A Conversation with Pete Townshend
The publicity shy genius behind the Who puts down his guitar- and his defenses- for some very personal talk about superstardom, fascism, American women, spiritual sex, Tommy, Quadrophenia, and his fanatic fans.
It was 1965 and rock was young. The British Invasion had just captured America's ear, but three very different acts had already emerged as top dogs. The Beatles were lovable mop tops with a knack for harmony. The Rolling Stones were the bad-boy darlings of the decadent set. And the Who were the destructive band that smashed guitars and booted drums across the
stage. The notorious Who left a trail of savaged hotel rooms, mangled limos and boozy brawls behind them. The Who respected nothing but the raw energy of adolescence and loud music. Best of all, their leader was a sour-faced, 19 year old genius named Pete Townshend, who almost single-handedly created the fiercest rock-'n-roll repertoire ever.
Fifteen years and one casualty later (in 1978, Keith Moon, 31, succumbed to excesses), the Who are STILL the world's premier rockers. And at 34, Pete Townshend refuses to f-f-f-fade away. His patented windmill chops at the guitar and his frenzied acrobatics continue to electrify enormous crowds. His songs- My Generation, Magic Bus, Substitute, Pinball Wizard and Won't Get Fooled Again, to name just a few- are still furiously greeted as youth anthems. The stampede at a recent Who sellout in Cincinnati was tragic testimony to the potent Who/Townshend mystique.
In addition, Townshend's ongoing experiments at fusing rock and other living arts have been adventurous. And brilliant. Tommy stands as the most coherent rock opera recorded. And the Who-produced Quadrophenia is being bruited as an Oscar nominee. Pete Townshend clearly believes that a man's rock should exceed his grasp.
He definitely prefers to be left alone by the press and the world at large. Since his days as a rebellious Mod dandy, Townshend's stock-in-trade has been contemptuous silence, punctuated by bursts of musical inspiration. It's never changed much for the better. If you wanted to know how Pete Townshend felt about mixing politics and rock, you climbed onto the stage the way Abbie Hoffman did at Woodstock in 1969. And got answered with the end of a Stratocaster upside your head.
OUI correspondent David Rothman, who we suspect has already sustained many knocks upside the head, interviewed Townshend during a recent visit to New York. Rothman reports: "Pete Townshend can appear hard and tough on album covers, in concert and on film, but one to one, he's gentle and soft-spoken. You get the idea that he has no real comprehension of the fact he's a hero to millions of kids, young and old. When he walked into the hotel lobby, my first impression of him was: shy, vulnerable and not at all arrogant. I think I came away with the most intimate interview Townshend's ever given."
OUI: Was it just coincidence that both The Kids Are Alright and the film version of Quadrophenia came out in the same year? Or were they intended as memorials to Keith Moon?
PT: It wasn't planned that they come out in the same year. Maybe Keith had an amazing sense of timing, or something's going on higher up, because what these two films do is tie up, once and for all- fully, totally exploit, wring out and wring dry- everything that the Who ever did. We're almost at the point at which the Who are going to produce their next major creative piece. All this stuff will be gone and done, and the old Who will be - dare I say it?- buried. So, in a way, it's a good thing. We're up against the wall again.
OUI: A lot of people don't want the Who to become something else.
PT: Sure, and it's not just the older, fanatic fans of the band who are resistant to change. I know there's a lot of kids, really young kids, who don't want the band to change, because they missed the band the first time around. I get letters saying, "Listen. I'm fucking fourteen years old. My big brother's been telling me about the band for five years, and now you grow too fucking old to work. Get off your ass and get over here so that I can see you." Happens all the time. They don't wanna see the procrastination of a maturing rock star. They wanna see the performance as it was.
OUI: How is life without Keith Moon?
