Archive for June, 2011

How I made Pete Townshend want to smash me

June 15, 2011

I was standing in the bar of the Sadlers Wells theater with arguably the greatest bass player in the history of rock. John Entwhistle was looking past me, towards a corner of the bar where a pretty young lady was sipping a martini. In less than three years he would be dead.

My friend Pat and I discussed strategy. “We’re not going to ask for a picture with him. That would be uncool. We’re just going to shake his hand and thank him for the great music.”

Done. We shook John Entwhistle’s hand and he didn’t really hear us. I had heard he was as deaf as Pete Townshend. Or perhaps more interested in the martini lady. Or most likely, both.

“Thunderfingers” saddled past us, his Boris the Spider thingie dangling from his chest, and made his move.  Similar circumstances preceded his death at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas  in 2002. That time, the young lady was captivating enough to make him forget his heart condition and do cocaine.  John Entwhistle would die before he got old…or at least that old. When I heard he was gone at 57, I called Pat to say “damn, we should have gotten a picture with him.”

But that is the only regret I have from the greatest rock pilgrimage I ever took.

Pat had convinced me to join him to fly from Boston to London to see Pete Townshend perform in a small theater. Townshend was performing  songs from “Who’s Next,” declared one of the greatest albums ever by Rolling Stone

The date of the concert — February 25 —  was the birthday of his spiritual guru, an Indian mystic named Meher Baba (who famously said “don’t worry, be happy.”) In a stunning twist, it was also my birthday. (And the birthday of Beatle George Harrison, known as the ‘Mystic Beatle.’ But maybe I am taking this a little too far.)

Who’s Next was played on my Sony Walkman a thousand times. If the sound of the Big Bang is the last note of Sergeant Pepper’s, then the sound of the shimmering synthesizer opening Who’s Next is the first tetrapod crawling out of the ocean.

I got a $200 flight on Priceline and bought my ticket to the show online. The boxy sketch of the theater indicated I would be in the back row. I didn’t care, I had a ticket and I was going.

I didn’t realize until we were at the concert that my situation was a little different. As Pat and I walked in, the bouncer directed him to go upstairs to the balcony. He directed me to walk to the front.

‘Aren’t I supposed to be in the back?’ I asked.

‘No, you’re in the front. Can’t you read your ticket?’

In disbelief, I walked to the front of the theater and sat directly in the middle.

A full orchestra tuned up on-stage. The lights went down. Pete Townshend walked out and picked up a guitar. Right in front of me.

The front row is like a mythical place in a rock concert. Someone else who is more important is always there. Maybe it’s people who are powerful, connected, hip. Every concert I have been too I have been back a few dozen rows, maybe straining to see the action on-stage with binoculars. Not on Feb 25, 2000. I was close enough to my musical hero to reach out and strum the guitar for him.

Townshend explained that the songs being performed were part of an abandoned rock opera he started called “Lifehouse.” The story was set in the future, where music had become a path to universal peace and people connected to each other via technology called “the grid.” (Townshend predicted the Internet 30 years in advance, FYI.) He wanted to bring an audience together with the band for days and weeks at a time, making them part of the creative process and breaking down the barrier between performer and fan.

Progressive? Yes. Did it happen? No. His bandmates shot down the idea and the project was scuttled.

Maybe though this is why Who’s Next became such a great album. Townshend wasn’t constrained by some need to connect songs to some greater story like he did for Tommy. He could just turn up his Hiwatt amp and rock. He could experiment with cool synthesizers and not worry about universal truths.

And rock that night he did. He cranked out hits including “Won’t get Fooled Again,” “Bargain,” and “Going Mobile.” There was one notable exception — a trainwreck really — the initial performance of Baba O’Reilly.

Pre-recorded synthesizers listen to no one but themselves. As the song started I noticed that Townshend came in too early. My the song’s coda it was  a muddled mess of string instruments and guitar distortion. The song ended like a roman candle fizzling on launch, everyone on-stage staring at each other blankly. It was uncomfortable to watch.

Townshend glared at his keyboard player, who raised a finger back as if to say ‘it was your fault, not mine.’ The band gasped at the subversion. The crowd cheered wildly.

A few beats passed. The band collected themselves. The synthesizers started up again.

Maybe I wanted to realize Townshend’s idea to connect audience with performers. Maybe I was just elated that I was in the front row. Maybe I was just happy-drunk. I started clapping in-time with the music and cheering. Others around me followed.

Townshend glared at me, probably the same look he gave Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock before he knocked him off stage with a guitar neck. I know he wanted to smash me. The song had already gotten screwed up, now some stupid kid was going to screw it up again. They were shooting a DVD, dammit.

I stopped clapping. The band made it through the song. After the applause died down some smartass yelled “play it again!” Townshend smiled and said “We probably will.”

And if you look closely at different parts of the DVD recording of Pete Townshend, Live at Sadlers Wells, you can see my bearded face. Smiling in the front row.

Advertisements