It is 6:27 p.m., and the Grand Ballroom of the Austin Hilton is packed with folks in black t-shirts, muddy sneakers, and green SXSW badges, all waiting in eager anticipation for Pete Townshend’s keynote address. We do not yet know what he will be talking about, but there is a clue on our chairs, in the form of a piece of paper titled, simply, THE METHOD. It reads, “Today, as part of his Keynote Address at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, Pete Townshend is announcing the Method. After more than 25 years of patient research, Pete is launching the website he first described in the science fiction story behind the Who’s legendary Who’s Next album of 1971. The Method — designed by Lawrence Ball — offers subscribers the opportunity to create their own unique musical composition by “sitting” for the Method software composer, just as you would sit for a painter making your portrait.” Etc.
Now, aside from the obvious implication that Pete Townshend predicted the Internet, I’m not sure what that means. But I’m certain we’ll soon find out, and you’ll be the first to hear about it, PopWatchers. And you will be excited.
I’m not much of a panel gal, but this was pretty great. Townshend was welcomed like a rock star — complete with an air-guitar leap from the gentleman doing the intro — and as a speaker, he didn’t disappoint. He’s got a super-dry wit and a willingness to say things that maybe he shouldn’t. “I got back with the Who subsequent to the 25th anniversary tour to help John Entwistle with his money problems,” he said, in answer to one of the very first questions. “It helped him briefly, but I think he spent most of it on cocaine.” He covered topics ranging from how the chemistry within the Who has changed over the years, depending on who died — I’m not being crass, that’s pretty much how he put it — to the way he hears music differently now that he’s older and the anger of punk has faded away. (“I heard a Yes track while shopping for clothes the other day, and I said, ‘What an interesting blend of folk and rock! What band is that?’ And someone said, ‘It’s f–king Yes.”)
For the very vocal Who fans in the audience, this was a dream come true. What’s better, Who’s Next or Quadrophenia? “Quadrophenia. It’s purer. [It] works in the thesis that a great rock song must speak for those who listen to it, not for those who play it. If in a way the failure of Lifehouse [his doomed post-Tommy rock opera] led to Quadrophenia, then that’s okay. I don’t think I’ll ever surpass it.” Yes, obsessed Who people, pretty much any question you could have had, Pete answered. This is not an overstatement: When the floor was opened to questions at the very end, the best anyone could come up with was “Will Quadrophenia be a stage production?” and “Tell me about your work with people with Down’s Syndrome!” (Answers: It already is, at a college in Wales; I love my work with people with Down’s Syndrome!)
For me — a slightly more casual fan (“Baba O’Reilly” = great song!), it was a chance to see the inner workings of a rock star head split wide. Pete’s real purpose for being here was to plug his newest project, the aforementioned The Method, which sounds like a combination of The Matrix and a dating service (I’ll attempt to talk about that later), but what was more interesting was Townshend’s perspective on the world in which we live, and, specifically, music’s role in it. When the Who first started, he said, one of the things the band brought to America — along with a fusion of country, blues, and rock — was “the postwar condition that I don’t think you guys were as hip to, as we knew it. One of growing up in an atmosphere of absolute denial.”
He said their music was a reaction to a society where no one talked about the problems that had gotten them to where they are, and thus, no one could solve them. But he was quick to point out that it wasn’t an angry perspective. “It looked like anger, particularly in the Who,” Townshend said. “But it was frustration, and a demand for answers that, to be honest, to this day, we have never had. It was to demand something to fill the gap, to keep screaming, What is the answer to this?! How do we avoid making the same mistakes you guys made if we don’t know how those mistakes came about!?” Today, he says, people — bands — have access to far more information. “I wake up today, in 2007, look around me, and realize this anger — the guitar smashing, putting a shotgun in our mouth and blowing our brains out — these big violent noisy acts, they’re not violent anymore. They’re not appropriate anymore. I’m not saying that our music shouldn’t be political, but if it’s going to be political, let’s make it f–king political.” (I’m pretty sure he’s talking to you, Win Butler. You are going to be sorry for smashing that guitar on SNL.) A moment that clearly moved Townshend a great deal was the chance to play the Concert for New York, after September 11th. He remembered looking out over a crowd of firefighters, police officers and their families, everyone sobbing. “We were proud to have these tools to give them to release that stuff,” he said. “We provided a vent. That’s what our brand of rock music was designed to do, and still does very well — but only in certain circumstances… I would like to think that we’d never need our music to do that ever again. Ever again. I don’t mean to be profound. But the function of rock, the function of pop music… what does it need to do now?”
