Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Adventures in Art, Expedient Creativity and Spirituality: Interview with Pete Townshend

Last June, critic Deirdre Kelly reviewed the Stratford production of Pete Townshend's rock opera Tommy in Critics at Large as "a feast of the senses." She went on to elaborate that "this new Tommy is spectacular, harnessing the latest in digital technologies for a series of punchy LED rear-screen projections which firmly anchor Tommy in its post-war, middle class British setting. The two-hour plus show also employs automated set pieces that tilt, fire and explode – not unlike a Townshend guitar solo." Speaking of the composer, Pete Townshend, the founder of The Who, Kelly had an opportunity to talk with him for The Globe and Mail a few weeks ago. The paper ran a portion of her long discussion with the artist. Here today, we supply the rest. Townshend discusses a range of subjects including autism in relation to Tommy, the spiritual guidance of Meher Baba, the generational conflict in post-War Britain and the continued relevance of Tommy today.

dk: Why is autism such a central characteristic of Tommy in the rock opera?

pt: I think that in those early days autism, Aspergers, and trauma were all kind of bundled together. And they shouldn't have been. I'm talking about 1967 here, and 1968, which is when I first started to investigate this. Autism was a fairly new thing then. People were relieved to find that their children could be described as autistic because prior to that they would have just been regarded as anti-social, mentally ill menaces. And music therapy was also fairly new on the ground in the UK in 1967, especially the use of music for children who suffered from extreme Aspergers or autism. So it began as a very pure piece. It was about finding a spiritual meaning in all of this. And that’s really the lofty place where Tommy began. Tommy is subjected to a series of abuses, what we would call today extreme abuse, child abuse and bullying. But it's also about abuses of a different nature; that is, the abuse of his parents insisting that he conspire with them in their denial of the fact that there had been a murder in the family, and that the child has witnessed it. There are also abuses taking place in the shape of experiments on the boy. The episode about that I suppose, which is the most cartoonish in the piece, is the episode with the Acid Queen. But this scene is actually an echo of things which we knew actually went on in Germany towards the end of the war. People were actually experimented on in what you would now call a eugenic manner.

dk: That’s a lot to digest.

pt: These things all came from that place. I was trying to present this stuff that we saw around us and that we knew was happening around us. Indeed, some of us had even experienced it. We certainly experienced too, if you like, the price of fame. So when Tommy becomes famous for his defects as much as for his extraordinary ability to feel his way around the pinball machine it becomes an allegory for the way people who are disabled, whether they are mentally disabled, or whether they suffer from Aspergers or trauma, manage to find the way to function normally in daily life.

dk: Is fame a kind disability? Does it handicap?

pt: Tommy becomes famous and as a result he is challenged to justify his fame to the people around him and when he can’t do this, when he can’t deliver the golden chalice to the people, and they can’t share in his lifetime experience, they turn against him and he has to return to the place he came from. They are all quite painful ironies, all of which are a fact of life for most people who have difficult times, and which we have made more colourful. And I think, what was the expression I used? They were stunts. They were colourful moments that were brought in to decorate Tommy like a Christmas tree.

Tina Turner as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell's Tommy

dk: Ken Russell also directed a film version of Tommy back in 1975. How does his film and the stage version compare?

pt: When I watched the movie Tommy the other day I thought, God, in today’s climate of extreme political correctness, any kind of comedic comment of abuse and difficulties in the family – especially as it applies to children – means we couldn't have had Ken Russell make this today! But I also felt a little uneasy when I went to back to watch Tommy at Stratford, the production that Des McAnuff and I made for Broadway 20 years ago, and which Des has revised. He and I had decided to deal directly with the issue of bullying, with abuse, with childhood neglect, with sexual abuse. We decided to tackle it all head-on. And these are things that have to be followed up with some kind of explanation.

dk: Do you provide it? 

