In 1993, Pete Townshend brought The Who's Tommy to Broadway and found a third new career for himself – after rock star and book editor – as a musical playwright. But the production's five Tony Awards – including one for Townshend for Best Original Score – are only the beginning of the story. The overwhelming success of Tommy has encouraged Townshend to plan other adaptations of his recorded work and to make the theater his primary artistic outlet.
Bold new directions don't present themselves so easily when you're 48, but Townshend has never been comfortable within the framework of the narrowest definitions of rock & roll. The solo album he released in 1993, Psychoderelict, was characteristically ambitious in both its conception and its stage presentation. The saga of an aging rocker battling failure, substance abuse and his own persistent hopes for creative rebirth, Psychoderelict has sold fewer copies than any other album in Townshend's career. But onstage, where Townshend performed the album's songs as theater pieces featuring actors as well as a crack band, Psychoderelict came to full dramatic life. In those shows, Townshend also played Who songs and material from his earlier solo albums to tumultuous response.
So Pete Townshend is, undeniably, one of the big stories of 1993. But he has never been interesting exclusively for his own work. Ever since the Who emerged in 1965, he has consistently delivered some of the sharpest, most articulate commentary on the vagaries of the musical and cultural scene. Who better to offer perspective on the past year than this man – who is as honest as he is outspoken, as insightful as he is passionate?
What music caught your attention this year?
There are a couple of bands I liked. I thought Onyx was really good. I liked the Spin Doctors album, even though it's fairly middle-of-the-road. I didn't like the U2 album Zooropa, which surprised me because it got such spectacular reviews – I couldn't work out what the fuss was about. Rickie Lee Jones sent me her new CD, and that's a masterpiece – she's operating at genius level. Rykodisc released a Richard Thompson collection, which is wonderful. I played Lenny Kravitz's record a lot – it's great. Nils Lofgren's record, which was released early this year, is a fucking shit-kicking guitar record, really wonderful. He's got a great, great sound.
What did you like about Onyx?
They're dealing with the gang issue, so in a way they're not so much a band as a manifestation of something that's actually going on on the street. The fact that they're doing it so openly allows you – as an outsider – to understand why kids in gangs are angry, why they're frustrated. I felt more clued in after listening to that record – which I don't get very much from the guitar bands, because I don't feel they're saying anything new.
You seem more open to rap than many of your contemporaries. What do you think bothers them about it?
A number of different things. Rap introduced a new rhythm, a steep jazzy shuffle, a real extreme swing, which I don't think people who have been brought up with backbeat rock & roll can get with. It's an offensive rhythm, it's too fast. Strangely enough, if you skipped a generation and stuck it on the back of big-band dance music, you'd have a much closer relationship. It's more that kind of rhythm.
The other thing is the repetitive nature of sampling, scratching, those kind of things. They're meant to be irritating – like the electric guitar was meant to be irritating. The electric guitar as I developed it with Jim Marshall was a weapon. I'd go in and say: "Jim, I've got these American amplifiers, I love the sound, but they're not fucking loud enough. What can you do?" And he had this technician, this little guy with glasses, who'd come in and [peering, nodding sagely] say, "How much louder?" I'd say: "I want it 50 times louder. This guitar is a fucking machine gun. I want it to be so loud that nobody can hear themselves think."
What's happening with rap is that we're seeing another moment of discontinuum, if that's a word – a radical change. I can understand why some people are confounded or intimidated by it, because that's what it's meant to do. It's meant to be in your face, like the Who were. If I was young now, I would probably listen to as much rap as I would guitar music.
What was your problem with Zooropa?
I've not really jacked into U2 since they became big and famous. I listened to The Joshua Tree once, and I thought it was an impressive record, but I didn't want to go back to it. It seems to me that what they're about now is impressing. Around the time of Joshua Tree, I thought, "This is a band who are going for the Biggest Band in Rock & Roll mantle – and let them have it." I've been there, it's a crock of shit – and I feel it might be undermining their potential artistry. I mean, I don't want to shoot them down just because they're up there – quite the contrary. I am friendly with them all, so I suppose I want to like their music. But I find myself not sufficiently engaged by them as a band.
It's difficult as an artist to criticize any other artist – what you're supposed to do is rave or keep your mouth shut. I mean, I remember being torn to pieces by Lou Reed fans because I didn't like New York – enough.
