2007-03-01 13:19:26 UTC
Sometimes, Pete Townshend feels like he's carrying the world on his
shoulders; his new music lifts that burden
By George Varga
UNION-TRIBUNE POP MUSIC CRITIC
March 1, 2007
For fans of The Who, last year's "Endless Wire" represented the English rock
band's first album of new songs since "It's Hard" in 1982. But for Pete
Townshend, The Who's guitarist, sometime singer, principal songwriter and
all-around creative visionary, "Endless Wire" represented nothing less than
life or death for the London band he has led for more than 40 years.
"I could not have done any more, and made it very clear that I would do no
more big tours without new music," said Townshend, who plays here tonight
with the latest edition of The Who at ipayOne Center.
More shows, yes. A major tour, no.
Townshend, who in the 1960s helped lay the foundation for punk rock, power
pop, hard rock and rock opera, didn't want to repeat himself any longer. The
composer of The Who's timeless 1965 anthem of teen angst, "My Generation,"
with its snarling declaration of defiance - Hope I die before I get old -
needed fresh inspiration to move forward as he grew older. And without a new
Who album to get his creative juices flowing, soul-sapping stasis appeared
dangerously imminent for this bearded British rock icon, whose fans range
from Eddie Vedder and Bono to the members of such younger bands as Jet and
"I would have done some shows for various reasons, possibly to make a bit of
money, or for charity, but touring today is politically incorrect, bad for
the ecology, selfish and entirely Western," Townshend said in an e-mail
intervie from New York.
"But if you throw some new art into the mix, it feels justified to me; this
new music might suggest a way to change, might inspire a new and poetic way
to evolve. Of course, it might not, but in the past my music has been
attributed with special powers to help people through difficult times.
"We'll see what happens with the new stuff. It's helping me."
Townshend seems very much like a man reborn, artistically speaking, as he
demonstrated at the first of The Who's two sold-out concerts last November
at the Hollywood Bowl. Ditto on "Endless Wire," which features a 10-song
"I don't feel right unless I spend a few moments of each show two feet in
the air," said the still-spry guitarist. "How absurd is that for a man of
61? How can it possibly mean anything, except to someone else who is 61 and
needs a vicarious validation?"
But Townshend's biggest validation comes from his renewed sense of musical
purpose with The Who. This in turn has bolstered his friendship with singer
Roger Daltrey, 63, the band's only other remaining original member.
"There is still a real feeling of celebration for Roger and me but it is
coming from the right place - the audience, and for the right reason - we
have survived," Townshend said.
"Our music is a real mixture of acoustic, light rock and heavy rock. That
reflects better what I have always done in my own life and solo work. So at
last Roger and I feel we both can view The Who as a vehicle for every shade
of my songwriting, not just the bravura and bombast. Some fans may feel
slighted, or cheated in some way, but the old music is there always, and it
is a joy to play it live because of the way it triggers an audience to an
Nearly five years in the making, "Endless Wire" was delayed - and almost
derailed - by two dramatic events.
The first was the drug-fueled death of bassist John Entwistle in June 2002.
His demise came 24 years after the drug-and-alcohol-related death of
original band drummer Keith Moon in 1978 - and only a day before a Who
concert tour that largely went on as scheduled.
The second was Townshend's arrest in January 2003. It came after he admitted
having accessed images of child pornography from the Internet while
researching a memoir about his own abuse as a child (which also inspired his
autobiographical storyline for The Who's classic 1969 rock opera, "Tommy").
He was cleared four months later, following a lengthy police investigation
by Scotland Yard, although his name will remain on a national Sex Offenders
Register in England until next year.
"Child porn enraged me," said Townshend, who has rarely addressed the issue
in interviews since his arrest.
"The only good thing about my arrest was that I had to put a cap on that
rage. If I had gone on with my rage-driven campaigning I would probably have
been shot by some branch of the Balkan Mafia or agents of some burgeoning
dot-com empire that was building Wall Street flotation stats based on porn
delivery dollars counted in billions. Sometimes a broken nose and a badly
cut eye means you have to stop the fight. Somebody saved me."
So, a decade earlier, did the La Jolla Playhouse.
Townshend still sings the praises of outgoing Playhouse artistic director
Des McAnuff, who in the early 1990s helped him transform "Tommy" into a
multiple Tony Award-winning smash.
"I had worked in theater before I worked with Des, but my experience with
him was special," Townshend said. "Commercially the success of 'Tommy'
changed my life, and not entirely for the better. It took me some time to
get used to making so much money without having to stand on a stage myself;
I went a bit crazy.
"... I have to admit that back in 1993, with 'Tommy' on Broadway, I had
absolutely no intention of working with The Who again. I was very unhappy
that 'Tommy' on Broadway was called 'The Who's "Tommy." ' From an authorial
point of view 'Tommy' is my story, no one else's."
And now The Who is the once again vital musical story of two boyhood pals,
Townshend and Daltrey. Both are now in their 60s, and each is thriving.
