September 23, 2020

’74 Interview with Pete Townshend

Pete is interviewed in Los Angeles during the Quadrophenia tour.

This is the city. There are seventy-three different Used Car lots here, which average one commercial on local TV every fifteen seconds. Six hundred tubes of suntan lotion will be consumed here every four hours on one of our many lovely beaches. Ninety-three tacos per hour are devoured at drive-in Taco Ranches south and west of here by hearty junk-food eaters by the dozens. Tourists flock here regularly from nearby San Diego to partake of the underage Star girls on the comer of Hollywood and Vine. If The Who should come bopping into that part of town, the girls could start trouble, especially if one of them comes too near Keith Moon. Trouble is where I come in. I carry a pen.


It is clear and cool in Los Angeles. I am working the Who-watch out of Rock Magazine. It is just past three thirty and I am wearing my brown coat It is the twenty-third of November and my sneaker lace is untied.


My partner’s name is Neal Preston. My name’s Tuesday—Ruby Tuesday.


Secrecy must be maintained at all costs. I attempt to slip out of the airport unobserved, manage to get two-thirds of the way down the escalator when I hear my name’ being paged, swiftly do an about-face and proceed upward—thereby making a spectacle of myself.


"Official business," I snarl, scattering frightened riders right and left.


At the paging desk I identify myself and receive instructions to report directly to the Century Plaza hotel. This counteracts instructions from Control in New York, but I take the news in stride.


"They got color TV there, too?" I ask the girl behind the desk.


"I don’t know," she says, "I’m just part-time."


I step out into the brilliant sunshine and hail a cab. I must escape without further detection; reach my post without revealing my mission. The cabby is a youth, curly brown hair, WMA about five-six, one-sixty pounds, scar on his left cheek. I toss my attaché case into the backseat and climb in after it, shielding my face.


"Century Plaza hotel," I say nonchalantly, disguising my voice to sound like Henry Kissinger. The cabbie guns the motor and takes off. Soon we are out on the open freeway. All is well; I am safe.


"Are you with the group?" asks the cabby.


"The What?"


"No, The Who."


"Which Who?"


"The Who."




"You look like a roadie."


I decide the cabby is probably all right; still I can’t be too careful. "I am a writer," I tell him.


"Bullshit!" he replies.


Sensing skepticism I quickly reel off an impressive list of phony credentials: Dick Clark’s ghostwriter, author of a Tin Pan Alley Rhyming Dictionary, world’s foremost expert on the symbolism of Bemie Taupin, writer of the well-known revolutionary tract Free Bette Midler.


The cabby is impressed out of his mind. "Did you hear what happened to The Who?"




"Keith Moon passed out on stage."




"In San Francisco."




"The other night"




"I think he was wasted from a cold… or wasted from something else, heh heh." The cabby winks at me. I suddenly realize he might be a narc.


"What happened next?"


"Well, it was the weirdest thing. They asked if anyone in the audience could play drums and some cat jumped up and finished the set."


"Far out," I mumble.


"I saw them last night at the Forum," the gabby cabby continues. "This chick I know got me some seats in the third row. She’s one of Keith’s girls. He told her he’d get her a part in the movie of Tommy.


You think he will?"


I change my opinion of the cabby. He has now become the typical Who-freak, Los Angeles style. I surreptitiously get out my reporter’s pad and pen and scribble notes madly. If the ride is long enough, I could have my whole story right here. Evading his question about Keith, I launch into one of my own, a typically insightful, searing query, for which I am justifiably famous in the Western World.


"So what did you think of the concert?"


"I don’t know, man," laughs the cabby, "I was too fucked up to know where I was…."


* * *


At the Century Plaza hotel the wheels of the tour are in full motion. Chief-in-charge is one Bill Yaryan, who they tell me weighed two hundred pounds when the tour started, but is now down to something below one-twenty, running madly from phone to phone, shouting commands to his cadre of female assistants, tossing photog passes to all likely shutterbugs while keeping tight rein on the steady file of interviewers waiting for their chance to have at Peter Townshend.


"You’re up next," he calls as I enter the room, "in five minutes."


