The Age of Anxiety – A Novel, by Pete Townshend (Hardcover; Publisher: Hachette Books; published Nov. 5 2019; 265 pp. Jacket illustration by Luis Toledo at Dutch Uncle.)

All the Aging Groovies like me out there would know the name Pete Townshend, the Pete Townshend – a.k.a. Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend, born 19 May, 1945, co-founder, leader, principal songwriter, guitarist and secondary lead vocalist of The Who, considered to be one of the most important and influential rock bands of the twentieth century. So Pete Townshend is rock royalty, he is a professional musician, a composer of rock operas, he knows music, he speaks the language. I bought this novel, looking forward to something really interesting since it is a novel, not an autobiography, nor a music history, nor a reference work.

Judging by the blurb, I thought, I’m going to get interesting thoughts about music and bands and being a professional musician. He’s got the credentials for it. Well, I had broken my own rule of not mixing up the author with their creation. The Age of Anxiety is not what I expected. It is a blend of romance and erotica, drama, mysticism, psychological mystery, art, and then also, music. Music is an important theme in the novel, but not music as you’d normally think about it. Townshend introduces a different way of describing music which makes it feel to the reader as if they were listening to someone else’s dreams or nightmares.

Problems with the narrators

I found the novel difficult to read because Townshend keeps changing the narrators and points of view, mostly keeping to a first-person narrator (“I”), but breaking the most basic rules of first-person narration: For a start, first-person narration is limited to the narrator’s experiences and awareness of what is going on, though some first-person narrators may relay dialogue with other characters or refer to information they heard from the other characters, in order to try to deliver a larger point of view. In this instance, the first-person narrator goes way beyond relaying some dialogue – he (or she, later) is practically omniscient, recalling entire streams of inner thought of the other characters, and details of events in which he or she was not involved. Exactly like a third-person narrator, in fact. A third-person narrator is an unspecified entity or uninvolved person who conveys the story and is not a character within the story, since it is just not possible for a specific narrator to be everywhere at once, like a god, why is why that voice would’ve worked much better.

The second problem with the narrators is that right at the end of the novel, in Book 3, it becomes clear that the novel is an embedded narrative. It is a story written by the male first-person narrator, “Louis Doxtader”, who is writing a novel about the events that have taken place. But in the final chapters, it gets narrated/written in turn by one of Doxtader’s lovers, the mystic “Selena Collins”, who writes what amounts to her version of the story and a long disclaimer of the whole plot. There is an uncomfortable mix-up of points of view. Why did Townshend do this? Perhaps it was to deflect attention away from his “author’s persona” so that readers will not see his personal thoughts and feelings so clearly in the novel.  Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold water.

Why conflate the narrators?

This is because he has been involved in literary ventures for more than thirty years. He has written and published essays, novellas, articles and short stories. He founded UK-based Eel Pie Publishing, specializing in projects by and about musicians, in 1975 (it was wound up in April 2012); in 1983, he took a position as an acquisitions editor for London publisher Faber and Faber (don’t know how long that lasted);  he opened a bookstore named Magic Bus (after the popular Who song) in London, wrote The Story of Tommy, about the rock opera and the making of the film; he even wrote a musical of Ted Hughes’s children’s story The Iron Man, in 1989. And so on. It’s not like he didn’t know to which authors and artists his work would be compared, and how fiction is typically structured, including aspects such as the author’s persona or voice. The Age of Anxiety may be his debut novel, rather than novella or anthology, but it will be accompanied by an opera, which is currently in development, with an art installation to follow.

I think this book is, like many of Townshend’s projects, a concept interpreted through a variety of media. The novel is, amongst other themes, about musicians, music, and art, and in it, the main protagonist, Doxtader, witnesses the creation both cutting-edge, highly conceptual art works and musical compositions. Like the fictional art in the story, this novel is meant to become something else. It is part of a creative package – the rest yet to be produced. It would in that case, be like I, Flathead – The Songs of Kash Buk and the Klownsa novella by musician Ry Cooder that is part of the liner notes for Cooder’s album with the same name, which came out in 2008.

The author’s area of speciality – music

The novel is a strange mash-up of characters, points of view, plots, meditations, and depictions of the life and performances of the creators of outsider art and rock music. In there is also a sentimental and implausible sub-plot of adoption and reuniting of adopted children and their birth parents, and the results of having sex while under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Those parts I found so unlikely and superfluous that I skipped a few sections.

