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The Punk Meets the Godmother: Pete Townshend Looks Back

An account of the Who since 'Quadrophenia,' Pete's personal crisis . . . and a happy ending

November 17, 1977
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustrated by Daniel Maffia

Pete Townshend, as some of you may remember, is the high-stepping guitarist and songwriter of the Who. This is the third piece he has written for Rolling Stone. (One of the earlier pieces was about the Who, the other about Meher Baba; this one's about both.)

Pete originally proposed the piece late last October, saying he would like to write about "what happened to the Who back in '75 during the recording of The Who by Numbers, the traumatic events that led to and went on in the studio, my own absurd needless crackup, Keith's deepening alcoholism and ostracism from the Who, my visit to San Francisco for a Sufi 'cure,' my decision to let Roger 'win' and the subsequent miraculous growth in the internal relationships of the Who members to one another."

London, April 1977

It took a bit of courage to start this article, as I have said precisely nothing to the press (other than through lyrics) for close to two years. Today, reading it through, there is much I am tempted to add or expand on. There is a strong temptation to bring everything up to date, but then the success of the Who's last tour did that. The future, of course, is an open book.

Townshend's Mixed Blessing

The sections in italics are merely pieces of my writing from about November 1973 to November 1975, the months covered in the article. I often sit at a typewriter and knock out stream-of-consciousness stuff. It not only helps clear the head but often brings forth ideas for songs. These were written on scraps of paper at the dead of night, at the lunch table with the kids on my lap, in hotel rooms while filming or performing. They were never meant to be published, so they are somewhat obscure, but they are minimally edited and therefore revelatory of my state of mind and degree of intoxicated desperation.

I used to be highly talkative with the rock press and have missed my contact with writers. Silence, however, is habit-forming, and I am glad to be able to look back objectively to such an emotional period of my life with the band and try to say it right. What I never expected was such sympathy and understanding from writers who I continually put off when they asked for interviews or even just a chat. I have lost contact with many journalist friends because I have been scared to speak. This article helps bring things up-to-date. Perhaps in the future I can get used to working jaws again, instead of my fingers – fingers that would be better occupied playing guitars or tickling children.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: the Who

February 1st, 1977. Today I received a letter from a neighbor. She says I must forgive her for ignoring me, but it's because of her religion. She knows I have a crush on her. I'm not sure who she is, but I might well have a crush on her if I did; she wrote a letter to my wife saying the same thing. Irritating.

It's now 2:30 in the morning, and I can't get to sleep. My crush on my neighbor has become so strong that it will only be satisfied when I have thrilled to the delight of actually crushing her. I sometimes wonder where this piece of my destiny was forged: anyone can sum me up at a glance, my life is on sale. All I know is that it sometimes hurts to be exposed, and to be unable to retaliate without feeding the haggling customers.

Yesterday was Meher Baba's "Amartithi." Followers of this great Master (to whom I remain committed) celebrate the anniversary of his passing in 1969. In the afternoon, I saw a film of his entombment and felt a most powerful feeling of his presence throughout the day. It is incredible to me – as I'm sure it is to many witnesses of my day-to-day behavior – that I still feel so moved by Meher Baba's words, photographs and films. After following him for nearly nine years, I have fallen deeply into the rhythm of focusing all my reflections on life through a lens formed of experiences I have had under his spiritual umbrella.

That letter and the film: as extremes, they seem to indicate the incredible paradoxes and conflicts that surround me. The most amazing thing of all is that my head has surfaced, some distance from the shoreline of past paranoia, in an ocean of immeasurable possibilities. I feel strong and secure and, for the first time, able to talk about the Who (or at least the Who through my eyes) back in '74 – '75.

If I try to imagine where my head was two years ago, it's a strange vision. Paranoia does not adequately describe my feelings, though I suppose all of the Who were to a degree paranoid toward one another. But my trouble was also manifestly spiritual. I felt I had let myself down morally and artistically; I felt quite genuinely to be a hypocrite. I complained a lot about things that I felt I was doing from the goodness of my heart but wasn't receiving enough attention for: to pick only one example from many, helping Eric Clapton. I spent a tremendous amount of time with him during his heroin cure, and earned his love as a result. What originally happened was that I'd been going down to see him, because I figured that if people started to go and see him, he might come out of his habit. I knew him well from the Hendrix days, of course, and I enjoy his company. Also, Alice, the woman he was living with, and I really hit it off. Then David Harlech, her father, spoke to me. He said that Eric wanted to do a concert if I would run it. I felt I had no choice but to agree, and it was instrumental in getting him to John and Meg Patterson, whose acupuncture cure did eventually rid Eric of his addiction. But my wife measured it all against time spent with her, fairly minimal at the best of times, and very minimal during this period (around November 1973). There is no point pretending that it is possible to help bring a man off heroin while you're doing a nine-to-five office job. "Tea and meet the wife" don't mix with three a.m. phone calls and Rainbow reunion rehearsals that actually start at six in the morning!

Explaining Who-mania, for Pete's Sake

At the same time, a confrontation with Roger Daltrey was building. While working with Eric, I was also writing and recording Quadrophenia. Kit Lambert had helped a certain amount while I was writing, and had promised to produce the album. He didn't make out very well, and argued with Daltrey. I felt let down and took over, despite the fact that I had more than enough on my plate.

When the album was completed, it took only a few days for Roger to express his disgust at the result. I had spent my summer vacation mixing it, and he had popped in once to hear mixes, making a couple of negative comments about the sound but seeming quite keen to let me "have my head," as it were, in production. Fundamentally, I had taken on too much, as always, and couldn't handle the strain when things went wrong and people blamed me. I felt I was perfectly entitled to gamble and lose, as no one else seemed prepared to, either with Quadrophenia or even the Who's career.

So, I felt angry at Roger for not realizing how much work I had done on the album – apart from writing it – and angry that he dismissed my production as garbage. It's hard to explain, because I don't feel these things anymore. I genuinely feel I was the one who was in the wrong. But it contributed a lot to what happened later.

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