A Writer Comes Full Circle with the Who's Pete Townshend

By J.F. Pirro
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Dec. 5, 2012

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Iconic rock guitarist Pete Townshend of the Who conceived and composed the band’s seminal 1973 
rock opera "Quadrophenia," which is largely ignored in his memoir, "Who I Am.

I’m perched on rocks that jut into Lake Michigan, feeling like a Mod, reflective and hopeful, yet equally hopeless, stranded—intentionally—listening to the Who’s Quadrophenia.

In the seminal 1973 rock opera, Jimmy, the English Mod, is a composite of the original band’s four personalities. Conceived and composed in its entirety by Pete Townshend, he’s written, “I wanted everyone who listened to the album to find themselves in it.” I did. I did off that Chicago coastline in the mid-’90s when the band last toured Quadrophenia. I always will.

Quadrophenia found its way under my senior-year high school yearbook picture: “Strike out to reach a mountain. Be so nice on the outside, but inside keep ambition” (“I’ve Had Enough”). I must have been “out of my brain on the 5:15” when I recently helped my father sell a 1971 Vespa, a sort-of Mod GS Scooter. I still struggle to let others see the “real me,” and I still can’t explain why “that uncertain feeling is still here in my brain” (“Cut My Hair”).

For me, for decades, it’s been about Townshend, and not necessarily the Who, his “art installation,” as he’s said of late. His solo work is superb. With the fall arrival of his memoir, Who I Am, and the Who’s Saturday night sold-out Quadrophenia and More show at the Wells Fargo Center, I feel my life has come full circle—or at least my life as a writer. 

I first saw the Who at Philly’s JFK Stadium in 1982. I was 17. At 16, I decided to write Pete for permission to pen his authorized biography. At 18, I mailed the letter, rejecting even his notion that “All men are bored with other men’s lives” (“Pure and Easy”).

The initial response came from Nicola Joss, his personal assistant. I persisted. The second came from Townshend, saying he wasn’t ready, but wouldn’t be “unnecessarily obtrusive.” Without consent, my project—The Townshend Tale—atrophied. I guess I’ll always have my filing cabinet of research from countless Saturdays at the Free Library.

A sold-out Free Library book signing at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on Oct. 10 drew a typical Who enclave—male, bright, balding, an audience profoundly grateful that Roger Daltrey and Townshend still perform.

Penn was a pilgrimage. One guy wanted to check if Pete’s famous fingers were scarred from his trademark windmills. A woman recounted a 1978 response letter from Pete. Every fifth fan thanked him for music that “saved my life” and one did for “providing the words and voice for those without a voice.” The youngest trembled while meeting rock aristocracy, though the eldest, an annoyed library volunteer, managed: “This is mayhem, if you ask me.” I politely retorted, “Relax. It’s rock ‘n’ roll.” 

For the signing, I waited to be last so I could share with Pete his framed reply from Jan. 15, 1985. “Even in your rejection, you validated me and my life as a writer,” I told him. “Your letter validated you. You became real.” He’s remained real—and relevant. Few have.

Townshend gave “Mod”—once a look—a transcendent, validating voice. “I Can’t Explain,” his first song for the Who, became that youth movement’s anthem, and subsequently the swagger for every confused, introspective, awkward teenager since. 

In reading the memoir, I became Jimmy, though the book disappointed me, just as the band lets Jimmy down in the opera. It’s not because I didn’t write it. Like Jimmy, I learned that my hero isn’t all I hoped he was. I wanted more Meher Baba, his spiritual Indian master. I wanted more inside-the-band stories, more about what’s influenced him as an artist and less diary, chronology and “Rock Star Fuck-Up” (one chapter title) A-list material—addiction, adultery, abuse and audio equipment obsession. I wanted to get inside my hero like Quadrophenia does with Jimmy.

I loved the bits about auto-destructive art, the seed of Pete’s legendary guitar smashing. Its pioneer, Gustav Metzger, saw pop artists as mirrors of their audiences, responsible for reflecting them. In part, Quadrophenia, which is largely and enigmatically ignored in the book, resulted from Pete’s obsession with self-reflection, mirrors, the sea and still water like his beloved River Thames. He’s always wanted to find himself in the audience, yet the audience searched for itself in the band. Therein explains the difference between the memoir and his perpetually powerful songs: Townshend depends on an audience—always has—but he wrote his book without an outsider, the mirror I could have been.

I doubt the woman who stepped on my bag at Penn, shattering the glass on my framed letter, knew about auto-destructive art, and I wish I would have interpreted it as such when Pete questioned the damage. I promised to make an analogy to Tommy’s “Smash the Mirror.” He grinned, tossed back his head and laughed. More validation.

The smashed mirror resurrects Tommy, the deaf, dumb and blind boy, freeing him—like coming full circle for me. It releases ghosts from Tommy’s past—as Pete attempts in his memoir with his past—and, in tribute, like the Who does this tour by featuring the departed Keith Moon (“Bell Boy”) and John Entwistle (“5:15”) in video oval solos above the stage, seemingly in heaven.

At Penn, I twice shook Townshend’s hand, then he followed me out of the domed auditorium, up a steep set of ancient stairs and likely into heaven as well. He’ll descend again Saturday night. n

Sat., Dec. 8, 8pm. $36.50-$126.50. 
Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. 800.298.4200. wellsfargocenter.com

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Comments 1 - 3 of 3
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1. Joe Giorgianni said... on Dec 6, 2012 at 09:54AM

“Nice article! I too was at the 1982 Philadelphia show, which was 15 years after my first Who show.

Joe Giorgianni

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2. Michael Hanley said... on Dec 6, 2012 at 09:20PM

“That's a great story! I believe J. F. Pirro and i were separated at birth. :-)
I too have been devoted to Quadrophenia since the first time i heard it.

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3. courtney said... on Jun 13, 2013 at 07:38PM

“Liked your sweet little story...Very well put, what you say about Quad. It's the album that got me through those evil teen years. I also wrote to PT in 1982, and got a letter back. We should compare notes on the paper, and letterhead used, because to this day, I still wonder if he wrote it (it was typed), or if an assistant wrote it, and PT just signed. As for my yearbook quote, Quad didnt make it, but a line from Empty Glass did. :-)”


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