"Five minutes?" I cry in panic. I have to change my batteries. I have to find my questions. I have to take a wicked leak.


"Advance to point B!" cries Yaryan. "Two minutes to lift-off!"


The batteries don’t work. My questions are indecipherable. The bathroom is occupied. "Three-two-one-interview!" cries Bill. I am blindfolded and led into an elevator. We ascend skyward. When the blindfold is finally removed, I am being ushered into Peter Townshend’s suite.


* * *


Townshend has gone through maybe half a dozen interviews prior to this one, yet he is still sober, still polite. He is not tense, not sarcastic, gives the impression that you are the first, or if not the first, then the one he’s been most looking forward to having. He answers all questions thoughtfully, deeply, in a businesslike yet casual manner.


"I first had the idea for Quadrophenia somewhere in Europe. No, it was actually in America, I think—the last time we were in America on a tour. In any case it was about this time two years ago. I always think of most of the really heavy things I get into in the autumn, around November. Anything big that has happened to me has happened around November. I fell in love In November, I got stoned first in November, I had my first trip in November….


"Last year, previous to the recording I did go through a really strange frame of mind. I did start to get a little bit desperate again, in an adolescent sense. So just for a short period I was writing songs which really were sort of desperate, like ‘I’m One," that kind of clashing, feeble clutching at some sort of identity. I mean that was written in a sort of genuine melancholic state at the time. ‘Drowned’ was written in a more exhilarated state."


I mention that, for November, the weather in L.A. is unseasonably poor—last night it rained and tonight may do the same. Townshend, however, was very pleased by the unexpected showers. (It’s never supposed to rain in Southern California).


"We’ve had this thing about the rain since we recorded ‘Drowned." Chris Stainton came down to play the piano. I wrote ‘Drowned’ years ago, actually, a short while after Tommy I think; it’s quite an old song. So, just as we were about to start it off I remembered that I’d written it as a kind of tribute to something Meher Baba had said—he’s this spiritual master I follow. He said something like God is like the ocean and that individuals are like drops of water. They think they’re separate, but once they’re in the ocean, they know they’re an ocean—but so long as they’re a drop of water, they think they’re a drop of water. And that’s what ‘Drowned’ was about… being a tear or whatever… it’s kind of a clever or catchy lyric in a way.


"Anyway, I was thinking about that and then we started to play and it started to rain outside…. and then it started to thunder outside. We were about halfway through the number and even in the recording studio we could feel the fucking explosions going on outside … and Chris Stainton’s in the piano booth—you see it’s a complete separate room—playing away … and we finished the number off and I could hear the piano kind of deteriorating in quality. We finished it off in a kind of flourish. The solo on the actual cut went on for about twenty minutes, cause they really started to boogie… and Chris ends up shouting from the piano booth, "it’s fucking full of water… and as he opens the door it flows out I look up and the walls are streaming water. This is in our studio that we just built, because they hadn’t finished the roof up. Everywhere water. And we were working with a Mobile, which was outside because the control room wasn’t done … and I had six feet to run… from the door of the studio, into the street, into the Mobile … and as I ran across from there to there, that six feet, I was completely drenched and it was raining so hard. And I just thought it was great, and that take was so good… that ever since then we’ve got this thing that if it rains it’s gonna be a good night"


Townshend has said that Quadrophenia is about, at least in part, the separate personalities of the four members of the Who, merged into the one central figure of Jimmy. And this is appropriate since in Townshend himself one can sense the deeply felt desire to understand and be close to his friends, to be one of the boys conflicting with his need, fixed by fate, to stand apart, to write songs and rock operas about them, as if tor his own final clarification. And if the Who have been cast in the role of the quintessential England street-band, with Entwistle as the sullen, leather-jacketed greaser and Daltrey as the brash, strutting playboy and Moon as the happy-go-lucky, good-time crazy man, then Townshend is the skinny poet, accepted by the others for his brain-power, rather than for any obvious good looks or muscle-play.


