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Godhead Revisited: The Second Coming Of Pete Townshend
— The Pete Townshend Interview, Part 1

From the September 1989 issue of Guitar Player

Part 1 of an interview by Matt Resnicoff

n. 1. A state of equilibrium, as among weight or forces; 2. A physical condition maintained by the stasis of fluids in the semicircular canal of the inner ear; 3. An unpaid difference represented by the excess of debits over credits.
n. one who writes or sings ballads.
n. any heavy material carried in a vessel to provide draft and stability.
n. dancing in which poses and steps are combined with light, flowing figures, as leaps and turns.
n. see fortitude.

John Entwistle pauses for a moment to wipe down the exceptionally long strings of his bass, and for several disorienting seconds amid the sudden silence, everyone within range fights to regain their stance.

Few people other than myself in this room are transfixed; those who are remain that way simply to avoid being spotted and told to get back to work. It’s seldom this seasonable during early springtime in the idyllic London suburb of Bray, and the gravel-paved lot outside this airplane hangar of a rehearsal space is a convenient location for parts of a large band to sample the soothing British air — and to enjoy brief respite from a decibel-heavy soundcheck.

Just inside the huge corrugated doors, a woman is typing every lyric from the rock opera Tommy into the Autocue, a sort of electronic page turner that feeds to each musician onstage a projection of the score in time with the music as it is performed, leaf by holographic leaf. The band used to be able to perform this thing in their sleep (and at this point in the rehearsals for their mammoth 25th Anniversary tour, it sounds as though they are), but a nudge now and again surely can’t hurt.

Some of these sounds are familiar. As usual, Entwistle provides much of the scrape, but at the hands of three extra vocalists, the Kick Horns (five pieces of brass), and guitarist Steve Bolton, who’s doing merely competent, chorused-out, whammied-up ’80’s-style service to a library of classic crunch, the whole thing jabs and sputters but just doesn’t fly. It’s big, it’s bombastic, and it’s jogging the memory — but this isn’t the Who.

“Maybe you should stand off to a spot where you’re not so conspicuous,” a stagehand cautions over the din. “No musician likes to see somebody standing there with his fingers in his ears.” Bloody nerve of this guy.

One cable from the Autocue sneaks off the table and under the Ox’s NASA-scale bass amp rig, slithers beneath keyboard, drum, and percussion risers, and finds its way across the hanger to deep stage left. There, not 10 feet away, sprouting wires and cords and lights and Plexiglas and sustained by other life-supportive elements of high holy technology, is a fabricated man-seized vessel constructed expressly for the sole containment of one Pete Townshend, a transfixing presence indeed. He settles in, straps on an acoustic, and prepares to make a noise.

Pete Townshend, 1989, tuning up and rehearsing his band from inside a box (and if a touch of irony were worth five pence, this whole band would have fare back to the States). Pete’s been fighting his way in and out of boxes for more than 20 years. He pounded his head against a stubborn spiritual one with Tommy, issued some more practically applied socio-ethnic lamentations in the same direction through Quadrophenia, and with his seven solo albums — most recently, his delightful musical The Iron Man, which actually breaks the spell — painted himself into and out of them in alternate flourishes of allegory and unabashed confessional psychodrama. Perhaps the box isn’t such a bad idea.

There comes a shout from the booth, the only voice recognizable through the P.A. for its frequent reprimands about stage volumes and microphones’ proximity to speakers. “Can you visually give us the count, then?” From across the room, from two gigantic monitors, come that familiar acoustic electricity and that eminently endearing voice. The introductory chord sequence to “Pinball Wizard,” with its accompanying shivers down the spine, speaks volumes: Now it’s the Who.

“What you’re hearing today is not the Who.” Pete laments during one of several breaks between slightly distracted run-throughs of tunes, temperamental pick-throwing, and individual “coaching” sessions with several non-Who musicians over the nuances of the material. “It’s a sophisticated bunch of session musicians who, because of the way they’ve been picked and the way they’ve evolved in the relationship to me through my work as a writer, feel very deeply about what they’re doing. But nonetheless, they’re session musicians, who, when this is finished, will go back to Mick Jagger or whoever it is they were with. The Who, if you like, is John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townshend, three kids who met at school when they were 14, and we’re still here.”

Townshend’s prospect of piecing together orchestral readings of songs originally composed and arranged for a violent trio assault (and of conducting them from a soundproof enclosure) is only the most apparent of artistic crises he’s confronting today. Rationing parts to a surplus of musicians is a nagging and meticulous task — such difficulty usually lies in trying to do the reverse — but his most sensitive pressure point currently rests between his ears. Tinnitus, the hearing disability he acquired through decades of unwary indulgence in rock’s time-honored excesses, renders him an open nerve in loud signals in a very specific frequency range, one within which happens to fall sounds that to him are now not all that unfamiliar; children’s and women’s voices, speaker feedback, and the brittle whine of the electric guitar. The confines of the booth and a number of remotely amplified acoustic guitars address the latter concerns; the troublesome timeline-of-rock issue, and his own effective place in it, the matter of establishing some kind of legitimate social checkpoint for this reunion, and of addressing it honestly as a function of opposition between circumstance, responsibility, and desire, all have yet to be wrestled with — today.

Little worries, trifles. Hearing problems are the unwelcome mascot for this tour and for Pete Townshend — de facto guitarist for the Who — but his impatient noodlings on the acoustic evince a greater trauma. He scrambles though jazz lines with an aloof mock-eloquence, like someone who learned the language but has been too far and long estranged from its native land to let it tell its story. When it does find voice, it soars — The Iron Man resounds with some of his most adventurous playing in almost seven years — but in serving the demands of his band’s infrastructure and his audience’s myopic infatuation, it was all too often caught somewhere between the poles and squelched into reserve. With all that conflict, who has time to show off?

For every moment of bravado he’s ever enjoyed as a 44-year old hero of rock guitar, Pete Townshend has endured tenfold the sling-and-arrow sufferings of a tragic hero straight out of Shakespeare. As an archetypal rock persona, he played many roles — the idealist, the frustrated idealist, the realist, the hypocrite, the urchin, the saint, the betrayer, the bard himself — and set them all to music quite readily. True, he was a figure to be looked to and learned from, but his struggle generally made a more satisfying connection with those seeking personal lessons in the thoughtful functions of sound rather than in the proper motion of one’s fingers. It was how he played — even in the face of estrangement from his muse, from his family, from his better nature, and often from the very language of his art — and not just simply what he played, that vaulted Pete aloft and kept him there for more than 25 years.

