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Pete Townshend's Operatic Highs... And Lows

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Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia By Richie Unterberger Jawbone Press, 300 pp., $19.95

Following the release of The Who's ambitious rock opera, Tommy, Pete Townshend was faced with the inevitable question of any band cresting on a massive success: What's next? As ambitious, erudite and visionary a performer as any in rock (or any other genre), he began formulating concept for another epic tale, this one to encompass a record, a film and live performance, called Lifehouse.

He began talking up the piece - yet to be written - in a flurry of interviews from the most esteemed of music journals to seemingly local weekly shoppers. The vaguely sci-fi concept and storyline - which seemed to shift daily - dealt with gurus, a runaway daughter, the current state of rock, and the connection became human existence and music via something called a "one pure note" which could deliver listeners to ecstasy.

The problem was, the only person who seemed to understand Lifehouse was Pete Townsend - and even he wasn't so sure. Four decades later, he's still not.

Unterberger's book - very detailed and not for the casual Who fan - chronicles how the aborted piece eventually led to what many believe was the band's greatest record and a classic-rock cannon - Who's Next, which included many songs originally slated for Lifehouse ("Won't Get Fooled Again," "Baba O'Riley," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Bargain," "Going Mobile").

After the collapse of Lifehouse, Unterberger tells how the band embarked on...another rock opera..., which became the well-received Quadrophenia. A nostalgic (though not warm) revisit to both the band's past and the culture of Mods, its young protagonist, Jimmy (meant to exhibit four distinct characteristics of the real-life Who members), stumbles through trying to bridge between youth and adulthood.

That album spawned familiar numbers "The Real Me," "5.15," and "Love Reign O'er Me," but the ensuing U.S. concert tour played to audiences not familiar yet with either the record of the concept of the Mod subculture, as well as the band's own trouble melding pre-recorded music with live performance, was hit and miss. A better effort of telling the story was the atmospheric 1979 film adaptation, wholly different from bombastic cinematic take on Tommy.

And though Townsend has consistently revisited and rethought the idea of Lifehouse - including issuing a limited edition 6-CD and 2-CD set of demos, playing concerts, adapting it into a radio play, and even offering online software where people could created a musical "portrait" - it remains for all intents and purposes unfinished as a whole and one of rock's great "what if" questions.

But hey, if Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys could eventually complete and release Smile...

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