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

The Who leader talks life after Keith Moon, the aftermath of the Cincinnati tragedy

June 26, 1980
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

The interview that follows took place on April 17th, just a few days into the Who's eighteen-date spring tour of the United States and Canada: their second new-world tour since drummer Keith Moon died at thirty-one on September 7th, 1978, and their first since eleven people died in the crush of fans trying to force their way into the Who's concert at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum on December 3rd, 1979.

That event made headlines all over the world, most often as a condemnation of rock & roll (as on CBS news), or simply of America. Sixteen years as a unique and seminal rock & roll band aside, what happened in Cincinnati has probably made the Who more famous than they have ever been. Millions who had never heard of Keith Moon now think they know who the Who are.

In the world of rock & roll, the Who's status has also changed. People have rallied around the band. Though the Who have never placed a Number One album or single on the Billboard charts, they have represented the very spirit of rock & roll to a growing mass of fans; the Who's confrontation with disaster has made the group even more important as a standard-bearer, and raised the possibility that, having only just returned to live performances after two and a half years off the road, the band might be forced off the stage for good. The T-shirts fans are wearing tell the story: I Survived The Who, on the backs of a few, The Who Cares, on the backs of a lot more.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where Townshend and I talked, excitement, at least in the media, was pervasive. For days preceding the Who's three sold-out concerts at the 14,000-seat Oakland Coliseum Arena, the drums were beating with a message that could not be missed. Along with the usual ticket giveaways, radio stations programmed "all-Who" weekends, "the Who A-to-Z" weekends (and they have a Z, too: "Zoot Suit," the B side of their first record, cut in 1964 as the High Numbers), run long, pretaped interviews with Pete Townshend, and fondly recalled the Who's "American debut" at Monterey in 1967 (it wasn't; it was in New York in 1966). Smaller cinemas put on double bills of the band's two 1979 films, the fictional 'Quadrophenia' and the career-documentary 'The Kids Are Alright,' both of which had died early at local first-run houses. The day the Who left town, the radio jumped on Empty Glass, Pete Townshend's new solo album – with vocals, guitar and synthesizer by Townshend, piano and organ by John "Rabbit" Bundrick and bass by Tony Butler of On the Air, a band led by Simon Townshend, Pete's brother.

Such a buildup (and follow-through – two weeks after the Who left town, the airwaves were still full of their music) was common in the late Sixties, but nothing like it had been heard since: not for the Stones, not for Dylan, not for anyone.

The Who are, in some ways, a new band: along with Kenney Jones (who replaced Moon on drums), they have added Rabbit on piano, organ and synthesizer. After the end of the spring tour the Who returned to England to complete an album, tentatively set for release in the fall. They hit the U.S. in June for another tour, this time touching down in Los Angeles and heading for the South.

At the same time, the band is caught in its past. It's not the immediate past, of Keith Moon's death and the disaster in Cincinnati. ("We can do fourteen dead here," said a woman outside the Oakland coliseum, handing out fliers for the forthcoming concert by John Lydon's PiL. "We can beat Cincinnati." The Bay Area has always had the world's stupidest punks.) When we talked – before the show I saw – Pete Townshend spoke of the Who's history as, among other things, a burden: "A great knapsack – you carry it around, and nobody ever empties it. You've got the old stale sandwiches in it, as well as the new ones." But that history – and the Who's history may be more vivid, more coherent, than that of any other band with a tenure even approaching theirs – can also be a crutch.

As their show opened – with "Substitute" (1966), "I Can't Explain" (the band's first record as the Who, 1965) and "Baba O'Riley" (1971) – it was impossible to think of the songs as oldies, or even as classics. With the volume loud enough to be totally satisfying – and loud enough to leave me with a partially paralyzed lower lip and a sore wrist for three days – the songs were undeniable: rock & roll facts, preexistent entities waiting for the Who to discover them. The Who didn't sound like they were referring to what had gone before: they sounded as if they were starting all over again, from the necessary beginning.

100 Greatest Artists: The Who

But as the show moved on – and into the more abstract and less social material from Tommy, or 1978's Who Are You – the performance, at least for me, settled down. Other fans – the teenage junkie behind me, the college students in front – grew ever more excited, but in a way they also settled down: they were waiting for their favorites, and the shape of the concert insured that they would get them. If the show was not quite the Who's Greatest Hits, it was the History of the Who. Aside from a couple of numbers from Quadrophenia, and "Dancing in the Street" as part of a three-song encore, there were no surprises: no unrecorded material, nothing from the unfinished album, no obscurities, be they "I Don't Even Know Myself" or "Pictures of Lily" or "The Seeker." The band gave the audience what it wanted, but they didn't entice the audience to want more than it had thought of wanting – which is what the Who, like all great rock & roll bands in their great days, have been all about.

Technically, the show was superb: shot through with fun and movement. Roger Daltrey seemed to run in place for two solid hours. Townshend's crouched leaps were thrilling – spectacular but not gaudy, aggressive but not cruel. No one in the Who ever seemed bored by the material. The band changed the show over the next two nights. They cut it down, stretched it out, shuffled the songs, varied the encores – and, according to one fan who saw all three concerts, Townshend never played the same solo twice. The band sounded as compact and uncompromised as it ever has. Rabbit and a horn section added a kind of subliminal fullness. But it was a show based on the "stature" Pete Townshend talks about below, not a show intended to subvert it.

To a man, the Who looked terrific. Roger Daltrey and Kenney Jones were dressed in T-shirts and denims, and worked like athletes. John Entwistle, as always, stood stock still, and this time wore a neat white suit, which set him off perfectly. As for Townshend, he appeared onstage in an impressive navy blue jacket: he looked like a world-beater. When, after a few numbers, he took it off, revealing a Clash T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his pants suddenly seemed baggy – and he struck me as just another rock & roll anomaly. Just another Buddy Holly: the kid you laugh at, if you bother to do that, the kid who one day comes out of his shell and changes your life.

As that Clash T-shirt was no doubt meant to show, Townshend remains a fan. Since "I Can't Explain" he has been one of rock & roll's first-rank creators, definers; but since a memorable interview appeared in these pages in 1968, he has also been its premier participant-philosopher – or, if you like, player-coach. What follows below is merely the latest installment of that career. –G.M.

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