Pete Townshend: Not only is he the major creative force behind The Who, but he's also released several of his own solo records, prompted the first-known use of the term "rock opera" (for 1969's Tommy) and he's even credited with being the first person to smash a guitar on stage.
But one thing Townshend had never done until now is write a novel. Earlier this month, he published The Age of Anxiety. There are plans to turn it into an "opera art installation," which he says will be his last major solo work. He is also releasing a new album with The Who, called WHO, which is out Dec. 6.
In this session, you'll hear some of the new music from that album. We'll talk about his debut novel, his realization two years ago that his famed rock opera Tommy was actually about him, and his stance on all these court cases concerning artist copyright issues. Hear all that in the audio player and read on for a transcript of the conversation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Raina Douris: How much of The Age of Anxiety is about you?
Pete Townshend: I really wanted to write a proper fiction novel, at last. I was warned by my editor that if I went too far into general fiction, people would lose "me." I am a celebrity; I am known for what I do in a rock band, so with this book, I tried to stay in familiar territory. I'm not taunting people to try and find me in this. If they try and find me in this — they might, they might not, but I don't think I'm really there.
There are moments in it that get a little salacious. Was there anything in there that, knowing that people know who you are, you were uncomfortable writing? Was there anything you had reservations about putting in the book?
No. The "salacious" bits, if you like, are there to propel the narrative. The narrator is the godfather of a young musician. I wanted him to be an isolated, lonely voice, somebody who had married, lost his wife and was often in the company of younger people.
Why would I do that? Well, it's where I am. I'm in the music business, coming up to 75 years old, and I'm surrounded by young people. So I'm familiar with that world; I'm familiar with the machinery of it. I'm a man in my 70s who occasionally gets asked on a date by a younger woman.
The narrator is accused by somebody that's close to him of the possibility that he has raped somebody. I started this book in 2008, before the #MeToo movement kicked off. Whether or not this accusation is true is left to the reader to decide. In a sense, it does jack into the current #MeToo movement, but ... I didn't mean it to. I certainly don't expect to be accused of anything like that myself.
The narrator is sort of given to be unreliable. By the end, you aren't sure if he's being completely honest. It's an interesting way to finish that book that way, in this time.
I suppose what I was doing was trying to create an interwoven, flowing plot that had more than one strand. This is my first novel and it's the first time I've tried to properly plot something. I must quickly say that, in music, we try not to do that. We try not to plot things, we try not to create twists, we try not to close the story for you. What good popular music does is allow you, as the listener, to draw the conclusion and write the ending.
I did notice, as I was going through this book, that there are some parallels between The Age of Anxiety and say, Tommy, your rock opera. How does this novel connect to Tommy? Does it? Were you doing that on purpose?
I was doing it on purpose, yeah. I used a couple of connections: the hang glider [and] the scene at the opening is like the end of Ken Russell's film of Tommy. I wanted to create a visual clue to the fact that the old rock star is somebody like a mixture of artists from the late '60s/early '70s, what we call "progressive" rock artists.
I'm less conscious of my young hero, Walter, being similar to Tommy in any way. When I wrote Tommy, I had no idea that I was revealing, exposing, delving, diving, mining my own childhood. In fact, even when Tommy was on Broadway in '93 — I worked on the book for the Broadway show with Des McAnuff and I spent two years putting up various incarnations of that show — [in] interview after interview after interview, going as deep as I possibly could, I never for a minute had the sense that this was really, truly, deeply about me.
It was really only recently, about two years ago, that I was performing — Roger Daltrey had been touring and performing the entirety of Tommy and we'd never performed the entirety of it — and as I rehearsed it, I realized "Oh god, this is me. This is absolutely me, in every respect." What I'd actually done was unconsciously delivered this piece which reflected so accurately on my own childhood, my difficulties. My childhood's interesting because it wasn't entirely dark. It was very, very wonderful from the age of nothing to 4-and-a-half. Then from 4-and-a-half to just before I turned 7: absolutely, disgustingly horrible. And then after that, not bad. Having been slightly screwed up as an infant, I mishandled my adolescence and was very, very subject to bullying and to a degree of abandonment.
So, all of those things emerge in Tommy. I suppose the thing that really always shocked me about Tommy was that [it was] a success. Somebody said to me the other day, "No, Pete, I love it because it's great music," and I'm happy to hear that, but I think people do really feel that it reflects the status-quo of the post-war, Boomer generation's issues.
There's one other thing I should mention. When I was a little boy, when I was about 8 ... What was wonderful was that I used to hear music.
In your head, you mean?
Yes. But I used to hear music in music, so I would hear music in sounds. So for example, I would hear an outboard motor on a boat and I would hear music in that. I would hear the rumble of an old fashioned steam train and I would turn it into music. So, as a composer, that has helped me greatly because I can work with fairly simple sounds and then elaborate according to what it is that I hear in my own head.
