This article was originally published in February 1994.
A candid conversation with the wizard of rock about life with the who, bisexuality in music, “tommy” on broadway and, of course, how to smash a guitar
In a row house in a working-class London neighborhood 40 years ago, a young boy was given a clarinet by his father. The boy failed miserably on the instrument. Had he succeeded, he might never have tried the guitar a few years later, and we might still be listening to Paul Anka, wearing butch wax hairdos and believing everything our parents and politicians told us. The boy was Pete Townshend, and he has had as much to do with hard, pure, angry, irreverent, loud rock and roll–and all that it wrought–as anyone else.
Townshend became the leader of the Who, the band rock historian Greil Marcus claims “represented the very spirit of rock and roll.” A quick list of the Who’s best songs is testament: “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Magic Bus,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Baba O’Reilly,” “Who Are You,” And from “Tommy,” the classic rock opera, “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and the haunting “See Me, Feel Me.”
If the Who was rock and roll’s spirit, the spirit of the Who was Townshend, who has remained a vital force since the group disbanded in 1982. Indeed, this has been a remarkable decade for Townshend. He co-produced “The Who’s Tommy,” which opened on Broadway in 1993 and won five Tonys, including one for Townshend’s musical score, and the Drama Desk award for the best musical. The production looks as if it will run, sold out, for the foreseeable future. Frank Rich, in “The New York Times,” wrote, “Tommy is at long last the authentic rock musical that has eluded Broadway for two generations.” The original cast recording– produced by George Martin, who also produced the Beatles’ albums–was released, and the original version of “Tommy” by the Who was re-released. And Townshend wasn’t only repackaging his classic Who material, either; he debuted “Psycho Derelict,” an infectious collection of songs built around a play. With a new band and a cast of actors, he took “Psycho Derelict” on a sold-out tour through the U.S., and it aired as a pay-per-view television broadcast.
Townshend was born in London just as World War Two ended. Both of his parents were musicians–his father played sax and clarinet with the Squadronaires, a Royal Air Force band, and his mother was a singer. To make ends meet between gigs, they ran an antique shop.
After being inspired by the music he heard in church as a boy, Townshend joined the school Dixieland band and played banjo. When he switched to guitar, he teamed up with schoolmates John Entwistle, who played bass, and Roger Daltrey, who sang, in a band. Drummer Keith Moon joined up later, and by 1964 the group, named the Who, was packing clubs in London. The band’s first record was released the next year, and the Who took the U.K. and then America by storm.
Keith Moon’s debauched antics got the most press attention, and Roger Daltrey’s yellow curls and golden voice helped the group win pop appeal. But it was Townshend who defined the Who. He wrote the songs and his live performances were epic. He leapt into the air, his right hand sweeping in a full windmill and crashing into the strings of his guitar until his fingers were bloody. Before a Who concert would end, Townshend would be likely to destroy his guitar, amplifiers and anything else in his path.
The Who released a series of now-classic albums and toured constantly. The band played Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival, and “Tommy” was performed by the London Symphony. There was a “Tommy” film, which featured Elton John, Tina Turner and Jack Nicholson, and two Who films that remain cult favorites:”Quadrophenia,” starring Sting, and the band’s rockumentary, “The Kids Are Alright.” But, perhaps as an inevitable result of all the anger and fury that the band represented, there was also tragedy.
In 1978, Keith Moon, whose drinking and drug use were the stuff of legends, died of an overdose at 31. The band had barely recovered when it set out on a tour with a new drummer, Kenney Jones, and pianist, John “Rabbit” Bundrick. When the tour reached Cincinnati in December 1979, there was a stampede of fans in Riverfront Coliseum that left 11 dead. The band was devastated and dispirited, as evidenced by the albums for the next couple years–though they did contain a few memorable last gasps (including “You Better You Bet” and “Who Are You”). In 1982 the Who embarked on its final tour (there was also a 25th-anniversary reunion tour in 1989).
Townshend was married in 1966 and had two children, but he had his own troubles with alcohol and he moved out on his family. He got hooked on Ativan, a prescription drug, and admits that he barely survived the experience. With the help of a treatment program, he kicked the addiction and also stopped drinking. At the time, he claimed that his longtime devotion to Indian guru Meher Baba provided the inspiration that helped him through the period. He reconciled with his wife, Karen, and theirs is one of the longest-lasting marriages in rock and roll. They had another child in 1990.
Townshend began releasing solo albums in 1980 with “Empty Glass” (there was also a collaboration with Ronnie Lane in 1977, “Rough Mix”). “Empty Glass” is a stunning record, as are follow-up albums, including “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.” He created a musical theatrical production of British poet laureate Ted Hughes’ novella “Iron Man,” and he pursued nonmusic interests, founding a small book-publishing house and working as a part-time associate editor at another publisher, the prestigious Faber and Faber. He also showed up at benefits for all kinds of charities. (He has joked that “when it comes to charity in the music business, it’s me, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins and a few others calling up and saying, ‘You owe me a favor.’”)
Townshend is often teased for having penned one of the most famous lyrics in rock and roll: “People try to put us down / Just because we get around / The things they do look awful cold / Hope I die before I get old.”
Now that Townshend is 48 years old, we decided it was time to check in with one of the most potent forces in music. Contributing Editor David Sheff, who last interviewed Conehead Dan Aykroyd, was tapped for the assignment. Here is Sheff’s report:
“I met Townshend during the ‘Psycho Derelict’ tour in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and also in New York, where he was scheduled to appear on one of the final ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ shows on NBC.
“Before he arrived, the show’s producers were all atwitter. Apparently, one of them had asked Townshend if he would, after performing, destroy his guitar. Townshend had for the most part given up smashing guitars, and he hadn’t committed, but the show provided an expensive guitar just in case (Townshend had insisted that the guitar be auctioned for charity if he did it). A cameraman was flustered. ‘If he’s going to smash the guitar, we must rehearse it!’ he said. But one of Townshend’s entourage rolled her eyes. ‘He’s not going to break a guitar,’ she said. ‘And he’s certainly not going to rehearse breaking a guitar.’
“Townshend arrived in black, his hair cut short, Steve McQueen style, eyes sparkling. First was a rehearsal. It was something to watch up close, as Townshend played the powerful opening riff of ‘Pinball Wizard.’ Bandleader Paul Shaffer interrupted. ‘On the record there’s a D in there somewhere,’ he said, and Pete politely nodded. ‘Right. Thanks.’
“Finally, it was show time. After an opening monolog, Letterman introduced Townshend, who played a fiery ‘Wizard,’ D included. When he sang ‘How do you think he does it?’ the Letterman band chimed in, ‘I don’t know.’ Meanwhile, the producers, in the audience, were concerned about one thing: ‘Will he do it?’ they asked one another. The cameraman waited nervously.
“A couple months later, on the MTV music Awards show, Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist for Nirvana, appeared to feign fury when he destroyed his guitar. It seemed silly. But when Townshend, on Letterman, as ‘Wizard’ ended, lifted his guitar into the air and brought it crashing down into an amplifier, annihilating it, it was absolutely thrilling.”
PLAYBOY: When did you smash your first guitar?
TOWNSHEND: I was 13. John Entwistle and I were rehearsing together in the front room of my house. My grandmother came in shouting, “Turn that bloody racket down!” I said, “I’ll do better than that,” and I got my guitar–this was a good guitar that I had paid for myself with money I earned from a paper route–and smashed it to smithereens. I said, “Now will you fucking get out of my life?” and she stomped out.