Elton John as the Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell's Tommy

pt: In Tommy, as a rock opera, there isn't a lot of room for that kind of explanation. This has to be something which the audience takes away from the theatre to discuss among themselves, issues that are brought up or triggered within by the work. And I wonder if such a piece, such a rock opera, can ever carry the intensity of the kind of argument and debate which is required on such serious subject matter today. But, remember, this was first released nearly 50 years ago. And in those times these subjects were being broached for the first time and often by victims rather than by organizations which had set themselves up to protect the young and the mentally ill, or to modify quack medicine or quack medical treatment. All of these subjects are touched on in Tommy and they appear to be touched on in quite light-hearted ways. In the moment before we see Uncle Ernie abuse Tommy, or at least prepare to pounce on him, you don’t actually see anything, we see him drink a pint of beer on-stage in the Stratford production. And he burps, and everybody laughs, but the laugh is not laughter. It’s a release of terrible tension. We know what’s coming. And we know that this happens out there. I suppose what I'm saying is that we have to live with the music. We have to live with the rock opera version that we did 20 years ago. We also have to live with the fact that Tommy started as a rock opera in 1968/69. And yet times have changed. Attitudes have changed. I look at some of those songs, like "Pinball Wizard," which is a very powerful song, an explosion of energy and vibrancy on the stage, and it’s a celebration of a child’s ability to become a champion. We are celebrating disability, in a sense. It’s the triumph of disability.

The Who meet Jimi Hendrix

dk: What happened in 1967? What happened to galvanize all these thoughts together?

pt: Back in 1962/63, I was in art college when I was performing with the early Who. And I thought of them in a very arty-farty way, you know, auto-destruction and pop-art and very subversive. The Who was anarchic music about the trials and tribulations of young people in the post-war world at large. That band then went on for years and I think that I had gotten a rather soft underbelly by then. I won’t say that I had completely abandoned the art, but I won’t say that Tommy was an adventure in art. It was an adventure in expedient creativity. Also, like many people who had experimented with psychedelic drugs, I realized that there was a spiritual component to the way I had functioned that I hadn't been fully aware of. There was a longing. I had grown up in, not a religious family, but a family which was Christian, but we didn't go to church. Well, I went to church but my parents didn't. And by 1967, 1968, I had spiritual questions.

Meher Baba
dk: What kind of questions?

pt: I had discovered the Indian mystic, Meher Baba. He was described as the silent master. He never spoke from the age of 25 onwards to the time of his death. He might have spoken, but legend has it that he didn't. My early readings of him drifted me sideways into reading Sufi poetry, especially the Persian poet Rumi, and some of the Sufi story tellers like Pico Iyer and Hermann Hesse. I really became enchanted with using rock and roll to deal head-on with the idea that life is not what’s really going on. It’s consciousness. It’s what we feel, what we experience. It’s a journey. If what we call the soul, which is such a clumsy word for the entity of the human mechanism which may have many, many shades and functions which we don’t understand yet. And which someday, scientifically, somebody might be able to prove, has a form which actually exists. But at the moment it’s an abstract. And its abstract nature has allowed a lot of people to take us to the cleaners, to con us, to manipulate us in various ways.

dk: Did the drug culture of the 1960s affect this enhanced realization of the spiritual life?

pt: In a way what happened with the people who experimented with LSD, and I think I am speaking for a lot of people in the mid-Sixties, is that we all had our minds blown. But I don’t think many of us had our minds fried because LSD was quite frightening. But we used it to open a door. That’s where I was. I don’t know about the other guys in the band and I can’t speak for Kit Lambert, who was our manager and producer. But certainly for me I wanted The Who to do something that dealt with the matter of the moment, and the matter of the moment in 1967-68 was the spiritual question. We were looking for answers and I think that’s how it was.

George Harrison with Ravi Shankar
dk: Given your interest spiritual questions were you friends with George Harrison?

pt: Yes, I was. We had a couple of very, very serious conversations, and he respected my views and I respected his. And we took different paths. So yes, I was friends with him. Perhaps my path is interesting. In the past couple of years I have returned to being a disciple of Meher Baba.

dk: What draws you to him?

pt: I wouldn't say that I dropped him or that he dropped me. I had heard about him in 1967 and he passed away in 1969. So he died two years after I started to be interested in him. All I knew about Meher Baba was the people I had met who had followed him, and I liked them, and I read the books. I watched the movies and I also got involved in his archive work in the movies and actually ran a centre in the UK dedicated to him for awhile. In the early Eighties, I decided I needed to step back, get some distance. But more recently I have been querying the whole question of whether I need  or if anybody needs – a spiritual advisor. Because what we are seeing around us right now is a hell of a lot of spiritual advisors going around saying we need to chop off people’s hands. And I'm not just talking about Muslims here. I'm talking about how the religious right, for example in America, has become really quite militarized and fundamentalist in its own world. That hasn't quite happened in the UK because in the UK we've become rather irreligious. There’s a kind of uprising of Christian action here in the UK, kind of New Wave Christianity, and perhaps that’s a good thing, but I don’t know.

dk: How does this experience of Meher Baba relate to Tommy?

pt: When I sat down to write Tommy in 1967, my motives were innocent, na├»ve, kind, loving and the best motives I think I've ever had in writing a piece of music.What makes Tommy work, finally and ultimately if I can describe it, is that while it stumbles along through a series of pop songs, it ends with a prayer. It ends with a plea to be heard by the people around us, and finally with a prayer, if not to God then to the universe, and then if not to God or the universe then to the audience. And that’s a critical moment.

