I was going to call “Empty Glass” my favorite track on Empty Glass, but if that’s true, it’s just by the thinnest of margins over “Rough Boys,” and so it probably really is a tie. One thing is for sure, it’s the most musically exciting song on the album, probably because it has its roots as a song that was recorded for Who Are You.
That version was released as a bonus cut on a reissue of Who Are You, and you can hear why they left it off the album, as — if we’re honest, like many of the songs he was writing around that time — it just didn’t work with Keith Moon, who was the greatest drummer who ever lived, but most definitely had a lane, which was about five streets away from where “Empty Glass” was traveling.
Luckily, Pete decided to recut it and make it the title track of his solo record, because “Empty Glass” has one of the greatest lyrics Pete Townshend ever wrote.
Why was I born today?
Life is useless like Ecclesiastes say
I never had a chance
But opportunity’s now in my hands
That opening verse is set over a guitar that sounds like an powerline on overdrive, kicking off golden sparks as it zips past you. Drummer Simon Phillips & bassist Tony Butler kick in as Townshend continues, now deep into self-loathing mode.
I stand with my guitar
All I need’s a mirror
Then I’m a star
I’m so sick of dud TV
Next time you switch on
You might see me…
Oh, what a thrill for you!
The sarcasm of “Oh, what a thrill for you” is utterly withering. And yet, in 1980, turning on a TV and seeing Pete Townshend was an absolute and utter thrill for me, regardless of what he felt about it. And, of course, Pete Townshend knew this, how could he not? I’m pretty sure that at the time, I didn’t realize what a complex thing he was admitting: that our love for him didn’t fulfill him. Couldn’t, really, no matter how much he craved it.
I’ve been there and gone there
I’ve lived there and bummed there
I’ve spinned there, I gave there
I drank there and I slaved there
In this manner, “Empty Glass” was kind of a continuation of some of the themes of “How Many Friends,” “Who Are You” or even “Jools & Jim,” where he goes after a couple of Brit journalists for saying mean things about Keith Moon, but then wonders if a face to face meeting might smooth things over. I almost wrote about “Jools & Jim,” and the contradiction between the angry verses and wistful bridge, but that’s kinda what I’m writing about here, too. Contradictions.
I’ve had enough of the way things been done
Every man on a razors edge
Someone has used us to kill with the same gun
Killing each other by driving a wedge
Meanwhile, “Empty Glass” has taken it’s sweet time getting to the chorus, slowing down for the “been there, done that” verse, and speeding back up for the verse with the “doo-wops” until finally crashing into almost a full stop so he can sing the chorus in a sweet falsetto, guitars and drums and keyboards slowly swirling around his head.
My life’s a mess, I wait for you to pass
I stand here at the bar, I hold an empty glass
It’s fucking brilliant, because it can be taken both literally — it’s the fucking cover of the album, though his glass isn’t empty, which (head explodes) — but of course Townshend has said that he’s making a reference to God’s love, which in his interpretation can only be given if you approach Him with an empty glass. Either way, after the first chorus, the song explodes once again, with a furious tumbling skyrocket of a chordal guitar solo that leads into the whole song starting over, but somehow with double the intensity.
So the second time when he asks “why was I born today?” you know that he’s well and truly asking, and probably isn’t going to like any of the answers he gets. So instead, he supplies his own, on a very very very late bridge.
Don’t worry, smile and dance
You just can’t work life out
Don’t let down moods entrance you
Take the wine and shout
Which is followed by one more repetition of the chorus, before “Empty Glass” swirls to its end. Dear reader, I can’t tell you how much I love the contrast between “My life’s a mess” and “Don’t worry, smile and dance.” That was a contrast that I got and lived in 1980: the eternal battle between wondering who the fuck I am and where in the fuck am I going and figuring out ways to enjoy the moment.
And nearly 40 years later, I’m still working it out. And I’ll betcha Pete is too. Maybe even you.
“Empty Glass” promotional video
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