I looked at John and said, “What now?” And he said, “Another paper route, I think.” Once I had done it, it was always there as a possibility. If ever I wanted to deal with any kind of hidden rage, I could always take it out on the guitar. I could always trigger the same little bit of psychotherapy.
PLAYBOY: So it’s therapy, not theater?
TOWNSHEND: Well, you have to remember I’m not angry all the time. Even now I occasionally get frustrated on the stage with guitars and want to smash them. I tend not to do it, but the opportunity’s always there. I smashed a guitar on the Psycho Derelict tour and it was great fun.
PLAYBOY: Is it also cathartic?
TOWNSHEND: It’s also embarrassing, is what it is. It’s like comedians’ being forced to use their catchphrase after they’ve become serious actors.
PLAYBOY: Are you annoyed when you’re asked to do it?
TOWNSHEND: Yeah. I smashed the one on the Letterman show even though I didn’t really want to. They asked me to do it and I told them I would if they sold the guitar for charity. They gave me a fabulous guitar–a Gibson J-200 blond, an Elvis Presley-type guitar.
PLAYBOY: Do you feel at all guilty smashing such a great and expensive instruments?
TOWNSHEND: I do at my age. I didn’t when I was 25 and out of my brain. But that’s why it had to be auctioned for charity. And believe it or not, it’s worth more broken than it is in one piece.
PLAYBOY: Like the comedians and their catchphrases, is it frustrating when people want to hear your old songs, such as My Generation and Won’t Get Fooled Again? Are you tired of performing them?
TOWNSHEND: Sometimes I try to avoid obvious hits, but then my confidence gives out. When I was on the Letterman show, I wanted to do a song by the English Beat, Save It for Later, but at the last minute I thought, What the fuck. Who wants to hear Save It for Later? Don’t be a grouch, Pete. They want to hear Pinball Wizard. Give them what they want. And it’s OK. I don’t want to disown the old songs or what I did with the Who.
PLAYBOY: Do you look back at the Who and remember it as the good old days– or do you think, I can’t believe that we survived?
TOWNSHEND: Under the so-called democracy of the Who I felt very fettered by Roger, but at the same time it was wonderful to share the weight of a concert with him. I was somewhat held back by John Entwistle’s tendency to play too loud, but equally I miss his backstage wit and the fact that we have been friends since we were 11 years old. So it’s mixed.
PLAYBOY: Is there a way for you to quantify the magic of the Who?
TOWNSHEND: We were driven by this showbiz technique of constantly shooting for the people who are least involved with you, the least convinced by you. I once read an interview I had done in which I said, “When I’m performing I often find the most beautiful girl in the audience and play the whole concert to her.” I thought, What a crock of shit! I don’t do anything like that. Why did I say it? Then I remembered. Often, when the Who was onstage, the most beautiful girl in the audience was looking at Roger. When I saw that, I began to fight for her attention. By the end of the show I wanted her to be looking at me.
PLAYBOY: So it was competition with Roger Daltrey?
TOWNSHEND: Yeah, youthful rivalry. The mechanics of the Who were very much built on that. That rivalry gave us a great, competitive, dangerous edge. That, plus everything else about us at that time in our lives. It all culminated in those performances.
PLAYBOY: Which included your ferocious guitar playing and your trademark windmills. Does it hurt to hit guitar strings with such force?
TOWNSHEND: It is terribly painful. But I’m used to the fact that there will be pain. I know that I will take my nail off at the beginning of every tour. Still. The string gets under the fingernails and rips it off. It’s part of the job. I am playing sometimes and I go does a windmill , “Wang, wang, wang, blood” and then I think, This is it. I’ve arrived. It is the place where I should be, like a boxer in the middle of a fight.
PLAYBOY: How do you keep playing when you’re bleeding like that?
TOWNSHEND: It’s difficult to hold the pick because it gets slippery. But that doesn’t matter. It actually energizes me.
PLAYBOY: You hurt your hand in an accident a couple years ago. Has it affected your playing?
TOWNSHEND: No. It seems that I hurt the same hand all the time.
PLAYBOY: What happened?
TOWNSHEND: I was on a bike, completely exhilarated, going down this hill, and I hit a pothole and went over the handlebars. I had to have physical therapy every day for six months.
PLAYBOY: Which hand did you hurt?
TOWNSHEND: The right.
PLAYBOY: Was that the same hand you injured during the 1989 Who tour?
TOWNSHEND: Yeah. That time I speared myself. I was using a guitar that was created for Eric Clapton. It had one of those whammy bars for vibrato, basically a sharp piece of metal. It went in one side of my hand and out the other. I lifted my arm and the guitar was hanging there by piece of metal through my hand.
PLAYBOY: Did you finish the show?
TOWNSHEND: I slipped it off and belted a lot, but yeah. And there was a brilliant surgeon nearby and I was lucky enough not to have hit anything vital. Then it happened again on the bike. Everything has happened to the same hand. I have some heavy right-hand karma. I’ve 126 stitches in my hand.
PLAYBOY: You had quite a reputation, especially in the early days. How do you feel about the Who’s wilder antics?
TOWNSHEND: I didn’t like them very much, I have to say. It’s not just me being a bad sport. I kind of went along with it, but I didn’t like it. And I don’t think Roger did, either, and maybe no even John.
PLAYBOY: But you took part, didn’t you?
TOWNSHEND: Keith set the precedent, and once it was set, I fell into it, too. Like, I used to turn off the TV set with a glass ashtray. It was in the days before remote control, and I never bothered to get out of bed. I’d just hurl an astray and smash the television, which did the job. Occasionally at a party I would turn over a table or something, but Keith was an artist when it came to that. He was a hotel-room-wrecking artist. It wasn’t about violence or hedonism. It was art. Quite seriously. It was part of the statement against materialism, against neatness, against order, values, role models, against all that shit. He’d come into a freshly made-up room and look at intently and study it. Then he’d rearrange it. Afterward, he would always go to warn the maid. “Alice, slight problem in room 1308.” he’d say.
PLAYBOY: Would he at least leave a big tip?
TOWNSHEND: We used to have to pay for it. We got some enormous bills.
PLAYBOY: Are times such as that what you remember most about Keith?
TOWNSHEND: Keith was a very powerful, driving person. He was also unbelievably funny. He was witty the way Groucho Marx and Dorothy Parker were witty. He was a fucking fast-thinking guy. Joe Walsh used to come see us and he’d play us tapes of evening with Keith. You listen to them, and Keith, with two bottles of brandy in him and 16 elephant tranquilizers, was snaps fingers quick. And that redeemed the other side.
PLAYBOY: Which was?
TOWNSHEND: This nihilistic, self-destructive thing that always turned to darkness. And, of course, led to his death.
TOWNSHEND: It was hard. The other day I was thinking we could have hired doctors to follow him around. Then, when he started to inhale his own vomit, they could have sucked it out. But then I remembered that Elvis Presley had one of those doctors, one followed him around, and he turmed out to be the one providing the drugs. I think Keiths is a brilliant example of the trgedy behind the clown. If he thought it would make you laugh, he would pour petrol on himself and set himself on fire.
PLAYBOY: How far would he go?
