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Pete Townshend: Who He Is

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Jason Holmes joined The Who's powerhouse songwriter and guitarist at the Old Truman Brewery on London's Brick Lane to talk about his autobiography Who I Am.

We are a tribe convening before a tribal chieftain. Pete Townshend climbs towards his microphone dressed in a two-piece black suit and white shirt as applause erupts like fire crackers. He wears no tie. In the breast pocket of his jacket sits an incarnadine pocket square. On his feet, heavy-soled Chelsea boots. Blue eyes that blaze in a sombre face quickly take in the scene as he sits humbly, almost apologetically, under the lights. He's one of the greatest songwriters, one of the greatest guitarists of the entire popular music idiom. But you wouldn't guess it from his demeanour. Tonight he's just a bloke called Pete, who looks, as he's happy to admit, like a bank manager.

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"I started the autobiography at 21 because I'd had a lovely view of the function of a popstar," he begins arcanely. "I grew up backstage with my dad's air force dance band, The Squadronaires, and they played songs concerned with post-war renewal and youths falling in love, and so on."

Townshend, 67, scratches his nose. "In Who I Am I talk about the ease with which I drifted into the music business," he says. "But the backbone of the book is about why I felt so differently to everybody else. I was at art school before The Who, and had very little interest in the fame or the money, and very little interest even in rock and roll. What I did have tremendous passion in, when The Who started out, was the function of the song."

There's a pregnant pause, then he explains. "In a sense, it is you," he says pointing at us, the audience, "who have to tell me what it is you want me to write. And since I've become a big rock star, with a big head, and a big everything else, what happens is you don't tell me that stuff anymore, so I have to guess."

It's a fair point, but is that all there is to Townshend's creative process? "It's difficult to write about the creative process without sounding like you're bragging, because so much of it was serendipitous. I was in the first wave of writers who wrote for the British rock movement of the early Sixties, and I was drawing upon whatever was available to me.

"There's the story of Irish Jack and some guys, and a girl I went on to have sex with whose name I always get wrong," he says smiling, "who came on stage after a gig at the Goldhawk [Social Club] and they said they loved I Can't Explain and wanted me to write more of the same.

"It was then that I realised I had an audience to whom I could write. The songs that then followed in 1965 like Anyhow Anyway Anywhere and My Generation were songs about teenage disenfranchisement. They were also songs about teenage bluff, which said 'If I can't tell you what's in my heart, I'll smash your face in'. Or with My Generation, it was 'If I can't tell you what's in my heart, I would rather die than be like you'."

The other great English songwriter of the era, Ray Davies, wrote songs full of irony, which complemented Townshend's darker lyrics. "By the time of A Quick One [1966] and up to Tommy [1969], people were expecting a flow of lyrical material from me that would be different from other artists. But you have to remember I was the guitar player in The Who, so I knew my function as the songwriter was to serve the guitar player who performed these songs on stage, and the best way to achieve this was to write heavy metal-type songs, but this kind of writing didn't come naturally to me.

"I had lost touch with what my audience wanted at that point. It had been much easier for me in the early Mod days when I had felt instructed by the audience, they who had given me my brief. I'd been told at Ealing Art School that if I wanted to be an artist, I needed a patron and a brief."

Was he writing only for the boys in the audience during the Railway Tavern days? "I learnt when on stage with my dad's band that women are the most unbelievably fickle fans." The audience is beside itself with mirth when he says this. "Men tend to stay with you, a bit like a football team. They root for you when things aren't going too well, and also when you're having success.

"The male thing was easier to grasp because the males had discovered that they did not need a lot of the attributes of the previous generation. They didn't need a stiff upper lip or pretend to be heterosexual. What they needed was to look good and affirm each other. Writing for the Mods was easy because they were all the same, in that they felt there was nothing for them."

Townshend raises the toe of his left boot, inspecting it as he turns over his thoughts. "A lot of the men who lectured at Ealing Art School are proud of me NOW," he laughs. "But then, I was practically considered a fucking idiot. I was told by a lecturer 'Townshend! You're the only one in this class who understands a little of what's going on here'."

"The ideas were spectacularly forward-thinking. The lecturers at Ealing were postulating ideas that artists would one day be working by themselves on computers! This was in 1961! I instinctively understood that the advent of computers would change the language by which society would communicate with itself.

"Gustav Metzger, who invented the term auto-destructive art, took me to task a few years ago and said 'Pete, you smashing guitars was not what I was thinking. I meant the bourgeois society is destroying nature!'" Townshend suddenly drives his fist into his palm. "Gustav was the first environmentalist I had ever met in my entire life!"

"And it was a total inconvenience when The Who's first record started to sell, because my life at Ealing Art School was fabulous. Roger [Daltrey] used to drag me out of bed to get me to gigs because I didn't want to go because it meant hanging out at some awful club waiting for the fight to break out. But those years were very rich for me."

Townshend has always said that as an artist, his responsibility was to serve his audience. But who is the audience? "They were 90% working class people, so I served them first. This was, and is, very true of the pop music business."

Has he ever worried about the state of his mental faculties after all the years of excess? "I only had four or five LSD trips back then, so I didn't screw with my mind that much, but what I've realised is that my mind is not quite right.

"More recently I've started to remember dreams, very vividly, which is problematic because my reality here with you becomes another dream, so I have to battle with myself to snap out of it. This condition feels chemical. Nevertheless, as a composer, whether this condition is bipolar or whatever, I was able to use it."

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Townshend is quick to praise his contemporaries. "The Rolling Stones were extraordinary. They kicked off their career in Richmond and Ealing, which is where The Who lived and hung out. I was close with Brian Jones. He was a musicologist and a dedicated, fantastic man.

"Mick is the quintessential rock singer, the only man you can connect in a straight line to Elvis Presley. That degree of androgyny and sexual shamanism, that ability of his to bring music to life simply by moving is astonishing. And Charlie Watts! He swings like no one else!

"So, I think The Beatles and The Beach Boys were extraordinary, but after Pet Sounds [1966] and Sgt. Pepper [1967] came out, what then happened was that a bunch of other musicians, namely us! got down and dirty and finished the job. They started something they didn't finish: Brian Wilson went nuts and The Beatles retired, almost as soon as they started."

Townshend admits that Tommy, the first rock opera, came about as an attempt to rescue The Who after their success as a singles band took a hit when I Can See For Miles flopped. "I came up with an idea that was gimmicky, fun and audacious and would attract attention. I wanted to take in the spiritual vogue of late 1967, early 1968. It was post LSD: we've fucked our brains up, now let's go look for God!"

And speaking of the spiritual, should we look to him or any other in the ranks of the celebrated for guidance in this befuddled modernistic age of computerisation? As the myriad camera shutters of the press break the ensuing silence with their own mechanised applause, Pete's eyes flash, and he says, with quiet finality: "Quite frankly, looking to celebrities for spiritual guidance...is futile."

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

Who I Am by Pete Townshend is published by www.harpercollins.co.uk

For further information visit www.thewho.com

Photographs courtesy of HarperCollins and JennyHardcore c/o Flickr.com