Speaking of Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground reunited this year. Did they mean anything to you the first time around?
You know, it's interesting. When I look at interviews with young musicians, they often do a fly-past of their big influences. And it seems as though David Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix have been a kind of engine for every young musician since the dawn of time. I was obviously deeply affected as an established musician by Hendrix, but I never got with the David Bowie-Velvet Underground thing. It's never touched me.
You have to remember that we were happening coincidentally with the Velvet Underground. Our first trips to New York were when Andy Warhol and the whole Max's Kansas City thing were happening. I remember drinking with John Cale a dozen times. So I felt close to what they were doing, but what seemed far more significant would be the success of, say, the Doors, which just seemed to be meteoric and sudden and absurdly huge. Jim Morrison's Christ picture was all over fucking New York.
I remember seeing the Who open for the Doors at the Singer Bowl, in New York, in 1968.
That's right. And he was already fucked up.
It did seem like the beginning of the end.
I remember giving him a lecture.
What did you tell him?
I said, "How do you feel?" and he said, "I feel fucking terrible, I'm really hung over." He was holding a beer. I said, "Maybe you shouldn't be drinking, you're just going to make yourself feel worse." And he said, "It's the only way I can get through this shit." I said, "Well, you can always just stop. You don't have to destroy yourself. It's like any other job, you can stop when you want to fucking stop." I wish I'd taken my own advice [laughs], because it took me a long, long time to stop with the Who. But he just seemed to be heading for a train wreck. There's an element of that with Eddie Vedder as well, you know – being an unwilling star. But I think Eddie's better supported; there's great people around him.
There was a lot of talk this year about the new generation gap – do you buy it?
I do think there is a Gen-X thing going on, but what appears to be a rebellion is actually a kind of psychosis [laughs]. I read an article in Mondo 2000 about the problem of marketing to people under 25 these days – it was so funny. They said it's very unpredictable. What seems to happen is that a kid reads an advert – say, buy the new Pearl Jam record – then reads somebody else's advert that says buy the new Janet Jackson record, then reads another advert for, say, the Spin Doctors. He decides he wants to buy the Spin Doctors, and then goes and buys Janet Jackson. They said that kids switch at the last minute so that they don't get tricked into buying something that they want, because they think they want it only because somebody else wants them to want it.
That's truly brilliant.
Also, there's a certain ridiculousness about our own generation, which they can perceive. We said certain things were going to happen, and they didn't happen. We devoted our whole lives to changing certain things that we manifestly failed to change – you know, failed on such a grand scale that you almost wonder whether anybody was really trying. I was thinking the other day that Abbie [Hoffman] at Woodstock really was correctly despairing. He was fucking right. All those people at Woodstock saying, "A new dawn has come," and [Detroit activist] John Sinclair was in jail for a joint because the FBI didn't think that he was the right kind of political animal. And the FBI's lawyer and I would be sitting on the Concorde together.
What about concerts you've seen this year? You saw Clapton early in the year, didn't you?
That was a really important concert for me. In February, he did the Albert Hall thing he does every year. This year he just played blues. It was like a history of the blues through the eyes of Eric Clapton. It was a blinding concert. Toward the end, the show got hotter and hotter, and out came the electric guitar. And Eric played a fantastic blues solo on "Bottle of Red Wine." You sometimes forget, because Eric is such a tasteful player, how fucking fast he can play – without any double-stopping or string pulling or any fancy techniques. Really exemplary virtuoso guitar playing.
And you saw Madonna last night.
It was one of the most exciting events I've been to. It reminded me of The Wall, that spectacular, momentous buildup. The music was great, the dancing was great. It's like a Broadway show, a real revue.
You made your move to Broadway this year with Tommy. Were you nervous about that?
Yeah. I was very worried that if Broadway failed, it would halt Tommy as a property for probably another 10, 15 years. And that would have been a shame, because my instincts told me this is the right time. One of the things that was very disturbing is that I knew that if it was successful, it would change my life. I was excited that if the show did well, it could feed my future creative life, but I was also frightened that maybe I should be retiring, you know? Maybe I should be just taking the money I already have and slowing down, getting out of show business. I was worried that I would get drawn into a kind of ecstasy from the success of the show. It wasn't that I didn't want the show to be a success, but I would argue with [director] Des [McAnuff]. He'd say, "Don't worry, it's going to be really successful." And I'd say, "But Des, that's what I'm worried about." As ever, my instincts were right. The thing I had to worry about is not that the show was going to flop but that it would be too much of a success. It could destroy me.