“The Who” is stumbling over the segue vamp to follow “Pinball Wizard.” Pete demonstrates the proper changes, but their mistake is repeated each time the song’s powerful resolution comes around, where it spreads over 10 instruments like thoughtfully orchestrated mush. He finally rushes from the box and presents himself physically to correct them, as though the parts they were missing were somehow better represented through sight than sound. “Can everybody hear this chord? This is the starting chord!”

Then he returns to the box and continues conducting.

Whether Pete Townshend’s stature as a guitarist is aptly acknowledged is a question of perception, as much as is the implicit meaning of anything he’s ever played or written about, even to him. All artists suffer the indignity of having their intentions misperceived, but few have courage enough to bear an even greater burden of measuring what they’ve produced against those intentions and misperceptions, and of being stolid enough to deal with all of this when it inevitably affects the creative process the next time around. The cycle virtually defines Townshend. Most of his artistic and emotional tasks are carried out in a grand battlefield of reconciliation and compromise, pitting the subtle with the exaggerated, the pretentious with the impulsive, the loud with the soft — al in the hopes of sticking together the debris to make some kind of sense. So if he’s not a guitar hero in the specific, (self-) conscious sense the term implies, it’s probably because the cathartic approach he embraced onstage with his band serves as only the most publicly digestible part of what it actually a profound musicality, in this sense, he became and remained the Who’s guitarist, rather that the guitarist with the Who.

And if Pete isn’t the most overtly proficient technician in rock (perhaps he’s subversively proficient), then he’s probably rock’s most consistent, and undoubtedly its most insistent, stylist. The fact is that whether they know it or not, most contemporary rock players were weaned on the deceptive, selective indelicacy of that approach. More than just taking to the dictates of his surroundings, he thrived within them, often undoing the practical link between rock’s heavy doses of expressive energy and the necessary simplicity that walls it in. It cost him a good part of his faculties (and today, half-deaf, he still asks the techs to reposition his monitor closer to the door of the booth so the kick drum can kick him that much harder), but he submerged himself for years in a disorienting abyss of sound to shake off the constraints and come up with something pure. He lusted for new ideas, and developed an instinct for turning periodic artistic frustration into bursts of creativity when nothing else was available. Eventually his perspective had developed to where he exerted the same grace navigating through the opiatic possibilities of a new tuning on an acoustic as he did hurling a squealing SG across a studio at Roger Daltrey. Townshend’s intentions unified on a level to which most art aspired. From the subtly adventurous, to the brazen, to the alchemic wire-crossers — from Joni Mitchell to Sid Vicious to Michael Hedges — musicians in many idioms lean against his legacy.

There has always been a certain grace an assuredness in the way Pete Townshend handles a guitar, almost more so than in the way he handles his musical and spiritual phobias. Many of his lesser-known songs (”Sheraton Gibson,” “Empty Glass,” “I’m One,” “Guitar and Pen,” “Now I’m a Farmer,” “Pure and Easy,” to skim the cream) offer a glimpse inside the unique perspective of the searching guitarist. If not through specific spiritual reference, then through arrangement or production, they characterize the guitar as sacrament of musical liberation (this in keeping with the self-renunciative teachings of his spiritual Master, Meher Baba) but also silently point up the musician’s hermetic existence in a world where countless diversions make a selfless universal connection seem unattainable. A speed-strummed acoustic flourish here, an ear-splitting pick slide there — his gestures lash against the confines of the box, punctuating the stories he sings or the emotional surges of the moment. But the simplicity of the note rises above all else; Townshend’s playing always provided a strong, supportive spiritual backdrop for what could not be resolved intellectually. His acoustic rhythms were always acute, precise, and powerful, even while his philosophies were being reappraised and reshaped. The interchange based itself on a language he learned by speaking freely and often, and even its falterings fueled its evolution. In many of the better-known Who songs, the riffs Pete created involved letting notes ring out if they happened to be hit, allowing the roar of untended strings to seek their own cycle of harmonic ringing; impact was left up to controlled chaos. By consistently avoiding formalization in his art, Pete unwittingly formalized his medium. The language became the sound of rock and roll.

In addition to the band’s own standards, the set on the current tour includes tunes expressly chosen by the individual members of the Who; their warm-ups reveal strains of songs as disparate as The Drifters’ “On Broadway” (strictly warm-up), Jimi Hendrix’ “Hey Joe,” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man.” To commemorate the early years of the band, Rickenbacker built Pete a limited-edition signature model, but he straps into a standard black Rick 12-string and continues along nostalgically. In a matter of moments, they begin a medley consisting of “I’m A Boy,” “I Can See For Miles,” and “My Generation.” Pete helms the proceedings from the box like a brain center, flexing the joints and getting all the old body parts working again. Through near-opaque panes of glass, a murky, hunching silhouette wrenches the neck of its guitar and bears down intensely. The band picks up on the physical incentive and pumps it home.

Fifteen nostalgic minutes are over. “Once you’re old enough to have a medley,” Roger Daltrey confides with a perceptibly uneasy laugh, “you know you’ve ’ad it.”

”Well,” I offer, “if you need any help with the lyrics, don’t hesitate to ask.”

The singer cups his ear and cocks his head towards me. “Sorry?”

The Iron Man is a decidedly literal fairy tale of a young man (played by Pete himself) confronting the forces of life and love through an encounter with the title character (played by blues legend John Lee Hooker). In every sense, it breaks sharply from his recent solo efforts (the powerfully revealing songs on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes flowed with an atmospheric force, which gathered into the sort of novelistic, three-minute pools he formed with White City; Iron Man re-explodes the form), and in every sense, it’s as introspective an allegory as anything he’s ever recorded. It’s also a perfectly executed pop album. Townshend handled his own production for the first time, leaving himself ample room to stretch within his music like the guitarist few ever knew he was. He should get out more.

Are you actually thinking of touring with the box?

