“Rock is dead they say” is a lyric to an old tune by the Who and while Pete Townshend won’t quite deny it, he finds his antics of the 1960s — the instrument destruction, the violent imagery — not applicable to the modern day.
“I wake up today and this anger, this symbolic guitar smashing … the violent noisy acts — they’re not valid anymore. They’re not appropriate,” Townshend told a crowded hotel ballroom Wednesday evening while giving the keynote address for the 21st annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.
“We were brought up in a post-war condition and we grew up in an atmosphere of absolute denial. (Our response) was not anger but frustration. There was a demand for answers in the Who’s music. We were screaming (to our elders) what don’t we know? How do we avoid the mistakes you made?”
The speech found Townshend reviewing not only his life leading the Who, but going over statements he had made during its history, some of which he now slight alters or contradicts. The band, for example, was not a mirror of the fans as he once said; he felt safe opening his heart to journalists for decades; and, in some bizarre way, the ideas behind his rock opera “Lifehouse” are rather similar to the concept of the Internet. (What he could truly say is that he completely had the idea for MySpace).
He also admitted that he likes “Quadrophenia” better than “Who’s Next.” “It’s an iconic piece,” he says.
But the point that found him at his most heated involved the Internet and being a live performer.
“I have a foot in the old camp and a foot in the new camp,” he said of technology. When it comes to music, “I want it live. So much entertainment is taped or saved for later when you can work it into your workday schedule.”
Townshend avidly posts on his Web site and the Who have used a special site for their tour that has been loaded with exclusive information and recordings. He says he has even used the Web to perform a song for a single listener — the key, he reiterated, was that it was in the moment and therefore had greater value than something stored away.
Toward the end of his speech he spoke about playing a number of significant events, among them Woodstock, Monterey Pop and the Concert for New York.
He remembers thinking that the Who would perform their four best-known numbers at the post 9/11 show and during “Who are You,” he was able to see people in all sorts of uniforms weeping.
“We were proud to have those (works) that could provide an outlet,” he noted, “but I would like to think that we never need our music to do that again.”