MANHATTAN, NY—In his introduction, Paul Holdengräber, Director Of Public Programs at the New York Public Library, asked Pete Townshend to describe himself in seven words before he took to the stage at NYPL Live. Townshend followed that up with, “music is for people, words for me.” What followed for the next hour and a half was a mostly one-sided conversation where Townshend took on his band, The Who, smashing guitars, teenage wasteland, Woodstock, Hendrix, Monterey and his favorite writers.
On the eve of the release of his new book, Who I Am, Townshend enjoyed spinning tales to the sold out crowd of the old days, placing his band in historical context with the others of the day from the Stones to The Kinks.
Animated, relaxed and looking a lot like a college professor up there, he exuded charm and a cocky confidence that goes with the territory of being in one of the loudest and most celebrated bands of all time. He was funny, coyly remarking, “I look like a priest, and in some ways I am!” and “I’m a rock star expected to behave like a politician!” over the course of his spirited look back at times past.
He described fellow bandsmates Roger Daltrey as a howler, John Entwistle as a banger on bass, and Keith Moon as an orchestral player who pushed the sounds of the drums forward adding, “It was complete bedlam!” He also described his music as “an attempt to confront and address living in constant fear and terror in post-WWII Britain.” Smashing guitars were a rite of passage and a means to gain acceptance amongst the art school crowd at the time, a “closing of the circle” that “felt right.” He explained his role in serving the audience as a “provider of relief” and “then pulling them into the reality of the moment.”
“Teenage wasteland,” from the song “Baba O’Riley,” was a commentary on music festivals like Woodstock and Isle Of Wight that were “out of step.” The Stones, Kinks and The Who all copped their original sounds from American rhythm and blues artists like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry since they all shared the same record collections at the time.
Hendrix, who looked “like a tramp” backstage on LSD at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Townshend tossed a coin to see who would go on stage before the other. He won and had Hendrix follow his band. Smashed guitars and lit, fiery ones followed. Townshend added “everything I do is his now” when Mama Cass asked why he let Hendrix go on after The Who.
He called “My Generation” a “reaction and complete dismissal of what went on before,” then introduced “I’m One” from Quadrophenia before he played it on acoustic guitar. “Drowned” was next. He described the music business in the ‘60s as an experiment and lamented the loss of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Hendrix, as well as bandmates Entwistle and Moon, adding that he never bought into the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle. His favorite writers? Tolstoy and Joseph Conrad.