A brief interview with Townshend, discussing Meher Baba, rock and roll, and spirituality.
"You once told me that you think rock is not the music of youth but the music of frustrated people. Do you still believe that?" I asked Pete Townshend.
"Yeah, I think that’s true."
"Well," said I slyly, having drawn him into the trap, "you consider yourself a rock musician. So that means even with all your religion and following the precepts of Meher Baba, you’re still frustrated."
Pete stretched out his legs and laughed. "Well, everybody’s frustrated in a spiritual sense, so yeah God is frustrated." He laughed again.
The pot of coffee on the marble table in Pete’s hotel suite is cooling, but the conversation is warming up. Rock and roll’s foremost intellectual was digging into a subject he knew plenty about — spiritual and physical life, and how they affected music.
I told him that one of the things I couldn’t understand about his involvement with Eastern religion, as well as that of other rockers, was how could the submissive ego required by the religion be reconciled with the ego-flexing of rock writing and playing?
"Well, it’s very difficult for me, for example. You bring up Meher Baba and express surprise at the amount that hasn’t changed in me. What makes following Baba different to following anybody else is that you don’t change at all. You don’t look upon ego, in the true mystical sense, as being an enemy. You look at it in proportion, and you realize there is the thing which is driving you, and it’s eventually going to destroy itself.
"But you need ego right up to the end. Baba put it in an incredible way once. He said that when somebody finally is on the brink of a decision between surrender to the infinite and holding onto illusion, holding onto life, it’s the ego that is necessary to make that last jump. You still need the ego to say, ‘I am God.’ or ‘I surrender,’ or ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough.’
"And the other thing he said is that life gets sweeter and sweeter, so it becomes harder and harder to move on. So in the rock business, as a rock writer, sometimes I feel kind of out of place, like pretending that I can have any kind of spiritual poise at all when I have to adopt a sort of egoistic rock stance to work.
"And this is why ‘Quadrophenia’ is going to be the last album of this type. I found it very, very hypocritical to write a song like ‘Doctor Jimmy.’ I’m not different from the way I was when I was young — I feel all the same things — but I was sort of writing about somebody else.
"Like the part where he says, ‘What is it, I’ll take it. Who is she, I’ll rape it.’ That’s really the way I see Keith Moon in his most bravado sort of states of mind. It’s not necessarily the way I feel. It’s just something that I can identify with, like sitting and watching a movie."
"That song reminded me of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ on the ‘Tommy’ album," I said.
Pete misunderstood what I said. He thought I was referring to "Won’t Get Fooled Again" and went off into a long explanation. But then it turned out, there was a connection between all three songs.
"That’s something I’ve got behind in a way," he said. "I mean, that was a song, really ("Won’t Get Fooled Again"), about telling people who were telling me what to do to fuck off! It was a time when I was incredibly exposed. The underground was really down on my neck. I suppose I was going through a mild version of what Dylan went through with the dustbin man. (The reference was to Alan J. Weberman, who stole Bob Dylan’s garbage hoping to find out secret information.)
"I refused to change my telephone number, and I refused to not open the door. I thought, well, fuck it, if I can’t deal with things that come along, then I might as well fucking give up. So I tried to deal with everything logically and intelligently, tried to handle people.
"And about halfway along, I got fed up with being lectured, and I got fed up with people telling me what rock and roll was all about, and what rock musicians were supposed to do now, and how rock and roll musicians were supposed to help overthrow the capitalist regime, and how rock and roll was supposed to sort of finance co-ops and communes and do this and that, and how because you were a rock and roll star and everybody looked to you for guidance and inspiration, that your responsibility was a political responsibility and a liberationist responsibility.
"I felt, all of a sudden, ‘I quit,’ and I thought, well, no, all right, if I do have any kind of responsibility, let’s not give it any kind of low level. Let’s go to the fucking top of the building, let’s call it a spiritual responsibility.
"Let’s say that I am responsible for the spiritual well-being of my patients. So fuck off the lot of you. And I take great pleasure in saying it now. It’s one of the songs I enjoy most on the stage, because I still feel that way."
Pete finally stopped to take a breath, and I quickly jumped in to ask him if he was really talking about "We’re Not Gonna Take It."
"No, I was talking about ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ but ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ is really the same song, you know. They were written very much at the same time, and they sort of said the same thing. That song wasn’t written especially for ‘Tommy.’ It was something that happened to me around at the time, which I brought in. It was about something else cops I made slight word changes in it."
Pete slumped back and relaxed again, and the conversation turned to less intense subjects. Even a rock and roll philosopher needs an occasional break from the spiritual.