He has seen the future of rock 'n' roll, Pete Townshend says, and it frightens him.
"When Springsteen came to Europe, I cried. Not because the show in Ireland was bad -- it was fantastic, uplifting -- I cried at the pain on Bruce's face when they were pulling these kids and shoving smelling salts in their face and bashing them in the chest to revive them . He didn't know how to handle it; and I thought, well now this is a part of his career and one of these kids could be dead.
"One of them, in fact, did die and they actually smashed two electric prongs in his chest and bang, back to life again. It's a terrible thing to have to go through, a bit of reality suddenly coming into this world of fantasy, vision and hope."
Fantasy and reality, hope and despair -- few performers could tell the Boss more about these occupational extremes than Townshend, the charismatic founder, guitarist and chief songwriter of the Who. Three years ago, passing through Washington on what was billed as the Who's First Farewell Tour, he looked weary, haunted, when he said, "It's important for somebody to go through rock 'n' roll and come out alive and sane." One got the feeling he wasn't sure he could fit the bill.
Townshend is 40 now, alive and well and apparently sane. He looks his age, but healthy, the strangely mournful patrician face highlighted by the famous roamin' nose. He has retired from live performance (the Who officially disbanded in 1983), fought off drug and alcohol addictions (with the help of electroacupuncture and psychotherapy) and restored his failing marriage. He's begun breaking new ground in video ("White City," based on his most recent solo album) and print ("Horse's Neck," a collection of short fiction). Perhaps most startling, he's taken a part-time job as an editor at the prestigious London publishing firm of Faber & Faber.
Always articulate and self-analytical, he talks about rock 'n' roll as a religion, and himself as a kind of unfrocked priest.
"We were just like the dumb schlucks that sit in church who believe that because they believe, the world is going to change," he argues. "We celebrated and we confronted, but we didn't deal with our own problems. We allowed our own people to die, we allowed our own people to resort to drugs. We even acknowledged their decadence as being something which we vicariously enjoyed . . ."
The words pour forth like a long-delayed confession, but the lesson, in the end, is a simple one.
"I think I've had it with rock," Townshend says, quickly adding, "I don't speak for anybody else."
If he speaks for himself now, there was a time when Townshend seemingly spoke for a generation. He fashioned such anthems as "I Can't Explain," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "My Generation" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" and pioneering rock operas such as "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia," delivering rock 'n' roll as dense with principle as it was with catharsis, and solidifying the youth subculture in the process. For 15 years, the Who reigned, its musical sensationalism fueled by Townshend's windmill power chords and frenetic scissor leaps, Roger Daltrey's whooping vocals, John Entwhistle's thunder-steady bass and Keith Moon's voodoo percussion.
Townshend saw rock not simply as power and entertainment, but as responsibility, as a genre relentlessly expanding its potential for social and artistic provocation. The Who explored (and some felt exploited) the aspirations, anger, fears and anxieties of the young and the working class, giving voice and legitimacy to those who, by tradition, had been culturally disenfranchised. If the music was often loud and crude, it was also visceral and bristling with integrity and intelligence.
For years, Townshend was able to overcome rock's stylistic and commercial limitations, but eventually -- as the group got older and its fans got younger and less demanding -- he came to inhabit them. He'd always defined rock as a young man's game, but he was growing old and rich inside it, a wearying hypocrisy. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise that as the Who grew to inexorable enormity, Pete Townshend seemed to spend more and more time in self-destruct mode, feeling, as he once said, like "a standing corpse, working for a machine."
The cracks began to appear in the mid-'70s, after a decade of infighting. The band, compromised by its own success, vacillated between Townshend's pop idealism and Daltrey's narrow professionalism. Moon, Townshend's closest ally in the group and his coconspirator in on-the-road mayhem, died of a drug/alcohol overdose in 1978. A new drummer was drafted and the show went on, but it could not be the same. A year later, 11 fans were trampled to death before a concert in Cincinnati; once again, the show went on but something had been cut from the heart of rock 'n' roll.
Even while joining in the band's hedonistic excess, Townshend had managed to avoid many of the traps of fame. But at the turn of the decade, as the Who went from the vanguard to the old guard, they seemed to ensnare him all at once. The unraveling of his marriage brought the crisis to a head. Separated from the woman he had married while still in art school, he found himself nearly bankrupt and sank into his own downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse.
Suddenly it looked like rock's most articulate idealist would live up to one of rock's most famous lines, which he had penned for "My Generation":
"Hope I die before I get old."
"I just gave up, I couldn't stand the pressure," he says. "Around 1978, 1979, I suddenly realized that this gawky kid who had a hard time even looking in a mirror was discovering a middle-age charisma which was hypnotizing women . . . I just buckled under it. It was a moral thing that actually started to make me collapse. I looked back at this terrible, troubled, self-obsessed life that I'd had, and it wasn't the ugly duckling turning into a swan, but the ugly duckling turning into Rambo.
