Pete Townshend Looks Back: The Punk Meets the Godmother - Rolling Stone
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Pete Townshend Looks Back: The Punk Meets the Godmother

An account of the Who since ‘Quadrophenia,’ his personal crisis . . . and a happy ending

The Who, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Keith MoonThe Who, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon

The Who; (L-R) Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, and Keith Moon in circa 1975.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

I spent the last three days of March talking about punk rock with Chris Stamp. I’m sure I invented it, and yet it’s left me behind. If anything was ever a refutation of time, my constant self-inflicted adolescence must be.

Chris told me the punk crowds banged their heads through ceilings, swore at one another, and if a fight broke out (though “breaking out” is hardly the term to use in this context), one became the aggressor, one the victim. The crowd was one, the fighters played out roles.

Damage, damage, damage. It’s a great way to shake society’s value system. It makes mothers disown their children. It makes schoolteachers puke.

High-rise blocks and slums in GlasgowI don’t need to have lived in them to know the facts. I see the faces beaming up at me as I destroy my $500 guitar. Why should they, poor bastards, dig that? They enjoy the destruction because they despise phony values; the heavy price on the scrap of tin called a musical instrument. It is so far beyond their reach it might as well not exist.

The crucifixion is what these people stand for. They humiliate themselves and their peers, and care nothing for any accolade. These stars are true stars; they are part of an audience of stars.

And on the dance floor broken glass,
The bloody faces slowly pass,
The numbered seats in empty rows;
It all belongs to me you know

Where am I in space that I should care so much about the lonely souls in tiny square bedrooms a hundred feet up in air in cities all over the world?

I am with them. I want nothing more than to go with them to their desperate hell, because that loneliness they suffer is soon to be over. Deep inside, they know.

I prayed for it, and yet it’s too late for me to truly participate. I feel like an engineer.

Just let me . . . watch.

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When I sit and listen to “The Punk Meets the Godfather” on Quadrophenia, I come closer to defining my state three years ago. I was the Godfather. (When I met two of the Sex Pistols recently, I was in an appropriately raging, explosive mood, but I recognized their hungry, triumph-pursuant expressions and began to preach.)

In ’73 and ’74, I was the aging daddy of punk rock. I was bearing a standard I could barely hold up anymore. My cheeks were stuffed, not with cotton wool in the Brando-Mafioso image, but with the scores of uppers I had taken with a sneer and failed to swallow.

On the Who’s tour of the U.S. and Canada in the fall of ’76 a lot of things came to a “glorious” head in Toronto, the last show of the tour. The road crew threw a party for us, and it was the first party I had been to for at least five years which meant anything to me. I don’t go to a lot of parties, but I’m glad that I made this one. I suddenly realized that behind every Who show are people who care as much as, or more than, we do. Talking to the individuals who help get the show together enabled me to remember that audiences care, too.

When I sit in an audience, one of the things that makes it enjoyable is the energy I spend willing it to be the best thing I have ever seen. I get to see some great concerts that way. Ask any Who fan if they care how well we are playing on any single date. The Who don’t count as much as people might imagine, but as performers their response to the audience’s energy is vital.

So two years ago when I felt down, when I felt empty, tired and defeated, the audience of Who freaks carried on regardless. At the time I was very bitter about this. I remember our concerts at Madison Square Garden, having come out of total seclusion in my studio after preparing mind-bending and complex tracks for the Tommy film. When my drunken legs gave way under me, as I tried to do a basic cliche leap and shuffle, a few loving fans got up a chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Brings tears to your eyes, doesn’t it? It did mine anyway. Such loyalty!

This man had consumed time in a way that only God Himself could ever hold a candle to, but had he learned anything? He belongs to God, as we all do. Deny that He is, then, God’s folly and what do you do? You refute God Himself.

That argument is for cozy firesides. No, this was God’s work. The devil is, after all, only a figment of God’s imagination. And so this remarkable fool believed himself to be a figment of a figment. A dream within a dream. He believed he had an imagination that could not be shaken by the actual imagination that brought forth his very own being!

Such impudence.