No, at the moment I’m trying to minimize the amount of exposure to loud noise through the rehearsal period. So I did all the rehearsals up to this point in a booth. And what was quite interesting was that my hearing improved. I’ve since discovered that this is not uncommon, that they’re actually using low-volume classical music recordings at a pilot project here at the Institute of Manchester to retrain people’s hearing. This is to help tinnitus sufferers — people who have got roaring or whistles — to listen outside of their heads, as it were, to listen to the externally produced sounds instead of concentrating on the internally produced sounds. And I think that’s what’s been happening; my hearing has actually improved because everything that I’m listening for is so quiet. And it’s such hard work, because I’ve been in a studio for two years, and the answer to any problem there is just simply to turn down.

So this is different for me, and it’s been a challenge, and I’ve actually enjoyed the rehearsals so much more than usual because I don’t feel any sense of exhaustion afterwards. I don’t get that terrible feeling that you normally get after a long stretch, of feeling, that you’ve got to pickle yourself in order to get away from it. Or go and talk crap or something, or go and wreck a room or whatever sort of technique the individual happens to use. I just walk out and I think, “Well, I’ve done my day’s work,” and I go home and I’m relaxed. I don’t have to wind down, because I haven’t wound up. Not to say that I don’t get rushes of enthusiasm — I do — but without the sort of destruction that goes with it.

On the stage itself, I’m really hoping that I’m going to be able to just stand out there and work, and we’re trying to build as cosmetic a booth as is possible, so that if I do get noise damage, it will probably be from feedback shrieks. If I get a bad feedback shriek, it disables me for between five and fifteen minutes, so I would then just have to go into the booth. Roger doesn’t really want me in this booth at all. He wants me to wear earplugs, but I haven’t yet found any that I’ve felt comfortable with. There are some wonderful products out there, and there are lots in development — I got a letter yesterday from a free clinic in San Francisco, and they’re doing a project called HEAR, which is trying to raise the consciousness of young people to the fact that loud music does cause damage.

Isn’t there a way you could construct a monitor system with a warm, low-level mix, or isolate yourself in a manner that would allow you to perform as the sole electric guitarist?

I couldn’t do that. I had to work out a series of compromises. Would it be better for me to expose myself to, say, 96 to 100dB for five-minute stretches in order to physically seem to be enjoying myself to the audience, and then go and rest for a while in a booth, where I’d still be visible — and certainly in stadium gigs, it wouldn’t make a hell of a lot of difference, because people get a much better view of me in a stable position with a camera in a well-lit booth than they would out in the sunshine — or would it be better for me to wear earplugs and compromise the whole performance in my own terms? And I have to make those decisions sometime during the next two or three weeks. But I’m so glad that I’m using this booth, because it really does make such a difference. [Pauses.] But it doesn’t work in this place, it really doesn’t. It’s so isolated. I need to get out of it now, and it might be better for me to go through these rehearsals with earplugs in. I’ve got some by Norsonics which are quite good. I can’t use most earplugs because if I move my head, they just literally fly out.

It runs against the ideological grain of your recent writing for you to go on the performance stage in a box — isolated not only from the audience, but to an extent from your bandmates, as well — a shared paradox. There’s something strange in your having to stick your head out to cue the band while trying to maintain the whole.

We’re past that point in rehearsal. It was quite tricky earlier, but a bit more intimate. We’re doing technical rehearsals now, and sort of trying ... Actually, we’re not past that point. There will be difficulties, because we still haven’t properly rehearsed my solo songs, and we haven’t yet rehearsed any of the songs from The Iron Man at all. So we’ve got a ways to go. The box is actually quite useful, but it is very much a symbol.

You know, the acoustic guitar is very much a symbol. And I don’t play acoustic on everything now. I’ve found that I can get away with playing what I’ve found to be a very good guitar which Eric championed for Fender, the Eric Clapton Model, which is a wonderful all-around guitar for me. It’s one of those guitars where the actual rhythm sound on it, the undistorted sound, the pickup, and the string balance are very good. I don’t know how they’ve achieved it, but it’s very, very good — it’s almost as good as an acoustic. Also, if you wind it back, it’s got an active distortion pad in it, where it gets distorted without the volume increase, and that enables me to get just the right amount of dirt, but keep the level low.

MESA/Boogie have made a very good front-end tube preamp, and I’m using four of those. It’s the best I’ve ever tried; I’ve tried literally everything on the market, and there are a few things out there that don’t really deserve to be on sale. Tom Scholz’s small rack Rockman, I think he calls it the Sustainor, is absolutely brilliant; I used that on my album a lot. One problem is that the compressor at the front end operates even when it’s not switched on, so if you’ve got a guitar with high output, it tends to compress up anyway. But the Boogie is a real front-end. professional product which I feel happy about onstage. So if worse came to worst, I could plug my guitar into one of those amplifiers, and have a four-speaker stack tucked in some booth at the back of the hall — like the way you would record heavy guitar in the studio. It’s very rare that anyone stands in front of his own stack and plays; you would normally sit in the control room and hear it remote, just like the engineer and the producer. That’s the way I’m operating: studio conditions.

The only problem at the moment is that the booth is so awkward and awful-looking, and it needs more glass and it needs lighting and it needs air-conditioning, and then I think some of the communication problems I’ve got will be solved. But if I’m going to do performances ever again — and I’ve almost given up hope — I think that a purpose-made booth is the answer, one which would see me through the long, long, long hours of rehearsal and technical rehearsal, where you inevitably get terrible feedback shrieks, because people are literally trying to find out where mikes are and it’s all [mimics raucous feedback] and you’re in the middle of that, or how it is at the moment, where Simon Phillips has got my microphone on his fucking mixing panel — if he goes and hits the wrong knob, my mike will shriek, and even if I turn to say “Cut it,” it won’t stop. So being in the booth is a way to avoid a lot of the damage and exhaustion. But it is an awful symbol. I mean, Roger felt it very deeply when we went into rehearsal and I was in the booth. For a while he couldn’t function, though he’s gotten used to it now. But he feels he’s got the whole show on his shoulders.

It’s kind of a pragmatic womb, in a sense.

Well, it has to be. What happens when you get disabled in any way, whether it’s physical disablement, mental disablement, or addictive disablement, or whether, as with me, it’s a simple thing like hearing disablement, you actually do become a lot more childlike. The womb-like analogy that you’re using is a brutal one in this context, because it’s one that I hope to dispense with, but I actually do feel like I’m coming out every now and again [smiles].