PT: It's great fun. Kenny (sic) Jones [Keith Moon's replacement] has been a tremendous blood transfusion. Not just as a player- 'cause he's different from Keith, very much a fundamental backbone drummer- but he's a much positive individual. Keith was a very positive musician, a very positive performer, but a very negative animal. He needed you for his act, on and off stage. Kenny fits in very well as a person with the other guys in the band.
OUI: Do you still enjoy being onstage?
PT: I still enjoy being on the stage once I'm out there, but I don't need to do it. I don't need it in the same way that Roger and John, and maybe even Kenny, need to do it. I could live without it. But it's fun. When I get on the stage, it's not like making the best out of a bad situation; it's like I know how not to make a bad situation out of what once could have been a crisis. The Who have gone through a fucking hell of a period of crisis. When Keith was alive, there was a time when I just didn't know what we were gonna do. It consumed me. I spent most of me time worryin' about the group; worryin' about my role in the group; worryin' about whether we should tour or not; worryin' if we did tour, it would kill Keith or kill me; worryin' if we should try and crack through all of the old stuff we've been doing. I became terribly self-conscious and self-obsessed with the band and the band' s past. It's all gone now. It has all definitely gone. In a way it's quite weird, because I feel it's gone tot he extent that we can actually go and do a lot of stuff without worryin' about it too much.
OUI: Why is that?
PT: I don't know quite what it is, but it's something like a great expunging of problems has occurred with Keith's death. Obviously, we all need to see a purpose in his death or use a positive result from it. But even if we were reading things into what was really just a tragic event, I still don't think we should have got quite the kind of result we've got at the moment. We seem to have a clean break, and I feel I can just go on the stage and do what the fuck I like. Still a little tied down to the old stuff, but I think we can get over that, get past it- get past the history.
OUI: What do you have to say about Quadrophenia?
PT: We produced it, and it is English director Franc Roddam's first feature. It's not based on the music of Quadrophenia, but on the story of a kid from Shepherd's Bush named Jimmy, and the trouble he has with the other kids on the street and his family and all that stuff. What's great for me about Quadrophenia is there's nothing to explain. It's just a straight story that everybody understands. So much of the talking that went on about Tommy was trying to fill in holes.
OUI: Quadrophenia's pretty much every rocker's life then?
PT: Oh, yeah. I get lots of letters from people who identify with it, which is weird, because the hero is quite manufactured. Of course, not quite to the extent that I manufactured archetypal heroes for songs in the past.
OUI: I recall an old Who song called Tattoo, which is about kids getting tattoos so they can look tough. Was that manufactured, or was that based on experiences from your childhood?
PT: When I was eleven or twelve, street guys always had a mass of tattoos down one arm. You really felt, "Jesus, that's gonna to happen to me sometime." It was such a relief when I finally got to be sixteen or seventeen, and you didn't have to do that anymore. There were marches for Ban the Bomb and against nuclear war that was impending. Bigger issues than
going down to the Fun Fair and standin' there with your arm covered with tattoos listening to Elvis Presley records. My characters are all slightly manufactured, you can't constantly go on writing about your experiences and your own feeling. You can write from them, and sometimes you have to disguise it, I suppose.
OUI: Why are there so many bad rock-'n-roll movies?
PT: Is that question pointed at me? (Laughs) Possibly because rock-'n-roll writers and performers don't make the films. If I took three years out of my career to make a film, I could make a fucking great film. But I haven't got the time. Directing films is a lot tougher than most people think. That could be a reason.
OUI: So many rock bands seem to be really self-centered about doing films. You're responsible for a couple, so . . .
PT: What were they?
OUI: Tommy, The Kid's Are Alright, Quadrophenia.
PT: The Kids wasn't our film. Kids was made by a guy named Jeff Stein.
OUI: How do you feel about it?
