There's a great deal to be said for that wisdom of age which very few brash young rock-and-rollers ever achieve. Self-knowledge has allowed distinguished rock artists, from Professor Longhair to John Lennon, to grow old gracefully by supplanting weary groans with the voice of experience.
As a keyboard player for the Small Faces, Rod Stewart's Faces, the Rolling Stones and the New Barbarians, Ian McLagan has assuredly nurtured, over the last 15 years, the necessary skills for a successful solo album. Shaped with all the labor of love of the working-class ethos, McLagan's "Troublemaker" (Mercury SRM 1-3786) is an an honest sleeper.
What separates this work from the run-of-the-mill solo effort is that McLagan never uses it as an excuse for exercising his ego. He chooses to remain one of the dozen musicians employed in recording an album. "Troublemaker" never falls short of idea because McLagan establishes his identity through self-denial, sacrificing personal style to the joyous rewards of teamwork.
The album begins with a self-confident strut, "La De La," and then moves through a stretch of versaltility, every song constructed around McLagan's gravelly voice, the whisky-laced singing of a real troooper. "Little Troublemaker" swaggers with the good cheer of a polished professional, while on "Sign," McLagan's rolling piano and rumbling organ meet in a crescendo of confidence.
Embraced by the bear hugs of an accordian, "Hold On" overtly provides a spirited lark in the grand traiditon of the Stones. On "Mystifies Me," McLagan even approaches the Stones' transcendent "Moonlight Mile," urging his lover to "take all my breath away," as his organ swells, surging to an erotic climax.
At age 34, McLagan has tackled his solo project with the skill and certainty that only old-timers can possess. The album's buddy-buddy backdrop subdues any inclinations toward braggadocio, forceing McLagan to concentrate completely on the music. As if it were a hand folding into a knuckle-sandwhich, the big cast of celebrities succumbs to McLagan's organized whole.
Like McLagan, Pete Townshend, on his new solo album, "Empty Glass" (Atco SD 32-100), proves that a rock veteran can age with grace. Drums excepted, Townshend has again overdubbed himself into a band as powerful (and as meaningful) as the Who, and, in the process, has created the most vital Who album since "Who's Next."
Just as Neil Young paid his respects to Johnny Rotten on "Rust Never Sleeps," Townshend dedicates his album's opening cut "Rough Boys," to the Sex Pistols. While Billy Joel and Linda Ronstadt try to reconcile their differences with the punk sensibility by co-opting it, the venerable founder of the Who (a band that really knew how to raise ruckus about their generation) sits back, reflects upon his response to a possible New Age, and then sensibly responds to the young whippersnappers -- "I wanna bite and kiss you."
Although there is no song as quintessential as "Prue and Easy" from "Who Came First" (Townshend's previous solo album in '72), "Empty Glass" is the logical extension of that song's moment of profundity -- when Townshend holds the eternal chord, surrendering himself to the power of the sustained note ("accepting one note, pure and easy/playing so free, like a breath rippling by").
As a work of divine introspection, "Empty Glass," like a rock-and-roll prayer, conveys the essence of religious experience.
From the poetic "I Am an Animal" ("I was always here in the silence/But I was never under your eye"), through the lightweight pop of "Let My Love Open the Door," to the mock-operatic "Keep on Working," Townshend, the perfect craftsman, has constructed an intelligent expression of one's inescapable maturity.
The growth of the self (and the soul) has never been more beautifully captured on a rock album than on the concluding musical triptych of "Empty Glass." "A little Is Enough" explores the humility and tenderness of someone genuinely in love, while "Gonna Get Ya," an emphatic statement of perserverance (similar to "Won't Get Fooled Again"), refuses to be denied the sacred bliss of boundless optimism. On the title cut, heaven touches the earth. When the hard rush of the music falters and Townshend pauses to shift his voice into its falsetto range, the void is an assurance of faith, of enlightenment, of hope still alive with the possibility of a final spirituality.
In this religious age, Pete Townshend, through Meher Baba, seems to have found the truth that seekers rarely obtain. Unlike so many rock stars transformed by religion (Bob Dylan, George Harrison), Townshend does not preach to the unbelievers -- instead, he sidesteps skepticism by setting a shining example. The purity of his music speaks for itself.