Tommy was the first thing ever really called a rock opera, it was what put the term "rock opera" into our lexicon. People call The Who influential all the time; you did a lot of things first. On [The Who's] new album, the song "All This Music Must Fade" — you said it's dedicated to all musicians who've ever been accused of ripping someone off. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Music is what is often borrowed, what is often stolen, what is often echoed, what is often repeated, particularly in our business. So it's kind of absurd for somebody to pop out of the woodwork and accuse, let's say somebody like Ed Sheeran, who's music is not exactly Schoenberg, of ripping off some earlier song. It just happens. We only have this limited language to deal with. I remember my publisher trying to get me to sue somebody who'd used the chords from "Baba O'Riley."
And I said "This is madness." And in the end, I refused to let my publisher sue that artist and my publisher came back to me and said "Pete, we're just trying to preserve your legacy." What a crock. It's just madness. So the song is about that, it's about "Hey, let's throw the cards in the air and stop trying to count the pennies" — and of course in some cases, with poor old Katy Perry, it turned into millions of dollars. It's just craziness, I think. So the song is about the absurdity of, I don't know, music publishing?
There are a few points on this new album where you sort of indicate that you've grown up. You're looking back on younger generations of artists. In one song, you refer to "snotty young kids," but you're the same person, Pete, who wrote "I hope I die before I get old" [for the song] "My Generation." Fifty-four years down the line from that song, what do you think you-now would say to you-back-then? What would you say to the version of Pete Townshend who wrote "My Generation"?
You're a snotty young kid. [Laughs]
What do you think he would say to you?
I've got no idea. I think that lyric came from the hip, so I really don't know. I don't think it was about "I would rather kill myself than get old," it was about "I'd rather kill myself [than] get old and end up like you." I mean the generation that was around at the time.
The post-war situation in the U.K. was pretty bleak. I was born in '45 — my friends were '44, '46, '47 — so those kind of years, they were immediately after the war. There was a lot of austerity and difficulty, and people were getting used to post-traumatic stress, [the] breakdown of relationships and trying to rebuild. It was a bleak time and the establishment became stronger and stronger and stronger. One of our prime ministers said "You've never had it so good" — [Harold] Macmillan in the early '60s. The idea that just because we were alive and kicking, well, that was enough — well, it wasn't enough. It wasn't enough for us because we weren't included. We weren't allowed to be part of the valedictory generation that had won the war, that had fought and lost and struggled.
We were told we had to be happy and shut up. We were very grateful, of course, for the peace that we lived in. But we also lived, as the cliché [goes], we lived under the shadow of the bomb. We weren't grateful for that. So "My Generation" is a song about drawing a line, saying "From here on in, you don't count. Nothing that you say counts." It's only now, in the last 10 years, that I've actually started to read history [and] learn from it. I really did draw a line and shut down everything that might have come from a previous establishment. So I lived in fairly rarefied air, but it seemed to serve my cause, which was to serve the audience of mainly young men that were in a similar age group to me.
You say that thing about living under the shadow of the bomb, and going back to your new novel, The Age of Anxiety: one of the things that Walter, one of the main characters, can do is hear people's anxieties. There's one page — and I don't think I'm spoiling by reading a little bit — he writes down a bunch of these anxieties he's heard, basically thoughts from other people. He hears people thinking "I worry about the planet, this strange weather" or "Robots will talk over the world; I know they will," "Hurricanes. When will this wind cease?" All these little pieces of anxiety — especially when you see them on the page, one-by-one, these quick snips of worry and disconnected thoughts he picks up — it really reminded me of being online, looking at social media, specifically looking at Twitter, where everyone and anyone can write down what they're anxious about and broadcast it to the entire world. You are almost literally hearing people's thoughts. I've noticed you don't use Twitter - you have an Instagram account. How do you feel about social media and how we deal with those anxieties now?
I don't use Twitter, not for any reason other than I don't think I could keep up with it. I find it very difficult to keep up with Instagram. I think Instagram is a nicer place to be at the moment; that may change. Twitter started off in quite a nice way but now it's used as a rather venomous and political tool. But anyway, referring back to the idea that this is an expression of online anxiety: that isn't really the case. I started writing this book in 2008 and I think — I'm not sure that I'm right but — it could well be pre-Instagram [eds. note: it was] and maybe even pre-Twitter [eds. note: it was not]. It certainly is not pre-Facebook, I know that.
I foresaw the internet, many Who fans will know that. Back in 1971, I wrote a piece called Lifehouse in which I foresaw the internet. I foresaw what we have today, which is that we consume information and we unfortunately suffer the consequences of consuming that information. Sometimes it enriches our lives and sometimes it costs us. I think there is a comic consequence to that, and I don't mean that in a spiritual sense. We are impacted by the bad news that we read, that shouldn't really impact us because it's never going to affect us. What that's done is made us anxious, and also made us perhaps a bit melodramatic about the about the changes in the world around us. What the wonderful Greta Thunberg has taught us is to stop being melodramatic and just get down to business and fix things.
