March 1979, New York, New York: When discussions started turning serious about the real possibility of interviewing Pete Townshend, I began shaking. Exhilaration and trepidation battled for headspace and left me sleepless for three nights. I kept running the scenario through my head of me sitting in a room with the man who had written Whoâ€™s Next, which Iâ€™d always thought was one of the 10 greatest albums of well, forever. For all I knew, Pete hated the record. But Iâ€™d now have the opportunity of asking him firsthand.
I prepared for our meeting. I listened and absorbed and made notes about every lick heâ€™d ever played and every lyric heâ€™d ever rhymed. I knew he was a passionate and deep-thinking individual, and probably wouldnâ€™t suffer fools lightly. Pete was also a devotee of the Indian teachings of Meher Baba. â€œBaba Oâ€™Riley,â€ the first track on Whoâ€™s Next, was an ode to his guru mentor. In order to try and connect with the guitarist on as many levels as possible, I even tried engaging in my own brand of self-affirmation. I really did. Every evening before going to bed, Iâ€™d close my eyes, attempt to slow my breathing, and mutter mantra-style, â€œYouâ€™re not an idiot. Donâ€™t worry. Youâ€™re not an idiot. Donâ€™t worry.â€ But it didnâ€™t work. For the next eight hours, tossing and turning in an insomniacâ€™s hell, I heard my sleep-deprived brain mutating the chant into, â€œYouâ€™re an idiot. Worry. Youâ€™re an idiot. Worry.â€
I wouldnâ€™t have to obsess for long. About a week after I was first notified, I boarded a plane for New York. Pete was there doing press for The Kids Are Alright and Quadrophenia films, both projects to be released later that same year.
It was a real New York weekend. A friend of mine lived in Greenwich Village and I stayed at his little efficiency unit and we did the Manhattan shuffle. Weâ€™d go out to dinner at 11 at night, hit a club at 2 A.M., taxi it back home by about 4 or 5, sleep until the early afternoon, and then rise and do it again. After the second night of revelry, we awoke some time after noon, refueled with a massive breakfast and took the subway to Peteâ€™s hotel.
I canâ€™t remember the exact hotel, but it was New York chic, doorman in epaulets and cap, glass and marble, and the smell of money. My photographer friend and I made our way to his room. Pete was there on a couch and rose in greeting. He was lanky and angular and had a face dominated by that famous nose.
We sat down and from the moment he first spoke, I knew I had gotten him all wrong: Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend presented himself as a mild-mannered and amiable Englishman who just happened to play guitar and write songs. Yeah, these songs had changed the very course of rock and roll history, but he didnâ€™t talk about them that way; he even forgot some of the titles. And he didnâ€™t really care about gear or the guitars he played, either.
Here was one classic example:
Pete: I canâ€™t remember the name of it. It was one of the thin â€¦ I donâ€™t know what they even call them. Crimson color with cutaways like that (used hand motions to describe the cutaway horn sections). The guitar had just been brought out. It was a â€¦
Pete: Yeah! And it really suited my amplifiers and I started to use those. And, they were a bit weak, that was the only thing about them; you know, I could actually break them with my bare hands.
I was dumbfounded that he didnâ€™t know the name for an SG. But it only reinforced the notion that it didnâ€™t matter what he used. They were unimportant pieces in the creative jigsaw.
I did bring up the Whoâ€™s Next record, of course, and when I told him I thought it was the best album heâ€™d ever made, he replied, â€œItâ€™s the album that I try to look at as a standard, in a way.â€ Oh, sweet vindication!