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Pete Townshend, 'Who I Am': The Who Guitarist Talks Crazy Upbringing, Trashing Hotels, Online Predators
- Posted on Mar 8th 2013 12:00PM by Karen Bliss
Don Emmert, AFP
But woven throughout the 500-plus pages are references and passages about the profound impact a brief period in his childhood had on his whole life -- a suspicion he had been sexually abused. Years of therapy has not helped. To this day, he lacks clarity on what happened.
Born May 19, 1945, his father was a full-time swing musician; his mother had sung in his band. As a child, Townshend's parents sent him to live with his grandmother Denny, who was mentally ill and sexually promiscuous with local men. He remembers much of what happened (she held his head under water for example), but not all. He writes that the experience traumatized him, leaving him resentful and angry. Sometimes he still awakes terrified and sweaty. The Who classic Tommy was informed by this experience.
Ironically, it was Denny who also bought him his first guitar. And though briefly entertaining the idea of becoming a journalist, he quickly set his sights on music: "My father, the pop star! I wanted to be like him."
Townshend talks a lot and any question is met with a thoughtful, unexpected answer just as fascinating as any page in "Who I Am."
One of your notebook entries you used read: "I think I will write a book. It will take a year to write. It will be about the year I turn 21, which will be May of this year." Do you think you could've written this type of book when you were 21 with the kind of insight and assessment that you have written this one or did you need the perspective decades brings?
I was quite sincere when I was young because I was a student, pretty much. Although I was in the band, I still thought of myself as a student. I saw the Who as art project. So I think I could've written some kind of book when I was 20, 21. But in the notes that I found, there was also something else going on, which was I was going through a period of isolated narcissism in a sense. My principal relationships were with Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, who were the managers of the Who, rather than the three guys in the Who and our very small road crew at the time.
I lived in Belgravia, in Chelsea, which was a very posh, trendy part of London. The other guys in the band lived out near their homes. I was drafted into this trendy area by Kit Lambert who wanted to stay close to me because he wanted to nurture me as a songwriter. He also wanted me to grow, I think, and learn, and wanted to get me away from the kind of hothouse art school world that I'd been in in west London up to that point.
I found it amusing when I said, "I want to write a book." The kind of book I would've wanted to write, it's the same backbone that I used to pitch this book right the way through my life. I always said the same thing; I felt that my position, the point of view that I had, was unique. It was fortuitous.
I had grown up in a band. I had a slightly strange childhood. I'd seen both sides of the coin as it were -- the black and the white, the glamor and the terror. I'd had musical visions, if you could call them that. I had a real understanding of what popular music was for. And then I ended up at this amazing art school where my mind was kind of blown apart by these brilliant men who had put together this extraordinary course and at the same time rhythm & blues was breaking for the first time, right in the west London neighborhood where I was in art school, in Ealing, just down the street.
Then of course I had the incredible good fortune, just by accident, that my first song should be called "I Can't Explain," the first hit for the Who, where my audience -- mainly boys -- saw something in the song that I haven't intended. They saw their inarticulacy, their inability to express themselves, their frustration, and their rage, or their love or lust for their girlfriend. They saw that enshrined in the song and came and visited me and told me that.
Now, that all happened before I was 20. So I think that's what I felt that book would've been about, just really about saying, "Listen, pop music has changed. It will change further. And today, we can do anything with this music. Anything." It was an audacious, and possibly even a pretentious position to take. I really felt that after the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the world was our oyster, artistically speaking, and that was what I wanted to shout from the rooftops. And, of course, as I started to do that, as a young man I did get slapped down quite a lot. So then for a long time I just thought well, "I want to talk about it. I'll fucking prove it." I would just prove it."
Early on in the Who's career, the threat loomed of you guys breaking up. You mention Keith [Moon] and John [Entwhistle] didn't want to work with Roger [Daltrey] back in 1965 because he "lashed out with his fists." Then Keith and John toyed with the idea of leaving to do "surf-inspired" music. It's amazing that you got through all those years.