"I enjoyed myself for about six weeks and was then just crushed by guilt, and the only way that I could absolve it was by increasing the amount I drank, finally drinking myself into D.T.'s, and then turning to drugs. It nearly destroyed me. It also confused me, wondering whether it had happened because of a genuine personal emergence, because women love a drunk, or because I'm a superstar or there's a chance they might get their hands on my money. It took me a long time to get to grips with it."
It was a period when Townshend ceased to follow the mystic Meher Baba. "I don't pursue the company of other followers anymore," he says quietly, "though I made a commitment and I surrendered something when I first became acquainted with Meher Baba's life, and that holds good."
Still, he says, "In the depths of depression, when I didn't know what the future held, one thing that I was absolutely 100 percent sure of was that God wasn't going to let me die. And a hell of a lot of the things that I was doing were almost like an impudent challenge to that. There was a tremendous prodigality to the feeling of seeing how far I could go and still get back into the fold.
"Just as prayer is an experiment and a test, it was another confirmation for me that once you make that handshake, especially on that level, you can never get out of it, even if you want to . . . So while there was a point where I contemplated suicide, and there was a period where I thought I might die, and nearly did on a couple of occasions, I knew I wouldn't."
The low point came in 1981 when Townshend went to Club of Heroes, a London nightclub, and "somebody injected me with heroin and I just went into a steep OD immediately. After a delay of an hour, my friends decided to take me to the hospital, delivering me with a suit in which every pocket had some weird drug. The woman who revived me was somebody who had studied with Meg Patterson, who eventually treated me for drugs.
"She said 'This is the guy lying in front of me who helped finance the research at the Marie Curie Foundation?' For her it was a terrible irony that I should turn up in front of her, blue.
"It wasn't growing old that was the problem with me in the Who," Townshend sighs. "It was growing up."
His personal faith may be strong, but Townshend's faith in the Church of Rock 'n' Roll disappeared long ago. Which is not to say he has rejected the idealism of his youth -- only reevaluated its process.
"It wasn't so much misdirected as it was perverted to start with," he explains. "In America it's almost sacrilege to say this, but I feel a lot of rock's idealism was very, very, very wonky.
"It's something that's deeply rooted in where rock began, its black roots, the idea of rhythmic, uplifting dance music that contained stories of the slave trade and the exploitation, humiliation and degradation of the working man. Then white folk came along and took that music over. Later, in the '60s, we realized that we could also turn it into an ecclesiastical thing. We were actually using music in its white religious context: "Come to the church of the stadium . . . hear the music . . . look up and you see God . . . look down and you see hell.
"Rock became a church, and the message is still there, the uplift and the hope and the optimism. But I've come to despise those words, hope and optimism, they don't interest me anymore, because hope and optimism is what is exemplified in a power chord, it's a dramatic call, heroic . . . 'I promise you.' "
Townshend mimes one of his trademark windmill guitar moves.
"And what does it promise them? You don't promise them a better paycheck. You don't promise them a better relationship with their lover. You don't promise them anything . . . except another power chord."
The true-believer-turned-agnostic pauses, carefully weighing his words.
"It's interesting to read [Roger Daltrey's] interviews," he says, "and see that he still regards the Who as a sort of church, that he still believes in the system. I believe in the church too, [but] I just don't think that's enough. Like the priest in 'On the Waterfront,' the great thing was that he was a priest who also got down there with the dockworkers and dealt with their day-to-day problems."
The great thing about Live Aid, he says, "was that suddenly the promises that had been made by rock 'n' roll weren't being kept, but they were at least being attended to . . .
"That's why I think rock is in such a healthy transition at the moment. A lot of people are disturbed about the sort of flag-waving that tends to go on and the hypocrisy that happens when rock stars unite for causes. But it's a much healthier manifestation than the earlier festival syndrome . . . It's acknowledging that when different factions of this industry unite, we have a kind of power. And it's an interesting power because it's democratic -- the people who have that power have been voted in by having hit records."
When the Who stopped performing, Townshend says, the question for him "was how do I break this chain without breaking the faith, how do I get away from this machine without hurting the people that I love who are still involved in it, without corrupting the nature of their own faith?"
He remembers his bemusement reading Daltrey interviews right after the breakup. "He'd say something like 'I always believed that Pete would be able to go on forever and it's really broken my heart to see that he can't and now I'm realizing he's just an ordinary guy.'
"I could hardly believe it because if anybody should have known, and if anybody spent his whole life dedicated to reminding me that I was an ordinary guy, it was him. If at the end of the day all I was going to be doing for the rest of my life was fixing trucks, that wasn't the thing that was troubling me . . ."
