Our Story Is a Perennial One: An Interview with Pete Townshend
With a new Who album out, Townshend talks about connectedness, the joys and perils of technology, and his thoughts on songwriting.
In both his solo career and as the primary songwriter for the Who, Pete Townshend hasn't held back any aspect of himself. He's been funny, moving, vulnerable, and direct; attuned to the needs and hurts of our physical life as well as the opportunities and healing available in our spiritual one. He's given us anger and disappointment and subtle beauty. Over the course of the past 40 years or so, few artists have provided such a complex and singular vision in their work.
"I don't write for anyone but the audience," Townshend tells me by email.
It sounds cynical and calculated (maybe even mercenary), and it's not the first time Townshend's acknowledged his concerns in writing for his fans, for giving Who nuts exactly what they want to hear. Listening to the Who's new album, Endless Wire, supports the statement; little happens in this album that devotees won't enjoy, and Townshend has worked to further refine the sound he's worked on throughout his career.
Of course, it's not nearly that simple. In writing ostensibly for his audience, Townshend has drawn from his own novella (published via his blog) and created a string of cuts followed by the mini-opera Wire & Glass, with references between the two halves. He's offered paeans to Marty Robbins and Mike Post, neither of whom your average "Magic Bus" yeller might be too familiar with. He's dipped into country while working out his Lifehouse method music (think Who's Next synths). While Townshend might have been writing for his fans, there's little catering here, and plenty of the personal idiosyncrasies that have always made him stand out.
With this version of the Who, he does have a more or less new band as his machine, and that's specifically what he's addressing, that the "new" arrivals haven't affected his approach to songwriting (Zak Starkey, Pino Palladino, and brother Simon Townshend are hardly making their first appearances in the group). Speaking about their effect on his song writing, he adds, "I try to keep in mind what the musicians who happen to be around me might enjoy playing -- especially live, but ultimately I have to simply work organically."
Fortunately for his bandmates, the album contains music that any rock musician would enjoy playing. Townshend has written material that varies widely in style and intensity, but always remains interesting. All the musicians have a chance to shine, and songs like "Sound Round" and "Mirror Door" break out the intense attack that's always been associated with the Who. These songs don't advertise virtuosity, yet the musicians display plenty of skill and craft.
One of the high points of the album, "Mike Post Theme" could have been an anthem at the peak of the band's arena days, with its huge chorus and Roger Daltrey's powerful vocals. Mike Post wrote themes and music for many television shows, including The Rockford Files, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and Hill Street Blues. Townshend's song, as you might expect from the composer who licensed his work for the CSI series, considers the role of television music in surprising and reflective ways.
[Photo: Seth Davidson]
"This is about our inability to find the strength and resources to love other human beings who are different to us," Townshend explains. "Life becomes so challenging at this level that we prefer to live out our most complex challenges vicariously through the characters in TV soap operas." While the song laments people's inability to love and to have deep emotional connections, especially as they age, Townshend doesn't lambaste mass culture for this development. Instead, he acknowledges the ability of media like television themes to provide uplift in our lives, to help us get to these deep feelings. In his song notes, he says that "movies, novels and TV series do help us to express selfless emotions as we once did when we were in love. Men cry quietly watching TV and movies, women maybe a little more openly, but when we do that we are reconnecting with our innocent and free-flowing feelings." The Who's song doesn't embrace that aspect of life as ideal (it comes closer to regret at our emotional loss), but it doesn't see it as a negative either. The vision of "Mike Post Theme" relies on a continually complicating approach to personal relationships and media.
Those concerns about "the strength and resources to love" echo throughout our interview. Townshend concerns himself with human connectedness, and he works out those issues in his writing and conversation as well as in his music. In The Boy Who Heard Music, the novella that forms the basis for the mini-opera, the narrator states, "Too many facts in this information age can obscure simple messages of love and hope." Townshend expounds on it:
I'm not sure I completely believe it myself. However, the words do speak for me as a composer. I think my job is to do something for the main client, the audience. Audiences choose physical connectedness at concerts for one level of transcendence, and Internet connectedness for another. One is not higher than the other, but the physical concert links are easier to read. They also seem to allow it be more clearly observed what is real and what is imagined. On the internet, with weblogs and chatrooms, we share very intimately, but we don't know how truthful are the people with whom we share. How 'factual' is such an exchange? So what matters perhaps is that we each get what we personally need. Facts can be destructive. At some point the definition of words and concepts like 'love', 'power' and 'freedom' becomes pointless. Connectedness is the word you use, I would use a different idea: I would say that people today have a powerful desire to share and congregate, but are still afraid of the speed of change, of lack of privacy on the web, and of losing the right to be who they need and want to be rather than who someone else demands them to be. This is not about the requirement for people in communities to conform or be good citizens, it is about them told what they can and cannot dream, what they can safely believe in, or fantasize about. So on the Internet we are drawn to dream, but as we try to share our higher ideas, we also have to do so in partial disguise.
Townshend keeps an online diary that has been a focal point of both the connection and the lack of privacy we have on the Internet. When he and Daltrey had a disagreement over the web broadcasts of their European tour dates, journalists were quick to run with it as an internal blowup much larger than how the involved parties viewed it. At the time, Townshend made this comment in his diary: "Ah! Journalists. They trawl these diaries over breakfast and extrapolate something, teasing it to fit a headline created by some sub-editor with a sense of humor." As for connecting those lives shows to the web again, he simply says, "I've let go of control. We shall see what happens next." He also appears regularly on his partner Rachel Fuller's In the Attic show broadcast online. With guests like the Flaming Lips and the Raconteurs, the show's been growing, and Fuller's taken it on the road during the Who tour. Townshend says, "It is hugely significant to [Fuller] and to me. We will be getting it licensed to a major streaming company soon, and expect to see it both on the web and on TV really soon."