TOWNSHEND: He did things as dangerous as that. Once, he was walking along with me on the second floor of a Holiday Inn, and he climbed up on the railing and said, “Bye, Pete!” and leapt off. There was a swimming pool down there, but it was at least five yards away. By some miracle ehe contorted himself and managed to barely squeeze into the pool. Then he got up and shouted “Voila!”
I was the only person there, so who was he doing it for? It’s ironic, since
he and I had had several conversations about how we should behave–what was our responsibility and what was good publicity. In some ways he saw himself as the Who’s publicity machine. If he could get a front-page story, he’d do it. And it was quite difficult for us because we didn’t want to turn down the easy notoriety he gave us.
PLAYBOY: Was his death expected?
TOWNSHEND: It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it always is when that happens. It was the logical conclusion to nihilism and violence.
PLAYBOY: There was more violence when 11 kids were killed in a stampede at a Who concert in Cincinnati. Was violence inevitable, given the band’s image?
TOWNSHEND: The stampede could have happened at any rock concert. It was much more a symptom of the kids who go to rock-and-roll concerts–being young, getting drunk, doing whatever shitty drugs are available. It can happen at a football game or high school reunion– and it does. But that doesn’t mean you don’t feel guilty, not that it happened but that it was a symbolic moment and we could have handled it right, but we didn’t.
PLAYBOY: What did you do wrong?
TOWNSHEND: I was drinking so hard at the time I wasn’t conscious of what I was saying. And I said some dumb things. I said some things that hurt the victims’ families. I remember saying, “It seems that everybody wants us to shed the theatrical tear and to say ‘sorry.’ Whereas what we have to do is go on. “The fact is that we didn’t have to go on. We could have stopped, and I think we should have stopped. We should have stopped the tour.
PLAYBOY: Why didn’t you?
TOWNSHEND: I don’t quite know why we didn’t. I suppose we didn’t, to put it bluntly, because there was too much money at stake. It would have been a big legal mess to cancel tour dates, but we should have. It’s obvious that we should have stopped. The idea that “We’re going to Buffalo and we’re doing this for those kids” was rubbish. The kids were gone. We then should have attended to the families. We should have stayed in Cincinnati. It looked as if we had gone in like commandos, created this havoc, then fucked off to do the same things somewhere else. Our advisors, our lawyers and everybody else were just completely wrong, inhuman and stupid. Everybody was stupid–the record company, the manager, my lawyer, the fans– they were all stupid, completely stupid. Never, ever have I come across a chunk of humanity as stupid as the people with whom I interrelated. As I sat on top of all those stupid people as Mr. King Stupid. I mean, we had to go on for rock and roll? What shit! It’s like Wayne’s World, “Rock and roll!” That’s what we did after Cincinnati. “Rock and roll!” Eleven kids dead, but what the fuck?
PLAYBOY: Were you overwhelmed at the time?
TOWNSHEND: I don’t think I allowed myself to be overwhelmed because I blamed everyone else for it. And I never felt right until I stopped blaming the other stupid people. That is no defense, no defense in court, let alone before God. I thought, What could I do? I had to do what the rest of the lads wanted me to do.
PLAYBOY: Do you mind that questions such s these–about the Who–never seem to stop?
TOWNSHEND: Sometimes I do, but it was an important part of my life, and I don’t disown any of it. It allows me always, especially now with Tommy on Broadway.
PLAYBOY: Is it gratifying to see Tommy on Broadway and back on the record charts after all these years?
TOWNSHEND: It’s difficult to talk about this without sounding unbelievably conceited, but in my life I’ve had great difficulty riding the serpent. We made big mistakes with the Who in the Seventies, and I had my personal collapse. But after finishing the 1982 tour and being confronted with going to the studio yet again with his band, which I thought was really bereft, I had the courage to say, “Fuck it, it’s over,” From that moment on I’ve been in complete control of my life. I’ve had time to sit and look at which part of my life I want to turn into a continuum and which part of it I want to leave behind. It has been done by choice, with a plan, and Tommy on Broadway is part of it.
PLAYBOY: Why Broadway?
TOWNSHEND: At first, when I was approached about doing it, I wasn’t
interested. But I became intrigued with the form. The shows that work on
Broadway come down to one magic moment. In Guys and Dolls, for me it’s singing “If he says the horse can do, can do, can do….” There are those moments in Tommy, iconic moments. The Tommy story and album attained that very quickly. It briefly overshadowed the Who. So it has been good fun to find those moments and re-create them for a new audience. And I am extremely enthused about Broadway. I think that Broadway has many qualities that make it an interesting place in which to work.
PLAYBOY: More so than the rock world?
TOWNSHEND: I like the fact that when rock and roll comes to Broadway there are no heroes. No Keith Moons to go up in smoke. It’s a group effort, a true ensemble. And for me, it is a new place in which I can experiment. I have long felt that I have a place in musical theater; I feel I have a function there, a duty.
PLAYBOY: A duty?
TOWNSHEND: To give Andrew Lloyd Webber some competition. Rock and roll needed to be brought to Broadway, and in doing that I always felt that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, with Jesus Christ Superstar, rode off with part of my inheritance. I wanted to claim it back. Now I’ve done so. And Tommy is my way in. I plan to become more involved in musical theater.
PLAYBOY: Does it strike you as odd that the show’s audience now includes blue-haired old ladies, children and everybody in between?
TOWNSHEND: But there always was a wide nonrock audience that was interested in Tommy, even at the beginning. They didn’t know anything about the Who and would confuse the two names–which was the name of the group and which was the name of the album.
PLAYBOY: But for some fans, the Who and Broadway are almost a contradiction in terms.
TOWNSHEND: There are these so-called purists who think, Fuck this. This isn’t Tommy. This isn’t the fucking Who. Because they think they own the Who. They want Tommy to be their experience and no one else’s. They know what rock and roll is: the Who, Pete Townshend, 1968, 15 joints–”I was there.” But the people in this production also know what rock and roll is about. They’ve been brought up on it. And Tommy works on Broadway on its own, not only as nostalgia. A lot of the audience has never heard it before.
PLAYBOY: Why did you take out most of the original version’s look at hero worship and religion? Were you afraid of offending a mainstream audience?
TOWNSHEND: It works better as a play now. When Tommy first appeared, there were 30 to 40 human-potential groups who were sincere seekers of spiritual truth. There were all the traditional pathways that we know about. There were a dozen Indian masters. There were Chinese traditions, Tibetan traditions, holistic leaders. They all turned to shit, most of them. That was part of another time, though I still quietly follow Meher Baba.
PLAYBOY: How is that different?
TOWNSHEND: I don’t go on about it much because I don’t want to bring him into the loop of people machine-gun other people in South America, the David Koreshes and the Rajneesh leader who spent most of their time fucking his disciples. I don’t know if it is important to me whether Meher Baba is a one or the one or what. But if I focus on him I actually feel a kind of–I’m trying to think of a word that personalizes the idea of pilgrimage, because that is what I feel: that I’m attending to my inner pilgrimage. It’s the idea that one’s time on earth is about more than just getting through the time allotted. It is the idea that the main purpose of the human animal iis to try to rise, to stand taller. It is the energy to aspire to more, to create, to discover or to invent. Meher Baba gives me an idea of what the target is. It is very simple: Thinking of him makes me aspire to more for myself and my family and the planet. It is not a religion, which often has more to do with guilt than with anything inspired.
