September 25, 2020

’68 Village Voice Interview with Pete Townshend

Pete discusses jazz music as well as "auto destruction art"

Charlie Parker, like the Church and Communism, is worshipped without question by many followers. "Bird was a bitch!" – one hears it often. Although a crime to not adore him, never having really listened to Charlie Parker is quite common now. To many younger players go no further back than middle John Coltrane and the music is the worse for it. As with writers who never read Shakespeare closely, or painters who have spent too little time studying Rembrandt, they are cripples.


Bird’s music is no more dead than jazz itself. (I hate to keep repeating that but sometimes redundancy is useful, particularly about a truth so often disputed.) Last summer, in St. Tropez, I decided to have dinner in an outdoor garden restaurant near my house in the country. I’d been passing it to and from town for three weeks, but somehow I had never stopped off. It turned out to be more elegant than the neighborhood would lead one to believe – full of the Beautiful People, their baubles and dogs. So, it is hard to express my surprise upon hearing Francoise Hardy replaced by Charlie Parker over the sound system – "A Night in Tunisia." The owner is seems, was a jazz fan and nobody knew the difference anyway.


On the back of an album named "Happy Jack," Peter Townshend is described as "a prolific songwriter…the most exciting guitarist in Britain. He frequently rams his guitar into the amplifier for show and uses feedback to great effect. He is…an outspoken person with an interest in Stockhausen, brandy and painting."


I am getting tired of hearing about the intellectual tendencies of rock and roll musicians. There is an annoying and growing pretension on that scene which is at the point of hurting the music. So I was without much curiosity, and somewhat reluctant, carrying my tape recorder into the offices of a public relations firm toward the end of one business day last week.


Townshend was on time, the first sign that I was in for an unusual experience. We settled at a conference table littered with empty coffee containers, over-flowing ash trays, and scratch pads with numbers scribbled on them. He was dap—mod not flower—his wide tie a beauty. Shoulder length hair frames his somewhat pouting face with its prominent nose and piercing, intelligent eyes. I started by asking if he thought there was much similarity between jazz and rock – either the life-style or the music. His syntax was excellent – he required very little editing.


"As a matter of fact I was a member of a jazz club in art college. At the beginning I could only dig people like Gerry Mulligan. But I listened more and more and finally ended up having a whole thing about Charlie Parker…"


Wait a minute! Stop the music.


"Charlie Parker? How did you come to hear him?" Townshend acted as though it was the most natural thing in the world to be 22, a member of a British rock and roll band called the Who, and to have a "thing" about Charlie Parker.


"People in the club brought in a lot of records, mostly stuff like organ jazz, which I didn’t like. I found John Coltrane quite confusing then; also Albert Ayler, his earlier things. It all came down to one thing for me – jazz is an expression of freedom, of soul. Like other music, it very much needs its roots. And the roots are not so evident now. What I needed to understand jazz was to understand the roots. And I couldn’t then.


"In some ways jazz is a pretty desperate thing – trying to communicate inner feeling, inner frustration. They guy who first got to me was Parker. Coltrane nearly did later too, but unfortunately I had a religion bug at the time – I didn’t dig it – and all of a sudden Coltrane got very religious."


I offered Townshend a cigarette which he refused. He had not smiled once, although it seemed more from intensity than ill humor. "Did you read that about Coltrane," I asked, "or hear it in his music?"


"I could hear that he wasn’t really playing for me. He was playing for the Lord. That upset me. But Parker seemed to be playing for everything. Parker wasn’t playing for the man in the armchair in the sky. He was playing for inside himself and that’s playing for everyone. Whereas Coltrane was confused, wasn’t playing for life really. He was playing for death – for heaven."


That interpretation may be open to question, but it proved to me that Townshend had really listened, that he was not just another rock musician "interested" in Stockhausen. He went on to talk about how much he loved people like Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Jimmy Giuffre, the "quiet people who come together and find their quiet way to huge things which amount to ecstasy because they know where they are in the music. They know about the present in music, do not think about the final end product; not, say, thinking about ‘we want this thing to come out as a funky abstract thing,’ not thinking ‘well I’m going to play this in a certain way,’ but rather very much grooving with what is happening at the time. You should be able to go right to the present with jazz, the way it is when the music is happening."


