The Voice of ‘My Generation’

Pete Townshend’s new book on his life, the Who and his crush on Jagger
By JOHN JURGENSEN Wall Street Journal 10/04/12

Pete Townshend wrote his first song for the Who at age 19. “I Can’t Explain” seemed to be about a young man bewitched by love, but it actually described the songwriter’s struggle to understand the intoxicating effects of music. Mr. Townshend’s quest to inject deeper meaning into rock ‘n’ roll would lead him to smash countless guitars in concert, and write rock operas such as “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.” Starting Nov. 1, Mr. Townshend will join singer Roger Daltrey, the Who’s only other surviving member, on a 37-date tour to perform “Quadrophenia” and other highlights from the band’s history.

The son of two swing musicians, Mr. Townshend, 67, documents the history of the Who and his solo career in a new autobiography, “Who I Am.” He also used the memoir to explain controversial chapters of his personal history, including his arrest in 2003 for using a credit card to access a website advertising child pornography, which he said stemmed from his efforts to research and help the victims of childhood sexual abuse. Below, an edited transcript of an interview.
[image] Getty Images

‘I was maybe 19 when I broke my first guitar…I knew at the time it would be regarded as a bit of a gimmick.’

Why did you open the book with the first time you destroyed your equipment on stage?

I was maybe 19 when I broke my first guitar. I had already been experimenting for about a year with using the guitar as a kind of train whistle, making these extraordinary, strange, warlike noises. It was to make music that sounded like war to demonstrate the futility of war. So when that guitar broke, I suddenly thought, “Wow, this is the way to make this visible.” I knew at that time that it would be regarded as a bit of a gimmick. But I didn’t care. And obviously it was very expensive. I was an art school student, for f—’s sake, and the guitar would have cost the equivalent today of about $3,000.

You helped invent the rock opera, a form that’s regarded as a little pretentious today. Have audiences become less tolerant of big ambitious statements from their stars?

I don’t see anybody really trying it. What we see is that the artist has become the opera. Lady Gaga is just the most extraordinary living story. Before her, the biggest was probably Michael Jackson. His end was just superb…I loved Michael Jackson and held myself as a distant friend, but if you were writing his life as a rock opera, you couldn’t ask for a more spectacular and tragic ending. I hated when people called me pretentious because I felt that I was being craftsmanlike and practical.

You describe Mick Jagger as the only man you ever wanted to have sex with. Will that come as a surprise to him?

He might have heard it before. It’s partly a joke, and since I’ve wrote it I’ve thought of quite a few men that I wouldn’t mind having sex with, but I’m not going to make a list. I never got Elvis in the way Roger got Elvis. But Mick—his movements, his dancing, his shoulders, his hair, just the way he played a tambourine—it was beautiful and intoxicating. It transcended gender for me. And the fact that he has always been such a friend to me has been important. This is being a friend of Nureyev or Nijinsky or Rudolph Valentino, one of the great sexual shamans. He’s the only person I feel I could ever say that about and get away with it.

At the Monterey Pop Festival, you told Jimi Hendrix you didn’t want the Who to follow him on stage, and you describe an awkward exchange. Do you wish you had handled that differently?

Perhaps what I didn’t do was fight my corner hard enough. Maybe I was too passive. That thing about, “I don’t want to follow you on stage, Mr. Hendrix, because you’re far too important an artist.” Bowing and scraping. And maybe that didn’t connect with his inner language. I had one more conversation with him in L.A. at a party and he was very friendly and warm.

Your catalog of songs is obviously a major financial asset. But what has been your smartest investment?

In the U.K., up until the last few years, we’ve been lucky enough to have a property market where values have continued to rise absurdly and exponentially. The few properties that I bought in my life have all been great investments. My wife and I bought our first house for £16,000 in 1967, and sold it for £100,000 in 1980. My investment in recording studios has gone well also, but that’s always been a loss leader for me. When the Who stopped operating in 1982, I turned to dramatic projects, musical theater. “Tommy” the movie, then the Broadway show, generated grosses which made some of the Who grosses over the years look puny. That’s also been a buffer. And the other guys in the band did benefit from those projects.

Which part of your life or career would you have skipped in the book if you could have?

The last few years of the Who. I lost interest in writing about it in the exact same way I lost interest in it. Post-“Quadrophenia,” it felt to me as though the band and the fans lost interest in what I wanted to do as a writer and an artist. The fans became more voracious than they seemed in the past. Those years were hard to write about. Then, guess what? Keith Moon dies. It’s like writing a real-life crime story: Everybody knows what’s going to happen in the end.

In the same way, the reader also knows you have to address your arrest on child-pornography charges.

If it wouldn’t have seemed like I was avoiding talking about it, I might have ended the book earlier and given myself a chance to come back with a part two. But I needed to explain. I wanted to talk less about my arrest than about what led up to it, the way I was upset by what I was learning about the way kids in orphanages were being treated. I was guilty of what I was charged with, using a credit card. What has to be looked at is why I did it and if it was the right thing to do. I damaged myself, but I don’t think I hurt anybody else.

What do old rockers talk about when they get together?

We’re widely dispersed now. What used to bring us together was the TV studio, the gig, the festival. We were in this hothouse. Woodstock. Monterey. The Isle of Wight. The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. And there was downtime. Time to sit and chat with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Not to have a serious conversation, but to turn and say, “What you doing, Yoko?” When Dylan came to see a Who show on our last American leg, he met Rachel, my partner, and he said [impersonating Dylan], “What do you play?” She said, “I’m trained as a classical organist.” And he said, “What music does a classical organist play?” I knew he was going to ask me a question in a minute. And he turned to me and said, “Where’s Roger?”

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