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

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Let me put it another way. What strikes me most about what happened in Cincinnati is that it seems, now, not to have happened at all. It has not become part of the rock & roll frame of reference, as Altamont instantly and permanently did. It seems to me that it was an event that should have signified something new about the relationship between bands and their audiences, or about rock & roll as mass culture, was taking place. It ought to have forced people to reexamine a lot of assumptions, a lot of what they took for granted. That hasn't happened.

Will that event have an effect on the Who's music? I don't mean in terms of the Who putting out a nice little commentary about it, as the Grateful Dead did after Altamont with "New Speedway Boogie"; I mean over the years, in a more profound way.
I think what's not apparent to the outside world, in the Who, is our – bloody-minded brutality. Our – determination. Our stamina, and our strength. It's not apparent, because we seem to brood so incessantly on our weaknesses, we seem to have so many phobias; like everybody who really cares about rock, we spend so much time worrying how many more years . . . But the amazing thing, for us, is the fact that – when we were told, told about what happened at that gig, that eleven kids had died – for a second, our guard dropped. Just for a second. Then it was back up again.

It was, fuck it! We're not gonna let a little thing like this stop us. That was the way we had to think. We had to reduce it. We had to reduce it, because if we'd actually admitted to ourselves the true significance of the event, the true tragedy of the event – not just in terms of "rock," but the fact that it happened at one of our concerts – the tragedy to us, in particular, if we'd admitted to that, we could not have gone on and worked. And we had a tour to do. We're a rock & roll band. You know, we don't fuck around, worrying about eleven people dying. We care about it, but there is a particular attitude I call the "tour armor": when you go on the road you throw up an armor around yourself, you almost go into a trance. I don't think you lose your humanity, but, think: for ten, maybe fifteen years, the Who smashed up hotel rooms – why? Where's the pleasure in it? We actually quite relished general violence. I don't understand why it happened. It doesn't happen now, but it did happen, for a long time. I think that, for me, tours were like a dream.

I was literally wearing armor. The only thing that would ever crack it, for me, at a show, would be if my wife and kids were there. Or my brother – he'd be, what? Eleven or twelve years old. Simon: he's got a band of his own now, On the Air. I used to really worry about him. He'd like to be right up front, and if I saw trouble happening – that would be my link. That would pierce my armor.

In a way, I think you're wrong about what you were saying about a gulf. When I say armor, I mean armor that actually allows you to be more abandoned, and freer, that allows you to be tougher, harder – genuinely tougher and harder. I'm not trying to glamorize it, and it's not something that I'm necessarily proud of. The Who's macho tendencies, in some ways, weaken our audience: our audience is about eighty percent male.

You say that if you had allowed yourself to really think about, to really face the true tragedy of what happened in Cincinnati, you would have had to stop – but you couldn't stop, you didn't want to stop, there was no point to stopping. But once the tour was over – or maybe a year after, or two years – isn't it important, if the band is going to continue to make sense of where it's been and where it's going, to somehow integrate that event, to absorb it: to allow it to affect you, in terms of the music you make and the way you perform it?
I don't know, because so far, we've had a series of quite unfortunate reactions.

How do you mean?
I think the way festival seating was blamed, wholesale, for practically all the problems, was quite a nasty, negative overreaction – because I like festival seating. When I go to a concert I don't want to have to fucking sit in a numbered seat, and get clobbered over the head every time I stand up. I like to be able to move about, I like to be able to dance if I want to, or go and buy a Coke if I want to, or push my way to the front if I want to, or hide in the back if I want to! I also know, from the stage, that you get the best atmosphere with festival seating.

Yesterday was a case in point: the second date we did in Seattle. I saw five or six punch-outs, because of people just not wanting to stand up at the same time as the person in front of them. You see one guy punching some guy out 'cause he's standing up, and fifteen minutes later he's standing up and the guy behind him is punching him out. Everybody's got a different reaction time – a different moment when they feel they want to get up and jump. One person thinks that the time to get up and jump is the guitar solo in "My Wife," and somebody else thinks it's when Roger goes, "See-ee meeee, fee-eel me –" I mean, who knows? You don't get that kind of conflict at general-admission shows.

That's one reason. Another is that immediately after the Cincinnati gig, to protect ourselves partly from legal recriminations, we doubled, trebled and quadrupled external security at halls. The problem with Cincinnati was external security, external control: external people control. People in large numbers need controlling. They're – they're like cattle. But a lot of kids complained; everywhere they'd look there was a cop. It spoiled their evening for them. They felt, okay, it happened in Cincinnati, but we don't need that. There was an article in the paper in Seattle, complaining about the fact that there was too much security. It said, "This isn't Germany. The kids in Seattle don't rampage. There's never been even a slight injury at a concert . . ." et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

All of which is quite meaningless: "It can't happen here." That's just what I meant about the event seeming not to have happened, to have been deflected.
Probably – but at the same time, it was interesting that the first serious problems they had at Seattle coliseum were at our two gigs [this tour]: the first two gigs they've done with reserved seating on the floor. It's the first time they've actually had audience-inflicted injuries.*

The other side of it is worth mentioning: the fact that the Who don't just get their strength from wearing armor. We did go home, and we did think about it, and we talked about it with our families and our friends. I went home to about ten letters, from the families of the kids who'd died: letters full of deep, deep affection and support and encouragement. It wasn't like these people were being recriminatory. The father of the girl who died who had two children was writing to say that it would hurt him, the family, the friends of the family and friends of the girl, if they knew that because of what happened, because of her death, we changed our feelings about rock. They understood her feelings about the band, and about the music – you know what I'm saying?

We actually left the States – I know Roger and I had a long conversation about it – with an incredible feeling of, without being mordant about it, of love for the American people. Everybody had been so positive, and so supportive and understanding – even to the point where people would come up to me and say, "We know it wasn't your fault." And to some extent it was our fault. It's not exactly the way the Cronkite report made it look, but there was a great share of responsibility there, and people were so willing to – not so much to forgive, but firstly to get us back into shape, so that perhaps it was possible for us to behave in a truly realistic, responsive way about the whole thing.

I think only time will tell. If I could dare say it, I'd say that Cincinnati was a very, very positive event for the Who. I think it changed the way we feel about people. It's changed the way we feel about our audience.

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