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

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It seems to me that the love songs on Empty Glass are much more personal than they've been for the past few years – not confessional, but clearly directed to a person. There's a passion in "A Little Is Enough" that seems very new.
I think probably because I've had a harder time, lately. Before Keith died, I decided that practically all the personal problems I had – whatever they were, whether it was boozing, or difficulty at home with my family – was because of the Who on the road. When we came off the road, I spent two and a half years not touring – under great pressure from the band to tour, but I resisted, and said, "No, I want to try it and see what happens." I got to the end of that period, and all my problems were still there. Some of them were worse. But what was strange about that time was that it somehow opened me up: I was able to put a slightly different slant on the qualities that I look for, or that other people look for, in life.

With a song like "A Little Is Enough," what was interesting to me was that I was able to very easily put into words something that had actually happened to me when I was a thirty-four-year-old. It wasn't self-conscious; it wasn't a song written from a stance. It wasn't objective. It was purely personal: instant, and purely transparent. It's very emotional, but it's also very straightforward and clear. Just the fact that you can't fucking have the world. If you're lucky enough to get a tiny piece of it, then – fine. When that's applied to something as immense and intangible as love – whether it's spiritual love or human love . . .

I suppose I wrote the song about a mixture of things: I wrote it a little bit about God's love. But mainly about the feeling that I had for my wife – and the fact that I don't see enough of her, and that when we are together there're lots of times when things aren't good, because of the period of adjustment you require after a long tour: stuff like that. She would always want a deeper, more sustained relationship than I would–but in the end I suppose we're lucky that we do love one another at all. Because love, by its very nature, is an infinite quality, an infinite emotion – just to experience it once in a lifetime is enough. Because a lot of people don't – don't ever experience it.

A lot of the songs on the album – well, "Let My Love Open the Door" is just a ditty – but particularly "A Little Is Enough" and a couple of the others – "I Am an Animal." I think – are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who's thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn't in the George JonesWillie Nelson tradition – "I'm a smashed-up fucker standing at the bar . . ." "Empty Glass" is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz – he was a poet in the fourteenth century – used to talk about God's love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God's grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink – the barman being God. It's also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can't fill it up with his love – if it's already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: "This 'Empty Glass' – is that about you becoming an alcoholic?"

That George Jones tradition – which is apparently where the person in Germany plugged in "Empty Glass" – can be just as stultifying as if you felt it always necessary to write in the voice of a seventeen-year-old: as if that were the only way a song you wrote could have any validity as rock & roll.
I think what's always been my problem, though, is that I've always been fascinated by the period of adolescence – and by the fact that rock's most frenetic attachments, most long-lasting attachments, the deepest connections, seem to happen during adolescence, or just postadolescence. Rock does evolve, and it does change, and it does go through various machinations, but to you, as a listener, someone who needs both the music and the exchange of ideas – you always tend to listen in the same way. You expect – and you feel happiest when you get – an album that does for you what your first few albums did. You're always looking for that: you're always looking for that first fuck. Of course, you can never have that first fuck, but you're always looking for it. Occasionally, you get very close. Always chasing the same feeling, the same magic.

I think the strangest thing for me – and I think perhaps the Who are unique in this respect – is that we seem to be able to continue, even though I think my writing is clumsier than it was in the early days. It's less easy for me to completely open up. because I'm not alone anymore. When I wrote the first five or six hit songs for the Who. I was completely and totally alone. I had no girlfriend, no friends, no nothing – it was me addressing the world. That's where the power of that early stuff comes from. But despite the fact that the later material is less transparent, less wholesome to some extent, we still appeal to a very young audience. Sometimes preadolescents. But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab – a deep, instant grab – which lasts . . . forever. It's not like a fad. People who get into the Who when they're thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don't necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation – as each batch comes up every year – but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.

Just after Cincinnati, just after the news hit that eleven people had been killed trying to get into your show, there were statements on the radio from you and from Roger Daltrey, and my wife was very disturbed by something Roger said: simply a reference to the people who had died as "the kids." She said, "But they weren't all kids – one of those people was a mother with two kids of her own." What that expression meant to her was that the audience was no longer real to the band: the audience had become faceless, physically present but also somehow invisible. Whoever was in the audience, they were "the kids." It was as if there were an enormous gulf separating the band from its audience – as if there were no way to feel the kind of identification she and I felt when we first saw the band in 1967, when it became obvious that the band and its audience were part of the same reality a reality we were both creating, or a story we were both telling. Do you think there is that kind of gulf?
Yes. I think there is. When I think back to the days at the Marquee – we got a regular Tuesday night residency, which was a big coup for us, because we didn't even have a record out. The first night, there were maybe fifty people, the next night, two hundred, and after that we were packing it. We were a cult within a cult – our whole audience was nineteen years old, as we were – and there's a great feeling of affirmation when the audience knows they're sharing in the success; they're making the success happen as well. So you become incredibly close. The two or three thousand people who regularly attended the Marquee residency – I think I know them all by their first names.

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