Such unwitting humor.

Life could easily continue the provision of sideshows in this one’s circus. Perhaps his endless dream could be shattered this time.

Maybe this little man’s time had really come.

The general rule of the day in show business was, “When in or out of trouble – drink,” so I drank some more. Drinking around the Who is the greatest thing gutter-level life can offer. The bawdiness of the humor, the sheer decadence of the amount put away, the incredible emotional release of violent outbursts against innocent hotel-room sofas; all these count to get a body through a lot of trouble. But at the end of the orgy, the real cancer still lies untackled deep in the heart.

When the Who were recording The Who by Numbers, Keith’s courageous attempts to head off his alcoholism moved me to stop drinking too. I stopped overnight. The results were interesting. My hair started to fall out. Another remarkable side effect was that I carried on drinking without my knowledge. This story can only carry credence if we are to believe the observations of the people around us when we were recording; they were probably twice as drunk as I. Apparently, at the end of one session which I had gotten through by pulling incessantly at a total of about twenty cans of Coke, I wished everyone good night, walked up to a makeshift bar and drank a bottle of vodka. I just don’t remember doing that.

I got very scared by memory blackouts, as scared as I had ever been on bad LSD trips eight years before. Once in July 1974 – just after the Tommy filming – I sort of “came to” in the back of my own car. Keith and John were with me (we were probably going to a club), but although I knew who they were, I didn’t recognize either my car or my driver, who had been working for me for about two months. The shock that hit me as the pieces fell into place was even more frightening than the black holes in my head as the memory lapses began. Eight drug-free years and still this mental demise.

On another occasion, at the “thank you” concert we gave in Portsmouth, England, for the extras in the Tommy film, I signed several managerial and recording contracts in a complete fog. The only event I remember is quietly screaming for help deep inside, as I asked John Entwistle if it had ever happened to him. (The fact that I’d signed the contracts didn’t come home to me until we were actually in the middle of a legal wrangle some months later.)

Tommy has become rock’s “Pirates of Penzance” in only ten years of exposure to the public, through the Who’s performances onstage, their original album, Lou Reizner’s album with the London Symphony Orchestra, Ken Russell’s film, the ballet of the Royal Canadian Ballet and dozens of minor exploitations such as “Electric Tommy,” the music played on synthesizer, and “Marching Tommy,” the music scored for college brass bands.

The above, in a simple way, illustrates how as a rock composer and performer I was dragged into the world of light entertainment and into the world of high finance. The Who’s original Tommy album sold very well indeed in comparison to their early record sales, and as a result the band was baled out of terrific debt and given a new lease on life in many ways. As for the reference to light entertainment: Tommy was never ever really meant to be as “heavy” as, say, “My Generation.” We joked as a group about Tommy being true opera, which it isn’t, but the Who’s audience, and many of the rock press took it very seriously indeed. It was this seriousness that turned Tommy into light entertainment.

Many Who fans feel the Tommy film is not what the Who is about, or even what Tommy is about. In truth, it is exactly what it is about. It is the prime example of rock & roll throwing off its three-chord musical structure, discarding its attachment to the three-minute single, openly taking on the unfashionable questions about spirituality and religion and yet hanging grimly on to the old ways at the same time.

I enjoyed doing the Tommy film. I liked the opportunity to rework some of the music, and bring it up to date soundwise, and I genuinely admired and respected Ken Russell, who is stimulating company but an obsessive worker. Being sympathetic to that strange condition, I suppose I allowed myself to work beyond my capabilities.

We spent about six weeks preparing the tracks before shooting began in April 1974. During the second week of the actual filming, I declared to Bill Curbishly, our new manager, that I would never work on the road with the Who again. I think I might even have said that I felt the Who was finished.

I was mixed up by my two professions: as writer and musical director on the film, and as performer with the Who. I think I perhaps blamed the Who’s live work for bringing me to such an emotional abyss. In retrospect, I know that it is only from the Who’s live concerts that I get energy freely for doing practically nothing. I play guitar, I jump and dance, and come off stronger than when I went on. Walking offstage after a Who concert, we each feel like superhumans. It’s easy to mistake this very genuine and natural energy high for innate stamina of some God-given talent for an endless adrenalin supply.