In a story called “Fish Shop” in your book Horse’s Neck [Faber & Faber], you give an emotional literary treatment to your complex relationship with your guitar teacher, Jacob. Is he a Baba figure?

That’s right, but other things, as well, like my father and my uncle Jack, who was a guitar player who worked for Gibson, for Kalamazoo guitars. He helped them design guitar pickups, and then when the War came, he went into radar — brilliant, brilliant guy. So it was him, and other guitar players who I came across, the main one being John McLaughlin, who was always generous and particular in his recommendations to me when he was a guitar salesman at Selmer. His playing even then was inspirational, and his willingness to listen and appreciate my own basic rhythmic style in 1964 gave me a lot of confidence. But there’s a whole number of figures wrapped up in that. That was the most real story that I had in that book. Most of the stuff was complete fiction. I was trying to write a [Charles] Bukowski kind of thing, actually taking people through a really quite nightmarish thing and then out the other side, and little bits of autobiographical things slipped in. You know, you only have one life and only one set of influences. And, if something slips in which anybody can recognize as being real, they immediately think the rest of it must be real.

That’s what happens when you straddle artistic media.

Well, I feel like I’m playing guitar at the moment rather than anything else, which is interesting for me. I mean, this whole period of rehearsal has been great because I’m playing guitar, and not “making a sound,” for which I’ve become well-known. And you see, I actually bring a gate down on pre-’82 Who, because I think that sound and that theatrical dynamic was exhausted by the Who within its own turf, but it’s been inherited by Springsteen and U2 and lots of other bands, as well, who in a sense do it better now — certainly, they’ve given it new life.

What I’m concerned with, when I consider what I really want to be doing and addressing now as a musician, is trying to find some kind of dignity. I keep reading books and hearing stories and analyses of the early years of the Who as being the most exciting, and yet such a lot of turmoil and work and study went into the latter years. And I think it’s unfortunate in a sense that the years were so culturally vapid, the Woodstock years. And also, that it was very, very difficult to deal with the ultimate, triumphant commercial success of Tommy, and it tends to overshadow everything else. It’s a matter of going back as a guitarist and a songwriter and looking not just at the music of the Who from day one forward, but also at the mechanics of the Who — where the material base came from, the influence of people like Pete Meaden, the group’s first stylist, or Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, our managers and the producers of Tommy and other early-period stuff, of people like [producer] Glyn Johns, of my relationship with John and Roger and Keith — examining all those things and trying to see what really put the whole puzzle together and made it work, and honor that. That’s what I want to do. And I really am just a guitarist and songwriter in that, you know. I do an interesting interview, but I am very reflective. I’m very much a journalist in a sense; I see what I see, and I talk about it, and sometimes I see things which, just because of that capacity to observe, and probably just because of the privilege of my position and the freedom that I have to move about, to go to clubs, to have access to intelligent conversation, to be able to travel, and blah blah blah, I tend to see things that are to become trends a little before the average guy would. You, as a journalist, would never dream of writing an article about, say, a band like Television while it was still in the studio. You’d wait till the album could come out and then you’d talk about it, but I’m sure that you would know about their existence or about the possible importance of a guy like Tom Verlaine or Patti Smith or Lenny Kaye in the mid-’70s. You know, a lot of people say that America missed punk, but it actually had punk before we did — in a sense, Jim Morrison was the first punk. The point is that I end up doing interviews which people kind of attach to the Who, and they’ve got nothing to do with the Who; they’ve got nothing to do with my work — they’re just conversations. And so it’s nice for me just to be a guitar player and a songwriter, but just do that job. Not so much to dispense with the myth at all, because the myth is as much a part of the band as anything else, but the interviews are just conversations, and I don’t want to have to live or die by things I’ve ever said in an interview.

It’s not so surprising that Tommy would be resurrected now, given its rather universally applicable themes, but it does seem odd that a band that’s so reflective of the times would reunite without a new record.

You see, I don’t think the band exists in the present day at all. I went to see the Everly Brothers at the Albert Hall, and there they were, big and fat and in person and all the rest of it, and they still had the same voices. Easier to accept them, perhaps, as the Everly Brothers, because they’ve always worked with bands, but had never actually been a band. For us it’s a little bit different, so I felt the best thing to do was to make the lineup of the band as anonymous and capable as possible, in a sense. In fact, there was a point at which I thought that in order to make the band less jagged, less distracted, “the more of them there are, the better.” Of course, there’s another reason why I think the big band helps, and that’s because you can get a powerful sound without too much volume. But I felt that it’d be really good that Roger and John and I were just sort of stuck at the front of this kind of wall of musicians, and that the audience actually felt that those three people were the survivors, it you like, the ones trying to deal with the problems we’re presented with at the moment — you know, the need to celebrate, live, what we do, despite all of the terrible worries about both the moral and the artistic problems with stadium performance. We haven’t quite reached that stage yet; you know, we’ve not actually reached the point where it’s been John and Roger and myself at the front of the stage, banded together. And I think when that moment comes, then we’ll know whether this is going to work or not.

Since Tommy, the acoustic guitar has provided a sonic cushion for almost everything you’ve recorded, no matter how bombastic the context, and the new album is pervaded by that cushion. But I detect that this record is the first time you’ve ever recorded without your Gibson J-200 since 1969.

