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

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One of the problems, today, is not an obvious one. Roger – who, dare I say it tends occasionally to jump to conclusions about what's going on, and maybe sticks to them until someone can talk him out of them, jumps to a wrong conclusion when he feels that the gulf is created by a difference in age. I think it's more to do with a difference in stature. The Who are an enormous business machine, surrounded by all kinds of controversy – and I suppose a great amount of media power. A lot of that comes from the success of things that are happening around the band. The Tommy film is a case in point: an average, entertaining film, blown all out of proportion – the David Frost show. Allan Carr with his famous parties, Oscar presentations. It's really got very little to do with front-line rock & roll, but it does affect the way people see the band.

But there is also the fact that the band's history starts to accumulate. To be in existence for fifteen years, and still be working, still be appearing on a stage . . . People can actually pay money and go and see this band who have got – not so much a wonderful backlog of material behind them, but who have actually got a history.

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It's like discovering a new author. You run out of books to read, and suddenly you discover that you like F. Scott Fitzgerald. You start, and you read all his books, and you're really pissed off the day you come to the end of them. Then you go on to your next author – you might discover Salinger. And you go through that lot. And you get pissed off when you run out. This often happens to you when you're quite young – and what's a big kick for a lot of young kids who get into the Who is the discovery that there's so much to get into. We do exist now, we are putting out product, but there's a lot more they can find. So although there is a gulf, I think there is also a fascination in the fact that people might feel that gulf to start with, but also feel there's an opportunity, by a kind of investigative listening, and studying, and reading books about the band or going to see the films – there's a chance they can get closer.

All I can tell you is that I meet kids on the road – and they are kids, sixteen to twenty – and they treat me just like the guy next door. They've got no deep respect for me; there's no fanaticism. It's an absolute, one-to-one relationship. There's a familiarity, a sense of naturalness. I think that could only come about if they felt close to me. It doesn't happen with everybody – but it happens with quite a few people.

Of course, it's going to be different if you're fucking eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds – I don't think I'd go and watch the Who, even if I lived in America. I mean, I'd sit and wait until the Clash came: I'd go and see them. And hope I'd get one of their good nights!

Is there any point to the Who carrying on, as a touring band, any point beyond pandering to an audience that has become so conservative, so fearful of new experiences, that latching onto a rock legend – and whatever else the Who is, it is that – can become a reactionary defensive way of resisting new and challenging music? That isn't to say – or to deny – that your music today is unimaginative, old-fashioned, or whatever – that's irrelevant. I've been struck, over the last few years, by the fact that the great bulk of the American rock & roll audience will do almost anything to avoid having to deal with something that's radically new.
Me too – I think you're absolutely right. It's very, very strange: in Britain, at the moment, we've got 2-Tone, we've still got punk, we've got mod bands, we've got heavy-metal bands, we've got established supergroups, we've got all kinds of different families of music – each of which takes an enormous amount of adjustment. They're intense, and very socially . . . jagged. They don't fit neatly into existing society: they challenge it. And yet in America, kids seem to be quite happy. Rock, to them, is enough: establishment rock is enough. That seems very peculiar to me. There are obviously lots of subdivisions of music in America, but I think that's something record companies dream up. In reality, whether it's black music or white rock music, I think the truth of the matter is exactly as you've said. It's not necessarily something as big as fear – it's fucking uncomfortableness, listening to a Sex Pistols record. It worries you, because somebody is speaking the truth.

People in the States don't necessarily refuse to admit that problems exist, but it's a country that believes in success – that ultimate success lies in the hands of man. Whereas, rock doesn't. Newer rock, particularly, actually affirms the futility of man, in all respects but one. It says, in a word, in a sentence, what Meher Baba said: "Don't worry – you're not big enough to deal with it." It's just gone too crazy. Do your best and leave the results to God.

When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to "Anarchy in the U.K." and "Bodies" and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.

It touches you, and it scares you – it makes you feel uncomfortable. It's like somebody saying, "The Germans are coming! And there's no way we're gonna stop 'em!" That's one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like "Clampdown," and you can't hear the words, and they'll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the fucking words, they scare the shit out of you. Or the Pretenders – Chrissie Hynde's got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she's talking about getting laid by Hell's Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal. head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!

And yet it's only because it's disguised that it's getting played, and getting appreciated. To some extent, both the Clash and the Pretenders are getting played because their music is slightly more palatable, slightly closer to the old form. I saw so many new bands go down in England, so many great bands, because unless you were in exactly the right frame of mind, felt the same way, felt as abandoned, felt as anarchistic, and felt as I-don't-give-a-shit as they did, you just couldn't enjoy it. And in fact – to answer the question you asked at the beginning of all this – for the Who, at the moment, to go out as an established band, requires a lot of that don't-give-a-shit attitude. We don't give a shit whether the audience has a problem or not. All we know is that for us, to go on a stage, get instant communication, know that people have done their homework, have an instant connection with the audience, go backstage afterward into a dressing room full of the most beautiful women you can ever hope to lay your eyes on, never have anybody say anything nasty to you, everybody's friendly, everybody's wonderful, people don't throw us out of hotels anymore –

I mean, life revolves quite nicely – you know what I'm saying? I'm getting paid a lot of money for the privilege. The first ten years in the Who were fucking awful; miserable, violent, unhappy times. It's nice to now sit back and enjoy it. It might be brief; for the sake of rock music in some ways I hope it is brief. For me, maybe I don't hope it's brief.

We've very much dropped our idealistic stance in terms of our weight of responsibility to rock's evolution. We haven't stopped caring about where it's going to go; I think we've realized that we're not capable of doing that much, in terms of actually pushing it forward. If we have got a chance of pushing it forward, I think we've got a better chance of doing it on the road than we do on record, to be quite honest.

So can the band still make history? Obviously it has made rock & roll history, and it's certainly affected social history as such. You seem to be saying that can't continue.
Maybe only history in terms of statistics, now – how many years we've been together; how many disasters we can survive.

Which is not what I meant. I meant exactly what you meant: pushing the music forward.
Well, I don't know. Who's that down to? Is it down to me? As a writer? I don't know. I think if it's down to me as a writer there might be a chance, but I don't know how much stamina I've got left.

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