Mar 02,2007 00:00
For fans of The Who, last year's "Endless Wire" represented the English rock band's first album of new songs since "It's Hard" in 1982. But for Pete Townshend, The Who's guitarist, sometime singer, principal songwriter and all-around creative visionary, "Endless Wire" represented nothing less than life or death for the London band he has led for more than 40 years.
"I could not have done any more, and made it very clear that I would do no more big tours without new music," said Townshend.
More shows, yes. A major tour, no.
"I would have done some shows for various reasons, possibly to make a bit of money, or for charity, but touring today is politically incorrect, bad for the ecology, selfish and entirely Western," Townshend said in an e-mail interview from New York.
"But if you throw some new art into the mix, it feels justified to me; this new music might suggest a way to change, might inspire a new and poetic way to evolve. Of course, it might not, but in the past my music has been attributed with special powers to help people through difficult times.
"We'll see what happens with the new stuff. It's helping me."
Townshend seems very much like a man reborn, artistically speaking, as he demonstrated at the first of The Who's two sold-out concerts last November at the Hollywood Bowl. Ditto on "Endless Wire," which features a 10-song mini-opera.
"I don't feel right unless I spend a few moments of each show two feet in the air," said the still-spry guitarist. "How absurd is that for a man of 61? How can it possibly mean anything, except to someone else who is 61 and needs a vicarious validation?"
But Townshend's biggest validation comes from his renewed sense of musical purpose with The Who. This in turn has bolstered his friendship with singer Roger Daltrey, 62, the band's only other remaining original member.
"There is still a real feeling of celebration for Roger and I but it is coming from the right place - the audience, and for the right reason - we have survived," Townshend said.
"Our music is a real mixture of acoustic, light rock and heavy rock. That reflects better what I have always done in my own life and solo work. So at last Roger and I feel we both can view The Who as a vehicle for every shade of my songwriting, not just the bravura and bombast. Some fans may feel slighted, or cheated in some way, but the old music is there always, and it is a joy to play it live because of the way it triggers an audience to an unexpected level."
Nearly five years in the making, "Endless Wire" was delayed - and almost derailed - by two dramatic events.
The first was the drug-fueled death of bassist John Entwistle in June 2002. His demise came 24 years after the drug-and-alcohol-related death of original band drummer Keith Moon in 1978 - and only a day before a Who concert tour that largely went on as scheduled.
The second was Townshend's arrest in January 2003. It came after he admitted having accessed images of child pornography from the Internet while researching a memoir about his own abuse as a child (which also inspired his autobiographical storyline for The Who's classic 1969 rock opera, "Tommy"). He was cleared four months later, following a lengthy police investigation by Scotland Yard, although his name will remain on a national Sex Offenders Register in England until next year.
"Child porn enraged me," said Townshend, who has rarely addressed the issue in interviews since his arrest.
"The only good thing about my arrest was that I had to put a cap on that rage. If I had gone on with my rage-driven campaigning I would probably have been shot by some branch of the Balkan Mafia or agents of some burgeoning dot-com empire that was building Wall Street flotation stats based on porn delivery dollars counted in billions. Sometimes a broken nose and a badly cut eye means you have to stop the fight. Somebody saved me."
So, a decade earlier, did the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
Townshend still sings the praises of outgoing Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff, who in the early 1990s helped him transform "Tommy" into a multiple Tony Award-winning smash.
"I had worked in theater before I worked with Des, but my experience with him was special," Townshend said. "Commercially the success of 'Tommy' changed my life, and not entirely for the better. It took me some time to get used to making so much money without having to stand on a stage myself; I went a bit crazy.
"... I have to admit that back in 1993, with 'Tommy' on Broadway, I had absolutely no intention of working with The Who again. I was very unhappy that 'Tommy' on Broadway was called 'The Who's "Tommy." ' From an authorial point of view 'Tommy' is my story, no one else's."
And now The Who is the once again vital musical story of two boyhood pals, Townshend and Daltrey. Both are now in their 60s, and each is thriving.
"I don't want making music ever to feel boring. But lately I have been finding 'The Zone' while on stage with The Who," Townshend said. "This is something to look forward to, because in this state time doesn't exist, only sound, rhythm becomes the ticking of a clock that has no power to age. Musicians that find 'The Zone' feel as if they will never die, and even if they die it is OK.
"It is the most perfect form of meditation there is - because it involves action, art, expression, feedback, reflection and poetry. A rock musician in 'The Zone' is as much a High Artist as a jazz musician, or a filmmaker or writer. Ego may bring us to the stage, but when we find a way to lose ourselves there, the ego has done its job perfectly."