(Waiting To) Hear One Of The Who: Pete Townshend in conversation with Jann Wenner

Mr. Peter Townshend

Pete Townshend with Jann Wenner, Barnes & Noble Union Square, 10/9/12

As part of the promotional go-round for Townshend’s biography, Who I Am, he made a stop at Barnes & Noble this evening for a Q&A, with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in the interrogator’s seat. Pete could have been crabby or it could have been the two of them congratulating each other on how great they are, but it was a genuinely thoughtful, solid 45 minutes of conversation–followed by two songs performed solo acoustic, and then Pete sat and signed books for everyone (including the people who didn’t get into the Q&A and were standing outside for hours. I would not have done that).

Wenner asked him how he prepared to write the book, and Pete said that he thought of the book as a survivor’s tale, so he read accounts of war reporters. Mentioned Nik Cohn (the origin of the Pinball Wizard!) and Virginia Ironsides, and told the story most fans know from The Kids Are Alright about Kit Lambert asking him to please smash a guitar because there was a journalist there and it would be a good story. It’s one thing to have watched that movie a gazillion times like I have and know that story by heart (more about this later), but to hear Pete do his Kit Lambert posh voice when you’re sitting in the same room will still be just the tiniest bit mindblowing.

Pete insisted that digging into his childhood wasn’t at all sad, because it filled in a big hole he had always felt, but never known the cause of. He went to visit his mother three times, with a tape recorder, to get to the bottom of the story, and once he knew what had happened (his parents had sent him to live with a grandparent, who was borderline abusive), he felt free, because now he knew why so much of his writing was so dark.

Other musicians’ biographies that he liked: Eric Clapton, although he didn’t think Eric talked enough about music, and mentioned a text he got from Eric recently. (The thought of Townshend and Clapton texting back and forth is somehow squee worthy.) He spoke warmly of Dylan’s Chronicles, and said that he thought he could have written something similar, and that his Horse’s Neck was probably close. (The closest we came to any mutual admiration society was when Pete praised the recent Dylan interview in Rolling Stone, which was pretty praise-worthy.)

He mentioned Keith Richards’ autobiography, namechecked co-author James Fox and how he liked his writing (causing me to go into Goodreads and add his book White Mischief to my to-read pile) but said that he stopped reading Keith’s book halfway through because, “I know all these stories.” He mentioned that he had discussed something similar at the NYPL the night before, how he could have stopped talking at any time and invited some of the diehard fans he recognized up on stage to finish the story he was telling.

Pete spoke warmly of his long-time fans, saying that, “The word ‘groupie’ never should have existed,” not just for women, but for the men in the audience who composed most of the Who’s audience (which apparently caused several women to take issue with him during the book signing the night before. That’s just silly, because a Who crowd has always been predominantly male, no matter how many other female fans I have known throughout my fandom).

Pete pulled out his iPhone at one point and exclaimed over it, practically doing a commercial: “It’s got books, and magazines…I can write on it, watch movies, make calls, record music…” He is, not surprisingly, a big fan of eBooks, pointing out that he predicted this in 1985 and then in 1971.

There was discussion about the upcoming tour. Pete says usually he’s trying to play something different or odd but Roger always wants to play the classics. This time around, it’s Pete wanting to play the standards — he referred to them as “The old CSI classics” — and Roger wanting to try something new. For the new staging of Quadrophenia, Roger feels he can’t sing as Jimmy and needs to try singing as the narrator instead. [Ed. note: If you can’t sing as Jimmy, maybe not take out bloody Quadrophenia on tour! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.] Wenner asked him about playing without Entwistle, to which Pete replied, “As a guitar player, I prefer working without John. As a member of the Who… I miss that great noise that we made.” (“GREAT NOISE,” bellowed a gentleman sitting in the row behind me, applauding wildly.)

Wenner noted that Pete hadn’t put out a solo record in 20 years, and asked why. Pete looked annoyed (for probably the first time), and stated that he’d been recording all sorts of music during that time, but just didn’t think it was ‘necessary’ to put out a solo album. Wenner then asked about the rock opera Pete was working on, to which Pete vehemently denied that it was an opera, more like a ‘son et lumiere,’ a concept on a grand scale, with singers and a huge performance that he was thinking of Central Park for, in order to accomodate the staging and the cast. He said he was about 2/3 of the way done with his concept piece.

Townshend completely ducked the question of who he listened to now, but did have a fascinating description of how he listens to new music: that he just cruises around last.fm and Spotify and iTunes and downloads a bunch of music and puts it on his iPod, and then just listens to it. He says he is occasionally very surprised when he does choose to see who is performing a certain song, and that it’s usually someone he knows or is familiar with. He consumes a lot of new music but didn’t want to name check anyone — and then said that he quite liked Lady Gaga.

The conversation finished, Pete moved to an adjoining stool and picked up the acoustic guitar. Dedicating “Drowned” to “the new faces in the audience,” he sang clearly and cleanly, and played guitar just as well as ever. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was next, with plenty of verve and oomph, even if the crowd was somewhat tired in the back of the room and not responding to Pete’s surprisingly energetic performance, given his promotional schedule. He looked good, he sounded good, and was nattily dressed in a black jacket, black and white checked shirt and red pocket square.

After the performance, he sat there signing books, shaking hands, and generally engaging with fans far more than the Barnes & Noble staff wanted to accommodate. For lack of anything else, but wanting to say something, I noted that both he and Mr. Springsteen were going to be on tour at the same time, and wouldn’t it be great if one visited the other onstage? To that I got a non-committal “Yeh,” but nothing more. (I also once told him, backstage at Shea Stadium, that I liked his hair that tour. I never know what to say to Pete.)

I’m not sold on this version of the Who, but this was a delightful, insightful evening with Pete, who was kind and gracious and generous. I am looking forward to reading the book.