The Who: Interview with Pete Townshend
GW Throughout the years, you’ve been portrayed as having been unable to communicate the theme of Lifehouse. Is that a fair view?
TOWNSHEND No, I think I communicated it perfectly well. I think what people found difficult to understand was the connection between one metaphor and another—one example being my Grid, my internet, as a metaphor for global conspiratorial control. In fact, that metaphor is something of a problem today when I explain Lifehouse, because the Internet has turned out to be almost the opposite of that. But that’s how I saw it. I saw the internet as being something which would allow power mongers to control us, and that we would willingly go to that if it promised us salvation—if it promised to show us who we were and let us find ourselves as we had, uniquely in our generation, through rock music.
GW So part of the problem was that people couldn’t comprehend the Grid, because there was nothing comparable to it at the time.
TOWNSHEND Well, television existed. And television in the U.K. has always been, up until recently, run by the government. All I was really saying was, “Well, you know what we do with TV: we sit in front of it, and we turn the lights out, and we watch it, and we don’t listen to pop music.” [laughter] “Well, imagine that…a bit more. So instead of turning on the TV and watching a soap opera, you experience a soap opera! Get it?”
GW In terms of the Who, can you give me a real-world parallel to the Grid that demonstrates how someone could use the group to control people?
TOWNSHEND For me as a young writer, to write a song with “My Generation,” I reflected what people like me felt. But I also put their situation up on the radio where other people could see it—people who might take advantage of that information and use it, and even the song, for their own political aims.
And the danger was already there. You know, the song “Teenage Wasteland” is about the absolute desolation of teenagers after the second Isle of Wight festival, and after the Woodstock festival, where everybody was smacked out on acid and 20 people had brain damage. The dichotomy was that it became a celebration. “Teenage wasteland! Yes. We’re all wasted!” People were already running toward the culture and its promise of salvation. But not everyone survived.
And so Lifehouse was kind of going in that direction, starting to think, What are the problems in this? And for me, the main thing was that I didn’t want to lose that sense that I had at the time that music was my redemption, my salvation—my life. Music was the only art that mattered to me. And at the time, it looked like it was going to be lost.
GW Apart from the difficulty of conveying the plot to people, why was Lifehouse so difficult to create?
TOWNSHEND It was fucking awful. I had a—well, “nervous breakdown” is probably too big a description of it. But I had a breakdown due to nervous exhaustion. The problem began because Kit Lambert [the Who’s manager] wasn’t available to me at the time I was working on it; he was in New York. Kit had always been my friend, and my pal. He was very supportive throughout Tommy, but we were a little bit estranged at the time of Lifehouse, because his drug use had gotten a bit exotic.
But then Kit called and we went to New York to do work on the songs I had completed. And I was delighted because I thought, Kit’s back, and we’re going to get this together now.
GW But it didn’t work out that way?
TOWNSHEND No. We’d been in the studio for about six days, and it was going very well. But one day I went up to his hotel room, and as I was going in, I could hear him stamping around angrily, talking to his secretary and his butler and calling me “Townshend.” And as I walked in, he said “Oh, hello, Pete.” But I knew what was happening: when I’m not doing what people want me to do, I’m this arrogant shit called “Townshend” and people hate me. And I started to kind of come apart. It really affected me.
What actually happened in that moment is that I had a classic, extreme, psychotic New York anxiety attack. You know, I got this welling of energy, which I think you can only get in New York, and I started to hallucinate. And I thought, I must get some air. And I stumbled towards the window, which was open, on the 24th floor. And Kit’s butler just grabbed me like that, just as I was about to jump out.
I thought Kit was going to help get Lifehouse going. And I suddenly realized that he was very, very angry with me, and didn’t like me, and thought I was ... anyway ... whatever. So I decided to leave: I went back to London and let the whole thing go. So for me, bearing in mind how much energy I put into it, what was important for me to learn, though, at that age, was that omnipotence can lead to a certain arrogance that may in turn produce alienation.
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