He reaches for a religious image one more time.
"It was that I might come out of the whole thing in some way like a Judas, like a betrayer."
The post-Who Townshend hasn't been less busy, simply -- given his preoccupation with new media -- less visible.
The video of "White City," which he describes as "a novel on film," was shot not on videotape but in 35mm, like a feature film. "I wanted to keep it so you had to live with it for a while," he says. A 35 mm print in Dolby stereo "really feels short. But that's part of the preconception of that old cinematic form, which I think is dead, or at least as much of a dinosaur as the Who were."
The video and the album (which produced a hit, "Face to Face") both reflect adult concerns. Their story -- of emotional separation in a lower income housing project in London, and a man's rage at his helplessness in the situation -- is drawn from his own background. They offer a metaphor for the decline of the Empire and England, and, concurrently, of rock 'n' roll and the Who. But the bottom line, Townshend says, is an optimism, a faith in inner strengths that solve problems.
He spent more money on the video than on the album ($300,000 to $220,000) and indicated that his future projects may be on videotape, not vinyl. "This is the last record in my current deal. If things continue to change at the rate that they are, the next thing I do might be a laser disc with CD sound and pictures," he says.
Townshend has been fascinated with film and video since the late '60s; he sees film as a way of reaching a wide audience without the emotional and physical costs of rock tours. For the last few years, he has been spending some time reviving "Lifehouse," a gargantuan concept about the quest for the Universal Note and Harmony that led to his first nervous breakdown (most of the songs on the brilliant "Who's Next" were drawn from that failed project). He's talking to director Nicolas Roeg, he says, adding, "it's been hard to let go of. It was a wonderful idea, and its genesis was at a time of great musical discovery for me . . . I started to hear music all the time, everywhere. Everything became music, I was sort of a reborn John Cage, and what I was hearing was not chaos, it was beauty." In the next year or two, he expects, "something will happen around it."
"Horse's Neck," Townshend's first book (published in England last May, in September here), is slim, only 129 pages. Its 13 stories are as emotionally interconnected as any of his past song cycles, twisting between fact and fiction, memory and fantasy.
What he turned in to his publisher was almost three times as long, writing accumulated between 1979 and 1982, a troubled period for the Who, his marriage and himself. "There was some deeply strangled eroticism, which only emerges in 'The Plate,' " he recalls. "It was much more specific, pornographic and tortured, with more direct inferences to relationships which people could identify," particularly those with Keith Moon and Kit Lambert, the group's original manager and another untimely death.
The excesses were expunged "by common consent," Townshend says, though "in the end, the nub of each thing is in there. It would be interesting to rewrite the whole thing as a novel with a plot," he adds, cautioning against reading too much autobiography into either "Horse's Neck" or "White City." "That's why I commissioned the two Who biographies. People can turn to them for history."
Though Townshend has found a new forum for his imagination and writing skills -- enabling him to escape rock's straitjacket of expectations -- he has had to give up his larger audience to do so. "Horse's Neck" has sold 40,000 copies since May, quite good for short fiction, but about what a new Who album might sell in a week.
"I was attracted to the idea of writing prose because I thought that some people are really going to listen," he says. "The people I do reach I'm going to be able to touch very directly, and the feedback that I get is going to be much more acute."
And writing offers what the Who no longer could -- risks.
At Faber & Faber, Townshend works a couple of days a week, reading four or five manuscripts. "The most intense part and the most interesting part of my work is sitting on the weekly editorial board, part of a group of eight editors who gather to discuss what directions the company is going to be going in creatively. I come in with ideas and there's always a mounting sense of excitement, like I'm a gladiator going into an arena. It's so exciting, being challenged to produce ideas. I throw in my two pennies worth.
"I'm just a novice, but my opinion is valued."
If once Pete Townshend wanted to die before he got old -- and if there was another period where he seemed to want to live long without ever aging -- he now seems to have found a graceful middle ground. He seems reinvolved in the world, creatively and morally.
He's anchored again in his marriage to the woman who witnessed -- and survived -- his transformation from art student to rock avatar. Karen Townshend runs a home for battered wives; her husband is very involved with probation services and antidrug programs.
"Where I live and how I live is not important," he says. "It's who I live with. The day I realized that, I changed tremendously. I have this great, great profound respect and need for my wife, and whatever is the quality of my love for her I'll leave her to judge. It was the turning point in my life when I realized that I had that and that I wanted that. It will sustain me for the rest of my life."
Still, it's doubtful that he's truly abandoned rock; more likely, he's just redirected his involvement. He'll continue to make music and messages, even if the delivery medium changes.
And it's not too much to imagine of Pete Townshend that someday he'll pick up his guitar and play, just like yesterday, get down on his knees and pray he won't get fooled again.