“Walter”, the rocker who hears voices in his head

The parts where Townshend’s creativity and experience come through strongly and held my attention, were the depictions of “Walter”, the godson  of Doxtader, a massively successful, talented and wealthy lead singer-songwriter of a rock band, and drop-dead handsome fellow. The parts about the sales of the band’s music rights, their performances, the reactions of the crowds, etc., were interesting and consistent. Walter starts hearing sounds in his head that seem to come from the audience when he performs. Eventually that leads him to stop performing altogether and he gets this idea that the sounds are in fact the people’s thoughts. He can hear the anxiety-filled, world-weary, maddening thoughts of the population of London – perhaps of the world, hence the title of the novel.

He asks for advice from one of Doxtader’s Outsider Artist clients, a former rock star who dropped out, became a hermit, and then an artist, painting the angels he says he has seen in visions. (That is what the central figure with the halo, and the cherubs, in the book jacket illustration refer to.) Walter stays away from music for many years, and then decides to write those intrusive thoughts down and to construct an opera or a full-length composition for a concert, based on the anxiety that is infiltrating his mind. (That’s one way of addressing and dealing with your inner demons, I suppose. Could it just have been a bad case of tinnitus? Just wondering.) For that, he needs Doxtader’s help, and the input of his former band-mates and lovers.

Pete Townshend in performance with The Who (Source: thewho.com)

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”…

Which brings both the characters and the author who created them back to the age-old conundrum: how do you depict music in words? Apart from  musical notation and structure, only the decidedly basic business of prose is left to the author to depict what they are hearing in their head.

“Mitchell says anyone attempting to write a rock ’n’ roll novel is ‘on a hiding to nothing’. ‘Really great novels about music, about the music scene… there are not many at all.’ To write about music is ‘this impossible thing,’ he says. ‘There is that famous quote, that’s now pretty much a cliché, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And they are in some ways opposites. ‘Prose isn’t that good at describing music. After three or four sentences it becomes as intolerable as listening to someone else’s dreams.’ ‘TVs and cinemas have speakers. Novels don’t. Somehow when you write, you have to put a speaker into your novel, so you can hear the music.’ (Author David Mitchell, quoted in Author David Mitchell: Writing a music novel is ‘impossible’, by Rebecca Jones, Arts correspondent, BBC News, 8 July 2020).

(Many people say that quote about music was originally said by Thelonius Monk, but it is often claimed that Elvis Costello said this sentence in an interview in 1983. Specifically he said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” In any case whoever said it, back in the mists of time, it’s an observation that I can agree with.)

The language of music

If you read a music magazine like Rolling Stone, for which Townshend has written sizeable essays, you will find that it is full of depictions and descriptions most of which ordinary, non-musician people cannot grasp or appreciate. Like reading in a language which is not your mother tongue, or reading a text which is full of industry-specific slang and terminology, it means that every second word needs to be further explained if the reader wants to make a judgment call on it.

Cover of Rolling Stone, June 2020

Take this review, in the June 2020 edition (above) – I’ve put a question mark after every word or concept I don’t know or haven’t actually heard what it sounds like:

“Lil Nas X [who?] showed the seismic power of country-rap pop [?] with “Old town Road.” [?] So why shouldn’t omnivorous DJ-producer Diplo try his hand at a “country” project? He includes his double-time remix [?] of “Old Town Road”, and down-home [?] rapper Blanco Brown [who?] lends some good-naturedly doofy hick-hop [?] on “Do Se Do”. But that playful spirit is in short supply on a record where club beats, acoustic strumming, and parched guitar lines [?] usually get siphoned into unobtrusively earnest background pop. The best moment comes from Noah Cyrus, whose family has been in the country-heresy business [?] for years, throwing emo elbow grease [?] into the Nancy Sinatra-esque bop [?] “On Mine” and reminding us that no matter what genre you futz [?] with, heart and energy go a long way.” (Jon Dolan, review of Diplo’s album Thomas Wesley Chapter 1: Snake Oil)

Nope. I didn’t get it. Like with this extract, I and all the other not-so-immersed readers are destined to be confounded by the musical descriptions in The Age of Anxiety. But, on a positive note, considering what the artist, Walter, wants to create – the future operatic sounds of global anxiety about the state of the world – it could’ve gone worse.