[Smiling] That’s correct, yeah. This is a weird thing about guitars and musical instruments. You know, I’ve smashed so fucking many guitars, and always maintained that they’re just planks of wood, and, “Don’t give me that shit about guitars with all that ‘it knows when I’m away’ stuff,” but because I hardly used it on this record at all, it died! It was in the studio waiting in its case, and I went back to do some work there with Boltz, the other guitarist. I opened the case and picked it up, and it had just completely fallen to bits. The strings had corroded to an extraordinary extent, the frets had grown mold, the bridge had come off, the back had popped open, and all of the top had delaminated. And yet, while I was working on the demos before I went into the studio, it worked perfectly well. It’s almost like once it knew it was not going to be on the record, it just went bing! I had it rebuilt, and I’m going to have to take it home and play it. It’s like a different guitar now, like a new guitar. I’ve been trying to reassure people that there is genuine, explosive excitement in acoustic rhythm guitar. I mean, you only have to think back to the great players like Richie Havens, who’ve founded careers on it. And I can make acoustic guitar fly. You know, there’s no question about it. And I feel much more comfortable on the acoustic than on the electric. But there are things it can’t do. It’s very difficult to make the transition, for example, from single-string work to heavy flourished work on acoustic guitar. These are things that I’ve always known, that I’m reconfronting now. But when I get to a comfortable thing like the “Pinball Wizard” bit, it just sounds so obviously right to me, and I just know that’s going to send shivers up people because it’s the sound that’s on the record. But there are other places where the guitar plays a much more subtle role, and I think it’s then that it’s really important that I’m at the front, holding it, and I’m seen to be physically making a subtle contribution. When I did my shows on my own [Pete Townshend’s Deep End, Atco], I played acoustic on most of that, and although I didn’t even have the guitar plugged in, I could actually change the feel of the track. I thought at first that it was the way I played it, and then I found that of course it isn’t; it’s really ... [stands up] because you’re there with your guitar, and say you’re on a syncopation, and you’re going [mimes and plays straight rhythm], and then you want to do some trotting or galloping [sings triplets and bends upper body forward], you immediately change your posture and lean in a little bit, and everybody sees that from behind and they go, “Oh, I know.” [Physically indicates a responsive corresponding change.] So it’s the visual signals possibly, but I’m hoping that as I ... emerge from the box [smiles] and get out front, I’m going to be able to work better. Simon Phillips and I have worked together so much now that we’ve developed a very good rapport.

Is your current demoing process similar to the one you’ve been using over the last 20 years or so?

No, it’s gotten much more sophisticated because I’m using the Synclavier, so my original Portastudio four-track demos are now actually done on a four-track direct-to-disc system which costs more than my house, literally. It means that odd little moments on Iron Man, like the vocals and basic accompaniment on “A Fool Says,” are the demo; the whole thing is just something I knocked out very, very loosely. I tried redoing it, and I just thought, “Well, why? It’s all there.” I engineered it myself, and this is a problem — I was taking stuff into the studio and saying [as if to himself], ”Can’t you hear that buzz?” [Laughs.] But in that respect, as I said earlier, my upper-frequency hearing is actually returning, and that’s become a great relief. I think one of the things about tinnitus and hearing damage is that you psychologically close yourself off. You don’t fight for hearing. The reverse happens: You kind of say, “No, no, please, no more loud noises. Stop. Stop!” A jet might go over, or somebody might toot their horn. Or yesterday my alarm in my car went off [whines loudly], and I lifted up the bonnet to switch it off, and I couldn’t get near it. I thought, “If I get close to this fucking alarm, I’m going to blow my brain out.” The modern world seems to be full of these terrifying sounds.

So my demo process has changed only in terms of the more modern equipment, but that’s enabled me to work on a much more sophisticated level, more like a composer than a songwriter. Now, I don’t need the structure of a song before I start to work on it. Working on a Synclavier or on MIDI software or whatever it is that I happen to be using, I can actually approach a shape with a phrase, a musical phrase, and start to develop that. And I can actually try other intellectual ways of approaching a piece of music. We went through all of the songs on Iron Man with just acoustic guitar and vocals yesterday, and the interesting thing about them is that they’re all identical; they’ve all got this strong harmonic thread running through them which you don’t hear when you listen to the finished album. It’s not all that evident because of the way the songs have been slightly dressed up in the recording process. But their genesis is the same harmonic series of phrases I carried all the way through. I really wanted a strong through-composed feel to the musical, not the album. Jesus Christ, I mean, Tommy would have been so much better if I had had modern equipment. It would have been much, much, much easier. I can’t tell you how hard that was for me. I’m not a great memory man, I’m not very good at music, I’m not very good at ordering my thoughts. I’m very, very flitty, and I found it so difficult to write that. I mean, just to write the two or three bits where there was an element of through-composition, like “Go To The Mirror” having “See Me, Feel Me” in it, and the “Overture” — it was just a nightmare, because I had to write stuff on paper and I had no training. That’s my one great regret.

It’s a fair assumption that the pen and paper may one day be swallowed up in the shadow of the technology that gave us the Synclavier.

I think that the assumption these days that you don’t need musical training because there are machines is just another myth. The myth that was around when I was a kid was that music, as it used to be, was dead, and I remember my father always saying to me, “Learn to read, learn to read, learn to read. Whatever music you want to play, it doesn’t matter, just learn to read. This is the language.” And you feel a bit like you’re at school and somebody’s saying to you, “You know, this school has never been the same since they dropped classical Greek.” You think, “Oh, God.” And then you decide one day that you want to read Homer or Plato, and you buy five books, and they’re all utterly different — not only is it a different translation, but different subject matter, and then you realize, “Hey, it might be fun to learn classical Greek. It would be fun to learn what these great, original foundation-stone philosophers were actually saying, and to make my own interpretation of it.” Anyway, he made his musical point, and I ignored him, and I wish I hadn’t. I think the other thing I wish I’d done is to develop my virtuosity. Reading a magazine like Guitar Player, you understand that one thing that is not neglected there is the possibility for, and the value of, virtuosity. I’d say to anybody who’s fucking around with music computers now, “Well, that’s fine, but make sure that if you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean and all you’ve got are sails, that there’s an instrument that you can play to raise your spirit, without any electrical power.” Because although this is the modern world, we are closer now than we’ve ever been to having to live naturally. It could happen at any moment, just at any moment; somebody could come and steal all the energy.

Actually, the acoustic portions of your work are among the most exciting. In their own way, those solo demo versions of songs like “Behind Blue Eyes” [Scoop] and your live version of “Drowned” [The Secret Policeman’s Ball, IRS] have a much more present dynamic than the band recordings. On the acoustic “Behind Blue Eyes,” you can really hear the villain confronting his demons; you can sense him cowering from his demons. That’s an organic relationship that must feed the whole acoustic rebirth you’re undergoing.

Yeah, definitely. I’ve kind of taken refuge in it because of hearing problems, and then rediscovered the instrument — certainly by exploring new tunings, and finding that there’s a tremendous range of expressions available. Harmonic expressions, not just structural things, are available to you, which, when you work on a piano, get lost in the clichés you tend to gather behind you. What’s interesting is that on a guitar, you can gather all those clichés and then arrange the strings in a completely different order, and all those clichés become something else. It’s like learning a new language, and I quite like doing that on the Synclavier, just actually swapping the keys around on some sort of modal level, and then playing some of your familiar shapes and thinking, “Jesus Christ, this is extraordinary.”