After my total downward spiral during the filming of Tommy, and after living with the desperate fear of further humiliation of the Madison Square Garden variety, I did a few interviews with the London-based rock press. My final undoing was to see among them a face I knew and to imagine that it belonged to someone who cared about me more as a person than as a rock performer. I should never have expected that.

Blaming the group, I blurted out my fears, my depressions and woe to a couple of writers whose sympathies were, to put it mildly, a little to the left wing of rock journalism. When they appeared in print, the results were catastrophic. Roger was understandably outraged, and retaliated to my abject misery in his own interviews published a few weeks later. “I knocked Townshend out with one punch.” I think I was already dead before it connected.

I feel now as though we were both, to an extent, manipulated by a skillful and opportunistic reporting chain, that the derision handed out to me by Roger for my weakness and indulgence did me a lot of good. It hurt me at the time, but when you’re so far down, so the saying goes, the gutter looks up. I had, after all, been derisive of Roger in print many times.

Roger went to work on another Ken Russell film, Lisztomania, which I managed to avoid. I got my head down to try to write a bit for the coming album (The Who by Numbers) and came up with some reality tinged with bitterness. It was hard for me to admit what I knew as I was composing: that what was happening to me was an exorcism. Suicide notes tend to flush out the trouble felt by the potential ledge jumpers. But once the truth is out, there’s no need to leap.

I also felt curiously mixed up about my state of mind. “Slip Kid” came across as a warning to young kids getting into music that it would hurt them – it was almost parental in its assumed wisdom. “Blue, Red and Gray” was a ukelele ditty with John Entwistle adding brass band to the misty middle distance. It was about nothing at all; it reminded me of an old Smiley Smile Beach Boys number. “A Hand or a Face” was cynical and tried to cut down the growing dependence I had on mysticism and psychic phenomena. All the songs were different, some more aggressive than others, but they were all somehow negative in direction. I felt empty.

Recording the album seemed to take me nowhere. Roger was angry with the world at the time. Keith seemed as impetuous as ever, on the wagon one minute, off it the next. John was obviously gathering strength throughout the whole period; the great thing about it was that he seemed to know we were going to need him more than ever before in the coming year.

Glyn Johns, who was producing the album, was going through the most fantastic traumas at home with his marriage. I felt partly responsible because the Who recording schedule had, as usual, dragged on and on, sweeping all individuals and their needs aside. Glyn worked harder on The Who by Numbers than I’ve ever seen him. He had to, not because the tracks were weak or the music poor (though I’ll admit it’s not a definitive Who album), but because the group was so useless. We played cricket between takes or went to the pub. I personally had never done that before. I felt detached from my own songs, from the whole record; though I did discover some terrific sportsmen in our road crew.

After we finished recording in August 1975, we had a month off. I decided to try to get some spiritual energy from friends in the U.S.A. For a few years, I had toyed with the idea of opening a London house dedicated to Meher Baba. In the eight years I had followed him, I had donated only coppers to foundations set up around the world to carry out the Master’s wishes and decided it was about time I put myself on the line. The Who had set up a strong charitable trust of its own which appeased, to an extent, the feeling I had that Meher Baba would rather have seen me give to the poor than to the establishment of yet another so-called “spiritual center.”

My family (particularly of course my wife, who as a matter of personal policy tries to avoid the aspects of the music world that I still find exciting) had suffered a lot from my pathetic behavior of the previous year, but they would naturally be by my side on any trip other than Who tours. So they came with me, or rather I went with them, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where Meher Baba had set up a retreat during the Fifties. I intended to travel on after a couple of weeks to spend a full month living under the wing of Murshida Duce in California. Murshida Duce is the appointed head of the Sufi movement in the States, as reoriented under Meher Baba’s directives. She is used to recognizing and helping her initiates with emotional problems and had invited me to come to be with her and her family when she had visited England in October ’74.