So in 2008, I wandered around my neighborhood and listened to people. And why did I do that? Because the best rock and roll comes from the neighborhood. And I think that's true of hip-hop today. Then we, as outsiders, look in our those neighborhoods and we come to understand them better. And that was what I felt rock was trying to do when I was a young man.
I thought, well as an older man, what do I do? I look at my neighborhood — and I live in what's probably a bit more like Brooklyn Heights than Harlem — and realize that even so, even though everybody was affluent and living well, they were still terrified. They were worried for their children, I think, worried for their future. And I thought "This is what I should write about." The whole issue of anxiety and mental illness, the issues about climate change and terrorism, polarization of political groups ... which is happening in Europe as well as in America.
You do get into some of those issues on the new album. The song "Ball and Chain" is pretty explicitly about a very specific current event, an issue that's really happening. Can you tell me a bit about that song?
This song was written, unfortunately, for the wonderful President Obama. He promised to shut down Guantanamo and I'm sad to say that he didn't. In all other respects I think he was a fine man, but in that respect, I just thought "This song's for you, buddy."
Spirituality: It's always played a big role in your work and it does in your novel, The Age of Anxiety. Hallucinations people have, there are characters that converse with angels, and it also sort of applies to the feeling of live performance itself. How, for you, is creativity linked to spirituality?
As a Boomer, my first understanding was that religion had not really worked. I sang in a choir when I was a boy, I loved Jesus, I wanted to be a good Christian. And then, growing up and becoming a teenager, [I became] slightly politicized looking at the anti-Apartheid issues, the Ban the Bomb movement and that kind of thing. A lot of my friends took it further and became extreme; they were associated with the Extreme Left. And I'm talking about the art school crowd, so between the ages of 15 and 18.
When I became slightly older, in '66/'67, psychedelic drugs came along, and then the hippie movement. This emerged to be, in my case, an absolutely counterfeit generation of people except in one respect, which was that the hippies had a really clear spiritual focus. They knew that they didn't know. I think that the drugs helped. In a way, what happened in the hippie movement was that psychedelics led to a group of people who flew off like butterflies, looking everywhere in the world for something that would tell them whether there was a God, if there was a God — if there was a God, what God was for? And if there wasn't a God, how did God or how did the universe happen? Where did it express itself and how did it function in congregation? And by congregation, of course, I mean in music concerts, and in gatherings and in festivals.
The language of that era infused itself into my life, and like so many people I went off looking for a teacher. I found one in India, a fellow called Meher Baba. He died two years after I found him, but I still feel that he's a genuine master. Whatever that is, he's a genuine one. Unlike many others, his life is morally unimpeachable. One of his great loves, as a man, was the Sufi poetry of Hafez and Rumi. He writes about, and so does Hafez, the ocean of consciousness and the fact that there is the ocean — you might call it the universe, you might call it the open space, you might choose to call it God. That ocean is made up of drops and the consciousness that we have as individuals: We are those drops.
That poetic idea is useful, loose, fun to express. One of my best songs as a solo artist was "The Sea Refuses No River," the idea that the river of human beings flows into this ocean. It's pretty cheesy, but for speaking about spirituality, it's a really good metaphor.
This is really my last big question for you, because it's something that's going to stick with me, personally, and I think it's going to stick with other people who read it. It's the line "Waiting is the black art of creativity, not inspiration. Be ready. Be alert. Always." This is a lesson in the book. You've no shortage of creativity and it can be very hard to sit and wait with so many distractions. How do you do that? How do you give yourself the space and the time to wait for that inspiration?
Before I started writing songs for The Who album ... I took a year-long sabbatical. I'd been having some counseling, not about creativity, but about other issues ... about realizing that Tommy was very much rooted in my childhood difficulties.
[My counselor was] a retired priest, and he told me, "We priests used to have trouble with this. We would have a sabbatical." And I said "What's that?" And he said "We would take time off. I took three months off and I went to work in Singapore," or something. And I said "Right. I'm going to do a sabbatical." I took a year off. Towards the end of that year, of course, I had been waiting, waiting, waiting, and then the flow of ideas and the flow of songs all started to happen. I just had to be ready and I had to be aware.
I'd already written those lines, by the way.
You wrote that line before you [took a year off]?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I think today, particularly through Instagram, I act very much as a creative mentor. I'll see young musicians who are very talented, who are building their careers or building their skills as musicians, and see them post something and they might make a comment like "Well this is the best I can do today. I quite like it. I know I can do better." I'll often comment and they'll kind of go "Wow, is this you, Pete?" and "What an honor it is to be speaking with you." And I cut to the chase and say "No, listen: you're going in the right direction. I love this stuff."
One of the things I want to do, as an artist and a writer, is that I want what I write to be helpful to creative people. There's a wonderful writer called Julia Cameron. She was a drinker, and she stopped drinking and her creativity just stopped. So she started to develop a system for herself, which she now markets, it's called The Artist's Way. It's a wonderful tool for creative people of all kinds, or people who aren't creative who want to be creative. It's a wonderful course. A lot of the advice that I have is stuff I would like to have had somebody tell me when I was young.
Kimberly Junod produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the web.