Despite the challenges and exposure inherent in online communication, it's not surprising that Townshend says of the Internet, "The rewards outweigh the costs. I am available again for journalists to speak to directly (after many years of having nothing creative to sell) so what I say on the Internet might not be quite so valuable today. What I like about what I do archive on my website is that it is available for research for anyone trying to get exact words. So even when paraphrased, the precise truth can be found if someone wishes, rather than just a few salient 'facts' that an editor may have selected to create some story."
Good or bad (or, more likely, both), Townshend's long had a fascination with technology, and that interest hasn't abated on Endless Wire. Opening track "Fragments" returns to the ideas first presented on Who's Next and conceived as part of the larger Lifehouse project, in which computers can create music that accurately reflect a given person. When asked about the theoretical and thematic connections between "Fragments" and this earlier work, Townshend says, "It follows the old rules quite closely. The difference is that the music of 'Fragments' is completely software-generated. There is a 'composer' involved, that is Lawrence Ball, my co-writer on this song, who prepared the brief for the software designed by his colleague Dave Snowdon. Lawrence listened to my brief, changed very little from the Lifehouse story of 1971, in which people logged onto a Virtual internet Grid were each given their own tailor-made piece of music, and adapted a programme he calls 'Harmonic Maths' to deliver me what I wanted. The individual's data chosen to enter into the computer was that of the spiritual teacher Meher Baba, thus the same inspirational source as I used for 'Baba O'Riley'. It is perhaps not surprising then that the two backing tracks sound a little similar."
Townshend uses changing technology in composition in less science-fiction-sounding ways, too. Returning to the mixed blessing idea, he says, "Technology opens and closes doors at the same time." Specifically, he explains:
Les Paul's invention of the multitrack tape machine allowed a non-literate composer like myself to create complex music in layers. Later MIDI and hard-disk recording allowed me to develop ideas over a longer time span. However, some technological change can stop you dead. New software can demand a very steep learning curve that is hard to stay on top of -- especially if the inventors keep improving their initial product. So it is interesting to see that many great R&B producers still use a basic AKAI sampling box, probably designed by Roger Linn, for their basic tracks. In my case I go back to analogue tape, acoustic guitar, a real piano and a real drum kit if I feel I need to work quickly. I am always ready to turn to an inspirational device, like the Korg Karma, or Roger Linn's guitar arpeggiator, or AbletonLIVE, to help me get new ideas. But often what I have in my head is pretty wild, I sometimes get closer to what I hear in my dreams with a guitar on stage.
[Photo: Seth Davidson]
The mini-opera encapsulates many of these ideas that Townshend's been developing. The story contains too much complexity (and complication) for the brief treatment in Wire & Glass, but the plot gets across. In its simplest form, the work tells the tale of three different youths who form a band and, after discovering plans for something like the Lifehouse method, score a hit. The developer of the plans, Ray High (originally from Townshend's solo album Psychoderelict) watches the band and foresees the violence that takes place at their biggest show. More than a simple rise-and-fall narrative, the work concerns itself with excitement, spirtuality, loss, and varying understandings of reality.
In his notes to the music, Townshend explains that several of the events may or may not have happened; they might just be products of High's imagination. In leaving this option open, he destabilizes reality, forcing meaning to be something other than a factual development. This postmodern gesture doesn't necessarily get itself through merely in the songs. When I ask if these questions of perception and shifting reality might be hard for the listener to process, I can almost hear the smirk as Townshend types: "Anyone who has drunk too much alcohol or done any drugs would wonder why you ask."
But Townshend's confronted this issue since Tommy; people can get what they want out of his music and enjoy it in their own way. "Those that wish to go deeper and try to sort it out can do so," he says. "Anyone who just wants to listen to the music at face value can do that too. I only write these stories to inspire music, once that it is done I feel satisfied."
It's hard to imagine that's enough for Townshend, who has seen other rock operas turned into movies, Broadway shows, radio plays, etc. I ask him if he has plans for The Boy Who Heard Music to show up in other media and he replies, "I did have, but I have almost abandoned them all now that the Who album is about to come out. I still have a yen to see each song from the mini-opera inspire unique, individual animation films, but this is something someone else will have to drive."
As exciting as additional projects would be, the Who has the focus right now. Townshend's said many times before that he didn't want to tour again without a new album, and with Endless Wire, he's moving forward. Even so, the record's contents and the video film of a younger Who used on tour suggest a looking backward (perhaps into a "Mirror Door"). Townshend's carefully considered the role the past plays in the band's present:
I personally never use the past, though that is really not true for the bigger and more democratic Who-branded commercial machine. I simply don't run away from the present, and I suppose I am still working with the same old material and ideas. The reason I feel the Who's early years are still an important backdrop to what I want to say today is that they were the immediate post war years, distant echoes now and yet the trauma caused by the denial in those years still creates terrible shockwaves in all the generations following ours. Younger generations seem to believe that their leaders could protect them from war, if only they wanted to, if only we didn't use oil, or sell shares -- or something. What causes wars is not so simple. Our story is a perennial one: We need to keep reminding our audience that they are the ones who can effect change, they are the leaders, they are the face of God, they are the music and the power.
Look forward or look back, it boils down to the fact that Townshend's new material carries substantial weight and the band sounds incredible. The songwriter and guitarist sounds like he's in good place, so there's no reason not focus on the present. Does that affect his writing?
"It has no importance at all except for me as an individual," he says. "And of course the way I feel today, and I am happy, may change. As an artist I am not driven by the way I feel, I am performing a function that I can carry out however good or bad I feel."
As good as he feels, Townshend speaks of his work as the consummate professional "performing a function." Funny, it may be true, but the music sure sounds bigger than that.