Pete interview in The Times, part two
brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 20 11:19:45 UTC 2009
Back to Quadrophenia, the character of Jimmy is “not schizophrenic, he's quadrophenic”, the mixed-up, competing personalities in his head intended to represent four personalities of The Who's original members.
This is rather controversial, and I might be remembering it all in a distorted way. But what I recall was that it was not my intention that the personalities of each band member were meant to be part of Jimmy. Each band member was supposed to perform an aspect of each of Jimmy's four personality extremes. This is a crucial difference. Towards the end of recording, Roger lost patience with me. I had kept all the cards to my chest, and he wanted to see the release of a Who album not a Pete Townshend indulgence. He insisted the faces of each band member should be on the front cover and then it seemed necessary to alter the essay on the inside sleeve to reflect this change.
My view of a great rock band is that they merely hold up a mirror to their audience - even that analogy is too strong really. What we do is stand in front of a crowd, with their permission, and try to provide some cathartic function. For a lead singer such as Roger that is hard to accept sometimes - though he completely understands it. In fact he understands it better than anyone I know, but even so it's tough to stand on a stage and carry a show, but tell yourself you don't really matter.
Anyway, the device didn't work at all. What worked was Jimmy meeting an old schoolfriend who had happened to make it big (the Godfather) and having a pop at him for deserting his neighbourhood. The offering that the old friend he met was me, and I was in The Who, seemed to work OK. I think the notion that Jimmy had multiple personality disorder might have nearly worked as well. But it is the failure of this device that made it so hard in the past for conventional theatre people to trust that the show would work. It works musically I think, but is yet unproven dramatically. This is something we intend to fix.
With that in mind, does Quadrophenia summon up Keith Moon or John Entwistle when you hear it or think about it? And what's your experience when you listen to Quadrophenia today?
I remember those two men every day one way or another. Whenever I play Who music they appear like ghosts. In the casting sessions there was a moment when a large group of people were singing I've Had Enough - the song closes the first act - and I suddenly realised I had written the most wonderful music for a choir without knowing it. What choir would think of performing Quadrophenia? And yet it is ideal for the choral society in some ways.
What's your opinion of Frank Roddam's 1979 movie and the Mod revival that is spawned?
The Mod revival was already happening when we started the film. It is a good film, but I was sad it didn't follow the music. The problem the writer had is precisely the problem we have today - if you sing the music through, without changing too much, some of the characters are rather thin, and some of the events are lost in a druggy haze.
The film also set up some new issues: is the girl important? Today I think she is, whereas when I wrote the story I thought of her as an impossible idea in Jimmy's confused mind. Recently I've been able to put myself inside the young girl and ask myself if I would notice a curious boy like Jimmy, and imagine we might get married one day when he's settled down. The answer was that of course I would notice him.
The film also made the Ace Face real and tangible, and he too is someone who needs closer explication. Why does such a charismatic young man descend to the menial life of a job as Bell Boy? My conclusion today is that it works for him, it is an escape from the limelight, but also possibly a cover for his criminal activities. How else but from crime does such a young man afford such a great scooter and such smart clothes? Many of the leading faces in the Mod scene I knew were much older and mysterious figures who seemed to have more money than they should.
The film answered some questions and posed new ones. The most obvious question is whether Jimmy actually follows his scooter over Beachy Head. I have no idea.
How do you find relinquishing control of your work to the hands of others?
If I can really let it go, it is no problem. But I have been drawn into this production, and it is a problem for me. I am more an artist than a back-room man. I tend to grandiosity and absurdity, petulance and pride, when my work is challenged. That is a pity because I am a very good team player if I can keep my ego out of it. Luckily the creative team of Tom Critchley and Jeff Young on this project are people I've worked with before on Lifehouse Chronicles and Lifehouse for Radio 3.
Tom Critchley (the director) and I also enjoyed an association with Kneehigh Theatre for a while. The producer Ina Meibach, from New York, has been my legal and creative mentor since the beginning of my career in the USA in 1967.
Can you tell us anything about what you're currently working on?
Not really. I am writing, and for me that means I am waiting for something I am working on to land. I write essays, poems, lyrics, guitar tunes, piano pieces and bits of novels and autobiography every day. But if I told you what I was most hopeful about today I might set myself up to fail. I'm surprised how many projects I begin but do not finish. For me, art is finishing things. A pot ain't art until it's fired, even if it's a Bernard Leach. I have a lot of metaphorical wet clay in my life at the moment.
Do you need or have an audience in mind when you write? Who do you write for when you're creating new music now?
I am having to face that it is probably time for me to change. Whether I can change is another question. All my life I have tried to write music and lyrics that fit and deliver according to my notion of the function of rock and pop. For years this was a fairly straightforward brief, even if it wasn't always an easy one. The audience was usually young, evolving emotionally, feeling a little lost, fearful of sharing their fear. Now there is a huge body of guitar- driven pop that serves this audience, and, of course, I may have become too old to do it well, though the story in question never changes, not really. So I am looking at how I might change my target audience, and how I might use my experience so far in life to do useful creative work.
I have had quite a narrow experience, a repetitive Groundhog Day round of Who rock shows and PR, taking my kids to school every day for a while, then back to the business of being a rock star. All the time I've wanted to avoid turning into a wealthy baron who is out of touch with the ordinary world. Billy Bragg I am not, but I am close as it is possible to be for someone who has done what I've done; I admire and respect Billy Bragg.
