Pete Townshend, the guitarist and principal songwriter for the Who, interrupted his moderator almost immediately after sitting down for a discussion at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday. “I was going to try and do a Robbie Williams,” he said, prompting expectant cheers. He readied his hand, tossed and flipped the mic a few inches in the air, and caught it—backwards.
Though he joked and told anecdotes—being surrounded by half-naked women at an early concert of his professional saxophonist father, for instance, while he, eight years old, sipped on a vanilla milkshake—Townshend set a more serious tone for the evening. For much of the discussion, which was tied to the release of his new memoir “Who I Am” and followed by a short acoustic performance, he delved into his upbringing in postwar London and how it influenced his lyricism and music.
Townshend explained that his first book deal, offered to him decades ago, had not gone as successfully as the publication of “Who I Am.” Much to his original editor’s disappointment, he said, the book didn’t have enough sex, drugs, or rock and roll. Instead, he said, the work was an examination of the way music changed between his and his father’s generations.
Although his new book includes drug and rock and roll stories, themes of the cross-generational change in music still arise. “When I sat to write, I wanted to write a book that’s true,” he said of “Who I Am.” Townshend described the music when his father was still performing, during and after World War II, as beautiful and smooth; it exemplified a postwar romanticism and the promise of a fruitful future, he said. But after experiencing the postwar syndrome two times—as a young child after World War II and as an adult after the Vietnam War—and living during the Vietnam conflict, Townshend said, his music and that of his generation dealt with surviving and the threat of nuclear warfare.
He detailed how his upbringing and personal life in that era became an important influence on his lyricism. The experiences he recounted—finding human bones while playing in bombed buildings as a kid, being sent off to live with a mentally unstable grandmother, watching friends fall into drug addictions—were, he said, what made him realize the Who’s music could be more meaningful than just rhyming tunes. “[The band members] allowed our vulnerability to come forward,” he said.
Furthermore, he continued, growing up in this period led him to string a running narrative throughout his music: the story of the boy out in the crowd, lost amid postwar life, who represented boys and girls in West London who had been changed by the times. “You weren’t asked to do anything—just to shut up,” Townshend said. Since many aspects of society were being computerized and there was no need for young people to join the military, Townshend said, the young people of the time felt they lacked purpose.
But Townshend also explained other famous lyrics less tied to England’s socio-political ills. After a journalist—who was also a big pinball fan—told the band he did not care for an early score of the Who’s 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” the band made the titular character a “pinball wizard” to curry the critic’s favor, Townshend said. The choice spawned the record’s most famous song.
More broadly, Townshend said, songwriting did not all come from within—the response of the Who’s audiences shaped the sentiments he aimed to get across.
From his unique position on stage, he said, he took note on how girls and boys interacted—when fights broke out, how people danced, and how young couples behaved—which he felt reflected how people relate to one another outside of a concert setting. This, in addition to their responses to the band’s songs, helped Townshend understand what emotions people wanted to find in his lyrics.
After the discussion, Townshend walked to a chair illuminated on stage and lifted an acoustic guitar from its stand. As he tuned and noodled around, the audience began shouting song suggestions. “I’m not taking, what do you call it—requests,” Townshend responded.
He opened with a short, upbeat, lyric-less composition he said was new, then moved into four Who favorites: “Drowned,” “The Acid Queen,” “I’m One,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Far from dancing and fighting, the crowd just bobbed their heads to Townshend’s powerful chords. Once finished, the musician simply put his guitar down, thanked his audience, and walked off the stage.