Cameron sits down for a lengthy discussion with the Who’s Pete Townshend from this 1974 issue of Penthouse magazine.
“Progression is always great,” says Peter Townshend, “but unless you take your audience with you, it’s useless.” True to his word, the innovative English guitarist-composer and mastermind of the Who has remained in the-forefront of rock ‘n’ roll for more than ten years. With a score of teen-trauma hits like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation”, “The Kids Are Alright,” and “Magic Bus ” as well as the more rock-opera masterworks Tommyand Quadrophenia, behind him, Townshend now watches Who albums turn gold on the day of their release and Who concerts cause riots at the ticket window. Lately, he has even entered the celluloid sweepstakes with Ken Russell’s spectacular film of Tommy. At twenty-nine, Townshend may very well be rock’s most valuable player.
Teenage frustration, from masturbation (“Pictures of Lily”) to the Quest for the Answer (“The Seeker”), has been a major theme of the of the Who throughout most of its existence. And for good reason: Townshend’s fascination with the subject is bred out of experience. “High school was very painful for me,” Pete says as puts a finger to his mammoth nose. “I was very embarrassed and self-conscious about my nose for quite a while. I got obsessed with it. Music was my escape. My mother was no help, she seemed to think that anybody who wasn’t beautiful couldn’t be any good. She was gorgeous, of course. My father was very good-looking, too. How they spawned me I’ll never know. Dad was kind to me about the nose, but in an unintentionally devastating manner. He used to say things like, ‘Don’t worry. Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, didn’t he?’ I didn’t want to look like fucking Arthur Miller, I wanted to look like James Dean.
“But I knew down inside that the only way I was really gonna become confident was to become something everybody could respect. So I labored at the guitar, trying my best to be incredible within a few weeks. And when it didn’t happen, it destroyed me. It was only later on that I realized I actually did have a talent. As soon as I started to write, I really came together in one piece for the first time. Even in the early years of the Who, I suffered that frustration of searching for my niche. That’s why my first songs were so screwed-up and indecisive.”
Originally called the High Numbers, the Who was formed in 1964 when singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle auditioned and accepted their beak-nosed schoolmate into the group the two were putting together. A year later, after playing in small, English bars with pick-up drummers, they added a permanent fourth member, Keith Moon. Drummer Moon, rock ‘n’ roll’s most lovable basket case, entered the band in classic style. He had been watching the High Numbers play at the Oldfield Hotel, thinking — not unlike any self-respecting musician — that he could do a far better job on drums than the particular fellow they had on stage that night. Entwistle remembers the evening well. “Keith staggered up onstage, drunk out of his mind, and started to play the drums. He destroyed the drummer’s bass-drum pedal, something the guy had had for twenty years. Keith was dressed all in ginger, with ginger-dyed hair, and he was just as mad and loud as the rest of us.”
The Who, as they soon began to call themselves, gained quite a reputation as a live act. Townshend, known as “the Birdman” because of the way he spun his arms in the air and across the guitar strings, began demolishing guitars onstage. Daltrey smashed his microphone into the floor, filling the room with a loud metallic thud, Moon destroyed his drum kit for the encore, and Entwistle all the while stood a discreet distance apart, dressed entirely in black. “All four of us were unbelievably aggressive,” says Daltrey, “we were very violent. We would literally have bloody fistfights onstage, as well as destroy all the instruments. But in the end, it became a sort of monkey on our back. After two years, people were just coming to see us smash up all our gear. The music meant nothing. All our pre-Tommy stuff had that stigma about it.”
“We’ve always spent a lot of money and created a lot of damage,” adds Townshend. “And we weren’t really making any money during that time. Tommy came just at the point when the Who would have had to split because of financial burdens. Like most performers, we didn’t pay any tax in the first few years of our career. So, when the bill came in, Tommy gave us enough money to pay it. And it was a frightening sum, too. If we hadn’t been able to pay it, it would have been a public scandal. We’d all be in jail right now.”
