Pete Townshend: A Tribute
What most writers miss about Pete Townshend that has been very obvious to me if I look back on his unparalleled career, is his amazing physicality. Onstage and off he is so graceful and in his body that a pilates instructor such as myself can only stand agape. He contains all that resplendent energy in one form that seems to crackle electrically with both humor and seriousness. Many writers also miss (or pretend to miss) the fact that he's never followed the crowd, a rarity for someone with his fame in a media that seeks out conformity in artists. He has paid hard dues for that uniqueness. Another fact often overlooked is that Pete Townshend comes from the true tradition of Rock n Roll and its roots in Black music. Maximum RnB was not just a slogan on a poster, Pete has a faintly sad soulfulness in his voice that recalls Al Green or Marvin Gaye and yes, he can damn well sing the blues.
It was Pete's solo album Empty Glass that first had me looking closer at Pete Townshend the person as opposed to Pete Townshend the guitarist for the Who. The opening chords of "Rough Boys" and its blistering horn sections seemed to sum up a frenzy of emotions and sensuality that I was feeling as a bohemian adolescent stuck in Piedmont, California, a very wealthy Bay Area city surrounded entirely by Oakland. Many of my snobby classmates were ardent Who fans before I was. It did not take me, the poor relation, very long to usurp them and carry around my cassette deck blaring "Don't Let Go Of The Coat" and "Jools and Jim." They were miffed. But when I wore my older brother's Who tour jersey, then the fur really flew. What I wouldn't give for a picture of my 12-year-old self, swaddled in that t-shirt, gobs of kohl black eye pencil ,chin out proudly with my one and only pair of jeans on ready to smash a million guitars over those sculpted preppie heads. Rich kids just can't rock n roll.
The Empty Glass album came with printed lyrics on the inner sleeve and I read them to my mom, who was divorcing my father at the time and losing our house. As we moved away to a lower income area and our relationship became strained, I would attempt to connect with my mom via Pete. I'd sit in her room after she worked graveyard at her shit job that was keeping us alive and read lyrics to songs liked "Somebody Saved Me" and "Slit Skirts" from Pete's follow-up "All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes." I felt something deep in those songs but she was actually living them. And so was Pete, who has shared his life with the listener and nurtured his music through vulnerability, anger and honesty to create a complete sense of connectedness with the audience.
It's been hard on the critics, even those who revere him as fans, because he's naturally bright and usually better educated than they are. He sees through political spiel and admits he's human, which ironically makes him seem more super human. Pete is like three people to me; a very literate, disciplined, astronomically prolific and gifted musical innovator, a brilliant, sensual, raconteur with one of Britain's all time greatest speaking voices and a very private man devoted to his family and lovely girlfriend, Rachel Fuller.
Seeing him up close at the Fillmore in April of 1996 was very interesting because it seemed like he was hanging out at the local pub with us. One can hear me screaming at the start of the disc and then asking to him to play 'Pravadigar.' At the end of the gig he framed his face with his hands and smiled right at me to make sure I got all the attention I craved for that brief and shining 30 seconds in which I sprouted wings and a halo and flew to heaven. His eyes are not just blue but turquoise blue, just amazing.
But it has not been all pageantry and elation. You grow to depend on a hero and then you really need him one day and you find he needs you more then you've ever needed him. I deplore the way the media vultures treated Pete during his ridiculous arrest in 2003 but in retrospect I'm cross with myself that I did not do more than just tell all my friends how untrue everything was. I should have been on a plane, I should have spoken louder. And I learned to never again have that regret, lest it be me one day. Everyone in my life, including the half dozen Bay Area families whose children I look after, know how important and loving Pete has been in fighting the good fight to clean up the internet's exploitation of children. Almost without exception they already knew or were pleased to hear how vocal he's been. Pete Townshend inspires many things, but cynicism isn't one of them.
It's no surprise that Pete shares his birthday, May 19th, with Malcom X and Ho Chi Minh, easily two of modern history's most important revolutionaries. And while he himself is a revelation in revolution he's also smart enough to embrace the spirituality that politics and sociology foolishly ignore. When he was a kid experiencing that unique childhood about which he's talked and written so much of, it seems as if a seed of optimism and joy was planted inside his mind that nothing has been able to kill, it only seems to grow stronger-and louder! Nutured by the universe not the rhetoric of a few.
Much like the writing of Charles Dickens, one looks at Pete's wonderfully British life and sees many colorful characters, lifelong friends and wild adventures that all seem to come together happily in the end regardless of vicissitudes and travails. Be it a very quiet and influential devotion to Meher Baba, an unabashed love and support of his loved ones or his Boy Who Heard Music blog, we are all included and expected to participate in his amazing journey.