In a better world, Tom Wright would be a name familiar to every rock and roll fan. Travelling as road manager with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Faces and, most notably, The Who, Wright became one of rock’s most important photographers, amassing a vast collection of shots now housed at the University of Texas’s Center for American History. Perhaps just as important, Wright’s friendship with Pete Townshend, which began in the early ’60s and continues to this day, exposed the Who guitarist to music that helped shape his direction as an artist.
“Without Tom coming into my life, I don’t think I would have heard the music that I heard that was so important for me when I was a kid,” Townshend once said. “Particularly R&B, which Tom exposed me and a bunch of people at Ealing Art School to, around ’62 and ’63.”
In his 2007 memoir, Roadwork: Rock and Roll Turned Inside Out, Wright chronicles his life thus far, beginning with his experiences as one of two American students attending London’s Ealing Art College in the early ’60s. It was there that his friendship with Townshend blossomed. Few books have better captured the spirit of an era – in particular, the ’60 and ’70s – during which rock and roll was in full ascendance as a cultural force. Far from some tawdry tell-all, the book brims with affection for rock and roll itself, and for those who create it authentically. In the following interview, Wright shares some of his extraordinary memories.
The Who toured as the opening band for Herman’s Hermits on their first American tour. Was that as odd a billing as it seems?
It was terribly odd. Actually the Blues Magoos played first. They were sort of like a precursor to the Ramones – really jittery. They played for about 20 minutes. And then The Who came out. The Who hit the stage with a vengeance, like they had just had a terrible argument with the promoter or the police or the city fathers. When they finished, the audience had this look like someone might have if their car had just blown up in their face. I thought, “Surely [Herman’s Hermits frontman] Peter Noone is not going to walk out over this debris and do those sweet, bubblegum songs. But he did. It was just goofy – like Hendrix opening for The Monkees. You had to wonder what the people who booked those shows were thinking.
How did Townshend spend his down time?
There wasn’t a whole lot of down time on that first tour, unless you consider traveling to be down time. There were scary moments. It’s hard today to re-imagine the atmosphere in those days. We would go into a hotel lobby, and people would run out from behind the counter and say, “No, you people are not staying here.” That was the sort of welcome we encountered 50 percent of the time. In those days it was very unusual for young people to be traveling on their own, without some sort of chaperone. People under 30 didn’t travel in packs like that, checking into Holiday Inns.
Didn’t Townshend do much of the writing for Tommy while on tour?
That was the next tour. He did much of the work on the tour bus and in hotel rooms. The standard rule was, don’t bother Pete, no matter how great the escapades going on in Room 313. On that second tour, he had headphones and recording devices – small cassette machines and so forth. He would go into his hotel room, lock the door and we wouldn’t see him till the next day.
Did he talk about it much?
Not really. Nothing more than just to say he was writing, or fooling around with a riff.
What was it like to see Townshend blossom as a guitarist, when the two of you became friends at the Ealing Art College?
Pete was playing guitar before I met him. In my view he had already blossomed. He was doing things on guitar that I had seen only in photos, or instruction books. Mostly it was folk music, and skiffle. His Dad was also into jazz – not artists like Miles Davis, but rather Glen Miller big-band pop jazz.
What music did you bring into his life that had such an impact on him?
Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Snooks Eaglin … the world of blues, from the Delta to Chicago. And also some rock and roll, like Chuck Berry. There was no access to that kind of music in England, at that time. Whenever Elvis came out with an album, it would be six months before it was available in England. That gave British bands time to try and duplicate it, and create their own hit out of it. There was no TV or radio exposure. Pirate radio hadn’t started up yet, in 1962. Pete was blown away when he first heard American blues and serious rock and roll, as opposed to the pasteurized stuff he had access to in England.
Did you see his guitar playing change, from that point forward?
Oh, sure. It changed as soon as he heard those records. We had a couple of guitars in the apartment. Ten seconds into those songs, he would pick up whatever guitar he could reach, and start playing along.
