Rockin' droll

Outspoken, arrogant and wry as ever, Pete Townshend, the one-man Who's who, lays down his thoughts like his guitar strokes: loud and clear.

Published March 9, 2007

"We stay sane by counting our money."

This is Pete Townshend, cheeky Who rapscallion, always in your face, often in your wallet.

"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."

This is Pete Townshend, one part rock 'n' roll visionary, two parts mad as a bleepin' hatter.

"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. . . . Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Elvis took one position each and left the remaining five thousand to me."

And yes, this is Pete Townshend, in advance of the Who's stop Tuesday in Tampa, e-mailing with an arrogance rarely heard since John Lennon compared the Fab Four to the Son of God.

When the Who windmills into the Ford Amphitheatre, the riff rider behind My Generation and Baba O'Riley will carry with him his own blueprint of rock history - and the braggadocio and mania that come with it. Along with the Stones and the Beatles, the Who helmed the British Invasion, which led to punk and garage rock and pretty much whatever you heard on your radio this morning. And no one is more aware of this legacy than Townshend, who recently granted the most curious of interviews.

The Who has been the Who since 1964, many things to many people. So with Roger Daltrey howling beside him, Townshend, 61, will strike poses that inspire air guitarists everywhere. He'll play for rock dinosaurs hoping he'll smash his Fender in a million pieces. He'll appease the art-rock weirdos who've memorized Tommy, whispering along with Pinball Wizard as if it were a mantra. He'll even cater to the fresh-faced fans who know the Who mainly as that band from the CSI shows.

Possibly because his hearing is shot from standing next to speakers most of his life - or possibly because he thinks "all journalists are parasites" - Townshend would agree only to an e-mail interview. But his answers revealed a man who has tried on so many faces, so many personalities: rock star, tech head, tabloid fodder, weary veteran.

Should you be skeptical about the Who tour? Sure. The former quartet is now a duo; drummer Keith Moon drank himself to death in 1978, and bassist John Entwistle died from a drug-related heart attack in 2002. Plus, the band's 2006 concept disc Endless Wire, which is featured in the current tour, drew mixed reviews.

But if Townshend's e-mail is any indication, the man who once hoped to die before he got old can still rage and rebel, amuse and inspire. There's no one else like him. This is Pete Townshend.

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"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 gave us a unique place in pop history."

Over the course of seven questions and four pages, Townshend wrote about the Who's genesis, the band's legacy and his love of TV composer Mike Post the Hill Street Blues theme especially. He joked about comedian Mike Myers' upcoming Keith Moon biopic ("Mike will be good. I'll give advice to whoever plays me. Get it right, make me look good, or I'll cut your (bleepin' bleeps) off"). Townshend, who has suffered from tinnitus for decades, also took time to mourn a generation of volume-blaring iPod users ("Pray for (ear drum) implants. It never worked for hair, so don't raise your hopes too high").

But Pete Townshend's favorite topic seemed to be Pete Townshend. He rambled; he reeled off one-liners like Rickles. When asked how he would help an imploding music industry, Townshend replied:

"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.' "

Then he moved on to mention his favorite new groups and said the future of rock music is in good hands:

"There are dozens of new bands that can compete in our marketplace. . . . Flaming Lips, the Raconteurs, Pearl Jam: These three bands each do things in their own way. They get kids to concerts."

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Townshend has always been torn between art and commerce. Back in 1967, there was The Who Sell Out, the cover of which was a highly parodied shot of the London boys in mock commercials for baked beans and deodorant. You'd never catch them shilling on the telly.

Funny what 40 years can do. The Who catalog has lately been juiced by the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation TV series and its two spinoffs, CSI: Miami and CSI: NY. All three programs play Who songs during their opening credits: Who Are You, Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Riley. Townshend apologizes for nothing:

"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 bed linen by the way?)"

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For years, Townshend has been hounded by the press about a brief "gay life" he says he had in his youth. Despite having a longtime girlfriend, and repeatedly saying that he is heterosexual, his bedroom habits have remained a fascination.

In 2003, British police approached Townshend about his credit card access to a child pornography Web site. Scotland Yard eventually cleared Townshend of any wrongdoing - he said he was researching a book - but the episode damaged his reputation and gave him a lesson in the voraciousness of the entertainment press:

"I think two things are happening. One is that some of us really do need to see how the mighty have 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 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 inaccuracies held on file. The thesis is that if (newspapers) haven't been sued for asserting that a public figure is a liar or a cheat, then (people) assume (the public figure) is guilty.

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."

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I'm happy to report that Pete Townshend does not use cutesy little e-mail faces. Nor does he LOL or ROTFL. This is all very reassuring.

And although I'd much rather chat with my jukebox heroes face to face ("Thanks, Sean. Fun questions. If you get a chance, come say hello"), the e-mail interview was actually rather chummy, not unlike hearing the Who on crackly vinyl, the intimacy and the fantasy all in one.

Townshend's sign-off even had the air of a letter from a distant relative. No last names necessary. A touch of melancholy. And a bittersweet adieu to sum it all up:

"Roger and I get along really well. We don't spend 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 can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

The Who concert

The band performs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Ford Amphitheatre, Tampa. $56-$181. (813) 740-2446.