The Who released their final album with Keith Moon as drummer – Who Are You – on August 18, 1978. Just less than three weeks later, Moon was to die of a drug overdose. In a 1989 interview, Pete Townshend said, “What I decided to do after Who Are You (and Moon’s death) was perhaps take the opportunity to leave the Who completely.
Most people thought I shouldn’t do that … yet at the same time, people were saying that this was my opportunity to develop as a solo artist. Basically, I think I made the wrong decision – I decided to make Who records and solo records alternatively. What I was gonna do was take whatever songs were available after the Who albums use them. ‘Empty Glass’ was a song we did with the Who that didn’t work for them.”
Released in April of 1980, Empty Glass – sandwiched between Who Are You and 1981’s Face Dances (with ex-Faces Kenney Jones) – is Townshend’s first solo album of original material* and it’s a fine (and somewhat revelatory) album. It is also to some extent Pete’s reaction to the punks who thought of him as an old fuddy-duddy. That said, there’s nothing remotely punk about this album except Townshend’s dedication of “Rough Boys” to the Sex Pistols (and, interestingly, his daughters.)
Of the album’s title, Townshend said this: “I called it Empty Glass, ’cause of this idea that when you go to the tavern – which is to God, you know – and you ask for His love – He’s the bartender, you know – and He gives you a drink, and what you have to give Him is an empty glass. You know there’s no point giving Him your heart if it’s full already; there’s no point going to God if your heart’s full of Doris.” So, there’s that.
The reason I said the album is revelatory is due to the fact that the very first song – “Rough Boys” – is Townshend’s confessional song to being gay or at least, bisexual.**
Townshend again: “[The song} was almost a coming-out, an acknowledgment of the fact that I’d had a gay life, and that I understood what gay sex was about. It was about violence in a lot of senses. It leans very heavily into the kind of violence that men carry in them.” (Question – was Pete trying to undercut or even subvert his own message by having two women on the cover?)
If you know any other song from this album as likely as not it’s “Let My Love Open the Door” which was a pretty good hit for Pete. Despite its sounding like a song about a lover, it’s really a song “about spiritual redemption. … Most of my songs are about Jesus. Most of my songs are about the idea that there is salvation. But I won’t mention His name in a song just to get cheap play.” (Anybody who knows Townshend’s long history with spirituality in general and Meher Baba, in particular, shouldn’t be at all surprised.)
“Cat’s in the Cupboard” is arguably the most Who-like track on the album. Some might wish to hear Roger Daltrey’s voice on this. I dunno. I’ve always liked Pete’s high-pitched voice singing his own lyrics as a diversion. BTW, Tony Butler of the band Big Country plays bass on this album and that band’s drummer Mark Brzezicki plays on one tune.
I always seem to discover one interesting factoid whenever I do these posts. Townshend: “I wrote another song about homosexuality for that album called ‘And I Moved.’ Which I wrote for Bette Midler to sing. She said, “Somebody’s gotta write me a song for a real woman,” and I said something like “The way to write a song for a real woman is to write a song for a real man and you can sing it!”
And I moved
And his hands felt like ice exciting
As he laid me back just like an empty dress
And I moved
But a minute after he was weeping
His tears his only truth.
And I moved
But I moved toward him
*Pete released an album in 1972 called Who Came First consisting of demos from the aborted Lifehouse which became the much-lauded Who’s Next. Both Ronnie Lane and Elton John’s guitarist Caleb Quaye played on it.
**Not to make too much of Townshend’s sexuality one way or the other, but I have the whole interview with Townshend where he mentions that both “Rough Boys” and “And I Moved” are about homosexuality. But he later tried to walk it back in an interview saying the earlier interviewer connected dots incorrectly. Nope, it’s all there on the page, Pete. Own it. I know that’s easy for me to say. But hey, you’re a rock star, not a fucking accountant. We expect a little androgyny.
Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; ClassicRock. Rock Lives by Timothy White.