Thanks to a dynamic performance at Woodstock in 1969, the Who found a mass audience for the newly released Tommy. The story is essentially a parable incorporating the band’s familiar themes of frustration and violence. It tells of a boy who becomes deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing his father killing his mother’s lover. Tommy then staggers through a series of nightmares which include torments from his cousin and a sexual assault by his uncle. He eventually becomes a pinball champion, is worshipped, and ultimately regains his senses. Tommy forms a kind of pinball religion, only to be flung aside by his oppressed disciples.
In 1971, after years of drug-taking and [a] brief flurry of experimentation in psychedelics, Townshend publicly denounced the drug culture and proclaimed devotion for Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. One of the most important ground rules for Baba worshippers, it seemed, was a complete disregard for drugs.
(Baba’s life story is little known outside of the hard-core cult of his devotees. Born in 1894, Baba grew up in the Indian town of Poona. While in college, he built up an affection for an old woman named Hazrat Babajan, who was In reality a Perfect Master. One day she kissed him on the forehead and from that moment on, Meher Baba was a changed man. He neither ate nor slept for months, and spent the next seven years in study with the five Perfect Masters of the time. One of these Masters threw a stone at Baba, hitting him at the spot where Babajan had kissed him, between the eyes. It was at this moment, so the story goes, that Baba became aware of his role. Meher Baba did not speak at all from July 10, 1925 until he died in 1969. His silence was intended to be symbolic. “You have had enough of my words,” said Baba, “now it is time to live by them.”)
The Tommy film isn’t Townshend’s first attempt at writing for the screen. In early 1971, he attempted an intriguing, but ultimately overwhelming rock fantasy called Life House. In the end, all that remained were the handful of songs he wrote for the aborted project, some of which appeared on Who’s Next, the group’s seventh album, and Who Came First, Pete’s only solo album. More Life House material will appear later in an upcoming album of forgotten material dating back from the earliest days to the present, called Odds and Sods. For now, though, Quadrophenia stands as Townshend’s last major recorded work. The story deals with the despondent and disillusioned Jimmy, a teenager growing up in the Mods vs Rockers era of English street life. Jimmy suffers from double schizophrenia, hence the title. Townshend insists that Quadrophenia will be his last work to be preoccupied by teen turbulence, but don’t bet on it. Pete Townshend, after all, is everybody’s favorite rock’n’roll adolescent, even if he is pushing thirty.
This exclusive interview was conducted by Cameron Crowe.
Penthouse: Many people think that Jimmy, the hero of Quadrophenia, is a thinly disguised Pete Townshend. Is this true?
Townshend: No. I identify very strongly with Jimmy in several ways, but certainly not all. He’s a workshop figure. An invention. And while he may seem a lot more real than Tommy, he isn’t. Tommy was set in fantasy, but there was something very real about its structure. Jimmy, on the surface, looks like a simple kid with straightforward hang-ups, but he’s far more surrealistic. I don’t fully identify with Jimmy’s early experiences. . . his romanticism, his neurosis, his craziness. I never went through a tormented childhood. When I was a kid, it was just me and the guitar and the belief that if I ever learned the secret of rock’n’roll I would own the world. I feel closest to Jimmy when he’s reached the stage, late in the album, of being stuck on the Rock. He’s surrendered himself to the inevitable, whatever that is, and has put all his problems behind him. Jimmy’s not become any kind of saint or sage, he hasn’t even found anything, much less himself. Basically, he isn’t gonna be any different. He’s just reached the point in his life where he’s seriously contemplated suicide — as we all have — and the fact that he chose not to kill himself has left him with a fantastic emptiness. A need to be filled. A lot of kids today try to fill that void by waving the rock ‘n’ roll flag, but they just don’t understand it or feel it or live it. In a way, they should be totally immersed in rock ‘n’ roll the way I do which is practically in a religious sense.
Penthouse: Don’t you think that viewing rock ‘n’ roll in a religious sense is a contradiction in terms?
Townshend: Just to sit and talk about rock ‘n’ roll is a contradiction in terms. So there you go. All I’m saying is that rock ‘n’ roll usually isn’t anybody’s sole salvation. Too any rock musicians don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.
Penthouse: What effect has discovering Meher Baba had on you? Are you still “on the Rock”?
