Pete Townshend entertained a crowd of about 1,200 Who fans for over an hour last Friday, when he appeared at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center for an interview and mini-concert. The legendary musician, composer, and performer, was there to promote his just-published book, “Who I Am.”
As an added bonus, those who bought a ticket received an autographed copy of Townshend’s new memoir when they arrived, reportedly signed earlier that afternoon.
After a brief introduction by Who fan and professor of music business at Berklee, Jeff Dornfeld, Townshend was “interrogated” (Pete’s term) for about 45 minutes. He then performed a brief, solo, acoustic set, including three Who classics, and an apparently improvised, mostly instrumental piece.
The purpose of the event was to promote Townshend’s book, so the interview was more of a casual discussion than an interrogation. However, Townshend looked deep into even the most softball of questions, with his answers alternating between self analysis and displaying a wicked sense of humor.
Some of the highlights:
- After originally signing a book deal in the mid-1990s, Townshend changed book publishers because the original manuscript did not contain “enough sex and drugs and rock and roll … If I did do it, I didn’t do it properly… because I’m still here.”
- Townshend kept boxes and boxes of material over the decades, including most of his cassettes, and handwritten lyrics and notes, in his personal archives. He said it was difficult to go through, since he has gathered so much stuff. He also found some surprises, like a box with a feather: “Ah … the New Romantic era!” Townshend said he benefitted from other people researching his life.
- The Who’s guitarist said it was his mother, whom he called the “sexy singer” in his father’s Squadronaires band, who asked some men who had unsuccessfully wanted to date her, to help out with booking Townshend’s young band. “And we got some great gigs!”he noted. He also mentioned that it was the electric guitar, and Townshend’s songwriting style, that put an end to the post war romantic music of his parents’ generation.
- He later said that in the post war era, children were supposed to “shut up! You’ve got sugar. What more could you want?” Townshend observed that in the U.S., as in Britain, the youth were “disenfranchised” growing up under the shadow of the atomic bomb.
- His mentally unstable grandmother got Townshend his first guitar … “from the wall of a Greek restaurant.” Needless to say, it was not easy to play.
- The Kinks were a big influence on Townshend, and “never got the respect they deserved … because they dressed so strangely.”
- Townshend noted the Who dressed like their Mod audience, which helped, as did writing material directly for them. When asked what a hardcore group of inarticulate fans liked about the first proper Who single, “Can’t Explain,” “what they liked was … it was about how they can’t explain!” Townshend said, “I realized I had been given the most fantastic job that a songwriter could have … To write for a ready made audience that was not getting the music they wanted.”
- The first lengthy piece by the Who was not “A Quick One,” but “Rael,” which was released later, with Al Kooper (who was waiting in the green room) on organ. Townshend said he was even tempted to return to “Rael,” his first “opera,” but “it was (too) Wagnerian in ambition.”
- Biggest attribute: “Being able to listen.” Biggest detriment: “Art is about finishing things. It’s easy to start stuff. It’s difficult to stop. My biggest detriment is that … it’s difficult (for me) to say, ‘That’s done!’”
- Townshend was happy being the rhythm guitarist in the band, even when Daltrey played lead in the early days. Townshend’s hero was Hank Marvin of the Shadows. Marvin now lives near Townshend, and they often eat at the same restaurant. When their paths cross, the Shadows’ guitarist will turn to Townshend and ask, “How do you play solos? … (In early versions of the Who,) all I wanted to do was strum away. Roger wanted to get all the attention. And he did, but it took a long time.”
- Roger Daltrey really came into his own on “Tommy.” Before the recording of the 1969 rock opera, Townshend said Daltrey usually sang with a deep, resonant voice like Howlin’ Wolf, and enjoyed singing Johnny Cash songs. When Townshend wrote delicate lines like “See me, feel me,” he thought, “I may have a part here!” But his hopes were dashed when he turned up to a recording session, and heard Daltrey gently rehearsing, “See me, feel me.”
- Townshend said he has heard from a few friends that were upset with the book, but said it was because of the way it was edited. “I wrote 1,200 pages, and it had to be cut down to 400, although they gave me 500. And in so doing, they would slash and burn … I’ve got a more readable book, but some of the story telling did get left out. ”
- Others looked in the index and said, in a female voice, “Where am I? You told me you loved me! Twice!” Then he added, “I’m kidding.”
- Townshend’s said his remark that he was sexually attracted to Mick Jagger “WAS A JOKE!”
- “If you’ve seen me on morning show TV, they ask the same questions over and over and over again. Did they read this book? No! They just look at the inner flap … What you are doing is selling the book. What you are not doing is selling the truth … I wanted the book to be true. One of the first interviews I did, the interview said, ‘This is the only autobiography that I have come across in my entire life that I would describe as a ‘hatchet job’ … People don’t expect the bad stuff … For heavens’ sake, two of the greatest guys in the band (Keith Moon and John Entwistle) died of careless, drug related slips.”
There was a short Q & A with audience members, including someone asking for Townshend to play something different than he had been all week at similar events. While he initially said, “No,” Townshend must have had the question in mind when he began his acoustic set.
After Townshend strapped on his acoustic guitar, he sat down and said, “What I may do is play a song I haven’t played all week …. What I may do is play something that I’ve never ever played before in my life.”
With the crowd in the palms of his hands, Townshend felt free enough to apparently improvise a piece of music, playing and wordlessly chanting, going from delicate folk picking to flamenco style flourishes. He then played perfect acoustic renditions of “Drowned,” “Acid Queen,” “I’m One,” and a purposefully slow version of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with a bit of “Let Me Love Open The Door” interpolated for good measure.
For many fans, including me, this was Townshend at this best. One of the few musical geniuses in the rock world, who has rocked the world with one of the truly great bands of all time, just serenading a theater full of believers, with a voice that sounded as good as it did decades ago.
While the remaining members of the Who are about to hit the road, once again, promoting their 1973 rock opera “Quadrophenia,” one can only hope that Townshend will eventually decide to do a solo acoustic tour.
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