PLAYBOY: So there is no guilt with Meher Baba?
TOWNSHEND: No, although I actually have a great deal of guilt and I use it to drive myself forward, which is quite diseased. I try not to, but guilt is very big in Western society. It is the reason for the success of the Catholic Church.
PLAYBOY: Were you raised Catholic?
TOWNSHEND: No. My parents didn’t go to church at all, but I did. It was Congregational church.
PLAYBOY: Did you go because you believed or because you enjoyed the social aspects?
TOWNSHEND: Both. At the time, I had this Sunday school image of Jesus Christ as a pathetic character who needed my support. But later that crystallized into an image I still have, of Jesus Christ as a very dangerous guy–much more of a warrior or a thug, prepared to use the tools of the time to drive home the message. Christ is very powerful and actually quite a sexual being. Like a rock star, I suppose.
PLAYBOY: So, thanks to church you got your first glimpse of what it might be like to be a rock star?
TOWNSHEND: What church really did was inspire me about singing. The gospel singing in church was what brought me there.
PLAYBOY: Was that before you heard rock and roll?
TOWNSHEND: Yeah. I started in the choir when I was eight. My first big musical moments were ecclesiastical, though at home my dad played music, too. He played saxophone and sang, and my mom sang.
PLAYBOY: What happened to your religion when you discovered rock and roll?
TOWNSHEND: Actually, it was the church that led me to rock and roll. I used to visit what was called the Congo Club–the Congregational Church Youth Club–which was very much like the bit in Tommy: The minister comes into the clubhouse where all the kids are going wild. He looks around and asks, “What’s happening here, boys and girls? Good. Carry on.” What was actually going on was that lots of 15-year-old girls were getting their brains fucked out on the pool table in the back room. And in the dark room we were playing the pop records of the day, pre-rock-and-roll Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka. Then suddenly it wasn’t Bobby Darin anymore, it was Elvis Presley. I went cold. I remember hearing Heartbreak Hotel and thinking, What the fuck is that? Then my father took me to a Bill Haley concert. I was hooked.
PLAYBOY: It seems unusual that your father took you to your first rock concert.
TOWNSHEND: My family used to play music without boundaries. They would play Tchaikovsky, bebop, Stan Kenton, string quartets, Scottish folk music, anything. There was never any snobbery.
PLAYBOY: Did you have brothers or sisters?
TOWNSHEND: Not until I was a big older. My parents split up briefly, and I went to live with my grandmother. Then they got back together and I was back with them, and it was a very pleasant time. Finally, when I was 12 they had my first brother, Paul, then soon after than, Simon. I loved them and doted on them, but I always looked for older boys to hang around. If not older boys, certainly boys who were more emotionally equipped than I was.
PLAYBOY: Do you think you were looking for an older brother?
TOWNSHEND: Probably. Because these boys would be more grown up than I was, more mature, and I would attach myself to them. Maybe there was some of that in my relationship with Roger Daltrey. We always try to fill in the missing pieces, don’t we? Roger was the abusive thug of an older brother I never had.
PLAYBOY: Was Cousin Kevin, the abusive bully in Tommy, modeled after him?
TOWNSHEND: Not specifically, but I was driven, and still am driven, by a vengeance that ties itself to the kind of abuse kids suffer at the hands of one another. Kids are terrible. When I was 16, a friend of mind went me to Coventry and managed to persuade several of my close friends to send me to Coventry after we had a fight and I hit him.
PLAYBOY: What is Coventry?
TOWNSHEND: It is when nobody talks to you. I don’t know what they call it in
the States. He got everybody to not talk to me, and it was absolutely awful. I
was happy to get out of school and move on to art school, which was this radical
place full of ideas and wonderful music and wonderful women. But before that was torture, and it took a toll. I probably shouldn’t talk about this, but I’m on good enough ground now with Roger to address it. He used to be the worst bully, terrorizing other kids. He was a tough guy at school, pushy, always using it to get his way. It wasn’t only in school. In the band he used it to get what he
wanted. If you didn’t agree he would threaten you with violence, look you in the
eye like a street fighter, and you’d cave in and say, “OK, we’ll do it your way.” But one day we all got together and said, “Roger, you have to stop. You have to learn to talk.” It was like a couple
who fight and the husband always wins by smacking his wife. And to Roger’s
credit, he did stop, and it gave the band a future, because if he hadn’t we
wouldn’t have lasted. But in the early days, we were very much affected by his
PLAYBOY: Were you already playing guitar when you met him?
TOWNSHEND: Oh, yeah. My grandmother gave me my first guitar long before I
PLAYBOY: Your grandmother, not your musician father?
TOWNSHEND: She did, which I didn’t like at all. I wanted it to be my father.
I thought, Why did they have her buy it? My father also played clarinet. When I
was about eight he let me try it, but I couldn’t make a sound. He suggested the
guitar, which he had started on. My father was a good musician, and I expected
him to buy me a fine instrument. My grandmother was–let me put it politely,
because she is my beloved, beloved grandmother–clinically insane. Somehow she
was elected to buy me my first guitar, and the one she chose was one of those
you hand on the wall of an Italian restaurant. A cheap Italian restaurant. When
I complained, my father said, “When you can get a tune out of this I’ll buy you
a good one.”
PLAYBOY: Did he?
TOWNSHEND: My mother and father ran and antique shop between gigs, and one
day quite a good guitar came in and they gave it to me. I had to pay for it with
money I earned from my newspaper route. It ws the one I smashed because of my
PLAYBOY: What led to your first band?
TOWNSHEND: I met John Entwistle the first year of high school. We formed a
traditional jazz band, which grew out of a marching band. We used to take it
around the pubs during holidays to make money. At the same time we also had a
kind of Shadows or Ventures type of band with another guy from school, with John
on bass, me on rhythm guitar, a lead guitar player and a drummer. Then, when we
were 13, I met Roger. He was threatening me with a belt buckle because he’d
beaten up a friend of mine on the playground and I shouted that he was a dirty
fighter because he kicked the guy when he was on the ground. Roger came over to
me and said, “Who called me a dirty fighter?” And I said, “I didn’t.” And he
said, “Yes, you did.” And he got his belt off and went to whip it across my
PLAYBOY: What an auspicious way to start a friendship.
TOWNSEND: I should have taken it as sign. About six months later he came up
to me in the corridor at school and I thought, Oh, my God, what is he going to
do to me this time? He was a horrible, horrible boy. A real kind of spiff, you
know? But he said, “I hear you play the guitar.” I nodded, and he said, “My
house. Tonight. 7:30.” I was secretly quite delighted.
PLAYBOY: Did he want to form a band?
TOWNSEND: I didn’t know. All I knew was that I went to Roger’s houe and, on
the way, I passed this stunning girl who was sobbing. I asked her if she was OK,
and she looked at me and said, through these sobs, “Is that a guitar?” When I
said, “Yeag,” she asked, “You going to Roger’s house?” and I said, “Well, fuck
you! Tell him for me it’s either that guitar or me!”
I staggered the rest of the way to the house. Roger showed up at the door
with his guitar in hand and he said, “Come in!” I said, “Listen, I’ve just seen
your girlfriend and she’s given you an ultimatum. If you rehearse tonight she’s
never goint to talk to you. So, I’ll see you tomorrow maybe?” But he said, Get
in here! Let’s play.”
