Pete, in full flight
It wasn't rock and roll that saved me; it was Pete Townshend.
It wasn't Pete's "masterpieces" like Tommy, Quadrophenia, and the failed Life House that turned into the incredible and remarkable Who's Next?. And it wasn't even the songs, awesome as they were, and discussing things in blatant language that even groups like the Stones couldn't seem to do (what do you think "How Can You Do It Alone?" is about?). Sure, I identified with some of them--not the ones that were obvious, like "My Generation" (which was it's own built-in timebomb if you were planning on getting old), but the longing of "Magic Bus" or the obsessive teenageness of "Pictures of Lily" or the stupid and obvious sexual humor of "Squeeze Box" (exactly the kind of thing that'll make a 15 year-old boy laugh--think Beavis and Butt-head: "He said she has a 'squeeze box'--heh heh heh."). No, it was two things.
First, it was Pete himself. Tall, lanky, goofy-looking, with a big, honking nose and a manic way of playing, something that he himself has admitted seems to come from outside himself. Almost as if a separate person steals his body while he's playing guitar. Look at this portion of the film from Woodstock
(starting about the two minute mark), where Pete doesn't seem connected to his bandmates, the audience, the location, or even the Planet Earth--it's like he's channeling
the music from some other realm and bringing it to us:
He's not even there, in the normal sense of the word. He's elsewhere. That his fingers are bleeding from the force with which he bangs the strings doesn't matter--he's not even aware of it. There is no crowd; there are no cameras; the other members of the band are almost forgotten. He's hearing the music of the spheres and channeling it to all of us. To me.
And the spheres are fucking pissed off!
He was odd and awkward and weird and so articulate and brainy that he frequently caused the heads of rock critics to explode, and he was famous, and one of the most famous rock musicians in the world. To a skinny, awkward, too-short (instead of too-tall) kid, the thought that anything--be it computers or science or math or rock and roll--could take you out of that hell of middle and high school and make you famous in spite of the things you were mocked for was incredibly empowering. It wrapped me in an armour of dispassion, a feeling that, "Yeah, you think I'm a dork now, but I won't always be, and then I'll show you!"
(I find it ironic, in retrospect, that Pete famously said, "Rock and Roll is going to kill me some day", when he and his music saved me.)
Pete himself acknowledged this driving force just before The Who's first farewell tour in 1982 (which I saw at the Oakland Colliseum with The Clash--a double-billing that still blows my mind). I wish I could find the exact quote, but it was something about his (very large and prominent) nose, and deciding to show all those guys that made fun of him in school. "Right; I'm going to get famous and then I'll be shoving this big honker at you from every magazine and newspaper in the world!"
What outcast overly-articulate, over-thinking geek wouldn't relate to that?
Pete had the balls to throw Abbie Hoffman off his stage. Pete had the nerve to criticize the music of The Beatles . . . at the height of Beatlemania
. Pete didn't care if he got pissed off enough to smash his guitar in frustration. In his 40s, Pete still cared
enough to get so furiously angry at a broken guitar string that he chopped down his mic stand with his guitar in the middle of a performance. Pete did what he did, and to hell with the rest of you, even at the risk of his ears, his fingers, his equipment, and his health.
Giving blood the Pete Townshend way
And what he did was awesome.
It was his music. Not the words, necessarily; the sound. There is absolutely nothing like the sound of The Who in full cry. Maybe their songs make sense ("My Generation"), sometimes they're almost incoherent (many of the cuts on Quadrophenia), but throughout is the sound. Keith Moon's almost psychotic drumming, raging and thumping and crashing and driving; John Entwhistle's understated but incredibly complex and elegant bass guitar, acting as the anchor to the chaos around him; but most of all--even more than Roger Daltry's full-throated scream--is Pete Townshend.
His guitar--driving, ripping, twanging, exp0loding there off the vinyl. The anger
and frustration and sheer reckless energy that is blasted out by Townshend's guitar is sometimes almost painful. Listen to him on "Rough Boys," a song that sounds like a rage against him giving in to his own bisexual desires, a guitar riff that starts out angry and bitter and biting and never lets up until the final note fades. Or the wounded pride in the sound of his rythm guitar admist the beautiful orchestration in "Slit Skirts." Or the almost vicious ascending and then decending fuzz-guitar noise in "Give Blood", a sound that practically makes you grit your teeth with sympathetic anger at the people demanding that you
"give blood, and sometimes you find that blood is not enough", making the resultion of "give love" at the end of the tune all the more cathartic
Even a ballad like "Love, Reign O'er Me" comes across more as a desperate plea rather than a cry of triumph or happiness. In practically every song, even the ones that seem "happy" and upbeat, have as their underpining the driving anger and rage that is Pete Townshend and his guitar. Even on acoustic
guitar, Pete can hardly contain himself
It saved me. Bullied, dismissed, discounted; the child of a divorce, trying to help my single dad to raise my ADHD brother (who became an excellent guitarist of his own) part time and trying to help hold the house together until my step-mother arrived several years later to take up the burden; insecure and yet arrogant in my own belief in my superior intelligence, Pete spoke to me through those notes and screams and yells and wails. I wasn't the only one; Pete had gone before me, and conquered. And to hell with all you bastards, I'll conquer too! (Whether I did or not is a whole 'nother post.)
Thank you, Pete.
Portrait by Annie Leibovitz
: want an introduction to Pete and The Who? I suggest "Rough Boys"
, "Give Blood"
, "Won't Get Fooled Again"
(or this cut
), "Baba O'Reilly"
, "The Real Me"
('I went back to my mother / I said "I'm crazy, Ma; help me!" / She said "I know how it feels, son / cuz it runs in the family'), "Slit Skirts"
, "Eminence Front"
, "Who Are You"
(I prefer this cut to the one on the record), "Pinball Wizard"
, and "The Kids Are Alright."
Not that there aren't plenty more.