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As spiritual epiphanies go,
Pete Townshend's public acknowledgment of his personal rebirth was made with
remarkable understatement for a major celebrity. The guitarist was well known
(indeed, deservedly famous for) his ability to display the strongest emotions - which,
in his songs up to that point, had been frustration, alienation and consequent
anger - in extremely demonstrative fashion. The explosive violence of ripping
guitar chords, Keith Moon's cymbal slashes, John Entwistle's thundering bass
swoops and Roger Daltrey's roaring voice was the key to the Who's
unparalleled rock power, and Townshend bottled up a young man's blues like a
master brewer. So it was no trifling matter that he chose to announce the abrupt
change in the direction of his life - a topic of major obsession for Who freaks - in
8-point type. Only those truly concerned by the minutiae of the band's
iconography were likely to even notice the enigmatic credit line discreetly
inscribed on the back cover of Tommy: an unfamiliar word followed
by an unfamiliar name.
Avatar (Hindu for the earthly incarnation of a deity) Meher Baba was born Merwan
S. Irani in Poona, India on 24 February 1894. Although he maintained a vow of
silence for the last forty-four years of his life, Baba communicated in writings
that included such characteristic epigrams as "Don't worry - be happy."
Townshend was introduced to
the teachings of Meher Baba in late 1967 by underground artist Mike Mclnnerney,
who would later paint the surreal artwork for Tommy. "It all happened
in the space of two months," Townshend marveled. "One minute I was
freaked out on acid and the into Baba."
It was an auspicious time for
new influences to reach the 22-year-old rocker. Sgt. Peppers and the
Summer of Love had drawn a line in the
rock'n'roll sand, demarking the moderate past from a more radical future. A
bad trip on the flight home from the Monterey Pop Festival in June had soured
Pete on hallucinatory drugs. His band had recorded its first pivotal longgplayer:
released in the autumn, The Who Sell Out
satire and a masterpiece of psychedelicized art- Who's image as a singles
band. But such essential career developments
were incidental to the long-range ramifications of Townshend's new faith.
Although the Who spent the better part of the next twenty months on he road,
Townshend - inspired by Meher Baba, who died ("dropped the body" in
disciples' parlance) at the beginning of 1969 - managed to conceive
and write Tommy, the two-disc rock opera that turned the Who into a
household name. (Even if some neophytes did think the group was called "Tommy
While this accomplished artistic expression of Townshend's epiphany attracted
a vast new audience, that same force precipitated a subtle but unmistakable gulf
of faith between the group and its adherents. An endless stream of you're-the-only-person-who-really-understands-me-what-should-l-do
with-the-rest-of-my-life? letters arrived at Pete's easily obtainable address
in the London suburb of Twickenham, sent by sensitive, alienated teens who
could identify with the angry characters in his songs and the insightful
intelligence he regularly expressed through the media. (Many received patient,
considerate replies from their idol.) But most fans had to find Townshend's
embrace of Meher Baba too personal and profound a path to follow.
Wisely, Townshend's lyrics within the Who remained reasonably universal,
expressing Baba's principles - love, surrender, sacrifice, devotion - in
language that excluded nobody, even those disinclined towards messiahs. Despite
their spiritual underpinnings, songs like "We're Not Gonna Take It" and
"The Seeker" ironically discouraged idolatry and left layers of meaning open
to individual interpretation. Rather than use his position to proselytize,
Townshend prudently reserved his most explicit expressions of faith for the
A creative technique Townshend had used for years provided him with the means to
explore artistic areas too singular for the Who. Armed with a home studio and
skill on a variety of instruments, from drums to keyboards, Townshend routinely
recorded demo versions of his songs, using those solo acetates to introduce new
material to his bandmates. Pete's demos occasionally leaked into the Who-freak
underground, where fans seized upon them for the treat of hearing him sing a
song otherwise voiced by Daltrey, and for the charm of production sound far
lighter and more delicate than the Who's.
But the utilitarian value of Townshend's homework as sonic shorthand was
nowhere near as crucial as the part it played in facilitating his musical development. I had been sobered by the astonishing genius of Jimi Hendrix," he
recalls, "and I wanted to get away from trying to be a pyrotechnic electric
guitar player and develop a more personal style. I achieved this by jumping off
from the strummed acoustic style of Magic Bus.' Piano I developed because I
needed a writing tool and harmonic inspiration. I turned to synthesizers for
inspiration, not compositional control. The latter came later."