PT: It was all right. And Tommy was made by Ken Russell. Still, even today, I wouldn't be afraid to make a film based on Tommy, anymore than I'd be afraid to make a film about anything I've ever done. I think it's quite natural that I should continue to be involved in things I've done in the past. I worked for two months at the beginning of the year putting on a stage show of Tommy in London. I loved every minute of it. I'm not saying it was a great new creative work, but I adored it. Everybody calling one another "darling." Those people are going out to sell a show, but not for five nights at the fucking Garden. They're going for twenty years. Jesus Christ Superstar has been at The Palace, a West End theater, playin' every single night for the last five, six, seven years.
OUI: So a film has to be more timeless?
PT: Yeah. In our case, obviously the Who have always been very, very self-conscious. But I don't think there's anything different in making a film about yourself, which again, I must insist we didn't do. WE didn't make that film; somebody else made it. We HAPPENED to be unlucky enough to pay for it. But what's the difference between doing that and talking about yourself in an interview? Justifying your work? Analyzing it? Discussing it? Tearin' it to pieces? Puttin' it back together again? Where's the difference? Just as narcissistic. What is it anyway that makes somebody go onstage and fling their arms about? What makes people think that because they can write a song and put it on record, that it's important for people to hear it? You need some sort of queer, weird ego to do that in the first place.
OUI: Do you qualify?
PT: Yeah, I reckon.
OUI: Maybe we all do.
PT: I don't even know if it's possible to make good rock-'n-roll films, because rock, when it happens, falls very firmly in two areas. Falls into the record area, where you're almost alone with the music. There's a straight line between whoever is in the studio and the thoughts of the
person who wrote the song. A direct line. It's really quite uninterrupted. You're hearin' exactly what they wanna say. And the other side of it is performance, where the music is the only thing that is necessary. You can almost do without the band, and you can almost do without certain sections of the audience. They're both different experiences, and yet they're both a big part a big part of the rock. I don't think films about music- unless they're films about concerts or musical events- have actually found their place. I think 2001 is a rock film. I came out of there feeling it could have been a rock concert. But calling it rock might be a bit . . . stupid.
OUI: Did the cover of Who's Next have anything to do with 2001?
PT: Yeah, it was meant to be a sort of gag when we pissed up against the monument. It meant that when we asked Stanley Kubrick to direct Tommy, he said, "Fuck you." Got any other great questions?
OUI: Yeah. I saw a great piece of graffiti on the way over from Brooklyn: FREE YOUR MIND AND YOUR ASS WILL FOLLOW.
PT: Last piece of graffiti I saw was in a pub at the top o' my street. Over the toilet somebody had written: PETE TOWNSHEND IS A CAPITALIST PIG.
OUI: Is he?
PT: Of course he is. But he wears a red scarf.
OUI: What difference does that make?
PT: Well, the last interview I did was with a guy from Look magazine. He was tellin' me, in SoHo, there's this new scarf language. I was wearin' this scarf [points to a long red scarf draped over a chair] because it's red . .
OUI: Everybody knows you are a capitalist?
PT: Yeah. But it means socialist in Britain. He was sayin' that if you wear your scarf like that [throws his scarf over his left shoulder, then his right] it means one thing- he didn't quite know what the meanings were- but if you flip it over that way, it means you're into feet or water sports; and if you tie it with a flourish, it means you're into something else. So, in my case, it means I'm a capitalist socialist.
OUI: How do you feel about being a member of the new aristocracy?
PT: It bothers me a little bit, because it bothers my family and a few of the people around me- it's intimidating. I feel pretty ordinary, if not VERY ordinary. It's an interesting question; Why is that people who can already communicate quite effectively through writing songs and being in a band and going into a studio . . . why do they need to go onstage, walk in front of an audience, throw their arms in the air, receive the cheers of the people? The star bows, accepts the applause, and yet he has no clue as to whether or not those people in the crowd have actually received his message the way he intended them to receive it. If, indeed, he had a message.
OUI: Do you really have anything important to say?