Have any of your more well-known riffs or sequences come out of accidents like that, through playing with a tuning possibility?

Well, if Iron Man does well, then yes, because one fundamental thing involved was a voicing which is very un-guitarlike, where the 3rd is in the bass, and that came about through a sort of stumble on my guitar. The tuning I used for “Parvardigar” [Who Came First, Decca], which I call “Parvardigar,” incidentally, is a 12-string tuning that goes C, G, C, G, C, D. On regular guitar it can be used a whole-step up: D, A, D, A, D, E. I believe I’ve heard this used by Joni Mitchell. The Iron Man version on 6-string in D simply has the lower A string tuned down to G; I’m sure I’ve heard this one used by Ry Cooder. There are other examples. “Praying The Game” [Another Scoop, Atco] developed from a discovery of this thing where you have an open tuning but you put a thin D and a thin G string on the top, and I got that as a development of the G banjo; I thought about how to get a G-banjo-type tuning on guitar, and of course, there was a string spare, so I made that even higher. Things like that actually make you think slightly differently about what you’ve been doing.

Few would suspect that there was a jazzman lurking within you, but some of your work with the Who actually comes as close to eloquent chord soloing as rock ever gets. On the unreleased demo for “Teresa,” there’s a nice jazz-inflected solo that for some reason was dispensed with when the song became “Athena” for It’s Hard. It’s interesting that your playing on this new record is more unconstrained than it’s been in years, and that most of the solos are unabashedly jazzy. Even more interesting is that in the ’60s, among British guitar hero figures, you may have been one of the first to have compromised his musicality for his salability.

Well, that wasn’t exactly me doing that; that was really me coming out against the full force of John and Keith — mainly Keith, but John, too. Actually, John isn’t a musical snob at all. John’s very much as I am; he’s got very broad tastes. But Keith was a musical snob. Awful musical snob. He hated music that swung. With him, everything had to be on. Like a record like “Face The Face” [White City, Atco], he just would not have been able to play. He would have actually felt it was quite fey, despite the force of it. It would have ended up [pounds lap in four, then growls rigidly], “We-can-face-the-face, you-can-face-the-face,” you know, like some kind of militaristic street gang.

So he was entirely responsible for making the band more volatile and on the beat?

Yeah, definitely. And in such an extraordinary way that, of course, I didn’t argue with it. I mean, I found it quite difficult to write for Roger; songs like “My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and lots of songs I wrote that never actually made that period, which I’ve got on demos, are embarrassingly macho, because I was trying to find things that he would feel comfortable singing. I liked singing stuff like “Happy Jack,” “Pictures Of Lily,” and “I’m A Boy,” which I was later delighted to discover that Roger was happy to sing, too. I thought, “How could Roger Daltrey, this tough Shepherd’s Bush guy, possibly sing about a boy who was brought up as a girl, wearing girls’ clothes?” And he was quite comfortable with it. Maybe he didn’t understand it, I don’t know. I think he did, but by that time he just felt certain enough of his own masculinity not to worry about it. That was my idea of fun. The main thing about jazz that makes it distinctive from other areas is that behind it is musical competence and musical training, and the next thing I suppose that signals it is the importance of swing, that the beat should swing. Which is inherited, really, from its ’40s and ’50s heritage, so every now and again I think I can get away with it.

I just really wanted that song “Athena” to go away [laughs]. It was just too revealing, and I’ll say no more. I did a lot of demos at Amiga Studios [in L.A.], and [singer] Rickie Lee Jones was in one studio and the Doobie Brothers were in another studio and the atmosphere was just extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary, and I did some really good songs that trip. But then we went home with those songs and came up with Face Dances [Warner Bros.], one of the most insipid albums that we’ve ever produced. I don’t know what went wrong; I think I was just working too hard.

Quadrophenia’s “The Real Me” is another very revealing demo. The bass line you recorded as a guide for what eventually became one of Entwistle’s greatest showcases was actually a characteristically Entwistle line to begin with, which suggests that at some point, you began demoing expressly for the purpose of the band’s interpretation. To what extent are the original arrangements and structure you envision for your songs preserved — or influenced — by the band that ultimately records them?

Well, “Athena”/“Teresa” really did go through a tremendous change, because I did not want a song out there called “Teresa,” but the structure was roughly the same. It’s really difficult, isn’t it? I mean, I saw a thing that my friend Irish Jack did on Irish television recently. There was a guy with him, a journalist, an early-’60s Irish rock commentator, and they were talking about what happened in the early days of the Who and were analyzing and describing my creative drive as something kind of like a backdoor mentality — you know, going and taking things here and taking things there and being very much manipulated by people like Peter Meaden and Kit Lambert and greatly influenced by Keith and by Roger and my art-school background — meaning that I actually was interested in drafting ideas rather than in having a spontaneous creative flow of new things — and that’s what made the Who successful. And to a great extent it’s very true: That was the way things happened.

When I first started, as a kid, I didn’t really want to be in a successful band. I think it’s been one of the things that I’ve had great psycho-neurotic difficulty with, I don’t really like being a star; I don’t really like being rich. Not that I’d want to be poor — I never was, you know; I came from a fairly wealthy middle-class family and wasn’t trying to pull my way out of the gutter or anything like that. I just wanted to be like my dad; you know, I worshipped him. He was a magnificent player and a fantastic man. He said to me, “Pete, the big band is finished. We just can’t afford to carry a 26-piece band and a coach and 26 hotel bills every night. It’s just absurd, and you guys are going to take over.” Although I wanted to work in a different kind of music, I still wanted to be a sideman rather than a frontman. Roger was the one who really pushed me into the front; you know, he decided that he didn’t want to be the lead guitar player anymore and he wanted to be a singer, partly because he was frustrated with his own guitar playing, but also partly because he wanted more attention and more central visual control. I thought he was a very good guitar player — he had a kind of fairly clumsy style, but it was extremely attractive. What you hear him do now is not quite how he used to play. For the time, he was a very good player, and I was quite happy playing rhythm behind him. I’d already forged a very strong characteristic rhythm style of my own, because I started as a banjo player when I was 11, so my whole kind of flourishing guitar style had started on the banjo — trad-jazz, dixieland, and stuff. I was happy there. Then, when we went in for our first record deal, the guy said, “You’re a great band and we’d sign you, but you’ve got to write your own material.” We didn’t have any. And there was nobody in the band who could write except me. I’d done a little bit, because it was one of the little experiments that I’d done: I’d tried oil painting, I’d tried making the Super 8 film — you know, this was the kind of art-school dilettantism that I was involved in. And along the way I tried making a song, a song called “It Was You,” which I actually sold to a Liverpudlian band, the Naturals. And then I just thought, “Well, that’s songwriting; didn’t enjoy that very much,” and left it. If it had been a hit, I probably would have been more excited about it, but it wasn’t.

