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100 Best Covers: Townshend Unbound

'Rolling Stone' celebrates our 1000th issue by examining 100 iconic covers

May 18, 2006
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Only six months after eleven fans were trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati, Pete Townshend was characteristically blunt during his cover interview in Rolling Stone. "I think what's not apparent to the outside world," he declared, "is our bloody-minded brutality." Writer Greil Marcus wasn't surprised. "He says what he thinks," says Marcus. "And he usually says it very effectively and very pointedly." The cover shoot was held in an Oakland, California, studio that previously had been used to film X-rated movies, "You could smell the amyl nitrate," Townshend recalls. Photographer Annie Leibovitz had the guitarist leap high in the air, as he did during his shows. "We did almost like a dance session in the studio," she says. "He didn't have to do the jump that many times. It had quite a beautiful elegance to it right away. Looking at it now, I realize how lucky I was to actually catch him in the air."

Pete Townshend on 'Empty Glass,' Cincinnati, And the Who's Future

Although Townshend was the star, he was mesmerized by Leibovitz. "Annie was like a great, overanimated hockey-playing schoolgirl," he says. "Enthusiastic and serious but incredibly persuasive, and for that reason – to a sexual passive like me sexy. It doesn't surprise me that so many of her pictures involve celebrities with their shirts off." Years earlier, when Leibovitz first photographed the Who in 1973, she persuaded Townshend to smash a guitar for the camera. Set in resin, it now hangs in the Rolling Stone office.

This story is from the May 18th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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Song Stories

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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