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Music

Pete Townshend's answers to Sean's questions

By SEAN DALY
Published March 9, 2007


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[AP photo]
The Who's Pete Townshend at 61: He sees a rock solid future for his industry.

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Here are the questions pop music critic Sean Daly e-mailed to Pete Townshend, and Townshend’s complete answers.

(Author’s note: At first, the idea of an “email” interview with Pete Townshend sounded like a disaster. But after firing off a series of (hopefully) casual questions to the guitar god, I was surprised by the answers. The tone of the give-and-take played more like a chummy correspondence than an interview, especially toward the end. If I had my choice, I’d still rather interview Townshend face-to-face. Still, this “experiment” worked better than I ever imagined. Enjoy, Sean.)

DALY: The Who, the Police, Genesis, even Van Halen –- the biggest, most ballyhooed tours of the year (and last year and the year before that) are by veteran rock bands. Why aren’t new rock bands generating that kind of excitement? Is the new rock 'n’ roll just plain shitty, or is the old stuff just so much better? What happens when the Who finally closes up shop? Who’s gonna get the kids going to concerts?

TOWNSHEND: I can’t speak for Police, Genesis or Van Halen. I think of these guys as New Boys. If you hadn’t cited their tours in the same breath as the Who’s I would have replied thus: We were there at the beginning, we enjoyed a period of great discovery of several American music traditions that – because of our uniquely objective viewpoint from faraway Europe – we were able to bring together. This give us a unique place in pop history. This, combined with the clean sheet we had when we started, gave us roots that go so deep they are really hard to ignore. Young musicians often complain to me that I didn’t leave many new ways of standing with a guitar for them to discover for themselves. Just an example, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Elvis took one position each and left the remaining five thousand to me. Again, it seems to me that for years the Who were one of the few bands that continued the tradition started by the Beatles, then abandoned too soon, of bringing art school thinking and processes into Pop music.

The Police are big news simply because Sting has left this so long. He is going back to his old band in good heart, and I’m happy about that. I hope he won’t mind me telling this story, but when he left Police to start a solo career I met him in a London restaurant and suggested he really didn’t need to end Police to have a solo career. He could do both as long as he was willing to be the sole man in charge. There I stood, exhausted and battered from trying to run two careers (only Phil Collins had managed it) and he said politely: Pete, I’m learning from your example.

There are dozens of 'new’ bands that can compete in our marketplace. Many of them – like Sting – choose not to do what we do. Flaming Lips, Raconteurs, Pearl Jam – these three bands each do things in their own way. They get kids to concerts. Festivals are the way to get people to concerts in future. The internet and the Festival belong together.

SEAN DALY:  January 2006 marked the worst-ever month for CD sales. The music industry is hemorrhaging money and is unable to think outside the proverbial box regarding digital sales/downloading. Dust off your crystal ball and give us a glimpse of the music business circa 2011. Five years from now, have CDs gone the way of the dodo? Will savvy indie labels have taken over the world? Is rock music bleepin’ doomed?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Why should I help these people? I predicted downloading back in 1985. No one took any notice. I predicted the internet back in 1971, I have been called pretentious for doing so by anyone who wants to make themselves feel big by taking a pop at a 'genius’. Even my own people have called my work as an Auto-Destructive Artist a 'gimmick’. I wasn’t trained to be commercial, to help anyone make money. I was trained to see the show business future. If I told you what was going to happen you wouldn’t be able to process it. God only knows what I am going to say at SXSW. If I tell the truth they’ll put me away.


SEAN DALY: As far as I’m concerned, Mike Post has earned a place in heaven for the “Rockford Files” theme. So (1) What was your inspiration for “Mike Post Theme,” my pick for best track on “Endless Wire.” (2) What’s your favorite Mike Post theme? (3) What was your thought process about licensing your biggest songs to television (and essentially becoming a Mike Post yourself)? Was there a cringe moment when you said, “Oh the naysayers are gonna slaughter us?”

PETE TOWNSHEND: Hill Street Blues was the inspiration.

TV music lives in a different pocket to other pop music. It is ubiquitous and perennial, and we are constantly revisited by music from other eras as series are rehashed over and over. This cycle of new and old music, woven into the ordinary rhythm of our daily lives, creates a real sense of timelessness. When we hear the theme from M.A.S.H we remember so many aching feelings – of course we are reminded of the Vietnam war, but at the same time of how old we were, and in my case how apolitical I was about it all, who we were in love with, where we lived. We grow older and hopefully wiser, but the music remains the same.

