True Adventures In Rock Journalism: Pete Townshend (With Rare Audio!)
I was a crappy guitar player and I had flunked out of college as an English major, so I figured I had what it took to make it as a music journalist. When the guitar magazines were coming of age, I was there. I was at the right place at the right time. I’ve been there ever since.
Photo: Pete Townshend and Steven Rosen
Chapter 2: Pete Townshend and Who’s Text or A Guitar by Any Other Name
March 1979, New York, New York -When discussions started turning serious about the real possibility of interviewing Pete Townshend, I began shaking. Exhilaration and trepidation battled for headspace and left me sleepless for three nights. I kept running the scenario through my head of me sitting in a room with the man who had written Who’s Next. I’d always thought it was one of the ten greatest albums of well, forever. For all I knew, Pete hated the record. But I’d now have the opportunity of asking him firsthand.
I prepared for our meeting. I listened and absorbed and made notes about every lick he’d ever played and every lyric he’d ever rhymed. I knew he was a passionate and deep-thinking individual, and probably wouldn’t suffer fools lightly. Pete was also a devotee of the Indian teachings of Meher Baba. “Baba O’Riley,” the first track on Who’s Next, was an ode to his guru mentor. In order to try and connect with the guitarist on as many levels as possible, I even tried engaging in my own brand of self-affirmation. I really did. Every evening before going to bed, I’d close my eyes, attempt to slow my breathing, and mutter, mantra-style, “You’re not an idiot. Don’t worry. You’re not an idiot. Don’t worry.”
It didn’t work. For the next eight hours, tossing and turning, I heard my sleep-deprived brain mutating the chant into, “You’re an idiot. Worry. You’re an idiot. Worry.”
I wouldn’t have to obsess for long. About a week after I was first notified, I boarded a plane for New York. Pete was there doing press for The Kids Are Alright and Quadrophenia films, both projects to be released later that same year.
It was a real New York weekend. A friend of mine lived in Greenwich Village and I stayed at his little apartment and we did the Manhattan shuffle. We’d go out to dinner at 11 at night, hit a club at 2 a.m., taxi it back home by about 4 or 5, sleep until the early afternoon, and then rise and do it again. After the second night of revelry, we awoke some time after noon, refueled with a massive breakfast and took the subway to Pete’s hotel.
I can’t remember the exact hotel but it was New York chic, doorman in epaulets and cap, lobby full of glass and marble, and the smell of money. My photographer friend and I made our way to his room. Pete was there on a couch and rose in greeting. He was lanky and angular and had a face dominated by that famous nose.
We sat down and from the moment he first spoke, I knew I had gotten him all-wrong. Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend presented himself as a mild-mannered and amiable Englishman who just happened to play guitar and write songs. Yeah, these songs had changed the very course of rock and roll history. But he didn’t talk about them that way; he even forgot some of the titles. And he didn’t really care about gear or the guitars he played either.
Here was one classic example:
Pete: “I can’t remember the name of it. It was one of the thin … I don’t know what they even call them. Crimson color with cutaways like that (used hand motions to describe the cutaway horn sections). The guitar had just been brought out. It was a …”
Pete: “Yeah! And it really suited my amplifiers and I started to use those. And, they were a bit weak, that was the only thing about them; you know, I could actually break them with my bare hands.
I was dumbfounded that he didn’t know the name for an SG. But it only re-enforced the notion that it didn’t matter what he used. They were unimportant pieces in the creative jigsaw.
I did bring up the Who’s Next record, of course, and when I told him I thought it was the best album he’d ever made, he replied, “It’s the album that I try to look at as a standard in a way.” Oh, sweet vindication!
No conversation with Pete can be complete without talking about his unintentional involvement in the development of the now-classic 4x12 cabinet.
As amplifiers grew in size and power, there was the inevitable feedback that followed. Pete was not the only guitarist encountering this unavoidable by-product of semi-hollowbody instruments plugging into higher-gain amps.
Unable to compete with the likes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton on a purely technical level, Pete felt empty and frustrated. Combine these emotions with the ongoing drama of a squealing guitar, and the outcome really isn’t too surprising.
Woodstock is where these various pieces – more powerful amps, feedback, and the destruction of guitars – came together. These elements would be forever associated with the band. In a way, the quartet’s image was crystallized that night.