The Who: Interview with Pete Townshend
GW It’s cyclical.
GW Your generation also suffered the psychological fallout from the war and the effects of the London blitz.
TOWNSHEND And often the fathers were dead. You have to remember how many men were killed, particularly towards the end of the war, and the fact that I was born in May , and it was the month that the war ended. When I was growing up, I was very used to seeing my friends’ dads sitting like this [sits dead still, looking warily from side to side]. You know, like, “If I don’t do anything, I’ll be all right.”
And the generation that fought in World War II had this sense that, “We gave you the right to exist, you little fuckers. All you have is the duty to thank us!” And that we were responsible for their torture.
So with Quadrophenia, I was really, really clear about what I was doing and what I was working with. Jimmy was sort of a composite of kids I knew. I just went back to look at them again and recreated it. It’s one of the clearest pieces I’ve ever written.
GW What’s striking about Quadrophenia is how bleak Jimmy’s situation is. In both Tommy and Lifehouse there is a moment of spiritual awakening and of social bonding. Jimmy, on the other hand, is alone and aware of his isolation. Even his psyche is fragmented into four isolated aspects.
TOWNSHEND You know, in a weird way, Quadrophenia should, in context, have come before Tommy. Quadrophenia was an attempt by me to talk about how, in the Who’s early career, we and our audience, through disaffected heavy male-oriented rock and roll, began to feel spiritually empty. And that gave birth to the experimentation with drugs and Indian mysticism. That kind of leads into Tommy.
In a sense, Tommy, Lifehouse, Quadrophenia—they’re all about spiritual emptiness. You know, it runs through everything I’ve written, and I think it’s why my work has struck a chord with people. Because it’s all about spiritual malaise in macho clothing. People approach it because there’s something on the surface of it that they like or respond to. When they go a bit deeper, they find this tremendous frailty there, and they respond to that as well.
GW Music is salvation to Tommy, Bobby, Jimmy…to all the characters you’ve created. You said earlier that music was your salvation. In what way?
TOWNSHEND When I grew up, what was interesting for me was that music was color and life was gray. So music for me has always been more than entertainment. Entertainment came out of this thing called a television, and it was gray. Most of the films that we saw at the cinema were black and white. It was a gray world. And music somehow was in color. And that’s where I discovered me; I found me in there. And that accounts for a lot of my passion and optimism and what has kept me going and kept the Who coming back. It’s my sense of, We can do this! We can get through this thing, and we’ll make such wonderful music together.
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