I don’t know whether I’ve apocryphalized this weeping, stunning girl, but I
remember her as one of the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. And
he’s just going to dump her becaus he wants to play guitar. I was awestruck. I
think Roger had his priorities in order, unlike me at 48 years old. Laughs
PLAYBOY: In your song English Boy, you sing “Hold me down, and I will
bite.” Was that you then?
TOWNSEND: I feel that postwar boys, postsubscription boys, boys who weren’t
attracted to fighting in the army, were left without any function or purpose.
I’ve always hooked at into one of the reasons why rock and roll was so important
to us. The others before us had gone off to fight, but there was no war for us.
It is why rock and roll is so militaristic in many ways.
TOWNSEND: So much about touring and conquering and destruction. This was our
version of military sevice. Now you see so many young men with no future who
tend to kick and fight and rape and pillage and amuse themselves by blowing
people away. There seems to be a connection between that and my life and
Roger’s. We’ve talked about it. We had a choice when we were kids. You became
either a boxer, a criminal or a rock star. That’s the kind of community I grew up in, thought it’s nto the background of my family.
PLAYBOY: When did Keith Moon join the group?
TOWNSEND: We met a while later. We were struggling to get a record deal. We
had a very good drummer, but he was much older, about 36. We were about to get a
record deal with Philips, and the record-company guy told us, “Listen, we’ll
give you a deal, but you have to get rid of the drummer.” We said we weren’t
sure, and the guy goes. “Listen, you have to get rid of him now. You have to
tell him now.” So John, Roger and I had a meeting. It was a big question of
loyalty because this guy was somebody we loved very much. And at that moment my
heart turned to stone and I said, “I’ll go tell him.” And I went out and said,
“He said he would give us a record deal but not if you’re in the group, so
you’re out.” And this guy Doug didn’t talk to me for 30 years. Quite rightly.
PLAYBOY: How did you find Keith?
TOWNSEND: At first we used a couple of session drummers, and during one of
our usual dates Keith showed up. He was in a competing band and heard that we
were looking for a drummer, and he came to audition. You know the rest.
PLAYBOY: At what point in the band’s career did you begin your solo work?
TOWNSEND: I did an album with Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix, in 1977, but that was
just on the side, not really competition with the Who. In 1980, when I was never
sober, I was writing songs that were not right for the Who. Some people said
that my solo albums should have been Who albums, though Roger never said those
words out loud. The songs were personal, and the reflected what I was going
PLAYBOY: What inspired your first solo album, Empty Glass?
TOWNSEND: It was wanting to not be a drunk. Alcoholism produced my most
morally beret period–1978 through 1980–and Empty Glass, which most peopl think
is my best solo work. That album is, in a sense, a cry for stability, a cry for
an empty glass, for sobriety and for a return to values that I held above
everything else. But the reason the cry was authentic was that I was in real
trouble. The album is like a war medal. I went through hell and I don’t
undervalue it, but I don’t aspire to do it again. The 14 years since then, being
sober, are far preferable, though a few months ago I decided to go on a bender.
PLAYBOY: That sounds dangerous.
TOWNSEND: I thought I should try drinking againg. Just to see what would
PLAYBOY: For a self-admitted alcoholic, isn’t thats a bit like Russian
TOWNSEND: Yeah, because I didn’t know for certain if I was going to be able
to stop. I was pretty sure, because I’d done it before. I’ve not treated myself
as a clinical alcohol even though I think I am one. I have the symptoms: If I
have three glasses of wine at dinner, I just feel depressed. But if I got to
six, I’m kind of singing “vroom, do do, do do, do do, do” and I’ve reached that
place. So maybe I am one of those guys: “My name is Pete and I’m not
alcoholic.” Because at that point I have no control at all. I can drink an
enormous amount without too many aftereffects.
PLAYBOY: What happened with your bender?
TOWNSEND: I stoped after a couple months and it produces some interesting
stuff. I don’t think I would have taken on the most recent tour if I had not
been drinking–I was more free signing contracts. And I also think is allowed
some important conversations with my wife about the future. And I had some good
times and made some friends I’ll probably have for the rest of my life. People I met in bars.
PLAYBOY: Were you worried that when you started drinking again you might not
have been able to stop?
TOWNSEND: Yes, but even during the years I wasn’t drinking there were times
when I would try it. I would sit alone in the middle of the night and drink a
glas s of brandy and wait and watch. “Do I turn into a monster? Do I need to
drink the rest of the bottle? No? Good.” I did that enough times to know that I
can control my superficial will. Of course, as my daughter said, “Don’t get
cocky, because tomorrow Mom might leave you, your mother might die, something
might happen to you. Tommy might close. Psycho Derelict might be a disaster and
you might then find that you actually8 need to drink.” This time I started
drinking grom the position of strength.
PLAYBOY: Those midnight brandies sound like a test of your will–that you
didn’t want to accept that a force was more powerful than it.
TOWNSEND: I think that’s right. I don’t accept it. Because if you accept
that, then what you actually accepts is that you’re so clinically alcoholic that
nothing is ever going to save you. I don’t accept that about myself. At the same
time, this is not the kind of experiment I would recommend to anybody else.
I’m in a privileged position. If I got in trouble and needed treatment, I could
PLAYBOY: Isn’t that need to test your willpower risky?
TOWNSEND: Sure, and maybe that’s part of the point. “Look at me, I can
nearly die of alcoholism and drug abuse, come back have a family, produce a
young son, bring Tommy to Broadway, be a drunk again and stop.” And drinking is
sort of an impetuous thing, like: I’m still young, a teenager; at least I’m
still my own man,
PLAYBOY: Have you felt as if you weren’t your own man?
TOWNSEND: Well, there is something encumbering about being a father again,
realizing that I shall be a father for another 15 years, having to be
responsible. But I don’t think that is exactly what made me drink again. It was
understanding that I had become very hard on myself and that I had earned the
right to relax.
PLAYBOY: In what way had you become too hard on yourself?
TOWNSEND: I was sober, responsible, making a living, and perhaps I wasn’t
enjoying things enough. I was shouldering so much guilt. It was enough; I
shouldn’t keep punishing myself for having fucked up in the late Seventies. And
that’s what I was doing.
PLAYBOY: Guilt over what?
TOWNSEND: I felt guilty for fucking up rock and roll toward the end of the
Who, when I wasn’t delivering the kind of material the band needed, guilty for
fucking up by not keeping Keith alive, guilty for fucking up by being so drunk
all the time that I was regularly unfaithful to my wife and I neglected my children.
Then I had this long period of sobriety that was about penance. So I did my
penance and I wanted to give myself a break. I wanted to pat myself on the head
and say, “You’re OK. You’ve done good.” I don’t know whether I chose the right
way to reward myself, but that’s what it was. I allowed myself to fly a bit, to
enjoy a period of life in which it would seem to be bountiful in an unexpected
way. To have some fun. I wanted to loosen up my heart because I felt kind of
hard-hearted. So I drank again because I thought maybe my son would be better
off having a father with a soul rather than a father with a bank full of money
to put him through college. So I went on a bender and then I stopped.
PLAYBOY: So, did your son’s father regain his soul?
