Monday, January 2, 2017

An Open Letter to Pete Townshend

As I approached (legal) manhood, you were my idol. For being violent and gentle and hideous and gorgeous and heartbreaking and hilarious and tuneful and tumultuous and scary and stylish and thrilling, I loved your band beyond my ability to express. There were countless hundreds of guitarists whose conventional technical abilities exceeded your own by miles, guitarists who, as Jon Mark would later say in reference to Marc Bolan, could play “better” with their toes. But you did something none of them had done — invented your own sort of virtuosity. No one had ever made rhythm guitar playing into such a spectacle. The superhuman gall of that! Physically, with your matchstick-man physique and huge nose, you reminded me of the Disney visualisation of Ichabod Crane, the central character in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. You were as far from a conventional frankiebobby pop pretty boy as it was humanly possible to be, and yet you had the colossal audacity to demand the audience’s attention, as no rock and roll sideman ever had before, forever upstaging a lead singer who strongly felt the group to be his own. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

The hippest rock DJ in LA invited your group to do an on-air interview during its first visit to the West Coast. I hurried to the Hollywood Blvd. studio from which he broadcast and waited on the stairs outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of you. When you appeared, I, overcome by shyness, tried to make it appear that hanging around on that staircase was the most natural thing in the world. By the time the interview was over, I’d summoned my courage, and spoke to you when you emerged from the studio. I gave you some lyrics I’d written. You were kind and gracious. Your brilliant blue eyes mesmerised me. I don’t know how I kept from fainting. Two years later, I skipped my own graduation from university to meet you formally, and to interview you.

As the rest of the world — the Great Unwashed — came to love your group, it ceased to be the apple of my own eye. Your having mothballed your gold sequinned jacket and frilly shirt in favour of a janitor's coveralls was hilarious, and A Real Statement — for around five minutes. You grew a beard — a beard, Pete! Your group’s music became…well, bloated. Everything was high-concept. Songs lasted forever. You’d grown a beard, and couldn’t shut up. The most common tagline on the rock magazine covers of the 1970s was Part 4 of Our Exclusive Interview With Pete Townshend.

I tried to persuade you to produce my band. You were steadfast in your refusal. We settled for the guy who’d wind up producing your own All the Best Cowboys solo album. Our correspondence on the matter so amused Jann Wenner that he wanted to publish it. I was steadfast in my refusal.

I loved you still, though, and dared hope that a corner of your heart would always remain mine. When you came to Los Angeles, we would walk hand in hand on the beach in Santa Monica, your eyes looking nearly as beautiful in moonlight as they had on the stairs leading up to KFWB all those years before. Do you remember our quiet nights in, darling, the two of us and our dogs Fender and Marshall cuddled on the sofa, watching Rock Concert in the 1970s and then MTV in the 1980s? I shall never forget them.

Maybe not. When I re-re-repatriated to the UK last autumn to launch a quixotic quest for rock stardom with my new band The Freudian Sluts — at my age! — I invited you to come see us at the Fox & Duck, sort of halfway between our two homes. You declined, offering the rather wan explanation that you would be touring America. I was crestfallen, as I had hoped to introduce you to Andrew and Sheathy, themselves past admirers of your work. I think my stature would have grown in their eyes, and you might very well have liked them, or at least Andrew. (Sheathy, long since urged to join someone else's band, isn’t lovely company.) You mentioned me in your autobiography, falsely crediting me with helping to…shape Tommy.

It's 2017 now. I suspect your tour has long since concluded, and that you are free to come see us at the Alba in Twickenham, 10 minutes from your home, on 14th, 20th, or 27th January. You may bring a guest. You may bring several. Indeed, your doing so would probably make us look good to the pub’s management.

I so look forward to catching up. 


  1. You perfectly sum up exactly how my 15-yr-old self felt about Pete Townshend when I first saw a clip of The Who on Shindig from the 1965 Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival. I already had their first LP (a DJ copy my brother brought me from the used record store he worked at), but seeing Pete onstage was an experience that changed my life. Even today, when I need a lift, I find old Who videos on youtube and turn up the volume. Whenever I see them, I cannot take my eyes off of Pete. He will always be my rock and roll hero.