Townshend: Of course. A lot of people equate finding a spiritual master with discovering the escape clause in life. Actually it’s just the opposite, All that happens is that, for the first time in your life, you acknowledge the fact that you’ve got problems instead of futilely trying to solve them. The problems become more acute, yet somehow less painful. Still, they don’t get solved automatically. The only way in this lifetime that you can move something from A to B is to get up and fucking move it. There’s no magic. All Baba has done is to get me to start looking outside myself and tempering all my results in his terms rather than my own. I was keyed-up, at the time Quadrophenia was ready to be released, for total failure. I kind of figured that was what I needed. I thought that was the only thing left that was gonna teach me any kind of lesson. That sounds nihilistic. And yet the failure wasn’t what I really wanted. I wanted continued success and everything, but somehow I was expecting it rather than working for it.
Penthouse: Don’t you think that when a group becomes rich and successful, their basic motivation is gone?
Townshend: That’s assuming something really quite incredible. That’s assuming that every rock band picks up their instruments because they want to be rich and successful. I don’t think any band worth its oats ever picked up a guitar because it wanted wealth and fame. That’s always part of it, but it’s never the sole purpose. It wasn’t why we wanted to play. We wanted to play because we were into the music and into the fact that the only reality that existed was in losing yourself in people’s reaction to you. Money’s got nothing to do with it. What prompts musicians that have gone through that painful trying-to-attract-the-attention-of-a-drunken-pub-audience, and worked their way up to the top, to go back to their fucking roots in cabaret and start trying to win over a drunken audience again? It’s got nothing to do with money. Or success. It’s got to do with some kind of need to be looked at, to be respected and — this has been made more evident in rock than in any other aspect of show business — the need to find yourself through your audience’s reaction. You’ve got to discover what makes that audience tick to discover what makes you tick. A musician has to be affirmed; and if someone else won’t do it, he has to do it himself.
Penthouse: Looking around at your contemporaries, do you think too much fame, too much money coming in while one is very young — say eighteen to twenty-five — is a good thing?
Townshend: I don’t know. I think perhaps too much money can be harmful, but too much fame I don’t think is necessarily bad. Teenagers, while they’re in school, do get to learn that it’s quite important to work out your own way of being special and, in a sense, famous on a small scale. You have to be famous for being yourself. Either you’re famous for being long, thin, and acting queer, or you’re famous for being the girl with the big tits, or you’re famous for being the guy who always gets his Levi’s just right … whatever it is, you become famous in a sense. I don’t think that really hurts anybody. It makes them confident. It also teaches you what people need from life. People need heroes and you’re doing a job in being a hero. You’re performing a service.
Penthouse: Did you have any heroes when you were a kid?
Townshend: Well, there was Bob Dylan.- When I was a kid … well, not a kid, but younger and listening to Dylan, I couldn’t wait for the day when somebody would get to him and do that in-depth interview where everybody would find out what really was in the back of his head. And when I discovered that there was nothing there at all … nothing … I must say I was incredibly disappointed. From that day onward, he ceased to be my hero. He remained somebody who wrote music that I loved. I still love the earlier stuff for the pure nostalgia of remembering how stimulating he was; but he wasn’t quite the gladiator I had expected. You can’t deny, though, that Dylan’s music marked a new dimension in rock ‘n’ roll. He opened the door for rock to say bigger and better things.
Penthouse: Like what?
Townshend: Well, I think rock became more idealistic. It became the music of the adolescent and a vehicle for the denunciation of whatever we didn’t believe in. If there was something a bit dodgy, we knew that pretty soon there’d be a song about it and through that music we’d know what we felt to be right and what we felt to be wrong. It was like an affirmation.
Penthouse: Much of your early writing displays an intolerance of age. You wrote in “My Generation” that you hoped you’d die before you got old. You’re twenty-nine now, and to a lot of kids that’s perilously close to being antiquated.