Maybe at first he might have been laughed at on the corner, hanging out with all the studs, but then they took to him as a mascot, because he could keep them entertained with his songs, his high-flying stage-leaps… and before long they came to depend on him for guidance, inner strength, a stabilizing influence during the hectic years (although he might not be too stable himself). Finally they completely accepted him, admitted that they’d be lost without him. If the Who is the rock in the middle of the ocean in Quadrophenia, then in real life, Townshend is the rock that is the Who. The fierce inner fire that he keeps so well contained within, is allowed to explode into brilliant destructive flames only upon the stage. In private life, Townshend is quite the most unlikely maniac.


"There was a point when Jimi Hendrix was in the country, when I became part of a kind of jet-set. Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Paul. Ringo came around quite a lot, and George. I think it was because we were about to be managed by Brian Epstein. Kit Lambert and Brian Epstein were very respectful of one another and very very similar in a way and they were going to form a partnership and to manage us. I think it was at one point going to include Mike Jeffries’ involvement in Jimi Hendrix and perhaps Cream… and through that we got to see a lot of the Beatles.


"John Lennon was always incredibly funny and Paul was always a little bit embarrassing because he was never very sure of himself. He used to start off conversations with… ‘Don’t treat me… don’t treat me like somebody big or anything… I know you think I’m great… and I know you’re good, and you know I’m good…’ And this would go on for about five minutes and then John Lennon would come in and say, ‘Hello! Want a sandwich?’


"I still see Ringo quite a lot because Keith lives fairly near him, and they’ve worked together on That’ll Be The Day and they’re good friends anyway. And I see George fleetingly. I get invited to Paul McCartney’s a lot … but we never seem to end up going. The last time I saw him was in Olympic, recording, not his latest album, the one before. When I was mixing my solo album he was in the big studio working… and that went on for a couple of weeks, so I saw him quite a lot.


"Actually, I don’t find other musicians very good company. Eric Clapton’s good company… maybe it’s because he’s kind of out of the business… but I’ve always found him a very easygoing guy. We talk about films, and clothes….


Townshend and I spend most of our time talking about the creative life and in particular writing which seems to come easy to him. Except for the liner notes on Quadrophenia.


"That’s a little strained because it’s put together around the album itself. It’s a little bit of character building put in to let you know just how uneducated the character was, but also the fact that he was all right besides that. That was really all that was for, but I found it quite hard to write. You can see I went incredibly heavy on a sort of Catcher in the Rye thing to get it across."


Although emotionally spent from the album and wrapped up now in the physical demands of a tour, Townshend’s fertile mind is working on yet another idea. Still a dim conception now, but which could lead to who knows where.


"I had a kind of an idea at the moment—I thought really what I’d like to do after this, rather than do another longish story, I’ve got an idea for a longish album thing that I might like to do on my own which is another kind of sciency-fiction idea, which I quite like … but I thought it would be really nice if the band could do an album … basically it’s got a lot to do with the way John Entwistle writes. It would be nice to write an album, put a time limit on the tracks, say, of about four minutes at most, and write a series of story-songs. Me and John would more or less write them together. To produce an album, although without a huge concept, with some sort of cocoon around it which gave it an impact. But, then I’m just tossing a few ideas around. I’m feeling really drained from Quadrophenia."


At the Forum that night I manage to sink a few jump shots before Townshend and the boys come out to play before the packed house. It is a young crowd, seemingly too young to have known about the Mods and the Rockers, to have known about "My Generation," and The Who Sell Out. A post-Tommy crowd, who see The Who, not perhaps as the archetypal rock and roll band after ten years on the road, but as another quaint act to fill up their Friday night datebook. Still, they scream as if they’d been there in the days of "I Can’t Explain," It is a long, energetic set. Keith looks well. Roger only misses catching the swinging mike once or twice. John never cracks a smile. And Peter is simply incredible, even though he doesn’t smash up his guitar tonight as he did, I’ve been told, the night before.


"What happens is," he’d told me earlier, "we’re very lucky. We walk on the stage and we’re instantly there straightaway. We forget chords and things like that, and we forget words or we might even forget techniques that we were using which worked, and we have to remember them again … but we walk on and play and everything jells together and there’s never any problem. I think we could safely not play for ten years and still get up and it would work. John Lennon was in an interview on the radio in England and he was saying that when they did that Ringo stuff, they walked in, shook hands and started to play, and it was instantly the same."