I was genuinely unprepared for the unfolding that transpired in that six weeks. My mind was clouded with the idea of trying to run a “center” for Avatar Meher Baba; with the difficulties I would have trying to deal with people’s whims and complaints; but most of all, with the hypocrisy of trying to do such a contentiously idealistic thing while enjoying the kind of life I had been living.

Paris: George V Hôtel, May 1975.

I came to in a kind of trance. The woman with me is my wife; she is quite uniquely beautiful. Her profile is serene and encouraging. I look down at myself and I’m dressed rather peculiarly. My face is hairless and my jacket waisted with a 15-inch inverted pleat at the back. My shoes are scratched and worn. My collar feels too tight. I glance in the mirror as we walk to the restaurant. Is that the so-called “me“?

Children? Where are the children? I was sure that I would have beautiful, sparkling children. Where are they?

We walk into the long, elegant room and wait to be seated. The head waiter acknowledges our hand gestures in French. It is Paris.

The woman is smiling with an exhilarated jubilance to fit a queen. I glance along the room at nearby tables. They are all staring at her, entranced. The head waiter suggests we drink Beaujolais Villages, slightly chilled. It costs nothingthere are wines on the menu that cost $100but he suggests this simple fare. When it is delivered, we understand. The warmth of perfection that accompanies such instants is unmeasurable. The way the silken cloth clings to her body, revealing not only the perfection of her form, but also the eccentricities; the faults (if it is possible to call them that).

We eat, the food is superb; why is everything so right? Is Paris really a dream? In our room, the blinds are wound down, the sparkling white sheets revealed in a triangle.

How does this fit in? I remember dingy dance halls, fish and chips and little cheap cars that break down miles from home.

I stare into the future. Nothing that I have ever dreamed of has failed me. So I stare knowing that what I see will be. It’s not clairvoyance so much as fatal determination, and yet know that one day my luck must inevitably run out.

What am I doing with this superb woman? What am I doing?

In early August, before I left England, I had written Roger a note, telling him that I felt there had been a lot of unnecessary strife between us, and that I hoped I could earn his respect again. From New York on the first leg of our trip to Carolina, I wrote to him again (he was on the road promoting his new album, Ride a Rock Horse). I told him I would support him in whatever he did. I felt it a strange thing to say.

I had always been the helmsman of the Who. Roger – and Keith, John and our management as well – always had plenty to say in the group’s affairs. But because I wrote the majority of songs, they were inexorably tied up in my feelings, emotions and directions. I took the band over when they asked me to write for them in 1964 in order to pass the Decca audition, and used them as a mouthpiece, hitting out at anyone who tried to have a say in what the group said (mainly Roger) and then grumbling when they didn’t appreciate my dictatorship. Roger often sang songs I’d written that he didn’t care for with complete commitment, and I took him for granted. I said what I wanted to say, often ignoring or being terribly patronizing about the rest of the group’s suggestions, then sulked when they didn’t worship me for making life financially viable. (Kit Lambert went through the same process; he did great work for the Who, not realizing that we were satisfied that he should be thanked, credited and presumably made to feel quite happy by his royalty check each month.)

In New York, a good friend of mine gave me some advice. I tried to explain that I felt the problems in the Who were mainly about me and Roger, not the myriad business problems that seemed so manifestly cancerous. I was counseled quite simply: “Let Roger win.”

The statement isn’t as cruel or flippant as it sounds. This person knew the Who and its history and cared about all of us deeply. The advice meant that I should demonstrate to Roger that my letters were sincere by not hanging on to past grievances or differences. Most of all, I should bow to the changing status quo within the group, created by the fans’ new identification with Roger as front man, rather than with me as its mouthpiece.

John and Keith are probably chewing my photo right now. I know what always irritates them most is when a journalist describes them as “Pete Townshend’s puppets!” If the Who has been a tyranny in the past, it’s been ruled by a runaway horse. Roger has always seen the group in a more objective light than I; as things stand today, the balance within the group as a result of his more active role in its creative direction has brought me closer than ever to Roger and Keith and John as well.