Townshend: I wasn’t ready for how quickly I was going to get old. Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t just age you in time, it ages you quicker than time. I’m still a young man in a normal sense, but I’m constantly thinking about age, always watching the audience change over the years. The audiences come in waves, you know. There’s the people that grew with the Who, then there’s the second wave, and then there’s the third wave. In Los Angeles, that third wave stretched from maybe fifteen years old back to thirteen. In the whole of our career, that’s the youngest our audience has ever been. I kind of automatically assume that thirteen- to fifteen-year-old kids are gonna be really thick … maybe “secure” is a better word. I assume that all they really want is some kind of mild sexual stimulation like the Osmonds or some other silly flirtation act. It surprises me when their appetite includes the Who. I don’t think those kids come to see us because they can identify with what we said in “My Generation”; I think they go for the sound. That rams age down your throat as well. I’m constantly aware of how old I am and how fast I’m aging. Rock ‘n’ roll also ages you because it’s extreme. Its spikes are so much more lethal than in any other business. It’s not just the artistic pressure, it’s a creative pressure that the recording industry throws down on you. There have always been a lot of people asking me about what I said in “My Generation.” I suppose when I wrote that song I was thinking more about genuine old age, being in your late fifties or sixties and adjusting to being an old person: worrying less, doing less, and feeling less. That was what I meant by old age. But then somebody comes up to you and says, “You said you were gonna die before you got old.” All you can do is nervously laugh it off by saying, “Oh, I was just a young kid when I said that, what did I know . . . ?” I think back now to the way I was when I wrote those songs and I must admit that I don’t really like myself in retrospect. I just don’t like the person I remember. I like what I wrote and I like the success I came up with, so presumably I must hate myself in retrospect because — I keep saying this — I had sharper edges. Those edges aren’t quite so sharp now. So I wonder whether ten years from now I’ll like what I’ve done today as much as I like what I did ten years ago now. I really like my first few songs because they were an incredible surprise. Through writing I discovered how to free my subconscious, in a way. I wrote out of necessity, in fact. The Who couldn’t get its initial recording contract without somebody in the band writing. So I wrote “I Can’t Explain,” and I thought it was about a boy who can’t explain to a girl that he’s falling in love with her. But two weeks later I looked at the lyrics, and they meant something completely different. I began to see just what an outpouring the song really was. At that point I became the greatest rock critic in the world. I was two people — someone who sat down and wrote a song for some particular purpose, and then somebody who looked at it and saw something totally different. Then I realized, “Of course, that’s why Bob Dylan doesn’t know what to say when people ask him about one of his songs-because he doesn’t fucking knowwhat it’s all about. I know … because I’m on the outside, reacting to it and whatever it means to me is it. But he doesn’t. How could he? All he did was write it.” Trying to project into the future, what I think will hurt me about Quadrophenia when I’m old is its deliberate self-consciousness. But I felt it was time for the Who to be self-conscious. It’s incredible how well it works on record and how badly it works on stage. I found it so embarrassing to have to explain the album in between numbers. It’s a bloody admission of growing old, to stand up an talk about “When I was nineteen…” Nineteen isn’t too fucking young and that was years ago. When I walk onstage I feel time less. I feel abundantly athletic, free, and liberated and unfettered and complete unselfconscious. I don’t feel like I’m Pete Townshend, I feel like one of the Who — a group with tremendous collective impact on that audience. I get lost in the rush and then all of a sudden, there you are trying to explain yourself. Well, it won’t happen again because another conscious aspect of Quadrophenia is that it’s a rejection of that sort work ever again. Or at least the adolescent obsession, the teenage frustration thing. I’ve got some lyrical growing up to do.
Penthouse: Is there anything that moves you, that makes you want to act, besides music or Meher Baba?
Townshend: Obviously Baba moves me. I don’t know, I think music is the main thing. It’s the root cause of everything. I’ve got ideas now about making a musical film of a type that’s never been made before, but music is even at the root of that, I imagine. I think music is probably the only single thing. Like everybody else, I’m moved by traditional things like love, a sunny day, or a mighty sea. But most of all, music. Really good films can make me cry or make me happy, but music can do more than that to me. I think that’s true, funnily enough, for most people who have been brought up on rock ‘n’ roll. They regard music as the most fully saturated medium. It’s words and pictures to them; whereas in the Thirties and Forties, music was much less important. Movies were where it was at. I don’t think that’s true anymore. And it’s certainly hard to be moved by anything on television just because of its very nature.