So when I actually started to make demos, I consciously set out to take in what was there, you know, what was already established. John’s bass guitar style, as it was at the time of “The Real Me,” was not quite the kind of wild virtuoso style that it is right now, not quite so fast, I suppose. But he certainly was an extraordinary player even then; you know, he was one of the first players to use open harmonics and roundwound strings rather than simply to underpin and keep time. It really was the secret of our sound, because the rhythm sound that I produced and his sound molded together and created a rash of random harmonics which is very attractive. And I suppose I was very conscious of that; whatever I put on a demo had to, actually meet that brief [mandate], to the extent that on a song like that, I would sing partly with Roger’s alter-ego in mind, being Roger’s alter-ego. You know, “What would he sing? How would he want to sing it?” And certainly, for a long time, that was why I didn’t put any drums at all on demos, because it was just impossible to mimic what Keith did. So for songs that I felt were going to benefit from fantastic drums, like “Magic Bus,” I didn’t put any on the demo, and extraordinarily enough, they didn’t even really get into the single properly until the very end, but when he comes in, it’s like a floodgate opening.

That’s actually a more thoughtful approach to the task than “just the band’s guitarist” would take.

I think I gave you the preamble to sort of set the tone. I really saw myself in a much less manipulative position than sometimes an outsider might see me in. I didn’t connive, and I didn’t calculate. I learned to do this stuff recently, to control through conniving and planning and strategy. I now control everything, and I’m not embarrassed about saying it. I control absolutely everything, in a very open way, so that everybody knows it and I don’t have to hide it. I find that that’s the best way. But it has taken me a long time to be honest about that. And I suppose I went through a period in the late ’70s when it was very frustrating, because I wanted control of my life — not their lives, not the band’s lives. And taking control of my life meant taking control of their lives, and I was unwilling to do that. Maybe I just didn’t have the courage, and I was afraid of doing it, and when I realized — and it happened too late for Keith — that they loved me so much that they didn’t mind if I did that, I found it very difficult to accept that love at that level. It was just so extraordinary when people like Roger, who was always seen as an opponent, an adversary, said to me, “Whatever you want to do, I’ll do it.” “I’m in your hands” was actually what he used to say, and I thought, “I can’t handle this. I have to have the adversary back.” I suppose in the last two or three years, I’ve realized that both in my own career and in this kind of thing that we’re doing with the Who now, and in all other business, I just accept the fact that I am at the center of things and have to take control.

So on a demo now I’d do exactly what I want, and try to make people do exactly what I wanted, even to the extent of writing the part out. So things have changed in that respect. But then, times have changed. You see, during Quadrophenia, the Who were such a wonderful band to be writing for. I loved that period. I mean, I didn’t like taking it on the road, because it didn’t work. [Prior to their addition of touring keyboardists to recreate parts unplayable as a trio, the Who frequently used backing tapes that were notoriously unreliable onstage.] But the recording was fabulous for me, because they gave me complete freedom. They gave me the whole album, to produce it, write it, mix it — everything. That led to a minor war later with Roger, because he felt that the vocal was buried, and that it was a deliberate act on my part, which fucked our relationship up on that tour. Later, it turned out to be a technical fault, a phase flaw.

Many of your more recent solo songs have dealt with the philosophical pitfalls of control, of free will and determinism. It may seem an obscure connection, but your solos in two songs that seem to illustrate subtly conflicting notions in that area, “The Sea Refuses No River” [All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, Atco] and “Crashing By Design” [White City], are very similar in tone and at some points, even the intervals used.

I think my musical vocabulary is unbelievably limited. It astonishes me. I’ll sit at a piano or work on a guitar and think that I’ve hit on something new, and then a couple of weeks later I’ll go back and analyze it and realize that I’m drawing on a very limited “goodie bag” of ideas. I’m probably like everybody else in the world at the moment; I’m poaching like mad from exploratory players like Keith Jarrett, who spends five or six hours at a piano at a concert trying to find those odd groups of notes that haven’t yet ever been played, which are beautiful and not just nonsense — and every now and again hits it off. You can’t resist but be influenced by them. When I’m working on my own, that really doesn’t happen at all. If I work instinctively — if I just write from the hip, as it were — I don’t find that I’m going over similar ground all the time. I suppose there are emotional pathways in songs that evoke similar musical responses. “Crashing By Design” was about the fact that there are a lot of people that like pain. I went through a period of really liking pain, and I think I still do to some extent like pain, but I hate witnessing pain and hate inflicting pain — it’s a very kind of perverse situation. And in “Sea Refuses No River,” to some extent I’m talking about that, but more about the idea that no matter how awful you are, you will, in some way, prevail. In some way, you’ll prevail. You’ll certainly be accepted: At the end, you’ll be taken into the soil and you’ll turn to dust, and at least you’ll be worm food at the bottom line. And there’s kind of a strange admission in that, sort of an admission of, “I am nothing but a piece of shit, but even a piece of shit will come back to God in the end.” And I’m not as sure about that song as I used to be. They wanted me to play it this trip, and I don’t know that I can. And I don’t know that I can play “Slit Skirts” [All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes], a song about early middle age. I don’t know that I can play a lot of those songs because I’ve been through that, and I’m out the other side. I identify a lot more generously with my early work rather than with the middle-period stuff. “Rough Boys” [Empty Glass] I like, because it’s a good song. You know, of all the solo things, I like Chinese Eyes the best, but I’m starting to move away from that now.