TOWNSEND: He did, and I think it came with another lesson. That’s why I’m
now trying to write about the subtleties and intensities of the daily domestic
grind and the simple pleasures and difficulties of domestic life. Things we all
understand. Not the extreme and excessive. We all understand passion. We all
understand danger and risk. We all understand futility. We all understand
desolation, desperation. Everybody writes about “I can’t live without you.” It
would be interesting to write about “Honey, we can’t go to the party yet because
I have to change a wheel on the car.” Or, “Help me, I’ve forgotten how to tie a
fucking bow tie.” Or, “Yes, I would love to make love to you, darling, but it’s
my period and you know you hate blood.” The stuff or real life.
PLAYBOY: Your real life?
TOWNSEND: Yeah. And that’s the trick. Because I get al this stimulation from
the work I do. Flying from London to New York for the Tommy openinig, or to La
Jolla, where I worked on Tommy, or touring Psycho Derelict, It’s great to be
able to straddle the world. I find that apart from sleeping on airplanes, I do a
lot of writing and thinking and decision making and planning. There’s something
about being up in an airplane in the middle of two countries that gives me a
good objective overview of which foot should be planted in which place. Yet that life is quite preserve compared with the fulfillment I get from interaction with family and friends. It’s of a completely different nature. It challenges normal life.
PLAYBOY: Can normal life compete?
TOWNSEND: It’s the life most people lead, and it’s perfectly satisfying. I
want to explore it, the subtle and the real. It’s ultimately where I’m going,
and it is the difference between what I’m doing now and the Who. That’s what
threw me into an exploration of real life for the first time: when I left the
PLAYBOY: What was it like when you began to perform on your own?
TOWNSEND: It was scary, but it was a relief, because I could do what I
PLAYBOY: How is your audience different from the Who’s audience?
TOWNSEND: I released Empty Glass and then went on to do the Who tour, and I
could see the difference immediately. There were all these girls coming
backstage asking, “Which one of you wrote Let My Love Open Your Door?” So there were all these girls, very different from the Who audience, the Who Rottweilers, I called them. Even the women were quite macho–they had to be to survive the front-row nonsense. Maybe five percent of the audience was female at Who concerts, whereas I seem to have a mixed audience. Then I started to get letters from young gay men who were delighted with Rough Boys, because they thought that I had come out, so they were in the audience, too.
PLAYBOY: What was behind all the reports of your coming out?
TOWNSEND: It was that song, which is ironic because the song is actually
taunting both the homosexuals in America–who were, at the time, dressing
themselves up as Nazi generals–and the punks in Britain dressing the same way.
I thought it was great that these tough punks were dressing as homosexuals
without realizing it. I did an interview about it, saying that Rough Boys was
about being gay, and in the interview I also talked about my “gay life,” which–I
meant–was actually about the friends I’ve had who are gay. So the interviewer
kind of dotted the t’s and crossed the i’s and assumed that this was a coming
out, which it wasn’t at all. But I became an object of ridicule when it was
picked up in England. It was a big scandal, which is silly. If I were bisexual,
it would be no big deal in the music industry. If I ran down a list of the men
who have tried to get me into bed, I could bring down quite a few big names in
the music business. And no, I won’t do it.
PLAYBOY: In the recent unauthorized biography of Mick Jagger, he was said to
have had affairs with almost every pop star there is.
TOWNSEND: Yeah, and if you ever tried to pin him down about it, I don’t
think he would disclaim it because he’s smart enough to know there’s value in
that mystery. In my roasting of the Stones at their induction into the Rock &
Roll Hall of Fame, I joked about the fact that I am one of the few peopple lucky
enough to have slept with Mick Jagger laughs . SO when it all came out about me,
I fought like hell not to comment.
PLAYBOY: Do you like to keep people guessing?
TOWNSEND: No. But I don’t want to let anybody down. I don’t want to let it
be known that it is in any sense an important part of my self-image to be
thought of a breeder. I don’t want to deny bisexuality as if I were being
accused of child molestantion or murder, as if it were some crime or something
to be ashamed of, because that would be cruel to people who are gay. But I was
bitter and angry at the way th truth had been distorted and decided never to do
any interviews again. Not because I had been manipulated but because I didn’t
trust myself to be precise about what I was saying.
PLAYBOY: When the tabloids were after you, was it difficult for your family?
TOWNSEND: It was. But what is interesting is that sensational journalism is
far less damaging to us as a family than a deep, incisive interview like this
PLAYBOY: But we’re printing your words.
TOWNSEND: Precisely. I’m saying things to you that my family has never heard
before. You don’t have this kind of conversation with your children or with your
PLAYBOY: Do they feel betrayed?
TOWNSEND: That’s right. My olde daughter is 24 and is brilliantly smart,
well-educated and hip, but she is a little emotionally frail in our
relationship. She has said that it is awful to pick up a newspaper and read
something she didn’t know about me. It’s like something had been kept from her.
But much of what comes up in interviews is psychotherapy rather than fact. And I
don’t always manage to say what I mean or say anything that means anything–but
that doesn’t stop me from saying it. Laughs Every time I read an inteview with
me I think, Oh fuck, why don’t you shut up and play the guitar. I once got a
great letter from Keith Richards after he had read an interview of mine. It
just said, “Dear Pete, Shut up!”
PLAYBOY: In spite of a well-publicized separation in the early Eighties, you
marriage is one of rock and roll’s longest lasting. How has it survived?
TOWNSEND: My wife doesn’t like me to talk about us particularly, for obvious
reasons, but I think she would allow me to say that we work on having as normal
a family life for our kids as we can possibly have in the world of show
business. Sometimes that gets a bit distorted because my childhood was not
exactly normal. My childhood was a show-business life. I keep saying to my wife,
“This is normal. The crazier I am, the more normal it gets for me.” But all the
crazy stuff is not what I’m interested in. I’m far more interested in holding my
family together, being married for 27 years and bringing up a decent family with
decent principles in a decent neighborhood.
PLAYBOY: How is being the parent of your young son different from when your
daughters were young?
TOWNSEND: When my daughters were kids I was in dreamland. I wasn’t at all
conscious of when I was hurting them or when I was helping. I wasn’t clear
about the difference. I think I am now with my three-and-a-half-year-old boy,
which my daughters could well resent.
PLAYBOY: Are they Who fans?
TOWNSEND: My daughters, who are 22 and 24 and at universities, are much less
convinced that my work has any importance at all, far less than their friends,
because they were on the inside. They saw that what I was doing was causing
great difficulties at home. It seems that if you supposedly have a great vision,
you have to step on your own people to achieve it. It’s kind of ridiculous. But
we in rock and roll are slow learners.
PLAYBOY: Do you ever think of getting the Who together again?
TOWNSEND: Well, we did it in 1989.
PLAYBOY: There were reports that money was the reason for that comeback
TOWNSEND: Not at all, though none of us minded the money. That tour was an
unadulterated celebration of 25 years of the Who, done exactly the way I wanted
it to be done, with a big bang. I could have gone out with an acoustic guitar,
Neil Young style, on my own, but that was not the way to bring out the Who.
PLAYBOY: Are there suggestions that you get together again?
TOWNSEND: The others occasionally approach me. Roger, in particular. But the
truth is that if we were to do it now it would come from a place that is not so
much dominated by money but rather by deep, deep insecurity.
TOWNSEND: I have a young son. I want to be around him. I don’t want to be
out fucking doing a stadium gig when I should be taking him to school.
PLAYBOY: Are you annoyed by the suggestion that you should get back with
Roger and John?
