Tuesday, January 14, 2003

James Adams

p. R2.

Tell us, who are you?

We know him as a rock star, an intellectual; a devoted father, a philanderer. Now, the world reels at the arrest of Pete Townshend on child porn charges

Tough boys / Come over here / I wanna bite and kiss you / I wanna see what I can find.
— Rough Boys by Pete Townshend (1980)

That Pete Townshend's purchase of on-line child pornography has made headlines this week is understandable. That anyone should be surprised is, well, surprising.

This isn't to say that Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is, in fact, a pedophile, a rabid kiddie-porn consumer, whatever, despite his arrest yesterday as part of Britain's so-called Operation Ore. It's just that, in the 35-plus years that Townshend has been a staple of pop music and pop culture, he's been nothing less than capacious, capricious and paradoxical.

He's been a two-fisted, guitar-wielding thug and book-writing intellectual. Sensitive artist and rude rough boy. Devoted husband and father and philanderer. Spiritual seeker and heroin addict. In his 57 years, Pete Townshend has always contained multitudes.

Unsurprisingly, he had a troubled youth. His parents were musicians, the father a saxophonist, his mother a singer, both of whom served in the entertainment corps of England's Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Each liked to drink and had volatile tempers. As one of Townshend's younger brothers, Paul, told an interviewer in 1983, "If you're brought up in an environment where everything's getting smashed and there's arguments all the time, it rubs off on you."

Given this universe, young Pete Townshend spent much of his early childhood living with his maternal grandparents. However, there wasn't much relief here because, as Townshend later remarked, "my grandmother was completely fucking insane." Indeed, it's his belief that he was sexually abused by this grandmother that apparently spurred his purchase of on-line porn from a now-closed Web site in Texas. Townshend, who began writing his autobiography last year, says he "cannot remember clearly what happened" with his grandmother some 50 years ago. He visited the Web site both "purely to see what was there" and as an aide mémoire.

Whatever the truth, Townshend's outing as a purchaser of kiddie porn is, of course, sending thousands, perhaps millions to his songs for the Who and for his solo career as well as his interviews, his short fiction and his biography, in search of telltale "clues." Understandably, many news stories went directly to his most famous creation, the 1969 rock opera Tommy, about a traumatized "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who plays a mean bit of pinball and becomes a sort of spiritual avatar to troubled youth. Somewhere in the opera Tommy gets molested by his Uncle Ernie, an event recounted in the song Fiddle About.

What most news stories either only casually mentioned or neglected altogether is the fact that Fiddle About isn't a Townshend composition. Both its words and music are by John Entwistle, the Who's legendary bassist and occasional songwriter who died last year in Las Vegas while touring with Townshend and Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. As Entwistle told rock journalist Dave Marsh in the early eighties, "I can remember Townshend coming to see me and saying that he'd got a couple of main characters: one a kid called Tommy who was gonna go through all these traumatic (he always used that word) experiences with some chick who slips him acid and a homo uncle and a bully.

"He then asked me if I could write songs for the last two, because he felt that he couldn't write nearly as nasty as me. I wrote Fiddle About that same evening. …"

That said, there's no denying Townshend has more than passing familiarity with life's rough side and he's often been embarrassingly open about his experiences there. For instance, in the late seventies, at once chastened and impressed by the rise of punk rock, he left his long-suffering wife, Karen, to explore his bisexuality and his fondness for heroin, cocaine and brandy.

That binge was most famously "immortalized," Who scholars say, in the song Rough Boys, from Townshend's second solo recording, Empty Glass. Ostensibly about his time spent with the Sex Pistols, Rough Boys'lyrics certainly are open to, um, interpretation: "Rough boys / Don't walk away / I'm still pretty blissed here / Tough boy / I'm gonna carry you home / You got pretty pissed, dear / Gonna get inside you / Gonna get inside your bitter mind."

Of course, it's always dangerous to use art as the measure of a person's life. After all, it was Townshend who famously and seemingly seriously declared in 1966 that he hoped "[he'd] die / Before [he] got old." Thirty-seven years later he's still here, a troubled man, perhaps, and still capable of making trouble.

Last summer, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Townshend didn't entirely disavow his often-rowdy past. But he did seem to want to convey that it was the past. "I'm 57. I've got a young girlfriend. I'm not gay. I'm not interested in men. I don't think I ever really have been. I've had a high sex drive all my life, which has actually been difficult sometimes to reconcile with some of my spiritual aspirations, which are just like, you know, a monk."

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Created: January 21, 2003
Last modified: January 21, 2003
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