"I don't want making music ever to feel boring. But lately I have been
finding 'The Zone' while on stage with The Who," Townshend said. "This is
something to look forward to, because in this state time doesn't exist, only
sound, rhythm becomes the ticking of a clock that has no power to age.
Musicians that find 'The Zone' feel as if they will never die, and even if
they die it is OK.
"It is the most perfect form of meditation there is - because it involves
action, art, expression, feedback, reflection and poetry. A rock musician in
'The Zone' is as much a High Artist as a jazz musician, or a filmmaker or
writer. Ego may bring us to the stage, but when we find a way to lose
ourselves there, the ego has done its job perfectly."
To read George Varga's complete Q&A interview with Pete Townshend,
Union-Tribune subscribers can log onto utsubscriberperks.signonsandiego.com/
JOIN TOGETHER WITH THE BRAND
At least for The Who, yesterday's parody is today's reality.
When "The Who Sell Out" was released in 1967, the album included several
songs that were mock advertisements, including "Heinz Baked Beans,"
"Odorono" and, prophetically, the luxury automobile-championing "Jaguar."
Today, classic songs by The Who are prominently featured on TV commercials -
and as the theme songs for all three "CSI" TV series.
Some fans regard this as a real-life sell out by The Who. But Pete
Townshend, the veteran band's leader, pays them no mind, especially in an
era when radio playlists grow ever narrower and young and veteran bands
alike fight for exposure.
"I'm for sale," he said. "I'd sell flakes of my skin if anyone would pay for
them. What I wouldn't do is try to sell flakes of your skin. 'CSI' has been
vital to The Who ... it has extended our reach internationally."
WHAT ABOUT MUSICAL PURITY?
"Purity? Forget the art, the purity of Pete is being cheapened," Townshend
said. "But hey, that's show business, and at least I'm not working down a
Here's a look at some of The Who's songs used on TV shows:
"Baba O'Riley" - "CSI: New York" (2004)
"Won't Get Fooled Again" - "CSI: Miami" (2002)
"Who Are You?" - "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (2000)
ON TV COMMERCIALS:
"Magic Bus" - Nissan Quest minivans (2006)
"Baba O'Riley" - Cisco Systems networking equipment (2006)
"The Real Me" - NBA draft (2006)
"I'm Free" - Saab automobiles (2005)
"Baba O'Riley" - Hewlett-Packard computers (2004)
"Happy Jack" - Hummer (2003)
"I Can See for Miles" - Sylvania SilverStar high-performance car headlights
"Baba O'Riley" - Nissan automobiles (2000)
"Won't Get Fooled Again" - Nissan automobiles (1999)
- GEORGE VARGA
WHO'S BEST? WHO WANTS TO KNOW?
Pete Townshend shines on record, with and without The Who. Here are some of
pop music critic George Varga's personal favorites:
"The Who Sings My Generation" (1965): Still one of the most ferocious debut
albums by any band. Highlights: "My Generation," "The Kids Are Alright."
"Tommy" (1969): The Pretty Things beat The Who by a year with the first rock
opera, but "Tommy" is the more daring and satisfying. Highlights: "Pinball
Wizard," "I'm Free."
"Live at Leeds" (1970): One of the most combustible live albums ever. Get
the CD reissue, which adds a whopping 27 songs to the original, six-song LP.
Highlights: "Magic Bus," "Summertime Blues."
"Who's Next" (1971): Originally planned as an expansive concept project,
"Who's Next" was pared down to a single album by co-producer Glyn Johns, but
what an album it is! Musically and emotionally, this set a standard for
rock, and beyond. Highlights: "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes."
"Quadrophenia" (1973): Wildly ambitious and, at times, unwieldy, this
double-album achieved a heady degree of grandeur without sacrificing its
hard-rocking grit and fire. Highlights: "5:15," "Love, Reign O'er Me."
SOLO OR DUO
"Rough Mix" (1977): A duo project with Ronnie Laine, this aptly titled
collaboration finds Townshend at his most earthy and unpretentious.
Highlights: "Heart to Hang on to," "Till the Rivers All Run Dry."
"Empty Glass" (1980): The lyrics to some of these songs are so intensely
personal that Who singer Roger Daltrey felt uncomfortable trying to perform
them when Townshend first presented them to the band. The result is perhaps
Townshend's most moving solo outing, with added urgency coming from his
then-rapidly deteriorating personal life. Highlights: "Let My Love Open the
Door," "Rough Boys."
"The Lifehouse Chronicles" (2000): Townshend released this six-CD set
himself in an effort to document his greatest artistic failure: A 1970
concept album intended as his sequel to "Tommy." Highlights: "Teenage
Wasteland," "Baba O'Riley."
"Pete Townshend: Live La Jolla Playhouse" : Recorded at a pair of mid-2001
solo shows here, this two-CD set captures The Who's leader at his most
direct and intimate. Highlights: "The Sea Refuses No River," "St. James
- GEORGE VARGA
-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!