PT: What tends to happen is that you feel you've got something important to say, because somebody says it's important. I've long, long gone past the time when I think I've got anything to say. When I was nineteen or twenty, I really felt I had something to say that would . . . could . . . not change the world . . . but I really felt I had to speak up, I had to act. Now, to be quite frank, I don't give a shit. I just wanna be happy and enjoy the people around me and try to enjoy life.
OUI: What are you listening to these days?
PT: The stuff I listen to goes across a very broad spectrum. I can only stand listening to people who have got something hidden, or something vital, that they wanna get out, for a limited amount of time. I can listen to a lot of Bruce Springsteen at the moment. But strangely enough, if I want to hear somebody's mental processes at work, I prefer listening to four hours of Keith Jarrett, whom everybody's pouring shit on at the moment.
OUI: If you had your way, what kind of album would you must want to do?
PT: An album with me sitting in a room, struggling to get a song together, going through ideas and various musical things, and throw a few scribbled bits of paper like that into an album jacket [pointing to a couple sheets of notes torn from my notebook], rather than do the kinds of things we end up doing. But it wouldn't work. It would work at one level, but it wouldn't work totally.
OUI: What do you think of rock that appears devoid of deep meaning?
PT: Some of the people in the rock business- Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Kiss- appear to be quite empty-headed, but, in fact, they're very consciously saying, "Fuck all the intellectual stuff. We're just having a good time." A big chunk of rock 'n' roll is that, and should be that, and should remain that. In a way, that's what the Who always aspired to, but was never able to do. We were always too unhappy . . . at loggerheads with one another's ideas. There's a difference between disagreeing with somebody and respecting them, and disagreeing with 'em and thinking they're shit. The first eight years of the Who were like that. Very, very, very unhappy times. Most of it. And if they were happy, it was explosive happiness.
OUI: A lot of people think that produced some of your best music.
PT: I'm sure it did. That kind of tension always does. But a human being can only stand so much of that.
OUI: Would you like to tour Russia or China?
OUI: Why not?
PT: Dunno. I'd like to go to China. 'Cause really I'm not a capitalist pig; I'm a socialist pig. I run one of the few real musicians' co-ops that exist in the U.K.
OUI: What is that?
PT: I give half my money to it. The other half goes to taxes. What would I learn? There's no rock 'n' roll in China.
OUI: That's why I asked.
PT: Again, I think I'm a socialist rather than a communist. I believe that money is a necessary measure of people's endeavor. It's a standard that's used. When the money becomes something which controls and turns and motivates in its own right, then it becomes bad. That's an aspect of capitalism and Western society that I don't like. I'm not saying I can do anything about it, but I try to avoid bowing to it too much.
The place the Who get asked to play the most now is Japan. I'm not very keen on going there. It's too fucking far away.
OUI: You're perhaps the most famous victim of rock-'n'-roll eardrum. Has your reputed hearing loss changed your music?
PT: Three years off of the road has helped it to recover a little bit. We're playin' a lot more quietly on the stage, and that helps a lot, 'cause I don't come off with such a high ringing and don't feel any pain. In late '76, I was actually feeling pain on the stage. I've got one ear which is damaged. It can't resist certain frequencies. It's got no muscle or hairs in the ear to do anything with those frequencies; so the sound goes right to the eardrum, and it's quite painful.
OUI: Do you think it's hurt your performance?
PT: Our shows have been all right so far. We're trying to keep the level down onstage. Rock bands are just gonna have to realize that they're gonna have to pull their sound down a bit; otherwise, they're gonna deafen all their prospective customers. If you come out of concert and your ears are ringing, you have suffered a degree of hearing loss. That's what that ringing means. What kid that goes to a rock concert has never experienced that, maybe for days? And if your ears continue to ring, you are deaf at the frequency at which your ear is ringing. It's a crude way of putting it, but my ears are going [he makes a horrible buzzing noise] all the time.
OUI: How do you compensate for it?
