The Boy Who Heard Music (2005/6), which provides the plot for ‘Wire and Glass’ on the new album, Townshend tells the story of what happens when a group of young musicians get wind of the original project and try to put it into practice. Yet his original vision of Lifehouse remains unrealised. Although a radio play entitled Lifehouse was broadcast on the BBC in 1999, it was more of a sequel to the original story than an attempt to recapture the dazzling utopianism of 1971. Magnificent in its own terms, its theme was the awful compromises of middle age. There were no references at all to Bobby, the counterculture or resistance to totalitarian terror.

Why does all this matter? It matters because of the response of Townshend’s audience. Ever since it became clear that Lifehouse would not be appearing, the onus for sustaining the project has primarily devolved on the Who’s fans. If the anecdotal evidence which they have provided on the internet and in conversation is true, it would seem that Lifehouse has functioned in their lives like a sort of delicious cultural rumour, inviting them to complete the unfinished text in the privacy of their own minds. Drawing on the hints which Townshend threw out in his interviews and writings, they have found themselves organising the elements of his vision into a coherent narrative, trying to envisage what Bobby’s communitarian paradise might look like and meditating on the political and cultural themes which the story raises. It is easy to believe that much of this creative labour has had a definite radical edge. For if utopian texts play an especially progressive role in postmodern cultures (a point which the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has recently made with great force in Archaeologies of the Future), their political bite is surely increased dramatically when their readers are enlisted as co-creators.

Let me give a couple of examples of what I mean, each of which reflects my reading of Jameson’s book. One of the most endearing features of utopian texts is that they provide a tantalising glimpse of un-alienated labour. The thing which most obviously unites books like More’s Utopia, Bacon’s New Atlantis and Morris’s News from Nowhere is the sheer pleasure that their authors took in writing them. There is clearly something about the utopian form that encourages fluency, euphoria and prodigious inventiveness in equal measure, transforming the writer into a sort of whimsical professor in a ramshackle laboratory of the imagination. This exhilarating sense of unleashed creativity is greatly enhanced when it is the audience and not the artist who do the bulk of the inventing. As anyone who has tried to create her own version of Lifehouse can testify, the main requirement for doing the job properly is a willingness to sift through the relevant sources with something approaching scholarly enthusiasm. It is quite common for Lifehouse aficionados to become cheerfully obsessed with the threads of Townshend’s vision; tirelessly arranging the clues contained in the songs, the interviews and the literary influences into ever more ambitious patterns. The result is an intense insight into the nature of free creative labour – one that can only make the experience of formal employment seem anaemic by comparison.

There is also the issue of utopia and ideology. One of Jameson’s most arresting arguments is that utopias derive much of their subversive power from their abject failure to transcend the present. However much a More, a Bacon or a Morris claims to be sketching the outlines of a plausible future, his vision is invariably rooted in his own age’s most tenacious prejudices. This is an idea which admirers of Lifehouse instinctively understand. Struggling as best they can to pin down the project’s ‘message’ (a message which might well have drifted over their heads if Lifehouse had ever been completed), they have usually come to realise that Townshend’s vision of communitarian spirituality is not so much a glimpse of tomorrow than a colourful reworking of the counter-cultural pieties of the day before yesterday. Far from showing how a more ‘turned on’ future will tackle the problem of the authoritarian state, it serves to remind us that there was once a time – not so very long ago – when thousands of middle-class idealists eschewed the path of politics and put inordinate faith in the cultivation of ‘consciousness’. If this can be disillusioning for Townshend’s most ardent admirers, it is also curiously salutary. When a utopian text turns out to be little more than a disguised portrait of the present, or so Jameson has argued, it forces us to come to terms with how impoverished our own imaginations have become. Embarrassed that a journey into the future has taken us no further than the present day, we begin to ask the sort of questions in which political commitment is ultimately rooted: Is this really all there is? Why are we satisfied with so little? How can we do things differently?

It would be silly to claim that Pete Townshend’s most important work is one he never completed. If we are interested in Lifehouse in the first place, it is only because of the titanic series of songs, records and performances, which Townshend has had no difficulty in bringing to fruition. Yet it remains the case that the great value of Lifehouse is that it forces us to confront failure. As we take our leave of it, chastened by its inability to point the way towards a workable future, we seem to hear Townshend say: ‘My utopia didn’t work. It’s up to you to do better’.

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