At a time when few musicians had the imagination to need them, Townshend
constructed various private studios (the liner notes to 1983's Scoop, a
compilation of these solo recordings, contain a detailed chronology) which
afforded him the unobserved artistic freedom required to turn a great pop
tunesmith into a genuine rock visionary. From the mid-'60s on, he made
countless demos, tinkered with various acoustic instruments and synthesizers
initially outside the Who's ken, recorded devotional music in tribute to his
messiah and unselfconsciously tested the stylistic frontiers of his talents
without concern for the consequences.
To an expansively ambitious artist like Townshend, a seeker challenged rather
than sated by his successes, Tommy's triumph laid down a majorleague
gauntlet. British rock journalist Chris Charlesworth may have overheated things
a bit in his 1984 biography of Townshend when he described Pete quaking in his
Doc Martens at the prospect of following Tommy." In his book, Before I Get
Old, Dave Marsh quotes Townshend "looking for the natural thing to do after Tommy."
The Who's supercharged
career clearly required an adequate and appropriate follow-up to the deaf, dumb
and blind boy. And for rock's most conscientious philosopher, a performer
whose overriding sense of responsibility - to himself, to his art, to his
family, to his Avatar, to his audience - could be an onerous burden, there was
much more at stake than sales figures. A reluctant idol whose every onstage
gesture or insightful media comment brought wider acclaim, Townshend was
becoming to his followers exactly what Baba had become to him. (Or the other way
around.) That dichotomy, a basic conundrum of fame that often haunts reflective
rock stars, mirrored the pivotal conflict for Tommy, an unwitting pop messiah
ultimately destroyed by those who worship him. Like his creation - indeed,
largely because of his creation - Townshend was at a critical juncture in his
life and his career. Could he reconcile art with commerce and remain a serious
artist advancing, not simply recycling, the form and discourse of popular music?
Townshend had dreams about narrowing the gap between performer and audience,
about elevating pop music to spiritual realms. At the dawn of the decade, global
rock stardom - a trick straitjacket of seductive luxury and idiotic obligations - threatened
to drown out his creative voice while amplifying his external existence to
Townshend had always been the band's most voluble and articulate spokesman,
but the flood of interviews and profiles that attended Tommy underscored
its composer's unchallenged preeminence in the band's hierarchy. Daltrey
became the personification of Tommy, but Townshend became the Who.
The two year period between
Tommy, which was released in June 1969, and the Who's next studio album ( Who's
Next, August 1971 hardly seems long by contemporary superstar standards, but
in the career of a major band back then it was as noticeable a gap as Dylan's
Rather than vanish during the
period of artistic turmoil that gripped the band that year and well into the
next, the Who hid in plain sight, spending 1970 carting Tommy across the
stages of Britain, the continent and America. They were hardly marking time: the
Who were by then the world's most exciting live rock 'n' roll experience. The
beat-trio-plus -singer model taken to it's wildest realization, the Who were an
unnatural, uncontrollable force created of personal conviction and Hiwatt
stacks. Cream had elevated the blues and lead guitar into an entirely new art
form; the Who took pop music and power chords and did the same thing.
Now devoted to- and identified
with- a way of life that his bandmates did not share, Townshend confronted his
changing role in the rock world with the distinct vision of a Baba lover. While
maintaining his Who-superstar-rock responsibilities, he needed ways to channel
his faith outside the group. He sought out and spent time with other Baba
disciples. He performed, with acoustic guitar, at private meetings of the
faithful. He began planning a London center devoted to Baba. But the pivotal
extracurricular project he undertook in the wake of Tommy was an album of
devotional music to coincide with and celebrate the seventy-sixth anniversary
(February 1970) of Baba's birth.
Happy Birthday was
produced and released in a tiny quantity (2,500 to start; official repressings
were similarly modest) by the Universal Spiritual League in London; the Meher
Baba Information office in Berkeley, California sold copies by mail for $5.00.
An unlabeled disc and a 28-page black-and- white booklet slipped inside a
hand-stapled sleeve, with a beatific portrait of Baba on the front cover and a
blurry photograph of his easy chair on the back, Happy Birthday reached
Who fans - for whom it was clearly not intended - as a bewildering but marvelous
Townshend contributed a half-dozen mostly acoustic solo recordings: "Content,"
"Day of Silence," "Mary Jane," "The Love Man," a demo of "The
Seeker" (the Who's version, released as a UK single that same month, was the
group's first studio issue since Tommy), and "Begin the Beguine," a
1935 Cole Porter composition for the musical Jubilee. With Townshend
adding some acoustic guitar, Ronnie Lane - the Small Faces-cum-Faces bassist and
Baba disciple - re-recorded "Stone" from the Faces' 1970 album,
First Step. retitling it 'Evolution'." (Three years later, Lane recut the
song for his first solo LP.) In addition, the album contained devotional poetry,
an instrumental by Pink Floyd associate Ron Geesin and several lecture excerpts.