TOWNSEND: It’s a natural thing, though Neil Young doesn’t like all the old
groups getting together. He goes on about all us dinosaurs digging out our old
songs forever. But as John Lennon said, “It takes a hypocrite to know a
hypocrite.” I mean, Neil Young sings that “it’s better to burn out than to fade
away,” and you can’t stay in the blue once you’ve been in the black, but what
does he do? How does he continue to function as an artist? I respect what he’s
saying and I know that he really believes and means it, but we all do it. I’m
proud of the work I’ve done, which doesn’t mean that I am not even more
involved in new work. He has this thing about rock’s purity, which I admire, but
I wouldn’t try to shoot somebody out of the sky for trying to sell music and
make money because in some way it undermined the dream. What in the fuck is the
dream? Talking about how the dream has been ruined doesn’t attend to the fact
that Neil Young was briefly attached to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which in
itself was an enormous cash-in.
PLAYBOY: He’s talking more about the spirit of rock and roll–that it isn’t
about rehash, not about money. It’s about what is new, about the spirit of
TOWNSHEND: I understand that, and I even agree with it partly, but that is
not what rock and roll is about now. Maybe these guys now, Bon Jovi and Guns n’
Roses, are more honest about it. They’re not pretending to be able to change the
world. They’re just saying, “Listen, we can entertain you. You can have fun.
Hang out with us. Get laid.”
PLAYBOY: Didn’t the Who advocate those things, too?
TOWNSHEND: Yeah, but a radical difference between the big engines of
mainstream rock now–making and plowing through loads of money–and then is that
we were in a time of absolute innovation. We were discovering something. The
stone has already been turned. There’s nothing left to discover. The bands now
have to cope with that.
PLAYBOY: Neil Young also criticizes groups for selling out their music by
TWONSHEND: Yeah. He doesn’t like to see megabucks groups get together and
pay for their charter plane by selling sponsorships to a beer company. But the
fact is that our music, his music, all the music of the bands from that era is
constantly used to sell products through radio, and we have absolutely no
financial involvement in that. Companies are selling pharmaceuticals made in
India that are polluting the water supply. Timber products made of mahogany that
comes from rain forests. Neil has this sense that it’s bad for me to use See Me,
Feel Me or Pinball Wizard anymore, but I’d much prefer to have control of my own
life and career and exploit my own music. And now, as Tommy has shown, the
audience for rock and roll is everyone, the mainstream culture, which Mr. Rust
may not like. But the mainstream is ready to receive rock and roll with open
arms precisely because it is toothless.
PLAYBOY: Tommy is toothless?
TOWNSHEND: All rock and roll is toothless. It’s a toothless form. Nirvana,
Guns n’ Roses, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam, Public Enemy–however big, strong and
powerful they are, and no matter the megabucks they get, they’re still
PLAYBOY: Is there anyone in rock who is not toothless?
TOWNSHEND: It’s not that they don’t have the rock-and-roll dream. I hope
it’s not a dream frozen in the mid-Seventies. But I have to move on, which is
where Broadway and storytelling in music come in. For others, maybe there is
some music with teeth, but I haven’t heard it. They are all pretending. The
bands out there don’t scare me and they don’t scare anybody else.
PLAYBOY: Is rock about scaring people? TOWNSHEND: It was, but not anymore.
It isn’t my problem. I am 48 years old. I don’t have to scare anybody anymore. I
have children and I want them to be happy and secure. I want them to feel
comfortable with my work. I don’t want to scare them. Rock and roll has been
harnessed by enormous media and commercial conglomerates. All of it.
PLAYBOY: Is rock and roll–
TOWNSHEND: You know, there were times when I would talk freely about rock
and roll as though I were the only person in the universe who knew what it was
about. Now I don’t give a shit. I don’t want to talk about rock and roll. Let’s
stop talking about rock and roll. I don’t know anything about rock and roll. I
really don’t. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it was. I certainly
don’t know where it’s going. The only thing that is important is what it was
shooting for. What we can still shoot for.
PLAYBOY: Which is?
TOWNSHEND: Rock and roll in the Sixties and Seventies was shooting for an
idealism, a utopianism, that is still worth shooting for. It is exactly what
sensible, logical, pragmatic, well-rounded, disciplined Western civilization
needs. We need to open our hearts a bit, which was something we had time for in
PLAYBOY: Is this Pete Townshend, noted cynic, pining for the Sixties?
TOWNSHEND: I think people who were searching for something back then were
disappointed that we didn’t actually come up with concrete solutions. In
frustration there is an attitude that all we did then was get laid and take
drugs. For a while, the generation subsequent to mine, the punk generation,
was saying that to us. They were saying, “Well, you fucked up. You had all the
opportunities and you fucked up.” I think they were right. And I don’t see that
much has changed. It’s why, in 1982, in the middle of a Who recording session, I
said, “This is it. I’ve had it. Goodbye. I’m out. It’s done.” Then the lads all
said, “You can’t quit,” and I said, “The fuck I can’t.” They said, “But we’ll
have to pay back Warner chief Mo Austin his $2 million!” and I said, “Listen,
If I have to work for the rest of my fucking life to pay him back I’ll do it,
but I’m out. It’s over. I’m going.” But maybe it took until then because to have
done so earlier would have meant the end of my dream, the rock-and-roll dream.
PLAYBOY: What rock-and-roll dream?
TOWNSHENH: That rock and roll was bigger than our lives, that it could raise
us up. I mean, it can raise people–I get letters from people who tell me that
the music does that for them. But the dream was that it could accomplish more,
and I believe that there is a longing for that dream again. That is what many
people seem to respond to when they see Tommy. They share roots of the early
rock and roll ideology of communality–”If we get together we can change the
world.” They still want that to be true, but they’ve given up trying. They
wanted answers, but they’ve given up the search. They’ve actually had to,
because life is too complicated. The spoiled-brat generation of the early
Sixties grew up. They had relatively wealthy parents who were briefly willing to go along with their kids’ desire to go to Woodstock, to Monterey, to wherever. But eventually they said, “Pursue this nonsense if you want, but pay for it yourself.” When that happened all the seekers of the truth got fed up with their truth seeking when they had to fit into their six-days-a-week work program. Maybe that’s why they are embracing Tommy. That’s what Tommy seems to
be about now. It is about a couple that is ravaged by war. The “See me, feel me,
touch me” moment might be best expressed for the first time when the mother,
whose husband is off fighting, is embraced on the stage by her lover. It’s like,
“I need to be hugged. I miss my husband. I need somebody to hold me.” That’s the
resonance of that line. It’s not a spiritual resonance: “See me, feel me, touch
me, heal me, God,” but “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me, anybody.” Tommy has
become a metaphor, not just for me or people like me, for postwar children or
success-driven or ideal-driven or dream-driven individuals who came out with the
rock-and-roll world. It’s also a metaphor for the ordinary person whose life, in
its simplicity, is crying out for something more.
PLAYBOY: For what more?
TOWNSHEND: It is back to the ideals we had and want to have again. Tommy
originally came out at a time when ideals seemed possible and the spiritual
search seemed imperative. But we’ve seen the idea of life as a spiritual journey
discredited, not just by the hockey religions and cults but also by the deeply
established, traditional religions. Life in the Eighties was about practical
things. Security, money. If you’re sitting at a bar these days and somebody
starts to ponder, “What is life?” you’re going to go, “Oh, fuck off.” But maybe
it’s good to ask questions like that. There’s a kind of deep pragmatism in daily
life now, but it’s time to ease up. Whether or not Tommy’s reemergence is an
echo of that, Clinton’s presidency is. Enough with this orthodoxy, this
pragmatism. We should be less pragmatism. We should be less pragmatic. We can
afford to be a bit more utopian.