PT: One doctor advised me to learn how to lip-read. I said, "You can't be serious!" He said, "Learn to lip-read." As it happens, I can already lip-read, 'cause on the stage we do it to communicate with the sound man. This doctor said, "There's a possibility, if you go on the way you're going, that you could be deaf by the time you're forty." I said, "Listen, I'm only thirty-three. You're tellin' me that I could be completely deaf in SEVEN years?" "Yes," he said, "it's a possibility. The only other thing you can try to do is conserve your hearing." He said I'll definitely be deaf by the time I'm fifty. Totally deaf. And I just started to think, I'm a musician, but most of all, I love music. I love listening to it. I like hearin' what people are sayin'. And I started to think quite seriously that I'd prefer to be blind than deaf. People chuck platitudes about Beethoven, but at least he could write music. I can't write fucking music. So I'm just crossin' my fingers. Maybe I'll get hit by a truck. Won't be a problem.
OUI: Why aren't there more top female rock artists?
PT: 'Cause they ain't got no balls. Seriously, though, it's changing a bit now, isn't it? In the U.K., there are some really good female artists. Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Girls, and the Pretenders are great. I wouldn't call Blondie rock artists, but they're quite good.
OUI: I mean female artists who have been doing it as long as you have, or even half as long.
PT: I don't know. I never liked Janis Joplin, for example. As a woman, she was great. But I never liked her voice very much. Too raspy for me. Anyway, did you know that ninety-five percent of the Who's record buyin' audience is male?
OUI: So the Who is rock for men only?
PT: We've done concerts where I'm sure there wasn't a woman in the house. Maybe one. It doesn't really matter, 'cause a Who concert's a bit like a football match, anyway. There's a lot about heavy rock that's very macho, and it doesn't appeal to a female sensibility. If I do get letters from women, it's often about stuff I did on me solo album [Who Came First] or some of the lighter material we've done. Softer things. It's not to say that women are always soft and don't get into the raunchier thing, but they look at it from a different angle.
OUI: Does that mean women don't make good rockers?
PT: From the performing side, it seems to me that a lot of women in rock have been forced into it in some way. Maybe it's because, if you're auditioning drummers for a rock band and five women turned up, you'd give up the idea of havin' a group. There's nothing worse than a female drummer. There's a helluva lot of sexism in that, just like there is in everything else.
OUI: Are you sexist?
PT: Seems to me that something is changing. There a re more female leaders. And when a woman gets into a position of being a leader- not just in government or executive positions in companies or running their own companies, but even on smaller levels, like running charities or spiritual organizations- there's something different about the way she operates. In my own life, I haven't got a father figure, apart from me dad, to turn to for advice. I've got a mother figure, an old lady I really respect, who lives near me in Richmond. If I've got a really heavy problem, I go to her and talk about it. My lawyer is a woman. My wife is a woman. My mother is a woman. England's prime minister is a woman. India's prime minister was or is a woman. Things are changing. I don't think anybody can yet rationalize or understand how the world is gonna to change, but I feel reasonably happy about it at the moment. Maybe America has got a stronger male vanguard that only expects to get answers from other men.
OUI: So what's your opinion of American women?
PT: It's very different here than it is in Europe. In Britain, to this day, when you go out to a bar and you wanna score with a woman, you have to do it in ninety percent of the cases. In my experiences in this country, I have never been- what do they call it?- the person that goes out to do it. As a result, not much has happened. I think that says something about American
women. But it's absurd to make generalizations. You go thirty miles in any direction, and you find a completely different kind of person. People are different everywhere. Women are different everywhere.
OUI: That's a very dull opinion to give to a men's magazine.
PT: I don't buy 'em anymore. I've transcended skin magazines. Soft, hard, and anything in between. Seriously, that's a big fucking achievement.
OUI: So what's better?
PT: Doing without.
OUI: How did you "transcend" all that?