That's true. It is amazing. What's more amazing is that Roger and I are on tour together at the moment. I think it's astonishing. Bands are peculiar things. It could be magic in a way, two musicians performing together; it doesn't necessarily mean they will be friendly. There have been exceptions. I've got a friend Eric Mingus, who's the son of Charlie Mingus and I see him sometimes here in New York and he tells stories about Thelonius Monk coming around and sitting him on his knee and playing the piano. I find those stories intoxicating and I want to know more. The idea that Thelonius Monk and Charlie Mingus would actually hang out in his house [laughs] and bounce their respective children on their respective knees is kind of delightful. But it's not something that is necessary between musicians. You can walk onstage with a bunch of people that you hate and produce fantastic music.
There was a lot of hatred and uneasiness in the early Who that we tended to cover up with crazy behavior and just start losing ourselves in a kind of a running comedy act. Keith, as I mentioned many times in the book, kept the atmosphere light. There's a sense that the destruction of hotel rooms was in some way very, very dark.
And I think the one incident in Montreal, it was dark because, actually, that wasn't just us. That was a party of 20 or 30 people, many of whom were record executives and local people who all participated in this absurd destruction of this beautiful room in a brand-new Four Seasons Hotel in Montreal [from ketchup on the wall to throwing a sofa out the window]. Those dark moments were very, very few and far between. Keith just made a joke out of everything. He kept everybody happy. But there was always a strong possibility of the band flying apart at any moment. I'm surprised that didn't happen.
You could have chosen to open the book any number of ways. You selected the June 1964 gig at the Railway Hotel in Harrow -- The Who's very first gig. "Tonight... I am invincible," you recall. There were spots you write about in the book where you really must have felt invincible, driving drunk and crashing the car, taking a drunken leap of faith from a second-floor balcony, following Keith Moon into the hotel pool and narrowly missing the concrete. Is there a moment from the book, where you are like, "I was young and foolish, I can't believe I'm still here?"
There's never been a moment like that [laughs]. You either make it to be nearly 70 as I am or you don't. It's just luck, I suppose. But there is something else. I have to admit, to a degree of arrogance as well, I do feel where I have taken risks [laughs], I've always been careful to take risks that I felt I would survive. I didn't go and join the army and go fight in North Korea for example. I think what I've done as an artist is try to allow life to roll over me and I find that really difficult. I loved writing about my early life, but I didn't enjoy writing about the Who's career. It felt to me like a revisit to the Groundhog Day, being on the road and in the studio and writing songs.
The first 25 pages or even less of "Who I Am" focuses on when you were young. That's quite a life right there, all you went through. You were not yet 10. It's interesting how two years with your grandmother impacted your life.
It's extraordinary how much they impacted my life, especially since I remember so little detail and I struggled to remember more, both in therapy and in hypnotic regression and all kinds of ways but I've not been able to.
What I do remember, I think I say in the book, I got from my mom, who of course wasn't there -- she was off having a good time with her lover and had literally dumped me -- that's not the way she would have put it [laughs] -- with her crazed mother who had dumped her for fuck's sake. So I don't quite know why she thought I would be safe with this mad woman, but it was very formative.
What was most interesting about it is just the extremes -- being young and growing and remembering all this amazing, wonderful, colorful stuff between the ages of two-and-a-half, four-and-a-half, five -- being around musicians and their fabulous post-war dalliance and then suddenly two years with my grandmother in this dark, dark, lonely place, a woman who'd just been dumped herself by a rich lover and had her allowance cut down, moved from her luxury bungalow into a little flat by a railway station without a bookshelf, and then suddenly back again with the old gang with a new house and a new school.
It's those extremes that shaped me. I am a person of extremes. My moods swing hugely. I either think life is fabulous or I think it's shit and I find it very difficult. I have to train myself to occupy the land in between, but there's no collateral for me in the land in between. There's no collateral in "Have a nice day." It doesn't earn me any fucking money and nobody wants to hear me say it. What I'm good at is "Go to fucking hell" or "Let's conquer the world and screw everybody that gets in our way," the kind of rock 'n' roll extremes. And that's what works for me. So in a sense I was founded then in those early years. The reason I delighted in writing it was not because it was dark or light, but just because it was fabulous to remember my childhood.