Soundscapes depicted in words

Here is an extract, in which Doxtader first introduces Walter’s soundscape, which initially consists only of lyrics, poetry – or then, a libretto:

“And so the opera can begin, with voices, singing, and speaking, and music made from every kind of noise that man and nature ever generated, here combined. There will be an opera.
“We hear the deep vibrations of his still young mind as he begins to search inside the universe of childhood, its noise and chaos, in some hope of order, and some meaning for us all, his audience of the future, past, and here and now.
A three-year-old boy. A terrifying storm. Wind, waves, blowing gravel, trees bending and cracking, occasional small crashes as debris is blown through the air and lands nearby.  After a minute or two the storm subsides. We are left with the sound of the sea, or rather the seaside on a quiet afternoon. A beach somewhere. A few children playing. distant calls, parent to child, child to child. Seagulls of course, but also a distant radio. The sound of galloping hooves on soft sand. Thudding rhythmically, two horses, breathing hard. Jumps. The whip. Faster. Faster. Then splashing through shallow water. The horses arrive, whinny, rise on two legs, then thud down again, blow air, turn, and ride away.” (p. 64)

This was an early part of the soundscape. It eventually, after many similar passages, becomes this:

“A voice screaming over a huge PA system at some massive public event. “Welcome to the gates of hell.” Hell. The inferno. Torture. Flames. The rack. Evil laughter. Bodies being beaten, burned, thudding, falling. A ghastly choir. An electric guitar, strangled, itself tortured. A ridiculous organ. The stupid shouting of a football crowd, an Islamic horde, a Pentecostal congregation. A preacher “casting out devils”. Aspirants speaking in tongues. Crowds of people chanting angrily in many and different demonstrations. Hippy drummers, native drummers, drumming, thundering, a building anger driven by the rhythm, transmogrifying into a driving rock ’n’ roll band of the old school, playing at full tilt. The sound is huge. this is pub rock, meets pomp rock, meets garage punk, meets prog rock, meets God rock, meets road rock, meets hell-on-earth rock, meets acid, garage, rap. This massive, frightening, disturbing soundscape eventually becomes the rap-rock-pop backing track to the worse excesses of stadium rock, festival rock, heavy metal, death metal, MTV, guitar smashing, and all of that puerile shit…” (p. 238)

If you got all of that, congratulations. If you can imagine what it would sound like, even more congrats to you.

“An orchestra and a choir were onstage with the band, and behind them a huge pipe organ. Harry Watts was variously playing it or conducting the musicians who were interpreting his orchestrations of Walter’s soundscapes. The lyrics, what Walter called “the libretto”, had beautiful moments. Some of the poetry was excellent, I thought.” (p. 239)

Unfortunately, the live performance, the musical highlight of the past 16 years (that’s how long Walter took to get back to performing live) turns into a damp squib. The audience of fans wants the usual rock anthems that they know and love.

“As the orchestral music rang out, filling the park with ambitious and audacious modern orchestral music and organ cascades, Frank Lovelace looked extremely worried; the audience was not responding as he had hoped and as Steve Hanson had promised. (p. 239)

But, like with all new art, Doxtader hopes that the music moved them, even though they might not have understood it.

“I asked myself if it was possible that the soundscapes had released, confronted, and redeemed some of the anxieties they reflected, as Walter and I had talked about? Looking at the crowd, at some of the smiling and hopeful faces looking up at the stage, I felt that perhaps something wonderful and significant had happened. Had any of them seen anything like the visions I had seen?” (p. 240)

What does it take to make music?

So what I learned from this piece of fiction is that it takes more than a poet/lyricist to make music, especially opera – it requires actual music composition (using the aforementioned notation), musicians and a libretto or lyrics.  As I’ve discovered to my disappointment when messing around with Garageband, not all the loops and beats in the world can replace a good old note-by-note original composition of a melody.