How has it affected you?
I'm OK with it, but it's made New York a completely different place for me. When I come to New York now, I have a family. I can go to my little yellow theater, and there are people there that love me. I have investors lining up to invest in any crazy idea I come up with. So I'm pulled to New York – and pulled out of a rather unsatisfactory life at home, where for 25 years I've been married to somebody who doesn't like show business very much. It's quite a good thing that my wife doesn't like show business, but it does make it difficult. I've got a young son, and I don't like to be away from him, but I feel dragged into the excitement and vigor of New York.
You feel you're perceived in a different way there now?
I don't think the Who were perceived to be hugely successful until the very end, when strangely enough, they were in decline. But if you have a hit show, it shows up in Variety, and people can see what's happening. You know, the Tony is the first artistic award I've ever had. I've only ever had performance-related awards before, you know, special services to the music industry, that type of thing. I've never won a Grammy or anything for my creative work. At this time in my life, it's like getting a knighthood.
When I left the Who, I went directly into my publishing job at Faber and Faber, because I was really worried about my hearing. I was worried that if my hearing continued to deteriorate at the rate it had in the previous five years – which it hasn't, it's stopped deteriorating – by now I would be deaf. I had two specialists tell me that I would be deaf by the time I was 40. And I mean completely deaf, beyond help with a hearing aid or anything. And in fact, nothing like that has happened. The tinnitus that I got in those years has also stopped. It's still there, but I'm not bothered by it. Anyway, I went to work at Faber, and I began dealing with words and ideas, but I missed music.
What's great about theater is that it brings music and writing together. And the fact that the show has been honored by the public, by the establishment and by quite a few critics – although I know you didn't honor it – it's made me feel like the two or three things that I can do have come together in a good way for me. I do see myself as a dramatist now, as pretentious as it sounds. I think that anything I do as a songwriter or a composer is going to be linked in some way to live storytelling.
Since you mentioned my review of Tommy, surely you know that I had no problem with the original music – I loved the album, and I saw the Who perform it a number of times. I just felt the ending – with its emphasis on family and "normality" – compromised the much more mysterious, more unstable ending of the album.
I absolutely accept that. When we decided to go the way we did, we knew there would be difficulties. Interestingly, as a result of your piece and a couple of others, I went to Des and said, "What we've really got to do is fix this word normality." I used it rather clumsily, and to be pedantic about it, what I actually meant was that he was healthy. There's a couple of places where I used it as a kind of a lazy rhyme against reality.
What about the "family values" aspect of the ending?
I'm in a failing family, so you might regard some of the things I'm saying as hypocritical. I don't see myself as a good father or even a decent man. When I talk about the importance of family, I'm just saying, "I wish I could do that." I remember when I was a kid, my father was a musician, and my mother was a singer, and they had a crazy life. Two fiery people who split up when I was very young, and I was dumped with my grandmother for two years. I was very lonely, never heard from my father at all. My mother used to come down on the weekend for an hour to see me, dressed incredibly seductively. She was beautiful, and I just longed to be with her. I just wanted to be with my fabulous, exciting, brilliant, beautiful parents. Instead I was with this bitter, crotchety, clinically insane grandmother.
My father eventually got back together with my mother – a rather faithless woman who was having affairs behind his back – for my sake. She'd found a lover who was going to take her to an oil country, and my father didn't want me to go, so he took her back. My mother's side of the story is that she took him back, you know, for my sake. We've had both sides of it.
Both agree, of course, that whatever they did, it was for your sake.
But what actually happened was that they got back together and had another couple of kids, and my life was fairly normal from then on. It really was normal. I had come from hell. I was with my grandmother, who used to make me sit like this [sits absolutely still]. If I moved my foot, she'd say, "Stop fidgeting." It was a fucking nightmare. My father used to send me five shillings a week, a fabulous amount of money in those days. And I would go to the shop with my grandmother and buy myself a toy, and she would take the toy and put it in a cupboard. Then when my mother came to see me, my grandmother would make me get all the toys out as though I'd been playing with them. And then when my mother had gone, I'd have to put them all away again. She was a complete head case.
