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The bootlegs never hinted at the breadth and depth of Pete Townshend's aborted, now-mythological Lifehouse. The demos, which have circulated for nearly 30 years, were just that -- sparse, shadowy approximations of songs that would go on to appear on Who's Next (all the old golden-oldies were there, from "Baba O'Riley" to "Won't Get Fooled Again" to "Behind Blue Eyes") and a few other Who releases. They sounded familiar in illicit demo form, but not yet fully shaped -- Pete Townshend's children, still wearing their baby fat and still walking on stubby, shaky legs. Yes, we diehard acolytes had heard of Lifehouse, though we had no idea what it was -- a record, a movie, something else entirely. Even Townshend, who proselytized about it to anyone with a tape recorder, lost sight of his original vision. So Lifehouse died, got chopped up, its bits parceled out to other records.
But 30 years on, it surfaces once more, in no less than a grandly packaged six-disc boxed set available only through Townshend's Web site (www.eelpie.com) for $87. And, no, it's still impossible to tell quite what Lifehouse is about, even if discs five and six contain in its entirety the BBC Radio play, performed December 4, 1999 (the nifty booklet included with the package even contains the script, which is lucid and absolutely impenetrable). But that's hardly the point: The collection is worth owning not for some story about futuristic humans plugged into a life-galvanizing, music-providing Grid, but for Townshend's music. Discs one through four are revelatory, thrilling, astonishing, heartbreaking, and confounding all at once. Listen only to the version of "Teenage Wasteland" that opens the first disc: Before Townshend got synth-happy, "Baba O'Riley" was a piano-heavy ballad that sounds like something meant instead for Quadrophenia; it's beautiful, intimate, the warmest thing Townshend ever laid to tape -- a plea instead of a warning cry.
Discs one and two contain the original Lifehouse demos, including several songs written for Who Are You. Disc four is Townshend's "classical" album: The London Chamber Orchestra performs material by the likes of Scarlatti, Purcell, and, yes, Townshend ("Baba" turns into a symphony, and nothing on Tommy ever came so close to heaven). Disc three, in some ways the most essential, features new takes on oldies: "Who Are You" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" get the remix treatment, sounding at once familiar and alien -- imagine The Who getting worked over by Primal Scream. A whole career awaits him, turning arena-rockers into dance-floor ass-grinders. He never again need strap on the guitar and play dinosaur. The man can still shove yesterday toward tomorrow.