Tea with Townshend: A Post-'Tommy' Chat on Rock 'N Roll, Recording

"Don't send me to war because I'm too busy fighting a battle with me"

Pete Townshend in his home recording studio.
Chris Morphet/Redferns/Getty Images
May 14, 1970

Pete Townshend's quiet and unassuming 18th Century house stands on the Thames Embankment in Twickenham facing Eel Pie Island where, eight years ago, the Stones, Aynsley Dunbar, Acker Bilk, et al., first used to blast music out of the island's club where the floors bounced in all directions. "Free were on the other night," Townshend told us. "I opened the double frame windows and listened and they sounded good."

The gardener was pruning the roses in front of the house when Jan Hodenfield and I arrived. Boats were grounded in the low tide riverbed, scores of gulls resting on them. "When spring comes, the birds fly to the sea," he told us as we waited for Townshend to return home. It was one of those lazy afternoons when spring promises and river scents set you in the mood for an 18th Century English gardener to say something like "Sir, I for my part shall almost answer your hopes, but for this gentleman that you desire to see has stretched his legs up to town."

Pete Townshend soon stretched his legs back down to the house, invited us into the living room where, hanging just above scores of little wooden animal figurines on the mantel, Meher Baba's smile floated off the wall out through the windows across the river and into the island. Townshend made tea and then we talked about his plans and ideas since exhausting the performance possibilities of Tommy.

Afterwards, we went down the hall to Townshend's home studio where he played us tapes: "A Normal Day for Brian, A Man Who Died Everyday," which Townshend wrote and recorded just after Brian Jones' death:

I used to play my guitar as a kid
Wishing that I could be like him
But today I changed my mind
I decided that I don't want to die
But it was a normal day for Brian
Rock and roll's that way
It was a normal day for Brian
A man who died every day

"Accidents," a song from the forthcoming Thunderclap Newman album which Townshend produced and on which he plays bass, about "little kids having terrible accidents, falling down holes and being run over by cars"; "There's a Fortune in Those Hills," a slow wailing country song; "I Don't Even Know Myself," a dazzling song which begins with riffs out of "Gimmie Shelter," shifting into a gentle mountain music chorus and brilliant instrumental solos. These last two songs will appear, re-orchestrated and including the other members of the Who, on the second of the Who's forthcoming two LPs, the first one being The Who Live at Leeds.

Townshend explained how he recorded these songs in his studio: "This is just a two-track tape recorder, but it's got self-synching on it. I can put something on one track and then put something on the other directly parallel to it. Then I can get those two tracks, which were in this case voice and acoustic on one track and drums on the other, mix them together adding a bass guitar and put it onto one track of another tape recorder. Then on the other recorder I've got guitar, voice, drums, and bass together and I put a piano on the next track of that recorder. And then I mix those two tracks down onto the other recorder again in stereo, adding a guitar." Which is how Townshend becomes his own one man band.

When we left, Townshend presented us with a privately released Meher Baba birthday LP featuring Allen Cohen, Ron Geesin, and Pete Townshend singing solo: "The Seeker," "Day of Silence," "The Love Man," and, if you can believe it, Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine."

What are your next plans?
Pretty complicated, actually. We kicked Tommy out of the stage act. We're doing rehearsals and recordings for the next two months to get some new numbers into the stage act and record them for a new album at the same time. We'll probably keep some of our numbers from Tommy like "Pinball Wizard" and stuff like that. We're doing some shows in England during this period, the next couple of months, to try it all out. And then we've got a fairly short tour, which'll be the first one we're promoting ourselves, in the States for four weeks, and we're going to try following some of the success that the Stones had in playing theaters, play some bigger theaters, you know, because we've always shied away from them in the past, because we felt we just couldn't get the contact, you know. Also we want something to put ourselves on the spot, so that we don't get in the position where we're just going through the motions.

