Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Pete Townshend in Manhattan

Behind the Curtain: Interviewing Pete Townshend in Manhattan

Townshend & Rosen
Pete Townshend and journalist Steve Rosen

I first saw the Who when I was 14 years old.

Thinking back on it, that may have been the first concert I’d ever been to. Actually, it was probably the second. The first time I ever saw a rock band onstage was watching the Seeds perform at Culver City High School, my old alma mater. I can remember sneaking into the show through a side door and thinking how cool that was.

It wasn’t the criminal aspect of the deed that turned me on—I wasn’t going to rush out and try breaking into banks—but rather the emotional element: I loved the idea of being able to see the concert for free. That feeling would stay with me for a long time.

When I saw the Who, they were playing at the Hollywood Bowl. The date was November 19, 1967 [I only know this now because I looked it up online] and a good six years before I broke earth on a rock writing career. I had an inkling of who the Who were, but not really.

the who band logo

My Generation had come out just about two years earlier to the day [the single was released on November 5, 1965] and certainly the local radio stations had been playing it. But I had no real sense of what the band sounded like or who Pete Townshend was. It was like hearing a noise underwater and watching something through a frosted windowpane—you knew sounds were being made and there was some image being presented but the audio was muted and muffled and the visual had no edges.

Everything was blurred. There was no context to what was happening. No frame of reference.

I vaguely recollect some guitar player up there wrapped in what looked like the Union Jack and going through these weird choreographed moves, waving his arms and jumping around. Or maybe I don’t even remember that and it is just my older self substituting new memories in place of the older, uninformed ones. All I know is I wish I could go back to that day some 47 years ago and replace that 14-year old brain with the one I have now.

If I could do that, I would have realized the Who were on their first tour of the U.S. and their appearance at the Hollywood Bowl was only about their 60th concert in America.

If I’d been wired in at all, I’d have known the band had already headlined the Fillmore West about five months earlier, which was only days before their legendary carnage-inducing show at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival on June 18th.

I would have grasped the fact I was witnessing history as the band presented their first performances of tracks from A Quick One and The Who Sell Out, their second and third albums. Certainly they would have played the mini-suite A Quick One, While He’s Away, which would have laid the seeds for their classic Tommy rock opera that was less than two years away.

And finally I’d have understood I was riding shotgun on a magic bus being driven by one of the greatest—if not the absolute greatest—songwriters and musical visionaries to ever strap on a six-string: Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend.

But I didn’t know any of that then. In fact the only reason I was there at all was because the ticket was effectively free. White Front—a local chain of discount department stores opening in 1959 and closing in the mid-1970s—held a promotion that rewarded you with a ticket to a rock concert if you bought one of several designated MGM or Warner Bros. albums.

You could have walked out with The Grateful Dead, the psychedelic shamans’ first album or the Mothers of Invention’s debut Freak Out! and received a redeemable coupon good for one ticket per record purchased. My friend Skip bought Freak Out! and I probably grabbed the same album.

A couple weeks later on the day of the show, he would have driven us to the Hollywood Bowl—I was too young for a license—and from the lofty vantage point of a box seat [which you earned from buying two albums] we would have watched the Who, the Animals, the Everly Brothers, Sopwith Camel, the Association and the Sunshine Company.

I barely remember that show but I do recall having an amazing day. I loved the experience of getting in a car and going to a concert. I dug holding the ticket in my hand, standing in line and filing into the outdoor amphitheater. Walking to your seat and seeing where it was in relation to where the stage was made you feel like an explorer visiting new territories.

The Who at the Hollywood Bowl circa 2002

Like Marco Polo on the Silk Road or Lewis and Clark mapping out the western U.S.

Nothing nearly as grand or noble but in my heart I was every bit as adrenaline-fueled as Marco must have been exchanging high fives with Kublai Khan and Merriwether and William surely were the first time they went bodysurfing in the Pacific Ocean.

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