To the lucky few who heard it, Happy Birthday ably demonstrated that
Townshend could scale his rock dynamism down to communicate on an intimate,
personal level. The stylistic shift took a bit of getting used to, but the
loveliness of the music - irrespective of the lyrics, which were hard for
nonbelievers to accept - made the record irresistible.
Although it was obvious that
love for Baba had humbled him, Townshend remained a rocker at heart. "Content"
or not, he wasn't ready to shake off the values and vision of a musical
Ubermensch who could rivet a nation of mud-caked teenagers sprawled across
Yasgur's farm. Instead, he turned towards another spiritual manifestation, an
undertaking of such scope and ambition that it would easily dwarf Tommy's
LifeHouse, which Dave Marsh describes as "a watershed between the Who as a
band of idealists and the Who as a band of professionals, between the concept of
a rock band as an experimental troupe and the idea that it was a
profit-generating, creative business," was nothing less than an attempt to use
Baba's teachings as a catalyst for an expansive art project (ultimately
intended to yield a film) that would somehow investigate the myriad mysteries of
life - or at least resolve some of the mounting frustrations its author was
facing. As Marsh succinctly puts it, LifeHouse was about everything
that was on Peter Townshend's mind from the autumn of 1970 through the spring
Although the idea went through numerous conceptual stages in wildly divergent
directions - interviews from this period describe complex, involved ideas and
plans that evidently evaporated upon explication (although all of Townshend's
remarks on LifeHouse need to be reconsidered in light of the songs that
were later salvaged from it) - the essence of it is a character called Bobby who
inhabits a dysfunctional future. What appears to have been a vast, extravagant
fantasy involves high technology, spiritual crisis, political
repression, popular enlightenment and rebellion. But what made the sketchy
reports fascinating was Townshend's audacious role for the Who. The foursome
would take over a London theater (the Young Vic, on the South Bank) and invite a
captive audience to join them. As Townshend told Chris Charlesworth in Melody
Maker, "The idea was to get two thousand people, and keep them for six
months in a theatre with us. The group would play and characters would emerge
from them; eventually the group would play a very minor role. Maybe five hundred
of the original two thousand would stay during the six months, and we would have
filmed all that happened."
In February 1971, the group actually did play several shows at the Young Vic,
but the results were disastrous, and that, for a number of reasons, was pretty
much the end of LifeHouse. While Townshend had a nervous breakdown, the
Who somehow pulled together an album from the three dozen songs he had created
for the project. Released in August, Who's Next proved to be one of
rock history's most successful salvages.
Entwistle stepped out of the group's shadow in May with an impressive album of
his own, the excellent Smash Your Head Against the Wall.
Charlesworth asked Townshend about his solo plans. "I get so much stuff of
mine put out through the Who that it's not worth it. If I made a solo album it
would be songs which weren't good enough for the Who and wouldn't be very
good." But, he continued, "I would like to put out an album
demos which I have done, but they are very much like the finished product and
would probably only be of interest to real Who freaks."
As the Who picked up the pieces
and resumed their inexorable march towards arena rock supremacy, Townshend-whose
dedication to Baba had moved him in January 1972 to make a solitary pilgrimage
to the Avatar's Indian birthplace, where the living disciples are
gathered-participated in a second Baba album, I Am, which was released
with a 48-page broadsheet, Wallpaper, of photographs, poetry, lyrics and
credits) in early 1972 through the same set up as Happy Birthday.
Townshend took a less prominent role this time, contributing only "Parvardigar"
and a hypnotically elongated synthesizer sketch for "Baba O'Riley," a LifeHouse
leftover (and Who's Next hit) titled in tribute to avant-garde composer
Terry Riley, Additionally, he played synthesizer on a piece by Dave Hastilow.
guitar and drums behind poet Mike Da Costa on "Affirmation" (its title
notwithstanding, Da Costa's whimsical "How to Transcend Duality and
Influence People" is delightfully representative of Baba's dada sensibility)
and synthesized flute on "This Song Is Green," one of two numbers written
and sung by Billy Nicholls.
