At Woodstock, Pete Townshend called "My Generation" a "hymn"—but for millions of parents it was simply bad music. It started with an artless pounding of two chords, and it ended with a chaotic banging of drums and guitars. And the lyrics were even worse (not to mention the sophomoric stuttering): old people were "c-c-c-cold," were told to "f-f-f-f-fade away" (although you might initially suspect it's heading somewhere different with that "f"), and, of course, there's that doozy of a line: "I hope I die before I get old." To parents, the song was all about contempt for traditional values, disrespect for life, and mockery of the experience and wisdom that come with age. To add insult to considerable injury, the performance always ended with the smashing of a guitar.
But while parents hated it, young people went crazy for the song. It only reached #75 in the US, but "My Generation" reached #2 in Britain, and over time, it gained more and more recognition. Rolling Stone named "My Generation" the 11th greatest rock song of all time; it was also placed on the magazine's list of songs that changed rock and roll, and in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Pete Townshend didn't have such grand ambitions when he wrote it. He was only twenty at the time, and his motivations were more impish than revolutionary or diabolical. As he explained to a journalist, he was angry with the Queen Mother, who, upset by the sight of his Packard Hearse (it stirred memories of her husband's death), had supposedly ordered it towed. Over the next twenty years, Townshend would craft a more substantive explanation for the song, saying it was all tied to the alienation felt by young mods, their demand for a voice, and his own sense of displacement. "'My Generation' was very much about trying to find a place in society," Townshend eventually explained. "I was very, very lost" ("Pete Townshend," Rolling Stone, 5 November 1987, 180). But is this more full-bodied explanation just a forty-year-old's attempt to add dimension to his past? We'll let you make your own judgment there.
Roger Daltrey's stuttering also seems to have been more mindless than artistic or political. There are at least half a dozen explanations for it that circulate in the guise of analysis. Among them: the stutter was a device used to capture the anger and emotion of a troubled generation; it was intended to suggest a person on speed; Daltrey was channeling a stuttering friend whose stilted speech echoed the frustration felt by misunderstood kids; he was mocking older people who believed that kids were stupid and slow; and so on. According to Daltrey, though, the real reason is much simpler. He stuttered in the studio on early takes because he was having trouble with the lyrics, and everyone liked how it sounded.
Townshend's motivations may have been shallow, and Daltrey's stutter may have been (as his producer called it) "a happy accident," but the song took. It was embraced by the young and hated by the old. It grew into an anthem more of generational contempt than of rebellion – it was a pounding, exploding declaration of disgust for age and everything that came with it.
The only problem is that if you live life acting like you'll never get old, you might not take care of yourself quite as well as you could. As members of The Who began to suffer the consequences of their rock and roll lifestyles, the finger-wagging parents who had hated the song were able to say, "I told you so."
Townshend's hearing faded, the result of too many decibels over too many years, or perhaps due to the infamous explosion crazily engineered by drummer Keith Moon for an appearance on the American TV show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. More tragically, Moon was killed in 1978 by an overdose of Heminevrin, a drug used to ease the symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal. In 2002, bass player John Entwistle was also killed—by a cocaine-induced heart attack while partying with a Las Vegas stripper.
Roger Daltrey survived intact, but three-fourths of the legendary age-condemning band had been killed or maimed by their rock and roll lives—lives, said vindictive old folks, captured and encouraged by the hard-pounding opening chords of "My Generation."
Perhaps more surprisingly (or perhaps not), Who survivors began to sound a bit like the wisdom-peddling old folks they had formerly dismissed. Townshend, so succinct and emphatic in 1965 while making his Peter Pan pledge, tried to look sincere while explaining in 1989 (at age 44) that "old" meant "rich." It had never really been an age thing, he insisted, it was "somebody who had achieved everything and looked to anybody who was on the ladder up, you know, with an eye to kick in the mouth." True fans (aging themselves) may have bought it, but they must have found it harder to parse the learn-from-my-mistakes speech on the dangers of over-amplification offered in the same interview. Sure, rock and roll was supposed to be fun, Townshend essentially tells us, but heed the advice of your hard-rocking elder. "We've been the guinea pigs—and we can tell you the results," he said. "The results aren't very good—be careful."
Actually, in many ways Townsend's outlook and work began to evolve almost immediately after releasing "My Generation." On the very next album, A Quick One, he began toying with rock opera. The Who's next release (The Who Sell Out) was a concept album that explored commercialization. By the time The Who released Tommy (1969) and Quadrophenia (1973), they were at the forefront in exploring new applications for rock and roll.
Thematically, Townshend and The Who also moved quickly beyond the age-denouncing simplicities of "My Generation." In 1968, just three years after the hit single was recorded, Townshend suggested that the song was rooted in a peculiar sort of pressure tied to fears of impermanence. Believing that the band would not last, and that his chance to do something would soon pass, he frantically produced a "blustering kind of blurting thing." But when The Who did last, Townshend discovered an amazingly old-fashioned form of contentment: "Nothing can be better really than waking up in the morning and everything is still the same as it was the day before. That's the best thing you can have in life, consistency of some kind" ("The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend," Rolling Stone, 28 September 1968, 14).
By 1980 and the release of a solo project, Empty Glass, Townshend's music had moved from contempt for age to the typical obsessions of middle age—religion, marriage, the loss of friends. On one track, "Keep On Working," he offered a somewhat sad, but sincere, look at the small things that provide some lives with meaning.
And if your luck is in
You might have kids at play
To make you laugh and sing
When you're old and gray
By mid-life and mid-career, in other words, Townshend had turned into a different artist. Yet lurking in the past was his most famous and, for some, greatest song. His legacy, therefore, was not entirely uncomplicated.
The Who may have known they were building a problematic legacy with "My Generation" as early as 1966, when they re-recorded their hit for Ready Steady Who. Unlike earlier versions, they ended the song with a sloppy rendition of Edward Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory"—aka "Pomp and Circumstance"—the song that marches high school graduates toward adulthood year after year after year after year. The revision no doubt mocked the pie-eyed dreams each generation was supposed to carry with them as they left school. But the eternally repeated march also captured a more ironic and sobering truth: a new, younger generation is always waiting in the wings, and no matter how hard we try, no matter what oath we take, every generation gets old.
Townshend has long moved beyond a literal reading of the song, but this has not prevented many bands from enthusiastically covering it. Artists young enough to be Townshend's grandchildren pay tribute to him by pounding his opening chords and repeating his iconic lines.
Every time traveler from Captain Kirk to Dr. Emmett Brown has wondered what might happen if he bumped into a younger or older version of himself. Pete Townshend could probably tell them. Even if it's an uncomfortable experience, he can at least take solace in knowing that one of his greatest songs is being sung by serious younger musicians, such as Green Day and Oasis (in addition to some less serious ones). We're guessing that, since there will never be a shortage of young people, "My Generation" will remain alive and well, even long after we're old.