The Who isn’t my favorite rock group or close to it. Like Moby Grape, however, I find nothing specifically objectionable about them either, and I often play their records when I work. Their music gives me energy without diverting my attention. They certainly don’t sound jazz influenced. I asked Townshend about it.


"There is an indirect influence only; our concern for communication. One of the problems with rock and roll today is that it doesn’t want to communicate in a direct manner. It wants to confuse, to agonize, to decorate. The current trend is to power over the music. They can’t seem to just make music, to be taken by music. They have to have a reason. Everything has to have a label, a category, a motivation. People seem to require these things. But the real music is the music you can be concerned with as it happens and when it’s finished, you go on and wash the dishes."


"Do you achieve that in your music?"


"Well, I’d love to be able to. I think I sometimes achieve it when I just sit down and play the guitar to a few kids in a room. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t be doing that."


"It’s hard to separate music from show business, isn’t it?"


"It’s not only show business. It’s rock and roll. You are required to perform a function, to release emotions, to release certain emotions in the audience. But not only that, you have got to entertain as the world goes ’round you know? You’ve got to…to…work out your money’s worth…I mean, when I think of how much I would pay for the privilege of hearing Charlie Parker…It’s like, I’d pay all I had—to be with him in what he’s doing—do you know what I mean? Just to listen to him, that’s an easy thing to do. To get into him, to thrive, to groove with him while he’s playing—that’s real appreciation of his talent.


"But Charlie Parker could still get through to you on a record. It takes real genius to do that. He was so brilliant that he could not only get through to the audience which was waiting for Dizzy Gillespie to do a funny dance, but he could also get through his own problems, get through the poor recording quality of those days, get through all the poor rhythm sections, through all the record covers, through all the record stores, through your crappy phonograph – right to you. To me, he sounds like a divine person…"


"I thought you didn’t like religion."


"That was then. At the moment I’m slightly more open to general theology…It’s religious ceremonies I’m against, I hate ceremonies…"


"I was just being facetious…"


Townshend laughed out loud for the first time, and went on. "…Music is vibrations, vibrations of the soul, of the air. It’s a whole means of communicating to your other extensions which is the audience. But audiences don’t really know why they are there. They might come to see you break a guitar or something like that, or…"


The Who, along with the Yardbirds of "Blow-Up" fame, were among the first to bring auto-destruction to rock and roll. I asked him to explain all that.


"That comes from something which is my equivalent of Charlie Parker’s abandon."


"Was that a conscious influence, or did you realize it later?"


"It was pretty conscious, I guess. One of the things about auto-destruction is that you are suddenly faced with what is really happening—the end of the show. A few seconds of total abandon. It seems like a logical end to the way I play, because…well, I guess I’ll never be able to play the way I want to play…"


"That’s very sad. How do you mean that?"


"Well, I’m too concerned with making LPs and getting married, having kids; but I can still do what I want occasionally, like I said before, just play the guitar alone for a few kids in a room…It’s funny, getting back to auto-destruction, how kids react to that now. It’s become a whole drama. The first time I broke a guitar, I wasn’t conscious of anything. I just banged it against a wall. It just happened. And it broke. And I said, well, that’s that. It’s broken. Then, bit by bit, I built up this thing and now I’m in the position where some kids expect me to do it, some object to my doing it, some kids want pieces of the guitar, some want their money back if I don’t break it, some feel disgusted if I do break it.


"I was involved with auto-destructive art in college. I knew what it was. What I wanted to do was sculpture. I got my labels, got insinuations, skepticism, and some praise. And I mean, what’s it all about? I thought that this ‘thing’ whatever it is, should be made out of something that is going to crumble before their very eyes. And then, they will understand what it really was. It’s getting time in perspective, I think, auto-destructive art it’s getting categories into perspective. Art has always been lumbered with the fact that it is so successfully recorded. You know, it’s there, so you ignore it. It’s a myth, the myth of Charlie Parker, for example, is exploded when you get to him, by his records."


"What myth?"


"The myth of his genius."


"How does it explode?"


You understand that it isn’t a myth. It’s reality."