You're not going to do any free concerts?
There are some considered, but only concerts for causes. When we were last over there, there was a Bust Fund for the Berkeley Park thing, which we considered doing if it came at the right time. All kinds of bust funds. Good way to give Abbie Hoffman another punch in the stomach would be to give him the returns from a bust fund. I think I'd do it for him if he asked me. We think we might do one or two – we've got to be really careful, that's the only thing, I mean after that Altamont thing, I'm a little bit worried.

Can you give an idea specifically of the songs you're going to be playing?
Well, I'm still on a kind of a Self with a capital S trip, you know. It's a bit difficult, writing heavy when you really want to write light or when you really want to write devotional, you know? It's like a period which I know lots of other people have already gone through. I know the Beatles went through it, and quite possibly the Stones for a while. I've just done a thing of getting out of that trip, Tommy got it out of my system. I'm getting a balance now between "straight head" and "clear head," getting back to the point now where I realize that if you want to get anything done you've got to actually do it, you know, with a capital D, and not wait. So the kind of stuff we're doing at the moment – have you heard "The Seeker"? It's a bit like back-to-the-womb Who, not particularly very good, but it's a nice side, it's good because it's probably the only kind of thing we could do after something like Tommy, something which talks a little bit about spiritual ethics, blah blah blah, but at the same time is recapturing the basic gist of the thing.

The first thing I associate with self and quiet in terms of rock are groups like the Incredible String Band or Donovan. That's where the tone of the thing equals the content, right? Whereas the Who is a rock and roll sound basically.
Yeah, but it's roughly the same thing, it's just that I'm saying it in a different way. I've written something quite similar called "I Don't Know Myself," which is kind of blaming the world because you're fucked up. It's very much like "The Seeker" in a way. I kind of dig that, I think that, you know, the world is responsible. You can blame a lot on society, and you can blame a lot on yourself in society, and that's good, but I rather think of myself as something tender which has got to be sorted out and be found. I think that the self is an enemy that's got to be kicked out the fucking way so that you can really get down to it. Most of the songs that I'm writing now are a bit like that – "Don't pretend that you know me because I don't even know myself." Things like, "don't send me to war because I'm too busy fighting a battle with me," that kind of thing.

Well, that can be an excuse too. It's a half put-down of yourself, isn't it?
Well, it's a half put-down, but it's only a half put-down, of one bit.

There are some people who think you really can get what you're after. The idea of asking the Beatles and Timothy Leary for guidance because they're "stars" might seem to some people just like reading a lot of newspapers. How do you feel about that guy in the "Seeker" song?
He's just like a whirling dervish. It started off as being very much me, and then stopped being very much me. It's very personal, but then the whole thing is that, as soon as you discover that songs are personal, you reject them. It's what happened with "I Can See for Miles." I wrote it as a personal song at first, and as soon as I sussed out that that was what was going on, I completely pushed it away.

Quite loosely, "The Seeker" was just a thing about what I call Divine Desperation, or just Desperation. And what it does to people. It just kind of covers a whole area where the guy's being fantastically tough and ruthless and nasty and he's being incredibly selfish and he's hurting people, wrecking people's homes, abusing his heroes, he's accusing everyone of doing nothing for him and yet at the same time he's making a fairly valid statement, he's getting nowhere, he's doing nothing and the only thing he really can't be sure of is his death, and that at least dead, he's going to get what he wants. He thinks!

I wrote it when I was drunk in Florida. We were in the middle of an American tour and me and the production manager went out to Tom Wright's father's pad in the middle of the jungle to get some sun, and because we were only there for like five days, this guy was a very good friend of mine, he got in lots of steaks and lots of booze, and he like to overdid everything and it ended up with us, him and the production manager getting completely stoned every night and me being the only person that could stand up, playing, and we were just standing amid the sand spurs one day, I was just covered in sand spurs, I kept on falling and they stick in your skin and you can't get them out, screaming with pain and singing this song and it just came out, "I'm looking for me, you're looking for you, we're looking at each other and we don't know what to do."

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