Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pete Townshend Tells His Story, In Words And Music


What is it about rock legends that turn even learned academicians into star-struck groupies? When Pete Townshend came to the Berklee Performance Center in support of his just-published memoir, Who I Am (Harper Collins) he was met by an audience of journalists, music professors and students, all of whom were delirious in their affection for the songwriter and guitarist who helped catapult 60's group The Who into the echelon of rock'n'roll dynasty.

Sharing the stage with a member of the Berklee College faculty (who introduced Townshend by telling us the story of how Pete changed his live forever.........yawn!), the intimate setting felt like the musical equivalent of Inside The Actors Studio, minus its acerbic, inquisitive host. The first half of the hour-long show saw Townshend discussing his autobiography, Who I Am - from the fact that he was originally approached sixteen years earlier to write it ("This is a different contract...........the other one didn't work for me"), to the astounding archive of material Townshend needed to pour through in order to tell his story ("Some boxes were stacked to the brim with letters, lyrics, photographs, other years, just a single feather. Must have been the New Romantic era" Pete remarked.)

Townshend gave a shout out to his UK counterparts The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Kinks (the latter group he credits for really sparking his desire to start a rock band, and says the group has never really gotten the critical respect they deserve, even to this day) and implied their collective urges were a response to life in post-war England ("You had us kids playing around bombed-out shelters, finding watches, rings, sometimes human remains.") This birds-eye view of war's aftermath had a profound effect on him and his contemporaries, and Townshend maintains that this is the reason he and other young folks of his generation were so disillusioned. He says he wanted to write songs to speak to his generation, who were otherwise marginalized and placated: "We were told, "There's peace, you've got sugar, what more could you want?"

The first half of the program also had Townshend revealing personal tidbits about songs from The Who's catalog - according to him the first "rock opera" he ever wrote was not Tommy, but "Rael, Pts. 1 and 2" (which appears on The Who Sell Out.) The song's narrative involves a potential war between Red China and Israel (hence the title,) and features an uncredited performance by fellow guitar god Al Kooper. Townshend attributes the book Orchestration by Walter Piston for changing his songwriting process from 3-minute rock songs to more intricate, melodic arrangements, as can be heard on Tommy and Quadrophenia. Speaking of Tommy, Townshend shared the little-known fact that the storyline of the title character being a pinball wizard happened by accident. He gave the finished score of Tommy to Nik Cohn (a fledging journalist in the UK) for his feedback. Cohn's initial response was lukewarm: "It's all a little old hat, wouldn't you say?" Then Townshend, remembering that Cohn was an avid pinball enthusiast, suggested "What if, in addition to being deaf, dumb and blind, Tommy was a pinball wizard?" That one change, inspired by Cohn, not only lead to a change-of-heart, but saw Cohn's subsequent review refer to Tommyas "the greatest rock'n'roll album in history."

A brief Q&A with audience members provided little insight, as they were the usual questions Townshend has been asked a thousand times before. One (two-tiered) question in particular, had him understandably irked: "First, will you be playing something for us you haven't played all week? (referring to his itinerary of book tour stops) And second: I have a Gibson guitar right here - I was wondering if you would either autograph it or smash it onstage?" Townshend let the laughter and smattering of applause die down before responding, "The answer to your both your questions is "no."

Townshend then picked up his acoustic guitar, and performed an all-too-short set of songs from his variegated collection, including moving renditions of "The Acid Queen" (from Tommy) and the cautionary "Wont Get Fooled Again" (from Who's Next), which he introduced by saying "I'm gonna play this one slowed down." Regardless of the tempo, "Wont Get Fooled Again" was an apt and deliberate choice on the part of Townshend, as he had made veiled remarks about the current political climate during the interview ("I'm not trying to be too deep or cynical here, but things are f-ed up!") His emphasis on the lines "And the p-p-parting on the left, is now p-p-parting on the right" spoke directly to America's upcoming Presidential election.

As the song progressed, Townshend ramped-up not only the song's tempo, but his passion and righteous anger: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" he bellowed, never meaning those lyrics more than he did at that exact moment on stage. To think it took a 67 year old man to stir up the thinking of an audience whose members were many, many decades his junior was not only telling, but reminded me of the fact that I am not the only kid of the 60's who hasn't lost his idealism and sense of social justice. And then it was over, almost as quickly as it began. Pete bid us goodbye, the house lights went up, and we all headed home. I wonder if the last-minute "pep rally" on the part of Townshend (a man who not only speaks to his (and my) generation, but whose songs have always given voice to radical, politically-proactive ideals) will have any lasting impact on the 1200-plus folks leaving the BPC when they step into the polling booths in a matter of weeks. Like Pete, I sure as heck hope so.

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