Pete Townshend

Happy Birthday

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The first of three albums in Pete Townshend's devotional trilogy to his spiritual master, the late Meher Baba. Assembled and produced by Townshend, the disc also includes contributions from poet Maud Kennedy, Ronnie Lane, Alan Cohen, Ron Geesin, and Mike Da Costa. Baba had passed in 1969, and the album, issued before Who Came First, was released on the avatar's birthday, less than a year after his death. Townshend sings Maud Kennedy's beautiful untitled poem to kick things off, accompanied only by a mandolin, an acoustic guitar, a piano, and an acoustic guitar, there is an innocence so uncharacteristic of his work, the listener gets startled by its optimism:" I am ready/to learn and to grown/I am alone with the truth/I am brave/what is there to fear/I am strong the dark supports me/I am patient/each moment of eternity/I am able to help whenever necessary." While its sentiment is simple, it is no more so than "See me/Feel me/Touch me/Heal me," from Tommy. It's a beautiful way to begin an album of devotional material. Next up is the rowdier aspect of divine inspiration in Ronnie Lane's "Evolution." Lane digs in deep with a song reminiscent of the material he recorded with the Faces, such as "Debris." It's a crazy skiffle tune that could have been penned by Bob Dylan in a drunken moment. Its story offers a tale not so much of evolution, which is the song's logical tack, but one of transformation. The protagonist begins life as a stone that becomes a blacksmith named Dan. But in another life, he is a sword that cuts like hell and kills, before rusting unto dust. Again, this sword comes back as a daisy eaten by a goat that falls in a moat. It's relative, carries the same weight. Even as a grub living in mud that becomes a butterfly and then St. Luke. Lane's humor and rough and raucous demeanor are infectious and the listener feels as if she were being treated to a song in a barroom rather than on a record of offerings to a spiritual master. Perhaps Meher Baba wouldn't have had it any other way. Lane's track is followed by a small piece by Townshend, with piano, harmonica, and strings, called "Day of Silence." It's a profound song, full of contemplative grace and sage wisdom about living everyday life. It's an invitation with a Lennon-esque pop melody -- complete with eight-bar bridge -- to step back and observe and let it all go. The more esoteric aspect of the album begins here as Alan Cohen teaches from Baba's biography with sitar accompaniment. Mike Kennedy jumps in with his own skiffle tune -- Baba must have liked skiffle -- performed by Townshend. His vocal and banjo accompaniment slips two guitars in the middle of the mix to flesh it out. Entitled "Mary Jane," you already know what it's about. It's one of the first anti-drug songs of the era. Cohen speaks again about Baba before Townshend moves back into the album's mix more firmly in control than ever before. Performing "The Seeker," with a minimal accompaniment, but it's a demo version of the song with Townshend singing with a grain in his voice that is both menacing and tired. And if it's not Keith Moon on drums, the cat's got me fooled. It's a great version, perhaps the definitive one. This is followed by Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," performed by Townshend. The reason it's included here is that it was Baba's favorite pop song. Townshend's reading is full of solemnity and the intention of performing the song straight. But he can't. Too bad Elvis Costello wasn't around then to sing it for him. But you have to give the man props for trying. His guitar playing is flawless, despite the swift key changes, and chording and time shifts. He's trying hard to feel the tine through Baba's heart, but it doesn't quite come off. It's fascinating to hear someone fail so sincerely and know it; yet he carries on until the end of the end. Ron Geesin's neo-serialist tone poem, "With a Smile Up His Nose They Entered" follows as a bizarre inclusion here before Townshend begins the close out with "The Love Man." Again, it's a demo with sweeping backing vocals, acoustic guitar, and a killer drum part -- this time whoever it is, is very fine but it isn't Moonie. This is one of Townshend's storied love songs, directed somewhere else but deep in from the guttersnipe child in his heart who finally reaches out to say hello to the "love man" who will enter his heart and transform him. It's a solid rock tune, as good as anything the man's written. A poem by Mike Da Costa officially ends the record, but Townshend's song with the pedal steel break in the middle is where it really moves off the player. There's nothing else to day; the birthday gift is complete, perfect in and of itself. As an album Happy Birthday stands the 30-plus years of time very well. While its recording quality is not state of the art, Townshend did his level best to remaster the disc with care and concern for the original sound of the record while opening its range for listeners with a digital prejudice. For the Who or Townshend collector, this is as necessary as any of the man's solo works -- despite its occasional excesses. It can be purchased only as part of the two-CD set (that contains all three of the Baba devotional albums) Jai Baba, directly from Townshend's website.

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