Were it not for the recently resolved legal dispute between the Who and its old management team – Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp – I would probably ramble on about it all at great length. Let it just be said, perhaps because I am a Taurus, perhaps because I am sentimental, that I had resisted Roger for many years in his justifiable revolution against our managers. That had never helped our relationship one iota. (Incidentally, the group’s subsequent split with Pete Rudge’s New York-based Sir Productions was an amicable one, but again Rudge and I found time to cry in our beer over lost partnerships. We had often shared a cell after the frequent Who hotel debacles.) As for Kit and Chris, my feelings now can be summed up concisely: I miss them.

Against this backdrop of good intentions, I set off in August 1975 to Myrtle Beach. As our party (my wife, my two little daughters and a few friends who traveled with us) crossed the threshold onto Meher Baba’s home ground, we were all staggered by the impact of the love that literally filled the air.

Despite the strength I felt growing within me, I think I can speak for our whole party when I say I felt exhausted by Myrtle Beach. God’s endlessly present love isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s great to be forgiven, but it hurts to admit you were wrong in the first place. I realized that I would not be reaping such fantastic emotional and mental rewards had I not been in pretty bad shape; a condition for which I had no one to blame but myself.

When you hold out an empty cup to God and demand that He fill it with wine, He fills it faster than you can ever drink. Then you know that the fault is your own incapacity to receive His infinite love, rather than His capacity to give it. I loosely quote Hafiz here, of course, but this is what I felt was happening. Even my youngest daughter, Aminta, three years old, became starry-eyed with the atmosphere that poured from the trees. I wouldn’t say that the warm reception given us by the residents of the Myrtle Beach retreat was not enjoyed and appreciated, but it paled in significance when compared to the welcome we felt in the buzzing dragonflies, the sound of the ocean and the massaging humidity of the warm afternoon.

We spent an unbelievable ten days. I talked to the older devotees of Meher Baba about my plans for a new place in London and they were naturally encouraging. The sun shone, the children enjoyed themselves, we relaxed and relished rejuvenation at the Master’s command. The fears I had that I would not be strong enough to see through the imminent testing rehearsals and tour with the Who receded.

We traveled then to California.

▪ “I look out through your bloodshot eyes and I ask you, does this really matter? I am here, and I wait constantly as your hair falls over the typewriter keys.

I don’t want to die . . . !

Death is not at all what I expect. I want surrender, surely that is simple enough.

I am suffocating in your love . . . help me somebody! I am drowning!

They say that to drown in the depths is really to ascend.

Beloved God, why do you sometimes bring me close to tears?

Because I am your own heart, you might well be bored with me. I am you. And have known, and lived, and died with you . . . for a billion years.

In California, we were well looked after, taken into the bosom of the Sufi family there, provided with a furnished house, picnics, swimming pool, outings to state parks, camping trips to the Sierras and all kinds of straight-laced relaxation.

You are probably as mystified as I am as to where the spiritually beneficial work was being done in this kind of program, but spirit was what was needed, and spirit was what I got, even if it didn’t fit preconceived notions.

Murshida Duce is a remarkable woman. She heads a group of about 300 initiates, all committed to total honesty and respect for her authority. She has Meher Baba’s sanction as the legitimate Murshid along with “in line” decree from her own deceased Murshid, Murshida Martin. Murshida Martin herself took over under the instructions of the famous Inayat Khan, a spiritual teacher and master musician whose books on Sufism present a poetic system for modern life.

“Sufism Reoriented” today focuses its initiates on developing their devotion to Meher Baba. Meher Baba gave an explicit charter to Murshida Duce and it is under the limitations of this charter that she works today. I am not a Sufi initiate, but her spontaneous help in my life has always touched me. I felt it extraordinary that she was clearly comfortable with me. She is a rather grand lady in late years, accustomed in her own youth to formal dinners and cocktail parties for her husband’s work as an oil man in the Forties and Fifties. In fact, she is not so easily pigeonholed.