PT: When I was 28 or so, I was always very attracted to sex on paper, sex at a distance. Not dealing with the actual business of it, the human side of it. The fact is that when two people get engaged in a sexual relationship, it's the tightest, most incredibly powerful thing, if you take it to a spiritual level- which might seem slightly out of place in OUI. If you can imagine for a second that even beneath the most beautiful body there is a soul- that when two beautiful bodies are attracted to one another on the surface, their souls get caught up as well. The bodies can move apart, but the wrench- that happens to you inside. I don't think the feeling after a casual relationship is a good feeling. Safe, paper sex serves you that terrible pain afterward. It also saves you gettin' damaged or hurt. Not sayin' this to justify it, or knock it, either. I'm just sayin' that for me, that was one of the reasons why I felt I had to try to become aloof from it. If I was ever gonna to be a man in my own terms morally- be able to hold my head up under my own book of rules, which is not necessarily to go around with a chastity belt on- I had to deal with what was really happening to me.
OUI: Well, it is pretty hard to live on sex magazines alone.
PT: I didn't live on magazines alone. But there's somethin' about bein' in a trench or in a Holiday Inn in Des Moines that makes those magazines quite handy sometimes.
OUI: Aren't you a backer of the Rock Against Racism movement?
PT: I am, and I've got this recording studio called Musician's Co-op, which people use in a community way. Sometimes they pay me money, but usually it's free, because I like their music or what's involved or whatever. There was a band called Mystic, a British reggae band, and they have a community of their own called People Unite. They were based in Southall, which has a lot of Asians, Africans and West Indians mixed in with the whites. There's a lot of tension there- occasional fights and things like that.
Mystic came to my studio and worked for about two weeks. They're Rastafarians and smoke joints like this long [spreading his arms about three feet wide]. This one guy in the band really impressed me- a guy called Clarence. See, when they'd come into the studio, they wouldn't just have the band record; they'd have apprentices there as well. About five guitar players pickin' away. I was deeply impressed with the way they lived. My spiritual principles prohibit the dope, but at the same time, they seemed to respect my spiritual stance, and I had to respect theirs. Then I hear that one of the group is in the hospital with brain damage, that somebody had put an iron bar through his skull during a riot against the Fascist national Front. I thought. "Please, God, may it not be Clarence." Because without him, this whole group of two or three hundred people in the area- young kids and families, who all depended on this band for a living and a raise on debts and everything- would be fucked. It was him. So I've decided that I'm gonna stand up and get counted. I think fascism stinks. And I'm gonna go onstage and say so. And I'm a bit scared. Not for me. I'm scared for my family, and the people around me.
OUI: Heavy talk for a guy not known for political convictions.
PT: My grandfather, and his father before him, and my father, all fought in a war against fascism. We lost uncles, we lost brothers, we lost all kinds of people. Hundreds of thousands of people. In Britain, just as in New York, there's a strong Jewish community. About half of my friends are Jewish. I know how they feel about the last war. And to see that we've allowed a fucking party to reproduce itself. And yet, I don't wanna deny anybody their right rights. But if the National Front can say, "Send the niggers back to wherever" and "Send the Jews back to wherever" and "Send the Asians back to Uganda," then I can say, "That attitude STINKS." And I think the phrase Rock Against Racism is much more universal and powerful than a lot of people realize.
OUI: Weren't you personally responsible last year for the giant Rock Against Racism benefit in London?
PT: I made some phone calls, but everybody I rang in the music business was right there. Their position was quite clear. With rock, you're on the front line. You represent the sharp edge of a lot of people's ideas. Ten years ago, I had a stand-up row with Abbie Hoffman about politics and rock. I said, "No way am I ever gonna let politics get on the stage of a rock-'n '-roll concert. It's got fuck-all to do with it." Now I'm startin' to think maybe I was wrong.
OUI: Do you want to say something to Abbie Hoffman, who may be reading this?
PT: No, no. I don't want him comin' up onstage again. I'll still kick the fucker off.