The Who perform "We're Not Gonna Take It" at Woodstock 
dk: How so?

pt: Whenever The Who has performed Tommy and we've ended with, "We're Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me," without exception, however crap the show, however dreadful we've been on the night, if we play that song, the audience stand up and they'll applaud. What they’re applauding in a sense is their own universality, their own questions, their own hope for some kind of answer and it came from that longing I had, I suppose as a 22, 23, 24 or 25 year old boy – as we call them now! But I was a young man. I was married. I had a child. My first child. And I kind of felt I wasn't going to get what I needed from family, or get what I needed from fame. And you know? I wasn't going to get what I needed from art. The only answer I was going to get was from the audience.

dk: What aspects of Tommy are autobiographical, and do audiences need to read your recently published memoir  Who I Am to get the full meaning behind it?

pt: No, I don’t think so. Tommy might be the most autobiographical thing that I have written, but I don’t think any of it was truly conscious. As a young man, I came out of art school and I was looking for a patron and a brief. And I think I found it in the early mechanics of The Who, in the mechanics of the movement, and the mechanics of the early rock and roll system. I was in a band and so I could just pretend to be in a band and just be one of the gang. But you know? I was pretty serious, too, about my song writing and wanted my song writing to serve the audience in a very, very precise way. By the time I came to Tommy, what I was looking at was a slightly bigger picture. I was looking at, perhaps, the way The Who had ended up in 1967: why was it we were losing contact with our audience? Why what we were doing wasn't touching them anymore? And so I kind of wanted to set their story, our story and the universal story of everybody who had grown up around my generation, the immediate post-war period of 1945 up to the present day. In so doing, I think that rather than go back and read my book, I think a lot of what actually happened in order to inform Tommy, I think a lot of what I discovered when I started to analyze Tommy when I started to work with Des, is that I discovered that it had informed my own artistic process and my own life. I understood that, for example, what happened to me, the abuses that I suffered when I was a young kid ….

dk: What abuses?

pt: I don’t remember them particularly vividly. But I am pretty sure there were abuses either of an erotic or a sexual nature which happened to me when I was a young child living with my grandmother. And I write about those abuses in my book. They weren't on the surface when I wrote Tommy. In fact, they very nearly didn't make the pages. I remember saying to John Entwistle, you know, I've got the kid witnessing a murder; I've got the kid being kind of ignored at the Christmas party; I've got the kid being subjected to a quack doctor; I've got the kid being experimented with by a Nazi drug dealer: I think I would to have some more ordinary things happen to this kid! Like he could be bullied. Maybe, you know, he could be abused by a cousin and a dirty old uncle and do you think you can write those songs? And John said , "Yep!" I don’t know from what place he pulled those two songs but "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About" are dark fugues. Comedic on the surface. But, God! They are dark and scary.

bass guitarist John Entwistle
dk: So blame it on John Entwistle!

pt: I'm not saying, blame John Entwistle! He’s, unfortunately, not here, and when he was here, if anyone had said to him, You know? Did you experience anything like this when you were a kid and he would have said, Of course! We all did! Not only was I bullied but I was also a bully. When I got the chance, I was a bully. But my experience of sexual abuse is that if you want to read about it in my book, go ahead and read about it. But what we see in Tommy is a much more universal problem. It’s not the idea that the child is a victim. It’s the idea that the child is without meaning in my generation. When we first started to tour, if I may digress for a second …

dk: Please do.

pt: When we first started to tour in America, in 1967-68-69, America had, already, idealized the family and had exalted the child, exalted education, and exalted the notion that a good family was a family that loved its kids. A good dad was a dad who went to work and looked after his wife and his kids and they went to church on Sunday, and wore stripy suits at Easter. This exaltation of the child was not the way it was in the UK. It just wasn't like that for us.

dk: Why was it different?

