.

Pete Townshend Fights Back Against Child Porn Charges

“I am not a pedophile,” says Who guitarist

February 20, 2003

On Saturday, January 11th, the front-page headline of Britain's best-selling newspaper, the down-market tabloid the Sun, was ROCK LEGEND FACES KID-PORN PROBE. It did not name the "hell-raising music legend" who was "said to have downloaded sick images from the Net," but said that he was on a list of 7,272 Britain-based subscribers handed to the British police last spring. It was clear that the paper knew the name it wasn't yet printing, and before lunchtime that day, Pete Townshend, wearing a white robe, spoke to journalists outside his London home, acknowledging that he was the rock legend in question and explaining how he believed this situation had come about. Later, reporters were handed a written statement.

"I am not a pedophile," it began, and said how he had spoken out about the Internet's role in disseminating sexual images of children. He further stated, "I have been writing my childhood autobiography for the past seven years. I believe I was sexually abused between the ages of five or six and a half when in the care of my maternal grandmother who was mentally ill at the time. I cannot remember clearly what happened, but my creative work tends to throw up nasty shadows – particularly in Tommy. Some of the things I have seen on the Net have informed my book, which I hope will be published later this year, and which will make clear that if I have any compulsions in this area, they are to face what is happening to young children in the world today and to try to deal openly with my anger and vengeance towards the mentally ill people who find pedophilic pornography attractive."

He also told the reporters that he had "been in touch with Scotland Yard to tell them what I've been doing." But something more widely quoted in the press fueled the fire: "I have always been into pornography and I have used it all my life," he said. "But I am not a pedophile." And "I was worried this might happen and I think this could be the most damaging thing to my career. I think I'm fucked."

On Sunday, Townshend was on the cover of every major British newspaper. Alongside his denials, some papers dug so low as to run photos of Townshend with the British pop star Gary Glitter, who had appeared in Nineties productions of Quadrophenia before being jailed for possessing child pornography. Townshend said he was "deeply wounded" by the suspicions about him. He further clarified that he had looked at child-porn sites three or four times after stumbling upon one while surfing the Net with his son Joseph – "It repelled me and shocked me to my very core" – but only once entered a site with a credit card and never downloaded anything. "With hindsight it was very foolish but I felt so angered about what was going on," he said. "It blurred my judgment."

In the week after his arrest, the media relentlessly covered Townshend's case. Mostly, there has been a skeptical response to the notion that Townshend's foolishness may have in part been driven by research for a book – as though he simply plucked the idea of a book out of thin air as an excuse. But the book certainly exists. He talked at length about it to Rolling Stone last July, the week before the start of the Who's American tour and the death of bassist John Entwistle. In fact, Townshend said one of the reasons he was prepared to reconvene the Who was that the book was finished. "I loved writing, I loved researching," he said. "I researched about my childhood, I spoke to my mother, I spoke to my teachers at art college . . . I reviewed my life with my grandmother. And it all went incredibly well."

The other document that sheds light on Townshend's predicament is a Web-site article he referred to in his statement, which a spokesman subsequently said had been removed for legal reasons. It is a long essay called "A Different Bomb," dated January 2002. The article begins by explaining that a forty-something actress friend of his had killed herself in the past week, and that he believed she had been sexually abused as a child by her father and his friends, and that discovering her father now had access to more young children in a new relationship was the trigger for her suicide. "It seems then," he writes, "that the greatest terror for an adult who remembers sexual abuse is the thought that other children might suffer as they did."

He notes the "unusually unmerciful worlds for any infant characters" in his work and says that "some people who were abused in their childhood have written to me to say how much they identify with the character of Tommy.

"It might be strange to hear that I was glad I found it," he writes later, describing how he discovered that images he imagined would only be available though secret codes and private chat rooms and encrypted files "were ‘freely’ available . . . Even so," he considers, "I found myself wondering whether that thought brought fears for me that were, perhaps, quite out of proportion with reality: Maybe I was stirring my own subconscious memories; maybe I was just being pompous. Now my friend has joined a long list of suicides who were sexually abused as children, and I feel I must speak up."

He has plenty more to say on the subject, until the reader reaches the final paragraph, standing on its own as a kind of epilogue: "The subconscious mind is deeply damaged and indelibly scarred by the sight of such images. I can assure everyone reading this that if they go off in pursuit of images of pedophilic rape they will find them. I urge them not to try. I pray too that they don't happen upon such images as did I, by accident. If they do, they may like me become so enraged and disturbed that their dreams are forever haunted."

This story is from the February 20th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone.

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

prev
Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.

X

We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

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."

More Song Stories entries »
 
www.expandtheroom.com