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Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
In these lines, Pete Townshend seems to celebrate a rural lifestyle.
The Who and Pete Townshend made their most dramatic mark on rock and roll in 1965 when they released "My Generation," which expressed a contempt for growing old. And...they still play the song when they're old. Awkward. But at the time, young people in Europe and America adopted the song as a generational anthem.
In writing "My Generation," Townshend's deepest loyalties were narrow. He counted himself among England's "mod" youth, who were identified by their tab collars, Italian shoes, and Lambretta scooters, and were dedicated to an amphetamine-hyped pursuit of experience. Townshend explained that he was primarily interested in writing a song for this young, urban, heavy-spending and pleasure-oriented group.
By 1971, though, Townshend had broadened his loyalties and reconsidered some of his values. In "Baba O'Riley," and in these lines, in particular, he endorsed a more traditional set of values. As time went on, he revisited similar ideas. In a 1980 song, "Keep on Working," he acknowledged 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
Sally, take my hand
We'll travel south cross land
Put out the fire
And don't look past my shoulder
The exodus is here
When farmer Ray tells his wife Sally that they must travel south to find their daughter, he uses Biblical language.
"Baby O'Riley" was written as the opening of a rock opera called Lifehouse, which was never completed. In that story, a farming couple named Ray and Sally decide to leave their farm and look for their daughter, who has gone in search of a place called the Lifehouse, where people are re-humanized through music. In these lines, Ray couples his encouragement to Sally with both a warning and a comparison drawn from the Bible.
The warning lies in the advice not to look over her shoulder. In Genesis, Lot tells his wife not to look over her should as they flee the sin-filled cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. She ignores the advice and is turned into a pillar of salt.
The comparison is with the Old Testament narrative of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery toward the Promised Land. In the song, Ray decides to escape his dreary life and head south in search of his daughter, but also in search of the possibilities being promised at the Lifehouse.
Only teenage wasteland
Nope, the title of the song isn't "Teenage Wasteland." But don't worry: you're one of approximately 45 million people who probably think it is.
"Baba O'Riley" is a phrase that appears exactly zero times in "Baba O'Riley." Unlike "Teenage Wasteland," which appears over and over again.
So, why the odd title? "Baba O'Riley" was written as a kind of tribute to two of Pete Townshend's biggest influences at the time: the Indian spiritual guru Meher Baba and the American minimalist composer Terry Riley.
We don't know where the "O'" comes from. Maybe Townshend thought the title needed a wee quasi-Irish twist.
They're all wasted!
Pete Townshend has explained that this line was intended as a comment on wasted lives, not "getting wasted."
It's easy to see why this line has often been pegged as a critique of a drug-dependent youth culture, but Townshend has stated that wasn't what he meant.
The line was less a reference to teens themselves than to the wasteland they inhabited.
In the rock opera that "Baba O'Riley" was to be a part of, Lifehouse, poor teenagers who can't afford to be fed entertainment through "experience suits" drive around an environmental and social wasteland in beat-up old cars, listening to music.
Townshend has also suggested that the line could be read as a critique of his generation, not because of its drug use, but because they had failed to bring about the changes they'd promised. Having set out to change the political, social, and environmental order, they had accomplished little. They had wasted their time and their opportunity to do some good.