Well, it’s kind of a stretch, but you could almost call Iron Man a sort of “My Generation Redux,” because as with other things you’ve addressed — even in songs like “Sea Refuses” — it’s really innocence that’s crucial to a pure, undiverted sense of self-expression. It’s certainly a more optimistic celebration of youth than “My Generation,” but it has fundamentally the same foundation.

Yeah. Well, in a way, there’s a mission that you accept when you start in rock and roll. I know a lot of people felt that what I was doing was taking things that we’ve known about in rock right from the beginning and reselling them — what, to some extent, Bono and U2 get accused of doing now, of telling an audience that it’s not so much his idea, but that he has recognized that it was our idea originally, and he is reminding us of how wonderful it is. It’s almost like somebody coming from the outside, like the prodigal son returning and discovering that family life was pretty good all along. And then you realize that rock began in the early ’50s, and that there I was 15 years later, telling America about their own music. That was part of our job, to allow young white Americans to accept what was essentially a black music of emancipation, and to overcome all of those ethnic barriers that appeared on the surface, and yet to unite us by the music. And they were uniting us in the most extraordinary way, because you were dealing with sometimes third-or fourth-generation émigrés, but that isn’t very much. That means that you’ve got a grandfather who can still sing Polish songs, or one who still knows the Jewish gypsy songs, or maybe a grandfather who remembers his grandfather, who was perhaps part of one of the families that moved through Bulgaria, and took all that music with them. You might even have Baltic or Balkan roots of some sort, so you might have a feeling for that kind of universal thing of Bulgarian music. But certainly, the African heritage was the one which really counted. But go further than that and look back to what Europe brought to America: the Swedish folk music, the French music, the German, the Austrian, the English, the Scottish, and in particular the Irish music — very, very strong influences. The Irish and the Swedish probably most of all, and maybe a bit of Scottish music as well. But seeing those rhythms and those folk traditions woven into a whole new form of pop and then played to the only audience in the world in which every single note had its representative — and that was an American audience — and suddenly you play and you think, “I can’t get it wrong! Whatever I do, there’s somebody somewhere who likes it, a bit of it.” That’s the beauty of the American cosmopolitan, universally international audience, and that’s really what made rock and roll grow.

And one other big missing thing was that the black emancipation came through the church, and that was a very difficult pill for a lot of white Americans to swallow. The function of the early-’60s rock bands, then, was to bring R&B to America, where it belonged, to allow the people who had made the music grow to wake up again, the way that [disc jockey] Alan Freed had in the ’50s, the way that Elvis had tried, and Buddy Holly tried.

Hendrix certainly served, maybe even unwittingly, a similar purpose.

Yeah. That’s right.

You shared bills with him ...

A lot. We were on the same record label. He was discovered by [Animals bassist] Chas Chandler and brought over and went onto Track, which we co-owned at the time, so he was actually on our record label.

You had a very specific approach to the guitar at the time. Was it in any way intimidating to have something like that happen around you?

It destroyed me. Absolutely, completely destroyed me. [Pauses.] Just destroyed me. I mean, I was glad to be alive, but it was horrifying. Because he took back black music. He took R&B back. He came and stole it back. He made it very evident that that’s what he was doing. He’d been out on the road with people like Little Richard, had done that hard work and then he’d come over to the U.K. And when he took his music back, he took a lot of the trimmings back too.

You were quoted as saying that the guitar was really all you had, and that you’d put it through ceilings and amplifier grilles because you were frustrated by what you could do with it and what you perceived you couldn’t. I’d guess Hendrix might have shifted your emphasis.

It did shift my emphasis. I suppose like a lot of people, like Eric, for a while there I think we gave up, and then we started again and realized ... it was very strange for Eric and me. We went and watched Jimi at about 10 London shows together, and he wasn’t with a girl at the time, so it was just me, my wife-to-be Karen, and Eric, going to see this monstrous man. It got to the point where Eric would go up to pay his respects every night, and one day I got up to pay my respects, and he was hugging Eric, but not me — he was kind of giving me a limp handshake — just because Eric was capable of making the right kind of approach to him.

It was a difficult time. You have to remember the other thing about him, that he was astonishingly sexual, and I was there with my wife, you know, the girl I loved. And you could just sense this whole thing in the room where every woman would just [claps] at a snap of a finger. I mean, there were situations sometimes where Jimi would do it. He wasn’t particularly in control of his ego at the time. There was this slightly prince-like quality about him, this kind of imp at work. I found him very charming, very easy, a very sweet guy. You know, I just kept hearing stories. I mean, one story I’ve heard — I think I might have been there — was the night that he went up to Marianne Faithful when she was there with Mick [Jagger], and said to her in her ear, “What are you doing with this asshole?” There were moments like that when he would be very, very attracted to somebody and felt that he would actually be able to get them, and he just couldn’t resist trying. There were no boundaries, and that really scared me. You know, I don’t like that kind of megalomaniacal perspective...

Ah! Except now ...

Well, I think it’s very important to respect other people’s relationships. I’m not saying property or territory or emotional space, but their relationships. You know, with relationships there are always opportunities. If you’re a sophisticated person, you know when you see somebody that if there’s a chance of you and them having a relationship together somewhere else at some other time, that a look is enough. It doesn’t need you to go up and say in somebody’s ear, “What are you doing with this asshole?” And slowly but surely, Jimi became sure of himself. I’m talking about the first two weeks he was in London; you know, it was a new band, and they were just taking London by fucking storm! You can’t believe it. You’d look around and the audience was just full of record-company people and music-business people. I suppose I went away and got very confused for a bit. I kind of groped around, I had a lot of spiritual problems, I asked my wife to marry me before it was too late [laughs], and started work on Tommy a bit later. I just sort of felt that I hadn’t the emotional equipment, really, the physical equipment, the natural psychic genius of somebody like Jimi, and realized that what I had was a bunch of gimmicks which he had come and taken away from me, and attached to not only the black R&B from whence they came, but also added a whole new dimension. I did actually feel stripped, to some extent, and I took refuge in my writing. The weirdest thing of the lot is that although people really, really value those early years, the Who was not a particularly important band at that time. We were at the end of an era; under normal circumstances the band should have just disappeared. But because he came along and, kind of like in early punk, just swept everything aside, I had to learn to write, and it became like a new art, from a new angle. And what that actually did was provide me with records that sold in America, somehow. I don’t know why that is.


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