The Punk Meets the Godmother: Pete Townshend Looks Back

Page 2 of 7

I was in one of those shallow sleeps when dreams are clear as day, but each scene in the unfolding reverie is also strangely dark. I gazed at an ocean scene, thinking to myself, "I am dreaming, I control my movements through my sleeping adventures."

In a dream within a dream, I awoke for a minute. I looked around the room. Everything was as it should be: the chair in its usual place, with my previous day's clothing strewn over the back. The dead television gazed at me quietly: the window blind was pulled right down, the bathroom light still on, towels on the floor damp and tangled.

I closed my eyes and became aware of a strange feeling. Not of an impending nightmare or even the experience of unease, though the whole scene seemed set for troubling vision. On the contrary, a sense of elation came over me. I snuggled my weary head into my pillow like a child and smiled at the strong buzz of contentment that flooded my mind.

Pete Townshend: Busy Days

At that moment, I heard something distant that seemed to reflect my almost orgasmic feelings of pleasure. Years before, I had experimented with a tape recording of dozens and dozens of piano performances, sweeping and glittering over the entire chromatic scale. I then mixed them all together as one and the result was an almost unidentifiable sound, but of great beauty and mystery. A sound like waves crashing, or distant wind over a summit, but musical. In fact, on occasion a glimpse of detail within the deluge manifested, and piano could be clearly heard.

This new, remote sound I heard in my dream had similarities to my experimental work. It sounded like a breath being gently sighed away, but the listener's ear seemed inside the mouth of a lion. Listen to your own breath. Breathe out in a quiet place and hear the beauty and complexity of the sound. The slightest change in the shape of your mouth chamber, the tiniest movement of your lips, and the breath becomes a song or a word. A thousand harmonics are thrown up like glittering reflections on the surface of a sunlit bay. In the mystic's "Om" is contained every sound, and every sound within a sound. Every ingredient that contributes to the source of the primordial desire to even make a sound is contained in that one word.

So this is the train of thought I was taking in my dream. I was still aware that I was asleep, but it seemed unimportant. The new sound grew louder, began to come closer. Then the miracle surpassed itself, the beauty of the sound became transcendentally glorious. Its superficial simplicity only disguised a secret ingredient that, I felt, must in itself contain all things.

This roaring, singing, cascading sound threw me into an ecstasy that almost defied description. But while swooning under its import and unparalleled attractiveness, I still had the presence of mindperhaps because I am a musicianto try to analyze and discover what this incredible music was. If I could only break down this sound I could remake it for the whole world to hear. I could make a reality of this outer limit of my unleashed and unfettered musical imagination; glorious, celestial music of only dreams.

I began to listen more carefully, trying to ignore the hyperbolic sweetness of the soundalmost like a starving man trying to eat a piece of cheese and at the same time compose a thesis on the relative distinction between, say, double Gloucester and caerphilly.

Recklessly, I plunged deeply into the music. As I became submerged, it became slightly more coarse; it was, indeed, like diving into the sea. The feeling of the sharp, cool water is always a shock when one has spent an hour gazing languidly at the sunny surface of the waves. I could still hear the rippling and soaring of the incomparable sigh, and I was now in it, of it. I delved even more deeply into the secret. What was the essential ingredient of this music? What was its fundamental element?

For a few minutes, I was lost in my search. I forgot to listen quite so intently and began turning over in my mind the various possibilities and alternatives. Was it a million pianos? Perhaps the sound of a heavenly choir?

That was it! The heart of this sound was the human voice; there could be no question. I plunged headlong, further into the chasm of this incorporal symphony. As I thrust inward, it was apparently simplifying.

Then, in a second, the whole world seemed to turn inside out. My skin crawled as I recognized the unit elements of this superficially wonderful noise. I could not believe what I heard. As I tore myself away. I felt I was leaving sections of my self behind, caught up in the cacophonous dirge. I tried to wake myself, but only succeeded in breaking through a superficial levelno longer a dream within a dream, merely a nightmare. A game, a ghastly trick perpetrated on me by my own mind. A vitiated and distorted ploy of my ego to stunt my trust in nature's beauty, kill my appetite for the constant, for the One within the many, the many within the One.

For the sound that I was hearing was the Niagran roar of a billion humans screaming.

Now I really awoke. Ironically, the room looked just as it had in the dream. Nothing had changed. My body was soaking wet: sweat seeped from every pore. Fever lay under the surface of my skin like a disease. I leapt from my bed, clutching a small bead on a string that I knew had been touched by my Master, and prayed for protection. I felt enough comfort to clear my head and allow me to draw a conclusion. I now know that of all things on earth, nothing is so inherently evil, so contemptuous, so vile, so conniving, so worthless . . . as my own imagination.

100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Pete Townshend

Quadrophenia (the Who's last major album with a contrived theme, released in 1973) tried to describe the utopian secrets of the eternal youth of each Who member. We get our life extensions from our audiences. However far down we go as individuals, there will always be rent to pay, so always an audience. When there's an audience, there's salvation. Mixed up in Quadrophenia was a study of the divine desperation that is at the root of every punk's scream for blood and vengeance.

I can elaborate. It is really fantastic conceit on the part of the Establishment to imagine that any particular fragment of society is ever the true subject of a rock & roll song. Even in the famous, folk-oriented, political complaining songs of the very early Sixties, a thread of upward groping for truth came through strongly. The definition of rock & roll lies here for me. If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage it can't be sure it really has, if it stands up and admits something is wrong but doesn't insist on blood, then it's rock & roll.

We shed our own blood. We don't need to shed anyone else's.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Long Walk Home”

Bruce Springsteen | 2007

When the subject of this mournful song returns home, he hardly recognizes his town. Springsteen told Rolling Stone the alienation the man feels is a metaphor for life in a politically altered post-9/11 America. “Who would have ever thought we’d live in a country without habeas corpus?” he said. “That’s Orwellian. That’s what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals.”

More Song Stories entries »