The Who first performed Tommy at the Grande in Detroit, the venue you were managing at the time. How did the performance go over?
People hadn’t yet heard the album, and a lot of people were asking, “What the hell is a rock opera?” There was just one promoter, in Detroit, who had an acetate of Tommy, and he had played some of the songs on the radio. But you couldn’t really tell what the concept was all about, from just that. But we packed the place three nights in a row. They played the entire album, and then took about a 5-minute break, and came back and played another 45 minutes. Everyone had their socks rocked off.
You introduced Townshend and Joe Walsh to one another. What was it like to watch the two of them jam, in private?
The first time was in a Holiday Inn room in Detroit. They were both playing acoustics. It started out really slow and mellow, with none of that typical thing people might expect, where each guy is trying to outgun the other. It was more like, “Who’s the more humble? Who’s the more low-key and understated?” But then it just took off, like the fog lifting to reveal something else. It’s like going over to Picasso’s house to watch him and Monet paint at the same time. Which guy do you look at? Who do you concentrate on? It doesn’t get any better than that.
How did fame affect Townshend?
I never saw that it changed his personality, at all. But it’s important to remember that, to this day, he’s the man behind the livelihoods of 30 or 40 people, and their families. It’s almost like being the CEO of a corporation. The pressure becomes less about coming up with another Tommy, than about keeping the money flowing in, so that these people who have knocked themselves out for you, for 35 years, don’t get fired.
Can you assess what impact that had on the songs, or the music?
Well, it never changed his sense of focus. From the time he was a teenager, in school, he was always able to focus intently on any assignment, on any task at hand. He always saw any project through to completion. That’s a part of his personality I saw, from day one. Over time, of course, those projects got much bigger.
You also worked closely with Faces, when they first came to America. Was Rod Stewart always a charismatic frontman?
It was obvious. He first showed up at the Grande singing for Jeff Beck. The marquee read, “Jeff Beck with R. Stewart, vocalist.” Stewart walked into the place like he owned it. And after he finished their set, he did own it. He gave it everything he had. He was an athlete, and he put a lot of physicality into the music. And he certainly walked out with the best-looking women.
There’s also a remarkable segment in Roadwork about The Rolling Stones attending the funeral for your friend, roadie Chuch Magee, in 2002. Can you tell that story?
All the Stones were there, along with the whole crew … everybody. They were seated in the front row. Ron Wood and Keith Richards got up and began an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace.” They had been playing for about a minute, and then Jagger stood up. I thought he was going to sing, but instead he started playing harmonica. There were about 1,200 people there, in a small wooden church near the Canadian border, crying softly, trying not to make much noise. It was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen The Rolling Stones do.
On a good night, who was the best live band you ever saw?
They sort of fall into their own categories. Vibe-wise, a great Faces show was totally different from a great Who show. A great Who show was scary. The music was explosive, and when it finished, you felt glad you had survived. When you walked away from a great Rod Stewart and Faces show, you felt like you had been locked in a pub with a hundred people who had just had the time of their life. You walked out smiling. With the Eagles, particularly in recent years, you walk out feeling like you’ve seen Pavarotti. The perfection level is beyond measure.
Are there artists you’ve heard recently who help preserve your faith in rock and roll?
Paul Thorn, Carolyn Wonderland and Gary Clark Jr. Paul Thorn is at the forefront of a new wave of rock and roll, in my opinion. It’s something I’ve been waiting on for more than 20 years. Clark has the best voice since Muddy Waters, and of course he plays great guitar. Carolyn Wonderland is an incredible guitar player as well, and she sings like Janis Joplin would have sung, had Joplin not gotten tied in with the San Francisco hippie crowd. Hearing those three artists has convinced me I’m witnessing a Renaissance – something incredibly special.
Photos used with kind permission of Tom Wright.