Music is merely time divided in a sense, but on TV it is time divided and then scented by nostalgia and a feeling of powerlessness. The Russian filmaker Tarkovsky (who may be regarded as a little bit too arty for a discussion about pop music until you realize he looked just like Ronnie Wood) said that in Russia the word nostalgia translated closer to 'sickness’, a kind of pathetic longing for what had gone before, for old values and places that could never exist again. My song touches on that in a way. The Who are constantly troubled by nostalgia and sentimentality – in our own minds and those of our fans. It is a curse in a way, but also provides a measure of where we really are, we know the truth about ourselves: we do look back, however sad that might appear. Yes, art and pop music should always move forward. It should always be about new ideas and fresh vision – but it is not. It is often beset by and entangled in echoes of music from other eras. In a way, British pop was built on music from other eras, as I said above.

Naysayers? Oh those people who said downloading would never happen? It must surely be apparent by now – to everyone – that I am pig-headed about this. This is my music, not yours. I sell it wherever I like. If you want to stop me doing this because it is so vital to you that Behind Blue Eyes remains forever the song to which you and your wife first made love, then change the copyright law. (Did you keep the unwashed bedlinen by the way?) Like Tarkovsky I see this kind of engagement with a song as a sickness. It is one I understand of course, but it is also one that I refuse to allow to 'freeze’ the timeless and evolving poetry of my work.

In a way I am being undermined and destroyed as I write. The internet is dramatically undermining the rights of an artist to undisputed ownership of his or her work at the same time as painters in the UK are claiming the right to a commission on the secondary sale of their work. In other words if you own a painting by a living artist or one with an active estate, you should not try to sell it privately, you must use the artists agents so the artist or the estate get new income. Music suffers because it is a real-time entertainment and art form.

SEAN DALY: Mike Myers, of “Austin Powers” fame, is playing Keith Moon in an upcoming biopic. Does that sound like a total disaster? Can you give Mike some advice about playing your beloved bandmate?

PETE TOWNSHEND: Mike will be good. I’ll give advice to whoever plays me. Get it right, make me look good,  or I’ll cut your f**king balls off.

SEAN DALY: As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the Who on my iPod. Despite your warnings, my volume level is steadily increasing. Yes, I’m a dumb-ass. How did Apple respond to your warnings about volume control on iPods? If anything, the new generation of iPods sound even louder.

PETE TOWNSHEND: Too late. Pray for implants. It never worked for hair, so don’t raise your hopes too high. I never asked for volume controls on iPods. I never even mentioned iPods. What’s an iPod? I suggested parents might encourage their kids to go back to listening to music on speakers at home. You know, gather around the fire, and listen to good old Ozzie (version 2), like a real family!

SEAN DALY: With “celebrity journalism” now baring fangs unlike ever before – and with news shows and magazines spinning wobbly stories out of the weakest of threads -- do you regret having made public statements about your private life?

PETE TOWNSHEND: What, like '….all journalists are parasites?’ That one will make me a lot of friends. I think we maybe need to let this period pass and look back on it to get a sense of what is really going on. I think two things are happening. One is that some of us really do need to see how the might are fallen in order to get through our miserable working day and feel like it is OK just to be a 'Joe’ or a 'Mom’. The facts of our daily lives, celebs and Joes, is that we are on a see-saw. When I communicate directly to fans one-to-one,  I find real eccentrics, individuals, people with unique ideas and lives, strange relationships, deep passions. They are all as mad as I am, or better. When they all stand in front of me at a Who show, they become a crowd, just a crowd.

The other thing that is going on is that a journalist can make a living now sitting at a computer cutting and pasting other people’s words. But newspapers have always built stories and reputations on their own innaccuracies held on file. The thesis is that if they haven’t been sued for asserting that a public figure is a liar or a cheat then assume guilt. At least extrapolations from the web come from various horse’s mouths – directly.

The manipulation of what popular artists think and say by a politicized media has always been a fact. All that is happening now is that the media is beginning to eat itself – data is going round and round and evolving like a virus. McCluhan predicted this forty years ago.

SEAN DALY: Your current tour is a long, and no doubt highly profitable, slog. How are you and Roger getting along? Carrying on the Who tradition is a helluva burden for four people let alone two. How do you keep from killing each other? How do you stay SANE?

PETE TOWNSHEND: We stay sane by counting our money. In fact this will not be the most profitable tour of our career because we are not playing stadiums. We are doing such a long tour to stay behind the new music. We want as many people as possible to hear it, live or on CD or downloaded. Roger and I get along really well. We don’t spent much time together, and I travel alone by the way. But we are both totally nuts. Why change the tradition of a lifetime?

SEAN DALY: Thanks so much for your time and your answers. Looking forward to seeing the show March 13 in Tampa Bay.

PETE TOWNSHEND: Thanks Sean. Fun questions. If you get a chance come say hello.

[Last modified March 9, 2007, 13:42:35]


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