Next, Pete moved on to the music industry, quoting a record exec friend: “Rome is burning,” he said, going on to deliver a lengthy indictment of the way the system works today. “If you’re a new band, don’t f— with [the recording industry]. The record companies — if you went to them and said, We’ve got a great fan base, we’re gonna tour the world, they go, Are you gonna give us a hit? They say, Where are the stars?” His frustration was apparent in the way he nearly vaulted out of his chair. “You have to wait for this stuff. You don’t just wake up one morning and go BING, I’m Christina Aguilera! You work for Disney when you’re 8 years old, and you survive. Hopefully Britney will survive as well,” he added. (Dear god, Pete, help the woman!)
Despite the hellfire and brimstone, the humor continued. During his discussion of the war generation, Townshend attempted to discuss the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the chain of events it set in place: “When Franz Ferdinand… not Franz Ferdinand, King Ferdinand… I don’t want to malign a great English band… oh, they’re not English, are they, they’re Scottish… I’ve just maligned them again.” And talking about the joy of still touring, still affecting people with the Who, he cautioned parents with ideas of culturing their brood by bringing them to the show: “We deafen the poor kids. Don’t bring your kids.” Furthermore, my EW coworker Missy Schwartz will be glad to know that he loves Siouxsie Sioux. And to me, the best thing he said was, in reference to his relationship with the media: “I saw journalists as artists, as creators, as fellows on the creative pathway — partly because I knew that every writer is a Writer. Capital W!” And then he advocated we shoot the editors. Oh, Pete. Where do I sign up?
Finally, we learned that Townshend is quite the Internet-savvy dude, the type of guy who logs onto the shared iTunes networks of other guests in his hotel. And this whole The Method thing is a direct product of that. “Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, I was excited about what might be different and new, and it’s arrived,” he said. “The Internet is here, the World Wide Web is here, the grid is here — and by the grid I mean the grid that holds us together. South by Southwest, on top of a solid, healthy Internet, is a very different music festival than one based on the fact that people in Austin really like to drink beer and listen to live bands. No disrespect.” Thus his current (musical, not weird technological) project, In the Attic, an idea started by his partner Rachel Fuller, where Fuller, Townshend, and other artists play tiny shows, webcast live. To Townshend, this is only logical. “If I can watch, for $50, a boxing match on a cable show live from Vegas, and watch two poor motherf—ers beat the f— out of each other, why can’t I watch my buddy [play music] live? Why do I have to wait?… What’s to stop us having a festival at some point, or at SXSW next year, where a big part of it is an international Web-related moment that looks in on all the things that are happening?”
But okay, really, it’s the weird technological stuff I think he loves the most, so here goes: The Lifehouse Method — based on the story behind Lifehouse — is, after three decades, alive and well. “You go to a computer, enter data about yourself, share some stuff about how you feel, put in a photo of yourself, and you get back music. Like sitting for a painting… There was no computer in 1971 big enough or powerful enough to do what I wanted to do, and there’s no Internet. I’ve had to wait 30 years for you guys to have computers that are powerful enough.” Is it music-to-order? No. “This is an authentic portrait.” Of you, one supposes. Or me. And because I am a shallow, selfish person, the following tidbit piqued my interest: You own one-third of “your” song. So if Coca-Cola wants to use it for a commercial? You get rich. Huh. It launches April 25th, and info is available on Pete’s website.
All outsized Internet ideas aside, it was great to see one of rock’s greatest artists not only alive and well, but still trying to push the idea of what music can and should be. For the mega-fans in the crowd, it may have been strange to hear a guy who for so many years seemed to be the perfect symbol of simple, unfettered rock ‘n’ roll talking about the “grid” that binds us all together… but at the same time, if you’ve listened to the themes of the Who’s music over these last four — has it been four? — decades, you can see that he’s always wanted to connect to his fellow man. Oh: But in terms of his old Tommy-era theories about a rock band being a mirror? One last pithy quote: “If a rock band is a mirror of its audience, then Gene Simmons… oof.”