PLAYBOY: How is Clinton an echo?
TOWNSHEND: He represents the American dream, which is not only about
material gain. That’s why he was elected. Out with the Republicans, whose
pragmatism is soul-killing, and in with a man who has ideals. Remembering those
ideals is what Psycho Derelict is about. It is why I made it.
PLAYBOY: So is Psycho Derelict, your latest record, really the son of Tommy,
a rock opera to take over where Tommy left off?
TOWNSHEND: I had written a bunch of songs, but I thought, What the fuck am I
doing making records, anyway? What’s the point? I don’t belong here anymore. I’m
not willing to do what is necessary. But still, I was about to deliver the
songs because they were done. Then I had a bike accident and fucked up my hand.
It took a year to heal, so I had all that time to think. And I decided, Fuck it,
I’m not going to put the record out. It doesn’t mean anything. Before the
accident I would have delivered the record. I think it would have got some
interest. I would have carried on about what it was supposed to be about, and
people would have thought, Fine. The guy’s getting old. Then I would have
announced to the record label that I really didn’t want to deliver the last
couple of albums in my deal. And that would be it. But I had a year to sit
there, recovering, and I thought about why I was so bored and realized that it
was because I forgot why I do this for a living. Then I worked on the Tommy play
and again became inspired about the form. I went back and listened to the new
songs and asked what I was really writing about. I remembered that when I wrote
the songs I was thinking about my son and thinking I wanted and honest vision of
his future. That’s what the songs were about.
PLAYBOY: Can you summarized the vision?
TOWNSHEND: “Listen, son, it’s going to be difficult. There’s a lot of hard
wortk to be done. We may not succeed. But we’re clear about what we need to do.
And we’re going to start work now. And I promise you we will work as hard as we
possibly can to deliver you the future.”
PLAYBOY: Is that a promise you can keep?
TOWNSHEND: I don’t see anybody doing that, apart from a bunch of zoologists
at the Bronx zoo. You don’t talk about the fucking rain forest anymore. If
you’re Sting and you talk about the rain forest, they make you sound ridiculous.
But go down to the Bronx Zoo and ask the people cleaning shit out of the cages
what they want to talk about. They want to talk about the rain forest, because
they can see species dying. So what can I do as an artist? How do I get it
across without it being pretentious, without becoming Sting? All I know about is
telling stories. So I decided to tell a story. I wrote Psycho Derelict with that
PLAYBOY: But the basic story is about a rock star, the media and scandal.
TOWNSHEND: It is a slightly comic-booky kind of story, but it contains a lot
of what I wanted to say. It’s what I know about. The effect of fame. Loss of
family. Redemption. Regaining ideals. But then the record comes out and much of
the meaning is missed, of course. A song such as Outlive the Dinosaur comes out
and people think I’m writing about how it feels to be a dinosaur. But the song
is actually about outrunning history. It’s not a nod in the direction of
Jurassic Park or the Rolling Stones. It’s about trying to not become extinct,
for heaven’s sake.
PLAYBOY: Is it frustrating when people don’t get it?
TOWNSHEND: Well, by now I know they’ll never get it. Using irony is a waste
of time. Maybe two people will get it. But it’s worth trying. When I was
recovering from the accident, I realized that at least I had to try.
PLAYBOY: What will follow Psycho Derelict?
TOWNSHEND: I’m not certain. It’s strange for me at the moment. A few years
ago I thought of stopping, but now it must be clear that I’m enjoying a kind of
a renaissance as a performer. At the same time, though, I’m losing interest in
PLAYBOY: Is it no longer fun to perform?
TOWNSHEND: It’s fun, but I’m getting to the point where I’m running out of
ways to keep myself amused. When I perform, I try to do it differently every
night. I do things like Psycho Derelict and bring a play on a rock-and-roll
tour. I play small halls, not stadiums, which I have come to loathe. I don’t
know what will happen. I don’t have a vision of myself strutting across thre
stage like Sid Caesar and then having a heart attack backstage, a forgotten man.
I see myself stopping ten years ago and writing Williams Golding’s biography
and sailing on the weekends. But here I am.
PLAYBOY: If you were to stop, what would you do?
TOWNSHEND: I’d settle down to a life as a songwriter, publisher and possibly
an author. I can do that and I can still continue to make records when I have
something to say, and I can do theater and many other things. I can write rock
and roll, perhaps write pieces for Roger Daltrey that use not only his voice but
also his acting talent, to help him to grow and mature and resist the temptation
to set Who songs to classical music. I hear he’s booked something this spring
with the Boston Symphony.
PLAYBOY: Do you miss the attention when you’re not out in public with a new
record or play?
TOWNSHEND: No, because there is so much I get from my family. But I’ve
realized since Tommy opened that having an audience full of people every day,
whether I’m there or not, is fantastic. Selling records is OK, having music out
there on the radio is OK, but having an audience every night is even better.
Sometimes I sit in the back of the theater and watch people respond to my songs.
It has made me realize that I still need that very badly. It is why people like
me never quit. If you want to stop, you have to be sure of yourself–centered,
rooted. Otherwise, you’re going to retire and do what? Some men retire and go
off to find something else to do. I’ve never quite understood how golf provides
that, but it seems to. Where I come from, a lot of retired men go into sailboat
racing. They become unbelievably competitive, vengeful sailors. The other
sailors know: “Don’t compete with him, he’s retired. He’s an animal.” Laughs And
someone who retired early? Don’t go near him. There’s no point entering that
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you buy a sailboat?
TOWNSHEND: Laughs I did. I sold everything I had, all my old guitars, a
couple of nice old cars. Anf I bought a 60-foot sailboat in 1990 after the Who
tour, because I could not have afforded it before the tour. It was a classic
wooden boat, built in Genoa. I entered a couple of races. It was during the time
when I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue to make records. So there was this
kind of early-retirement thing in the air. And I slaughtered everybody. So when
you consider retirement, you have to make damned sure it’s not just your bank
balance that is in shape but also your ability to survive. That’s why there are
the eternal Sinatra comebacks, or Who comebacks, though we’ve done only one.
PLAYBOY: Does getting older–approaching 50–mean anything special to you?
TOWNSHEND: What’s interesting about getting older in this business is that
you are conscious of the fact that, like athletes, there are people trying to
grab the space that you occupy. After a time you realize that they are not
trying to occupy your space anymore. They’re not interested. The punk artists,
for example, wanted the Who’s stage, the Who’s grandiosity, the Who’s money, the
Who’s anarchy–all of that stuff, all of that rock-and-roll chaos, that tension,
self-destruction, realization and catharsis. But now I feel isolated in a group
of artists–old folks like Neil Young, Paul McCartney , the Stones–who nobody
who’s young is really interested in.
PLAYBOY: Do you mind?
TOWNSHEND: Not at all. I’m happy to be out of the fray, doing whatever I
want to do, considered by many, if not most, to be some eccentric has-been.
PLAYBOY: This from the man who said, “Hope I die before I get old.”
TOWNSHEND: Yeah. And I do. I still hope I die before I get old.