Penthouse: You visited India several years ago –
Townshend: India was an absolutely, totally mind-blowing experience. Nothing that I was ready for at all. It all started with a visit on our last tour, three years ago, to Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina, on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s made up of lots of lakes, kind of an inland Hawaii-type situation with lakes and fairly easy jungles leading down to the Atlantic coast. There are three or four thousand acres there that were a gift for an American Baba center. There are lots of little cottages and places where you can go and stay. Baba loved the place. I went there one day, in the middle of the tour, and spent the night in this cabin, a place where Baba had lived. All of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I felt that I was in his presence. I’d never ever met him when he was alive. I put my head on the bed and fucking thought the most incredibly … unthinkable, unrepeatable, and unspeakable thoughts I’ve ever had. It was so awful, it was like being in hell. I completely broke up. I finally went out with fucking tears streaming down my face. Tears of self-pity. And I thought that I’d blown it. There I was, in the presence of the Master for the first time, and all that bullshit, all that filth.
Penthouse: What kind of thoughts?
Townshend: Listen, I don’t even want to relive them by discussing them in any kind of detail. Suffice it to say, they were fantastically disgusting and terrifying. I tried to convince myself that it was just a kind of cleansing process, but that wasn’t what it was about at all. It was me fighting like mad not to surrender and using the most subtle, most subconscious way that I knew how. It was very, very spooky… Anyway, that prompted a trip to India. I suddenly realized that I was gonna have to go to India and at least meet all the people that were around Baba. I went over there and the first thing that hit me was that India was a fantastically beautiful country. It’s the only place where poverty is almost pure. I mean I felt like the fucking peasant with my twenty suitcases and my first-class ticket and my charcoal-gray suit. I felt like a pig, I really did. So to cut a long story short, I ended up in the tomb where Baba was buried. There’s a ritual that goes on there in which you walk in, put your head down to the ground, and walk out again. It’s a kind of sacred procedure. Awful in a sense. It’s just what Baba would never, ever have wanted a ritualistic thing. The first time I went in there, I put my head down and tried to really feel like I was in Baba’s presence. And I had the same thoughts that I had when I was in the bedroom at Myrtle Beach. And the same thing happened once again, when I went around the second time. By this time I’m really starting to know what I’m going to think as soon as I get in there. So the third time I go inside, I’m standing there thinking, “Well, I’m washed up. I’m never, ever going to be in the presence of God, so I might as well fucking enjoy being with all these people and have a good time during my unhappy years on earth.” And suddenly this young guy walks in and he’s obviously got dysentery bad. He’s small and fragile, his face is white, and he’s shaking like a leaf. Somebody kind of ushers him forward and he looks like well, he brought out all my maternal instincts, if that’s possible for a man. I just felt so much compassion for him … so much sorrow for him, and that sort of identifying self-pity thing that always happens in those situations. And I see him get in, put his head to the ground, and tears begin to stream down my face. I’m so wrapped up in this kid that by the time I get my head down, I’ve forgotten about what it was that was in my head. I forgot that whole trip. So I get up after realizing that this guy was just a device to get me out of the way, you know what I mean? It was Baba’s compassion that had arranged it. It was nothing else. I felt so insignificant that I might as well have been a speck of dust. It was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever felt in my entire life. And I went out afterwards and collapsed in thanks. That’s what happened in India. I came back, and since then really very little has happened. I’m kind of nervous about going back again. I mean I’ve had my little zap. I don’t know how much more I could handle. It’s like a door was opened for an instant, just so you could quickly glance inside. Then it slammed shut again. And you think, “Christ, is that where we’re all going?” Because if it is, we’re all right. I’ll tell you that right now.
Penthouse: Do you think Meher Baba rescued you from the self-destruction of the music business?