It seems like you came from a progressive family. You mentioned you had an aunt who was a lesbian and you lived in a house with a Jewish family and did Passover. Your dad was a full-time musician. In that time, were these things starting to become acceptable or was it still pretty stodgy and prejudiced?
It was still probably quite tricky. I think my dad and my mom got away with quite a bit because they were musicians. Musicians were allowed to be a little bit different, expected to be a little bit different. But you're right. There was a progressiveness in that -- my mom was a little bit of a snob, but on the other hand, that was only in the things that she said. In the things that she usually did, her actions, they were much more loving, gentle and giving, and [she was a] forgiving creature.
One of the things about the Jewish circle, of course, is that a lot of the musicians in the post-war scene in the U.K. were Jewish because they'd come from various pogroms in Russia or pogroms Poland or Austria and Germany. So we had the cream of the crop with the musicians. But there was also, as I was growing up, a very big Polish community some of whom were Jewish and some of whom weren't, who'd also run away. It felt like a melting pot. And in the '50s, there was this Caribbean influx as well. And that was interesting and tricky for everybody involved because it brought up the subject of overt racism and overt judgement because many of the Carribeans that came into the U.K. in the early '50s had not been properly educated. So they did find it hard to prove themselves.
By the time I was a young man and trying to be a mod, the hottest looking mod faces happened to be Caribbean guys, happened to be the guys that got all the girls, happened to be the guys that won all the fights, and happened to be the guys that seemed to wear the best clothes. So, in a sense, what happened for the father, as a musician, would be certainly that race and religion just wouldn't matter and the same thing was true in the mod movement. In the mod movement, race and religion did not matter. Race, religion, and class didn't matter. I think I tried to make that point in the book, that many leading mods in London were actually posh kids, aristocratic kids who wouldn't have been accepted in any other fashion wave, but in the mod wave all you had to do was have the right clothes, be able to stand in the right position [laughs]."
When you look at the book as a whole, you cover some really important topics that are relevant and hot today -- bullying, sexual abuse, child abuse, drunk driving, gender identity, mental illness, on and on. What are the causes now that are important to you?
Maybe because of what I learned at my mother's feet, and also because of fortuitous things that happened around me when I was growing up, I'm very dedicated to my neighborhood, to the idea of neighborhood. I'm not saying family is something that has lost value or importance, or religion; I just think that the neighborhood is important to me. I'm lucky I still live in West London. I can see the building I was born in from the window of my house. I live on a hill, I look down at the River Thames; I look down at the place I grew up and where I spent time near the river as a child. But I'm also aware that if I just take a short bicycle ride, I end up on the states/estates where the kind of kids that I grew up with are still struggling.
I look at issues like, particularly to begin with -- the syndrome of unmarried moms, with children growing up without active fathers, those fathers being the ones that I think I can help best. So, I'm interested in prison reform, particularly for young offenders. But right now, the main campaign I'm involved in its that the Who are doing a concert -- Roger's joining me in a special concert, right at the end of this tour in June-July, for Refuge, which is a series of refuges -- there are about 70 in the U.K. which are suffering from cutbacks for women, for families, who've been caught up in domestic violence.
This is what I grew up with. I grew up with a family that was colorful and fun and crazy. But the kind of craziness that I saw in the families of the kids that I grew up with was of a completely different order -- underprivileged children with not enough to eat, with violent fathers, with ineffective mothers, with no state support, despite the fact that we have social security. So that's kind of where I focus my energies.
And the sexual stuff, stuff that I became really, really concerned about as the internet began to explode in 1996-'97-'98, is a kind of distraction really from -- no, it is a distraction. It's also a distraction that I think no longer really deserves any attention at all because I did think a huge amount has been done to police the internet, which we were told, when it first came along, it was designed to avoid. So the fear in 1996-'97-'98 was that the internet would become a terrifying wild west, particularly sexually speaking. But that's been proved not to be exactly true. It's tricky to police and it can be policed, which is something that I felt all along.