Pete Townshend and Lou Reed were sitting with acoustic guitars in a New York hotel room recently, practicing for their first-ever performance together, when Reed suddenly stopped playing. "His face lit up, and he said, 'This is going to work, isn't it,'" Townshend recalls. The two ended up playing intense versions of three Velvet Underground songs – "I'm Waiting for the Man," "White Light/White Heat" and "Pale Blue Eyes" – for 180 people at the tiny New York club Joe's Pub on February 20th.
Townshend – who sang harmonies and added powerhouse rhythm guitar to the tunes – had been hoping to work with Reed for years, even writing several songs in the 1989 rock opera The Iron Man for him to sing (Reed demurred for business reasons). But what finally brought them together was In the Attic, a series of extraordinarily intimate acoustic concerts and Webcasts organized by singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller, who's been Townshend's girlfriend since 1997. "It shows the artist at their most vulnerable," says Fuller, "and it gives the audience something they don't ordinarily see."
The shows – some of which can be seen at intheattic.tv – started in 2005 as informal Webcasts by Fuller to promote her debut album, Cigarettes and Housework. But Townshend quickly jumped onboard, playing solo sets of his hits and obscurities. "It looks like she's riding on me, but it's the other way around," says Townshend, who also credits Fuller with sparking his interest in blogging. Townshend and Fuller did their first In the Attic shows in front of an audience in December 2005 and then took the performances to the various European festivals the Who played last slimmer. A new iTunes-only album captures moments from those sets, including Townshend playing "Baba O'Riley" with the Flaming Lips and "The Seeker" with the Raconteurs.
Townshend – who is touring with the Who through August – has found the shows inspirational, and he suggests that the next Who tour could be acoustic-focused and in smaller venues. "When I've done a show like Joe's Pub and then got onstage with the Who, I find myself animated and excited about playing this music again," he says.
Some of the collaboration have been musical blind dates for Townshend: At the February 20th show he played on songs by the young singer-songwriters Rachel Yamagata and Amos Lee, "It's taxing and it's scary," says Townshend, who wore reading glasses so he could consult chord charts. Also joining the show was Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, who asked Townshend to play a more familiar song: "See Me, Feel Me/Listening to You," from Tommy. Midway through, Mascis unexpectedly stomped on a distortion pedal and unleashed a buzz-saw solo from his acoustic guitar. When the solo ended, Townshend looked over at Mascis and shouted one word into his microphone: "More!"
This story is from the March 22nd, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.