Townshend: Yeah, possibly. I don’t now, you see. The thing was that I found Baba after the Who had already found success. We had already gone through the most trying period of our careers, the long downs and short ups of trying to break through to the American audiences –which was very hard on our egos because of the instant success we had in England. All these expectations led to — although we still act like kids all the time anyway — a kind of spiritual maturity. And spiritual maturity has got absolutely nothing to do with the normal maturity suffered by the majority of the world’s adults. That kind of maturity is an adopted, assumed frame of mind. It’s a shackle. I did expect, if you like, that when I got into something as big as a surrender to somebody like Baba — not knowing years before whether it would be Baba or LSD or flying saucers or whatever — I was sure it would change me. And it didn’t. The only part of me that’s changed is the way I review my results. You do the same things, you just have a better perspective on the outcome. But I think that change in me is due more to the Who than Meher Baba. Because of the Who and the lessons I’ve learned with them, I instantly accepted something meaningful and obviously right for me. Some people go all the way through life without even batting an eyelid at anything bigger than your average adulthood maturity. Most politicians are that way. They think that maturity and courtesy are the only things anybody needs. They’ve mutilated the words “peace” and “freedom.” Politicians are the last people to know the real meaning of those words.
Penthouse: Do you have many political convictions?
Townshend: Well, it it’s possible for someone who’s reputedly a millionaire — I’m not, incidentally — I’m morally very left-wing. I suppose as a member of the Who I’ve earned quite a lot of money. I’ve also spent that money. I’m a capitalist, yet I feel that the most spiritually correct of all political states would be a Communist one. But I think all politics are useless unless the component parts — the people, the leaders, the organizers, and the workers — are spiritually together. Communism at its purest can be corrupt, hurt people, and not do its job. Capitalism at its finest and most effective — even in a period where it was really working, like Fifties’ America — stands and falls on the quality of the people involved in it. It’s really great when you’ve got a good bunch of leaders leading you, but when they turn sour, you realize how little control you actually have to change them.
Penthouse: Life House was about politics, wasn’t it?
Townshend: Well, first of all, Life House was an aborted film script. The essence of its story line was a kind of futuristic scene, a fantasy set at a time when rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist. The world was completely collapsing and the only experience that anybody ever had was through test tubes. They lived TV programs, in a way, everything was programmed. Under those circumstances, a very, very, very old guru figure emerges suddenly and says, “I remember rock music, it was absolutely amazing; it really did something to people.” And he talked about a kind of Nirvana people reached through listening to this type of music. The old man decides that he’s going to try to set it up so that the effect can be experienced eternally. Everybody would be snapped out of their programmed environment through this rock ‘n’ roll-induced liberated selflessness… Then I began to feel, “Well, why just simulate it? Why not try and make it happen? If it doesn’t, well okay, we’ll spoof it.” And so I became obsessed with really making it happen, and LifeHouse would be the film of the event. I was talking wildly about a six-month rock concert, hiring a theater for it, and having a set audience with a closed house of maybe 2,000 people. I was going to write a theme for each individual, based on a chart that told everything from their astrological details to alpha waves to the way they danced to the clothes they liked, the way they looked, everything. All these themes would be fed into a computer at the same moment, and it was all going to lead to one note. All these people’s themes put together would equal one note, a kind of celestial cacophony. I did a lot of experiments, and it was practical; it wasn’t just a dream. I was working at it.
Penthouse: And this one note was the note that would produce a mass Nirvana?
Townshend: Right! The song “Pure and Easy” is about that. The music I was writing for Life House was more interlude music than individual themes. The nearest thing I got to the type of music I thought I would come up with was “Baba O’Reilly.” It was a theme that I put together in reaction to Meher Baba himself. That was his theme. That was the sound I thought represented the power and, at the same time, the ease of his personality. LifeHouse was an incredibly ambitious project, but it got entirely out of hand.
Penthouse: Were you fighting the group all along on it?
Townshend: No, not at all. Everybody was behind it; they just didn’t understand it. The fatal flaw, though, was getting obsessed with trying to make a fantasy a reality, rather than letting the film speak for itself. And it hurt when I realized it was all a crazy idea. We needed people, for example. So we opened up the theater we rehearsed in and played a few unannounced concerts to try and get some flow of people coming through. All we got were freaks and thirteen-year-old skinhead kids. If we had advertised the thing as a Who concert, we could have packed the fucking place for a year. But we were just opening the door and playing, waiting to see who came in. It was a disaster. It made me the most cautious I’ve ever been. The self-control required to prevent my total nervous disintegration was absolutely unbelievable. I flew to New York and did some therapeutic recording work, pieced myself back together, and went back to England to finish off Who’s Next.