pt: Many of use were, of course, loved. But we were not exalted. And the reason we were not exalted was not because we did not deserve exaltation. It was because we had been a huge problem in the war years and the post-war years. Children were just a problem! I mean, we’re talking about the Blitz! Nothing is more disturbing in that you've got this old guy chomping down on a cigar and who’s being broadcast across the country [does his best Winston Churchill imitation]: "We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them in the fields and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Then off they went, and teenagers get killed, so, okay, we’re used to that. The boys go and give their lives for their country and so some of the girls this time around. Isn't that jolly? But meanwhile, in London, they’re digging through the wreckage of homes and finding the bodies of babies, infants and young kids. It was just so fucking shocking, so shocking, that the degree to which people had to harden their hearts towards children meant that when the war was over children and their parents were expected to just pretend that none of it had ever happened.

dk: Just like in Tommy.

The family in post-War Britain
pt: In a sense, Tommy addresses that head-on. That’s not to say people didn't love their kids. But we’d lost an important part of the language of how society should evolve in a Christian climate which we were envious of. We envied the way people were brought up in America. It wasn't our experience. So Tommy reflects that. But you know the thing that I was most stunned by?

dk: What?

pt: I was stunned by the fact that so many American fans identified with us. So perhaps not all of them enjoyed that exalted treatment at the hands of their parents. And you know America, and Canada in particular, was in tar from the off. America was eventually in the war and so we all lost our family members. But worse of all we were changed by the war. The war changed the way families communicated with each other. It changed the notion of dads. That's the story I tell in Quadraphenia, which was written a few years later than Tommy, of walking down the street and being ordered to step aside by an old man: Get out of my way! And we used to get out of his way! Now, that’s not how life’s supposed to work. As a young elephant, you challenge the old elephant and you get down and you take over! We were confused. We didn't know what to do.We didn't know how to live, what our function was. I'm not saying knocking down old men is a good thing. But you know what I mean? We respected those people who had given us peace, but we played no part in it, and we were expected to remain silent, to be grateful and obeisant. There is a lot of that in Tommy. Tommy is almost an entirely passive character.And that’s very interesting.
dk: Could you then explain the concept of the anti-hero in Tommy and why this was important to you as a vehicle of artistic expression?

pt: In rock and roll, we soon realized that the function of the star – and this doesn't matter whether it’s Roger Daltry or Rod Stewart or Elvis Presley or Sting or Bruce Springsteen or who any of these guys think they are  their function as front men is that they provide a kind of vessel through which we consume ideas and receive messages. But mostly that communication is two-way. We express ourselves through them and this is very important I think. It’s a necessity. There were certain artists of the previous generation who may possibly have performed that kind of function. I'm thinking of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland and maybe Marilyn Monroe. Some of those people became the vessels through which we could express our own sense of fragility, of vulnerability, I mean, express ourselves on a deeper level, to reposition ourselves in society or whatever. But rock proved that this was the mechanism. If you could pull this off then you were a great rock artist. 

dk: How significant was this?

pt: It was quite significant because the precedents for this are in literature and in movies. Not in music, I don’t think. You've got James Dean. Holden Caulfield, the guy in Catcher in the Rye. You've got the leading character in The Great Gatsby. You've got, in a sense, these anti-heroes. People who really don’t deserve to be heroes, because they’re too vulnerable, they’re too weak. And yet we identify with them. And through identifying with them we find out something about ourselves. We’re able to rebuild, reposition, and avoid, in a sense, going down a track that’s been laid in front of us and that we fell committed in having to follow. But of course no one has to follow a track. And that’s the function of the anti-hero, to prevent us from following that track. And Tommy in a sense is quite clear. He’s not saying you need to be like me. In fact, he says the exact opposite. In the play that appears in Stratford, Tommy actually goes as far as to say …He says don’t be like me!

Roger Daltry & Pete Townshend
dk: How are you finding fulfilment today?

pt: I'm on the road at the moment with Roger Daltry under The Who banner performing Quadraphenia in a concert hall setting. It’s very successful. We’re getting great reviews and doing great shows. But it is old work. Even though I have my artsy moments as a virtuoso guitar player and performer, I desperately need to create new work and new music and come up with new ideas and so I’m working on a new piece at the moment. It’s very ambitious. It may end up as a rock opera. It may end up as an art installation. I don’t know. We’ll have to see. But I think if you are creative and you connect with that creativity you can live of it. But I think if you neglect it, it can kill you. It can actually destroy you.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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