Pete Townshend: Dr. Who

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Many of the new songs relate to a novella that you published online. Was the entire album inspired by that?
All the songs on the album were started while I was building the backbone for the novella The Boy Who Heard Music. The story is underpinned by rage and passion about events of abuse in my childhood that had been retriggered as I wrote about them in my autobiography, and my mother's recent return to active alcoholism. The two scenarios may well be interrelated. My mother was very, very brave to reveal some incidents in my childhood to me when I interviewed her some years ago. I was grateful to her. She didn't come out looking like the perfect young post-war mother – but I felt she had made up for it by being steadier with my two younger brothers, and by staying wildly married to my father until his death. However, I think she felt quite a bit of pain at relating what had happened to me as a little kid, and communication between us has been quite strained ever since.

Can I ask you to talk about those childhood events in greater depth?
I'm afraid that's as deep as it gets.

You've mentioned to me that the song-writing process for Endless Wire came in two spurts. Each time you were working with similar ideas, but with a more positive attitude the second time.
It was a more positive process the second time and moved more quickly. It's actually a technique I've used over and over again in my life, which is that I come up with a story or concept that inspires me to write songs, one way or another. I find it very difficult just to write songs in space or after sitting and reading the newspaper. Three I wrote after watching The Passion of the Christ, but generally I have to be in my own little neighborhood space. I have to keep re-creating it over and over again. You could call the groove I describe a rut. I can't break out of it. I've tried, but I keep going back to the fact that, you know, when something really big has happened to you, like for Americans now, this weekend, 9/11, the people that were here, they're forever changed by that. It's crazy to pretend otherwise.

I was born on the very last month of the fucking war, and out I come into the world looking for laughter and fun and a new life, and what happens is I land in this peculiar planet called England, and it was weird. My entire function is about trying to deal with expiating my childhood difficulty that came from the denial of previous generations.

Last week, I was reading about this book that's just come out. It's about the Polish Jews who got out of concentration camps and went back to their homes, which had been taken over by Christians who assumed the Jews weren't coming back. What happened was another wave of anti-Semitism in which dozens were slaughtered by Christians in Warsaw. The premise for it was that there was witchcraft going on. The Jews, of course, drank the blood of children. Been there, done that. Fucking hell. And I asked myself, "Why am I so heated up about this fucking story?" But it's because, as a kid, my best friend, Mick Leiber, was a Jew. We grew up in a community that was about a third Polish. We lived in a house that divided in two, and in the top part lived a Jewish family who were quite devout. Polish Jews were the kids I played with. They were my people. I remember saying to my mother, "Aren't Polish people from Poland?" And she said, "Yes, they were Britain's first ally in the war." I'd say, "But they're not like foreigners. They're just like we are." And she said, "Yes, they're just like we are."

With The Boy Who Heard Music, I wrote a story about three kids from the neighborhood who are my daughter's age, who are asking the same questions I used to ask my mother, in a shadow echo.

A shadow echo? Like the return of the repressed?
Right. The problems of generations, and the denial of our parents' generation, echoes onto the next one. I know this is the stuff of psychoanalysis, and I know we have to live in the moment, but our response to what happens in the world today is tempered and shaped by the way we were brought up to deal with trauma, spectacular attacks on our sanctity, prejudice, brutality, bullying, religious fundamentalism, all those things.

And where are we today? We're in the same anti-Semitic apologetic denial – it's a dishrag of a policy. Trying to blame Israel for defending a country we created. And I'm not even Jewish! Jesus fucking Christ. And let's start with him! Sweet Jesus. This album absolutely had to have several songs about Jesus the man, Muhammad the man, but not modern Christianity or Islam. They are both potentially anti-Semitic today. And I think the fact is that, when I was working on this album I just thought, "It's fucking about time that I completed my story." At this time in my life, with nuclear threats coming from Iran and Korea, I am becoming so impatient with the ex-hippies all around me. I am suddenly thinking like an extreme reactionary, right-wing, warmongering . . . . Fucking hell, come inside my brain! The incredible numbers of dead in the last war make it clear that we can't afford to wait to be hit again. That's my opinion. That's my story. Peace is something that has to be made. It doesn't come from passivity.

If Endless Wire continues to deal with the same themes you've always explored, how would you say your understanding of those themes has changed in the twenty-four years since the last Who album?
Now, everything is just about statistics. However big America appears from the outside, it's full of people who've been bludgeoned into insensibility by statistics. Andrew Oldham, the ex-Rolling Stone manager who now lives in Bogota [Colombia], sent me an e-mail this morning. It was a rant from somebody about the failure of the record executives to sell records. Something about how Christina Aguilera sold 300,000 the first week but then only 100,000 the subsequent week, and the promoter doing her tour is terrified that her tickets aren't going to sell. One of the Simpson girls, I don't know which one, has sold only 50,000 CDs. I'm looking through the e-mail and thinking, "Statistics, statistics, statistics. What does this mean? Does this make us bad people?"

The point is, I had been thinking, coming back to the world with new music, why would I want to stand onstage and play a great guitar solo? It would be to help people get in the zone, to forget themselves for half an hour. To demonstrate that there might be some poetry, something a little higher than statistics.

What's the "mirror door" that you refer to in one of the songs?
The mirror door came out of a kind of a rant I had with myself. When I was young, I used to talk about the fact that the Who were like a mirror, and then I realized that wasn't quite right. What we were was very transparent. The true great artists, the Dylans, make you believe you're looking into a mirror, and then, bang! You're changed. So "mirror door" is how I would describe the artistic process. You walk up to something you believe is going to tell you something about yourself and then it tricks you and you change. The mirror is actually a doorway. You're changed and you can never go back.

As the album's release approaches, do you have any anxiety about how people will interpret the meaning of are new songs?
Once the song is out, I don't have a problem with people feeling whatever they're going to feel about it. You take a song like "Won't Get Fooled Again," which has been rightly fingered now as a reactionary tune written to say, "Listen, I can't cope with the counterculture. I'm twenty-four years old and I've got a baby. Please don't come a-knocking on my door and say, 'The revolution is happening, Pete, and you've got to lead us.' Go away." When Roger sang it, suddenly it became almost the anthem of the counterculturalists. You say to somebody, "I'm not doing it," and they hear you say, "I'm doing it." Like, "I'm not going to tell you that I think President Bush is a bad man." And people go, "Oh, OK, so President Bush is a bad man." Let me tell you again: He fucking is not a fucking bad man, you fucking idiot. And the debates I had backward and forward through Harvey Weinstein with Michael Moore were beyond belief. He wanted to use my song "Won't Get Fooled Again" [in Fahrenheit 9/11]. I said to Harvey, "The guy wants to misuse the misuse of the song." It's not political or partisan or parochial. I do feel like, as an artist and a writer, I float above it all, like Updike or Roth. I float above it all and look down at all you guys running around, and I think, "I don't have the answer, but I can write the theme tune."

I suppose when I start to talk about myself as an artist, I feel like I'm retreating. I know what I'm responsible for is simply the artistic process. And the artistic process comes from living in a house in a country and trying to work out how to become a better artist and more truthful. I just follow my heart. Sometimes, maybe too often, I follow my pain. I'm trying hard to stop doing that. I'd very much like to stop doing it before I die, before I get old, before I become Kurt Cobain becoming Pete Townshend. However, as an artist I feel I am at the top of my game. I may never get any better. But I can try.

This story is from the November 2nd, 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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