Penthouse: Which was… ?
Townshend: The remains of Life House.
Penthouse: There’s a song called “Naked Eye” that the Who have never released on record, But when you play it, it seems to have quite an effect on the audience.
Townshend: Yeah, I wrote a couple of songs in a period where people were writing extensive analysis of my character and stuff like this. And I thought, “Well, fuck it. You don’t know me. I don’t know myself, how can you know me?” And the other thing was that people were attributing so much to dope at the time and I felt that was very stupid. People just didn’t seem to be looking any further than they were seeing. “Naked Eye” is a song saying, “Wake up … it’s not really happening the way you see it.” It’s a sincere request for people to look a little deeper into things. Like they say, when you’re running an engine in, run it in at varying speeds, don’t just run it in at a fixed thirty-miles-an hour. Don’t always expect a band to be the same. Don’t always expect a stoned musician to automatically be a good musician You know, junk sometimes makes a musician good, and it sometimes destroys a good musician. The same goes for people in the audience.
Penthouse: Do you feel strongly about dope?
Townshend: Well, I don’t feel as strongly now about it as I did a couple of years ago. The kids now have put it in perspective of their own. I should have known they would. Four years ago, man, nobody ever came up to me on the street and said, “Are you Pete Townshend of the Who?” without offering me a joint or a snort or something like that. It seems like those days are gone. We’re back to the point again when people can turn down a joint without feeling that they are some sort of schmuck. Just as long as that’s happening, just so long as kids who don’t want to get stoned aren’t considered crazy, then it’s okay. But I used to feel very explosive about the fact that if I played something good, someone would inevitably come up to me and say, “Wow, man! What are on?” I should have told them I was high on life. There’s no bigger drug. I spent too much of my adolescence attributing everything I was capable of to drugs, and not to myself, to stand for people crediting dope with everything that they can get out of rock music.
Penthouse: Do you have any particular fears?
Townshend: Yeah. My main fear at the moment… I mean this is a very bad thing to say, but I’m very worried that I’m fucking around with the most serious thing a man can ever wake up to. And that’s the fact that I very sincerely believe I know the route to perfection. That route, in my case, is through living my life in a way that would please Baba. I get very scared when I see that I’m fucking around with my life. I’m my own witness, I know when I’m doing it right according to my own set of rules. I get scared when I don’t live up to those rules, that’s all. I get scared when I see I’m not my own master. I feel there’s a power within me that’s getting more and more impatient with me, like a schizophrenic situation. A case in point is what happened last night onstage. I got disgusted with myself because I wasn’t able to have a good time. It was an incredible thing where I was angry because I couldn’t enjoy myself. “Come on, you cunt, enjoy yourself! Have a good time! They don’t fucking care if your guitar’s out of tune or your leg aches. All they care about is you having a good time watching them have a good time! So have a good time!” That’s the kind of conversation I’ve been having. I feel sometimes that, impulsively, I don’t take life seriously enough. I get afraid of how long I’m going to have to go on and on playing this game. I get very scared of the fact that I might have a long, long time to live.
Penthouse: You seem to love getting a passionate reaction from your audiences, whether that reaction is extremely negative or extremely positive.
Townshend: I’m afraid I’ll have to go along with that.
Penthouse: There was one show in England where you got so upset with an indifferent audience that you said from the stage you’d never play again.
Townshend: Yeah, that was in Newcastle. Quite weird. I’d really decided that that was the end, that it had all become a complete waste of time. Any business where one night you can be playing before a completely ecstatic audience, and the next night you’re playing to an audience of complete dummies, must be a farce. How can a human being stand such extremes? It’s like getting adulation one day and the next day complete detachment. It’s very hard to live with it. It’s like recooking a cold meat pie. You do it enough times and fucking salmonella grow up in it and you get food poisoning. I just couldn’t understand it. It seemed like the only people who really knew what was happening were the group. Then I suddenly realized, “Well, obviously, we can’t go on working like this because the audience, the roadmen, the lighting crew… nobody knows what is happening in this room. Nobody knows the low vibration that’s occurring. It’s far below normal.” Anyway, I completely exploded and smashed up a load of very valuable gear, including a lot of pre-recorded tapes, imagining that I would never, ever walk on the stage again. Twenty-five minutes later, there I was for the encore.