When I got older, the first guitar I smashed was because of her. My father was going to buy me a guitar for my 11-year-old Christmas – and he would have bought me a fabulous instrument. But what fucking happened is that she bought it! She bought me a guitar like you see on the wall of a Spanish restaurant, a phony guitar. I was excited for a while, standing in front of the mirror, but I realized very quickly that I was never going to be able to play anything on it. My father said, "Well, let's see what happens." So I struggled with this fucking instrument for two years, and finally my father let me buy a decent guitar for three quid. I also got myself a little amplifier and went electric. One day my grandmother ran into the room and said, "Turn that fucking row down!" I did a Keith Moon – long before I'd ever met Keith Moon. "You think that's a fucking row? Listen to this!" And I got my guitar and smashed it over the amplifier. John Entwistle was in the room with me.
I realized what I'd done was – well, for one, I'd smashed a "perfectly good guitar," as John Hiatt says – but I'd symbolically smashed the guitar my grandmother had given me and exorcised the whole thing. From that moment on, I found I could actually forgive her.
You also released Psychoderelict and toured this year.
Going on the road with my album, deciding that it would be my last album – I don't know if it will be or not – and deciding that I would do some shows was partly to see whether I could still do it. But I also felt I had to prove to myself that having a show on Broadway didn't mean that I wasn't still a rock star. All those things are about turmoil really. The beginning of the year, I was very happy. I was meeting wonderful new people, making regular trips to New York. But toward May, June, I started to get uneasy, and I'm still in that place. I'm still not sure how I'm going to do the things I want to do without traveling an enormous amount – which is again something my wife and I find difficult. So there's a kind of feeling of dread which runs through me, my oldest daughter, my younger daughter and all my friends, including my wife, that we're heading for difficult times, because of the career I want, which is a show-business career, and show business is destructive. It's both disturbing and incredibly exciting. There is this feeling about people my age in the vanguard of the aging rockers, you know, the people who sneered at the old and celebrated the blindness and stolidity of the young James Dean ideal, that I'm doing something a bit different. I'm not bashing the door down to get back into stadiums. I'm not trying to come up with another hit to knock Madonna or Paula Abdul off the charts.
I'm interested in where I stand in the group that includes people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, possibly David Bowie – people of our age who are at the point where they actually have to face the fact: Are we going to change or not? Do rock stars of our generation deny themselves the right to go and make millions of dollars in Las Vegas? Are we allowed to do that? I think at the moment we're not.
If Roger Daltrey went to Las Vegas, there'd be problems. But it's difficult, because the fact of the matter is that Roger could put together a revue based on the Who's music, get into Las Vegas and make a million dollars a week. I found a way to continue my career without going to Las Vegas. I'm just using Las Vegas as a metaphor – I mean, a Who reunion tour would be the same thing.
Well, what do you think about what some of your contemporaries have done? I mean, what's your sense about the Stones? Did you hear Jagger's record this year?
I loved it. It seemed to be a very dignified record. It started to look like he was going to have a hit, but then he went into the studio to write more Stones tunes. They're my favorite band, so whatever they do, I'm a fan. I occasionally take the mickey out of Mick, but nobody takes the mickey out of Keith Richards and gets away with it. And I love Charlie – he's one of the great, great drummers. Eric Clapton said to me: "You know, it's so great that the Stones went out on the road with Steel Wheels, because Charlie has never been better. He's playing the shit out of the band."
So what's next for you?
Well, I'm going back to London to mount Iron Man. That starts rehearsal today. Try and work out what I'm going to do about my life, you know, as a family man. Looking forward to mounting Tommy in the U.K. – with great trepidation. We've just kicked off the Tommy tour in the U.S. I've got another very good idea, I think, about how to rescue Quadrophenia – if it had female voices, I think it would have West Side Story-type potential. I might try and develop Psychoderelict as a piece for the theater, make it longer. I cut it really aggressively for the record. So I've got a few things happening, but all works in progress.
Next year is also the Who's so-called 30th anniversary. How can you have a 30th anniversary of a broken marriage? I just don't buy it. But you know, I love those guys, and I'm not going to be hard-hearted about it. I won't tour – but mind you, I said that in '89, and they said, "But, Pete, you'll make $70 million." I said, "I'll tour." So I don't want to be too obdurate. We'll see what happens.
This story is from the December 23rd, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.
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