Happy Birthday, Pete Townshend!

Today is Pete’s 73rd birthday and for 51 of those years, I’ve been a fan and follower of his. From the early days of The Who to Tommy to his solo work to Meher Baba and beyond, Pete’s been sharing stories with us all along and I’ve been happily hanging on for the ride whenever I get a chance to hop aboard.

Here’s some video clips tracking some of what the fellow’s been up to through the years that caught my eye and ears and imagination. Let’s kick it off with an obscure piece from Pete’s early days in art school, a short film circa 1968 titled Lone Ranger.


Back up a little to catch Pete and his mates in the early days of the Who, seen here playing their iconic anthem, My Generation, at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, about a month before I saw them live in Houston for the first time at age 12.


Hooked already by that first show, I loved the so-called “mini-opera,” A Quick One While He’s Away, on their second album. I got to see them play it live from the 10th row at my second Who show in 1968. That preceded by 9 months this performance from the “Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus,” a day-long live studio video recording featuring the Stones, The Who, Jethro Tull, John Lennon (with Eric Clapton & Keith Richards) and others. Rumor has it one reason the star-studded recording was not released at the time was this performance by The Who seriously overshadowed the Stones’ own substandard set some 15 hours into the prolonged live shoot.


I’d heard that The Who had completed their long-anticipated (at least by me!) album entirely devoted to a single “rock opera,” so I set out walking to the closest store where you could buy records, Sears at the barely open Memorial City Mall. I asked the clerk at the 2nd floor record section for the new Who album, he asked in return, “Tommy?”  That was the first I’d heard the title or the name — that was my introduction to Tommy.

What can I say about Tommy that hasn’t been said? Love him or hate him, his story’s been told to the point of myth-making, complete with major motion picture, Broadway show, and orchestral interpretations. Me, I got to see The Who play it (well, parts of it) twice Back In the Day, summer ’70 (well, almost all of it) and the “week-long version,” as Roger phrased it, in December ’71.

Still, when The Who released Quadrophenia, I felt like Pete pushed the rock opera narrative possibilities even further. I was disappointed to miss seeing the boys play that one live on the ’73 tour, but finally got the chance to see it in 2013, thanks to Pete reviving it for another go-round. Thanks to modern concert technology, both Moon the Loon and Entwhistle the Ox made surprise guest appearances via video inserts.


Of course I bought Pete’s first solo album Who Came First as soon as it came out. Intrigued by his many mentions of Meher Baba  in the liner notes and the multiple songs citing him, I found myself searching out more information. Also threaded through this album and Who’s Next were fragments of what had been a planned concept called “Lifehouse,” which Pete would revive again later, as with Quadrophenia. This song is one of those fragments and one of my son’s favorites from childhood.


Townshend shared the studio with with longtime buddy Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces/Faces and some of their buddies (like Eric Clapton) on Rough Mix, a collaborative album, released in ’77. This one quickly became a personal favorite.


There’s no denying Keith Moon’s death altered The Who’s trajectory, abruptly altering circumstances for Pete, Roger, and John. No one could fill the void, really, though the band got a great drummer in their old friend, Kenney Jones. Great as he was, Moon the Loon was missing and The Who’s spark seemed elusive, if not extinguished. A couple of albums and tours and they called it quits with a farewell tour in 1982. Turns out that didn’t turn out as planned, either, fortunately. Meanwhile, Pete put out some solo albums in the 80s and sought fulfillment in other pursuits such as publishing. Here’s a favorite song from his wonderful whimsically titled album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes.


in 1989, Pete wrote another rock opera titled Iron Man based on the 1968 science fiction novel by Ted Hughes some call a modern fairy tale. The album featured performances by The Who on 2 tracks. Years later, Pete would act as Co-Producer for a film of the novel, The Iron Giant, an animated adaptation directed by Brad Bird with voices by Harry Connick, Jr and Jennifer Anniston.


Obviously, I bought Pete’s autobiography, Who I Am, when it came out in 2012. I consumed it in intermittent binge attacks, stringing out the experience to make it last for as long as I could. Yeah, sometimes, I read books like that. Here’s  the opening paragraph — now go buy it!

It’s extraordinary, magical, surreal, watching them all dance to me feedback guitar solos; in the audience my art-school chums stand straight-backed among the slouching West and North London Mods, that army of teenagers who have arrived astride their fabulous scooters in short hair and good shoes, hopped up on pills. I can’t speak for what’s in the head os my fellow bandmates, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, o John Entwhistle. Usually I’d be feeling like a loner, even in the middle of the band, but tonight, in June 1964, at The Who’s first show at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, I am invincible.

I’ve seen The Who perform live 5 times since their 1982 farewell show at the Astrodome; 3 of them since John Entwhistle’s death. Some say they should retire the act, some call the survivors The Who 2. I say I’m lucky and delighted to still see them perform whenever, wherever and however they want to.

Here’s a poignant portrait of them in song from Pete.


That tune debuted on the new Who album of 2006, Fragments. That year, I got to take my son, Lucas, then age 13, to his first Who concert — some 39 years after my first show as a 12-year old. To be able to share that experience with my son  — and seeing them again with him in 2013! — filled me with immense joy, just as hearing The Who always has. At that 2006 show, Pete quipped about the continuing revival and touring, saying, “We’re still trying to die before we get old.”

Here’s one fan who’s glad you’re still hanging in there with us. Hope it’s a happy birthday for you, old friend!


About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
This entry was posted in art, creativity, performances and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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