Penthouse: You’re very nice to your fans offstage. Very personable.
Townshend: I’m after all their asses. No, I suppose it’s got a lot to do with the fact that I remember when I had heroes. I just wanted to be able to spend an hour with them, that kind of thing. That hero worship was one of the main motivations for playing. I idolized the Shadows and jazz bands like Acker Bilk. One day, actually, John Entwistle and I went to see Acker Bilk, and as we were coming out of the concert, the band went past. We waved and we were just dumbfounded because they all waved out at us, stopped, and gave us a bottle of beer. They were all saints from that day on. I don’t know, I suppose that one little thing has always stayed with me. But I have to admit it. I almost feel guilty about my position. If you think about it, I’m really using the kids. About five years ago there was a big thing going on in rock about the bands financially exploiting the audience by high ticket prices. I had big rows with people over that. I’ll admit that I’m exploiting, but not by high ticket prices. I’m taking their thoughts, their moods, their feelings, and I’m giving them back to them. For that they call me a genius. All I’m doing is telling them how they are. That is the exploitation part that worries me. But I suppose if they’re nuts enough to pay me for it, then it must be cool. Still, I feel so guilty that when I meet up with my admirers I really try to relate it to them. I feel that exploitation factor is the biggest problem in rock. Not everybody wants to take to me, though. When we play a concert, most people are happy to see it and then go home. Maybe five or six want to talk or touch you and there’s only about three or four women who want to fuck you. It’s not like hundreds of thousands. And after a while you get to know those few people by their first names. They come again and again and again. But I’ve been very rude to people almost as often as I’ve been very nice to them. I’m often very rude to women because I find that if you’re in a rock band and you smile or are courteous to a girl, she seems to think that’s a come-on. So I get a terrible reputation with a lot of women who must think I’m queer. The operator who screens my calls at this hotel must think I’m queer. If somebody comes on the phone who says their first name is John, I think, “All right, I’ll take a chance that it’s John Entwistle and talk to him.” But if somebody comes on the phone and says her name is Kim, I know there’s trouble on the end of that line. So I tell the operator that I don’t want to talk to her. She either thinks I’m queer or have a million girl friends.
Penthouse: What do you do to have fun?
Townshend: The best fun I have is definitely in stag situations. I like getting drunk with the guys, smashing up hotel rooms, riding on boats, falling off, drowning … that’s th kind of thing I like doing. I also have a lot fun recording on a loose level with the guys in the group. The heavy level of making an album I don’t necessarily enjoy, but just fooling around in my home studio is great. I enjoy being at home because it’s a place where I can live and also work and play. I don’t know why I like bawdy situations, but I do dearly love them. The bawdier the better.
Penthouse: You speak almost wistfully of the past. Are you afraid of the future?
Townshend: Well, the future is going to bring some changes. I don’t think we should have to assume any more attitudes or roles and play along with a game plan that we can’t sincerely and honestly deal with. Even if one can get away with it, hypocrisy is not tolerable in something as intrinsically honest as rock ‘n’ roll. It’s very hypocritical for a band like the Who to stand onstage and pretend that they’re adolescents, when all they’re really doing is reliving their adolescence. So the future, if nothing else, at least holds a challenge for the group to really see themselves as they are. I’m not squeamish about the future. I have some album ideas and general plans for the music we might end up playing. It’s all well and good, the band is still together; but do they really, really, deep down inside, want to be together? I think that everybody in the band, if they were asked that question, would say yes. You occasionally get flashes of frustration — John makes albums on his own, Roger felt the need to do a solo album, Keith wants a film career. So you could worry, if you like, about an earthquake hitting the Who. But if an earthquake is going to hit us, I want it to be a fucking big earthquake, not a slow and boring crack.
Courtesy of Penthouse – Cameron Crowe – December, 1974