Today I have to face that my audience may be too old themselves to change. I am very afraid that the front row of the first performance of Quadrophenia will be Mods wearing parkas. Even if they were young, it would be pretty awful. If they are in their sixties it could be worse. But what might be the worst of all could be fathers and sons coming together, wearing parkas. I have a nice dilemma. If I am to write for anyone, I want most to do something for that dad who is locked in the past, just as I sometimes feel I am. Quadrophenia should really shoot me into the present day. Maybe then I can write a song-cycle for a man on his deathbed.
Do you feel under pressure to tour with The Who and how hard is it to refuse?
I don't enjoy it very much, I'm sorry to say. I do get a lot of artistic fulfilment from it, especially as a performing guitar player, and I find it very easy. I am under pressure to tour with The Who. I can handle it, I think. If I really didn't want to do it I would just quit. After all, I quit in 1982 and didn't go back on stage with Roger and John again until 1996 when I did the first public performance of the complete Quadrophenia for the Prince's Trust at Hyde Park. The success of that event was what took us back to regular touring again. But I am quite capable of saying no.
My life as a writer is wrapped up in the Who name and brand - I can turn away from it, but in doing so I am only turning away from who I am.
I think what is important here is simply whether or not I'm always going to be capable of doing what it is I've always done so well on stage with The Who - which is to “catch fire”. I don't know what happens, but I walk on stage bored, catch fire for two hours and walk off stage bored again. I'm a peculiar piece of work.
Why do you now conduct interviews only by e-mail?
I stopped doing interviews of every kind back in 1997. I just felt I was repeating myself. I had done several hundred interviews for the various incarnations of Tommy from 1993 until the London West End production in 1997. I also found that the rock star arrogance I spoke of in the first answer has led me to say things that later I looked at and regretted. I start to stride around the room, my adrenaline flows, and before I know it I'm advising Mick Jagger to retire or picking a squabble with Kaiser Chiefs about when the riot they predicted is actually going to happen. I lose control.
Luckily some journalists allow me to do e-mail interviews. But many want to ask me the tough questions, watch my eyes, read my body, get a visceral sense of what is happening with me. I understand that, and perhaps one day I will go back to that kind of work with journalists because I miss face-to-face work terribly. Some of my most creative and vibrant moments have been in brainstorms with journalists.
I agreed to do some radio interviews, and some e-mail interviews when the Who's last album was released in 2006. But the first few face-to-face interviews immediately got me into trouble. In one I did with Rolling Stone, for example, I said I though Bob Dylan's work with the Band was corny. I said it, but it was not quite what I meant. I meant that Dylan suffered because he changed from folk to rock too late, and the Band had spent such a long time supporting the old then-vintage Canadian rocker Ronnie Hawkins for so long that Bob arrived as a rock artist sounding like an old timer already. The Band seemed to keep all their truly innovative tricks for themselves. That was a gaffe I regretted because I adore Bob Dylan and the Band. I sent letters of apology and Robbie Robertson replied saying, “I hope you're not losing your teeth!”
Most of all I love doing e-mail work because I can sit and properly consider what it is I really want to say over and above what it is I might be trying to plug at the time. I can also edit myself at least once before submission.
Is it any kind of reaction to the media ordeal you faced in 2003 (when he was investigated over the viewing of a child-porn website that he had once visited as research; he was never charged, nothing more illegal was found on any of his 14 computers)?
No. At that time I was advised by my legal team to keep my mouth shut, for the reasons I have stated above. But only because they knew me so well. I would have protested my essential innocence too much.
What's your opinion of social networking - do you use Twitter?
I published a novella using a blog over a period of several months, and the feedback seemed huge. But at the end, when I looked at the statistics, it became clear that quite a small group of people were on my blog almost every hour or two. So 500 people made themselves feel like 100,000. I'm not suggesting that the numbers matter in that context, it was a useful and encouraging experience, but it was salutary. I would not use Twitter. I do enough to annoy my old mate Janet Street-Porter as it is, and she now edits a powerful newspaper. She hates blogs and Twitter. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Never pick a fight with men who buy their ink in barrels.”
On the matter of people taking charge of their own communication, this is what I always thought would be wonderful about the internet when it finally arrived - that musicians and creative people in particular, could reach each other one to one. That is happening. The problem is transforming it from a series of small clubs into a commercial business equal to the one iTunes has parasitically imposed on top of it all. How do musicians make money? How do they experiment without being granted risk investment?
What's your view of free music internet stations such as Spotify and LastFM? Do you think they bode ill in terms of nurturing the next generation of start-up bands?
I have only just joined Spotify, and I haven't had a chance to listen yet. Starting a band these days is the same as it ever was. You start to play for fun, with ambition and dreams, live in fantasy and hope for a while. Then 99 per cent of us go back to our day jobs. I was a lucky one. Perhaps. That day job of yours often looks wonderful to me, but then I am human. We are never really content, are we?
What's next after the internet?
Compulsory electronic body implants linked to Gordon Brown's base station.
Quadrophenia opens at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222 ), on May 9, and tours until October (www.quadrophenia.co.uk )
-Brian in Atlanta
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