In any case, the novel is not bad. It has some technical problems (the repetition of the statement “My name is Louis Doxtader” for instance; the frequent use of clichés, such as “her eyes hardened” – did they now? – and the unpronounceable name “Siobhan” – English: /ʃɪˈvɔːn/ shiv-AWN Irish: [ˈʃʊwaːn̪ˠ, ʃəˈvˠaːn̪ˠ]). And my gosh, Townshend really likes his sexpots in this story to be red-headed, pale-skinned, buxom Irish women.

Becoming an artist – A Künstlerroman

Despite being much better than many debut novels, at least in its boldness and scope, I’ve read better Künstlerromane (meaning “artist-novels”). Though Townshend includes some lyrics for the purposes of demonstrating Walter’s deep feelings and brilliance, they’re not brilliant (sorry), the exception being the lyrics written by “Siobhan”, Walter’s poet ex-wife, in the form of an Elizabethan sonnet. (p. 92) Authors must be careful when they include descriptions of art in a Künstlerroman. They had better be good, or at least, convincing, if they want to depict the artist as a Wunderkind.

As for the depiction of music in this novel, Townshend limited himself not to notation or to music terminology, but to words – many, many words, waterfalls of words, page after page of the soundscape descriptions quoted above. It makes the novel hard to read and occasionally, frustrating.

Emotional expression in music

Composers and songwriters can express emotion in music by using music’s formal structures and features, and these are old as music itself and apply to music all over the world. Emotion in a piece of music or a song can be expressed through musical form, instruments, voices, tempo, dynamics (loudness), moods, patterns and techniques. So whether the song is allegro or ritardando, it expresses an emotion, which in turn is echoed in the mind of the listener.

I was wondering, as I read this, what such a soundscape opera would actually sound like, and how – and if –  one would be able to listen to it. But let’s wait and see what comes of the operatic version of the novel. Prose, unfortunately, is a hard form with which to start expressing an artistic concept.

What is your voice like, Mr. Author?

Musicians, like other artists, sometimes branch off into other art forms such as photography, painting or writing novels. Nick Cave, for instance, has written many. Cave, like Townshend, is getting older, and, like Cave, I suspect that  Townshend is on a journey in his personal life as well as in his music. Cave sings about his love for his family, of his grief at the death of his son, of his beliefs and doubts. He sings sadly and quietly, sometimes, hopefully. But his words as well as his music are intended to make you listen. They quietly whisper in your ear. In this novel, on the other hand, Townshend depicts music which is born of rage, anxiety, losing one’s sanity, and the madness of the world as a whole. It is big and loud.

It’s a bit awkward to write so much about Nick Cave here, but it struck me how similar but also how different these two giants of the rock world are.

Cave’s latest venture is the recreation in Copenhagen of the room in which he creates music in his home in Australia, complete down to the smallest detail of books, papers and…stuff. ”Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition” is now open at The Black Diamond, Copenhagen. The exhibition will run until 13 February 2021. The information about the exhibit is from the Nick Cave website, and you can watch the trailer for the exhibition here. All his lyrics are also on his website, and I have to say, the lyrics of his latest album, Ghosteen, in particular, can really stand by themselves as poetry, “Bright Horses in particular. Mind you, “Waiting for you” is also so sad and tender and full of meaning, with such unexpected, sublime harmonies…

Preparing for Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition.

I have, in the past, stated that not all the many performing and graphic artists who have tried their hand at prose, specifically, (without the help of ghost writers or co-authors) have been successful. I’d say Nick Cave is, and also Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher, and Ethan Hawke, to mention just a few. At this point, I sure wish I had more good things to say about The Age of Anxiety, knowing how very hard and soul-mangling it is to create a novel, but I’ll have to wait to see how else Townshend realizes the apocalyptic vision that he describes in the novel.

As David Mitchell said, “Prose isn’t that good at describing music. After three or four sentences it becomes as intolerable as listening to someone else’s dreams.” This is The Age of Anxiety in a nutshell – it’s like listening to someone else’s dreams, as confusing, and eventually, as difficult to appreciate.


About the header:

I think the central angelic figure on the front jacket of the book depicts to the visions and paintings of former rocker and now artist “Nikolai Andréevich”, known as “Old Nik” – an odd play on the name for the devil, Old Nick. I completed the figure and added a halo. While thinking of the “angel” combined with Old Nick, and those final hellish soundscapes that Walter came up with, I produced the design on the right.

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