On arrival in California, I went for a talk with her, to gossip, to bring her up-to-date on events at home, to ask her advice about the color of the walls at the newly planned Baba house in London. Instead, to my amazement, I sat and poured out my very soul. I couldn’t for a second have anticipated this happening. She sat and listened as I told her every grisly detail: the paranoia, the drunken orgies, the financial chaos, the indulgent self-analysis (continued herein, I’m afraid) and, of course, the dreamy hopes for the future.

Without batting an eyelid she listened to stuff that was making me recoil myself, then went on to talk a little about her own youth, her life with her husband, the trouble some of her students were having at the time. In short, she got me right in perspective.

At the end of this month with her, we packed our bags, said our farewells and headed home, my wife and the kids to school, me to rehearsals with the band. Keith later told me I walked into the rehearsal hall smiling; he related this because he had found it remarkable. Something positive had happened to me.

Back in England, I got hold of a building for the London Meher Baba house and one morning, early, sat thinking about the past year. I thought about the incredibly circuitous route I had taken to bring me to that point in October 1975, a new British Who tour ahead of us. I got to where I ended up. Having taken energy, freely given, from just about every source I could lay my hands on, being strong again and feeling fairly certain that I could now rock & roll right into my grave, I decided that I could dare to ask for just one more directive.

I raised my eyes to the heavens, my future Meher Baba house looming up as a great potential encroachment on my time with band, and asked the old man: “What conclusions do I draw from all this, Baba? Where do I put this love you’ve given me?”

The answer came out of the sky, in a voice that, to me, was audible in a fantastic sense: “Keep playing the guitar with the Who until further notice.

Where am I and what am I? I kneel at the foot of a picture of my Master, I plead forgiveness, but in dreams I gloat. The superb and beautiful creatures that have lain at my feet. What am I? I look in the mirror and don’t see much. Am I purely a fraud? Fall in, all you cynics, but how about your own admirers?

The people I observe fall at my feet, but why?

I think I know. The ego floods away from me like the crutch snatched from a cripple. But the feeling is not bad; they love me for what I could be, not for what I am.

When I screamed for God to smash me down, I didn’t expect for a minute that he really would.

June 20th, 1977.

The editors have asked what I feel precipitated this crisis. Caring too much? Is it possible? I have read that stars and punk people take themselves too seriously. I am both star and punk, therefore I take myself so seriously that I actually believe I matter to the world. I matter firstly to my family, then to the group and its fans, then to the few who have the conviction that Meher Baba is the True Avatar. In that order. I get serious when Pete Townshend disrupts this scheme of priorities as an individual; when his neuroses and paranoia break up the matter-of-fact interpretation of the scheme’s direction.

Keith Moon once sat in a hotel bed in Boston after dying on the stage in front of 10,000 or so kids, and said, quite simply, “I’ve let you down.” Not, “I’ve let the Who down,” not “I’ve let down the people.” He’d let us down.

My crisis was caused by no one and nothing. It cost me nothing; it gives me everything. It was never precipitated because precipitation is a slow process. Rock & roll is fast. There was no waiting for time to take its course, or for me to weigh up whether I was doing right or wrong. Rock & roll always tries to do right. Rock & roll always aims high and offers itself up as the tinderwood to the fire that will burn away the crap in this world. Rock & roll uses up people, music and talent, even genius, like balsa in a roaring inferno. The fire burns brightly even when the fuel supply gets low, because there is always someone ready to give everything in a last-ditch attempt to gain fame. The right is that it tries, the wrong is that it often fails.

My crisis was simply that I felt I was failing rock & roll. And for me this was a crime. For in doing this, I was failing friends and family, history, the future and, most important of all, I was failing God. No one less could have invented this sublime music.

Editor’s note

Pete Townshend has just completed an album with Ronnie Lane, formerly bass player with the Faces. Rough Mix is the closest Pete feels he will get to a solo album for many years, as he is now working on new material for the next Who album. Rough Mix was recently released by MCA.

Townshend has also appeared on and supervised a limited-edition album produced by Meher Baba Oceanic, the English Baba group he refers to in the article. With Love contains three tracks by Pete of a distinctly unusual approach, and others by Lane, Billy Nicholls, Medicine Head and Pete Banks.


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