Who is Pete Townshend?
by Alberto D. Prieto
What is music,
rock music for example? And who makes it? Those that write it or those that perform
it? What type of art is it? Lyrical or transgressive? Is it forced or does it
flow out, born of inspiration? Is it improvised or does it already exist even
before it is written, even when it is never actually written, even before it is
If you paint a portrait and then smash it over the model's head, if you write a story and then burn it in the early morning light, if you sculpt a David and then toss it down the hills of Fiesole at Michael Angelo's feet, that's it, there’s not another one. When the illuminated ideologist went into a rage that day in Harrow, seizing his Rickenbacker by the neck to ram it up into the ceiling of the Railway Hotel, the notes crashing down with the broken plaster onto the stage, he was actually playing a part.
Even he himself wasn't aware of it, but this was his debut. Even the most unsanctified individuals who hear The Who's music immediately picture a possessed band of mad men smashing their instruments to pieces up on stage. Keith Moon's repertoire, kicking in bass drums and blowing things up with his firecrackers, Roger Daltry, snapping back his answers with the whiplash of his microphone cable, the unfazed and priest-like John Entwistle, ripping up his bass, and Pete Townshend at the centre of it all, smashing his magical axe to pieces against the floor and his amps… all this, in reality, was part of the continuous work of art with one act ending thus, to be immediately followed by the next one, a few miles north, south, east or west, where once again the curtain would rise, when the windmill arms would set the machinery going once again. So what is music, exactly, and who are its owners? Without doubt the listeners. As are those that make it. The former being the reason for its existence, the latter, divine vehicles of its essence. But who invents it, who makes it exist, who mixes, harmonises, combines and squeezes it, cognac after cognac, track after track, to bring something truly great into this world?
And what is it that ignites the ardour of the masses – the notes, or the way you play them? Pete Townshend's work with The Who is perhaps a fine example of this paradigmatic duality. Without looking to do so, the four soon became professional musicians and he a full-time composer in one of the greatest rock bands of all time. And here's another one – does a band exist over and above its members with them as just a part of it, is a band more than just the sum of the four talented individuals that make it up, in this case that compose it? Are they the same Who that played cover versions as the Who that played what Townshend dreamt up? The same thrashing away at their instruments as sitting at the bar? Was the magic in their spectacular live performances or the metaphysics of his lyrics and the complexity of his music?
Townshend can be seen as a dual and diabolical paradox. The man has spent a lot of time researching into and psychoanalysing himself, dredging up his childhood miseries, finding out for himself how this artist from London's West End ended up becoming a musician. Introverted and a little anti-social, Pete Townshend was a guitarist before he had learnt how to play it properly, and felt himself driven to provide musical material for his friends, understanding his muses a great deal better than his semidemisemiquavers. From his insistence on perfecting the external expression of his internal feelings that was coming to the fore more and more in his performances was born the inimitable mix of form and substance of his music. And, as an inventor of words, his desire to create, to not be just like the rest of them, his need to form a part of the improbable group of musicians that bring something new to the musical table of rock, as a virtuoso guitarist.
One of the fathers of feedback and promoter of the famous Marshall 'wall of sound', he was also, of course, the very first praying mantis guitar player to be seen in public.
And maybe it is precisely this metaphor that best explains his self-destructive ceremonies at the end of every concert: I have taken from you all that I wanted, you have fertilised my glory with your strings and now I must behead you, dismember you, destroy you. Because you have served your purpose and I am satiated. Clang, ziiing, snap, bzzzzzzzzzzzzz… And maybe that is also why, after a rather uneventful night with little feeling, the six strings remained intact, the public shouting out for blood, but, more Pete than Townshend, he leaves the stage unhappily, murmuring profanities. At himself and at the babble of fools that haven't understood him – who still don't understand him – that this isn't about it being a show, this is art and that destroying the guitar is just the conclusion to something beautiful. Something that goes beyond a mere song that is written and then performed. Something that is everything, And without everything, there is nothing.
And, so, what is music? For Pete Townshend, a kind of literature with which to paint songs that sculpt the meaning of life. Always unfinished and therefore not totally revealed. Be it a rock opera like Tommy or Quadrophenia, a record that plays at being a radio formula with adverts, like Who sell out, or a failed visit to the analyst's sofa in Who's Next… Without all this, with no motivations to change the world or at least find some sense in it, Townshend, his own hero, wouldn't have got involved. Despite being a virtuoso of the six strings and a successful researcher of new sounds, his guitars never take centre stage. They never scream out to be heard. Likewise, Townshend never asked to be the main man of the band's public image, even though he indeed was the main creative force within it. It's not that he wasn't vain, but that the important thing was the song itself, whose meaning may only be understood by looking at the whole. Perhaps that is why each song made in his four-track's home recordings already came with a leitmotif backing track to guide him, rather like the universal frequency that accompanies us all, or the music he heard as a child every time he got excited. In each chord, in each riff, in every movement of all his songs, in the interludes within them, there is always a reflection, a search for something. And when he stops that search, The Who will stop existing. The moment when he, again more Pete than Townshend, is not sure of what to do up there on the stage, who the guy is up there thrashing away at his Stratocaster, if it is that frightened little boy dreaming of better things in the dark, or the poorly adapted adolescent incapable of dreaming, or the young star uncomfortable with his new-found fame, or perhaps the drunk rock star trying to appear sober. When you try to copy your own recipe for success and live solely off adrenalin rushes – or off less natural substances that have a similar effect – making the gestures an imposter of one's self, the mystical elevation of the eternal solo played before the masses as a reflection of the Who I Am, if the faithful follower of Meher Baba, the man of good causes, the great friend, the bad workmate, the professional musician, the amateur editor and part-time husband.
It is this condition as the estranged, misunderstood boy with the self-awareness of being so that gives genius to the music, the art, of Townshend. A man aware of himself, of his condition as a post-war child and all that this predicament entailed. Both his and that of his generation. He knew how to foresee the moment in which, first punks from the left and then the new romantics from the right, the new generations would overtake him and his own with their own message. And without a message, there is no sound. Because at the end of the day, music is message. Whatever it may be. For a few years, The Who managed to outlive their social ousting. Partly thanks to their musical patrimony, both in form and in substance, and partly thanks to their powerful live performances, which some would even say are unbeatable. "On stage I gave my all, I gave the very best of me, bringing out all I had inside me, to the very limit", Townshend himself has said. And so, we come back to the big question as to what exactly music is, if it is its creation or its execution. As when you read a book or make fresh fruit juice, each time you play a musical piece your feelings take you to a different place each time.
That's why, if I break a Rickenbacker or not is up to me. And who am I? Who knows…