Nicholls, a British singer/songwriter whose 1968 debut single on Immediate was
co-produced by Ronnie Lane, is "one of my best family friends," says Pete,
They met through Baba work in the early '70s and discovered that their fathers
had played in a band together: Nicholls subsequently joined the Who's extended
family, singing on the Tommy film soundtrack, pennng a 1980 hit for Roger
Daltrey and serving as musical director for both Townshend's Deep End ensemble
and the backing band on the Who's 1989 tour.
Decca Records, the Who's
American label, allegedly got wind that the two Baba LPs were being widely
bootlegged and approached Townshend about
reissuing them commercially. (The claim is dubious, At the time, both records - as
any self-respecting Who freak knew - could still be ordered by mail from the
original source.) A cynic might remark on the perceived potential of a silo
record by the creative leader of a bond with three consecutive gold albums, not
to mention lawyerly concern over a prominent artist under exclusive contract
having a sizable hand in unsanctioned records, But Decca approached the matter
sensibly, and wisely promised to divert some of the proceeds to relevant
Townshend later explained the project's genesis, "[Decca/MCA] merely
encouraged me to put out the album through normal channels, They wanted 25.000
copies to distribute and offered me a dollar an album to give to Baba. a very
generous royalty. I decided that if I was going to do it on this
scale, I might as well do a completely fresh album.
"I was not thinking of this as a solo album at all. This remained a devotional
project. I wanted to include more material by other artists, but eventually
I had to stick to the most professional-sounding tracks."
The two items by other artists that made the final cut on Who Came First were
"Forever's No Time at All," an l Am item written by Billy Nicholls
and Katie Mclnnerney and played by Caleb Quaye (a Baba lover who had backed up
Elton John and was then leading a band called Hookfoot), and Ronnie Lane's "Evolution,"
cut down from Happy Birthday, where it clocks in at more than six
minutes. Previewing the album in Sounds, Townshend explained, "Before I
edited out all the important verses, Ronnie's song covered all the major
states of consciousness that we go through to reach the glorious state of
human-ness. Stone. Metal. Vegetable. Worm, Fish. Animal, then, unfortunately,
Track Records, the Who's own label, released Who Came First - a
handsome gatefold production with photos of Baba and a poster by Mike Mclnnerney - in
Great Britain in September 1972. The album arrived in America the following
month, on Decca/MCA. Whether intending an ironic gesture or not, Track put out a
45 of "Forever's No Time at All" b/w I Am's "This Song Is
Green," two Billy Nicholls songs in which Townshend had little or no hand.
Who Came First made Townshend's love of Baba most explicit on two songs that
began as devotional poems. Happy Birthday's "Content" is a tender
prayer of spiritual security by Baba lover Maud Kennedy which Townshend set to
music. It's simply about being content that you have found out about God,"
he told Sounds. "Happy to know that whatever goes down, he's still
there, holding the tickets."
Townshend recounted an
intriguing story about the writing of "Parvardigar," which first appeared on
I Am. "My wife and I were on holiday on Osea island in the Blackwater
Estuary [on England's east coast]. One afternoon I tuned my guitar to a chord
and picked out a very carefully constructed melody a Ia Bert Jansch or John
Renbourne. Somewhere in the back of my head I gave it to Baba.
"Simultaneously. had been working on Meher Baba's prayer, 'The Master's
Prayer.' was rewriting it so the meter scanned common time, with a few rhymes
here and there, so could put the prayer to music. When had finished, it suddenly
struck me that the guitar piece I had dedicated to Meher Baba might make a good
melodic basis. They fit like a glove. At that time I felt almost as if I had
nothing to do with the writing process at all. If this doesn't sound
completely like me. maybe it ain't."
Pete's short-title rendition
of "There's a Heartache Following Me," an American country song written by
Ray Robert Baker and a huge UK hit for Jim Reeves shortly after his death in
1964. was a different Sort of tribute. Baba had named the song, along with Cole
Porter's "Begin the Beguine," as a personal favorite. "Baba said that
Jim Reeves' voice was full of spiritual power and love," noted Townshend.
"I listened to him sing this song and had to agree." As David Silver quipped
in a rave review of Who Came First in Rolling Stone, "Even an avatar
gets the cowboy blues sometimes." (Across the pond, Charlesworth's tepid
Melody Maker review ran under the funny headline "Pete in the Baba's Chair.")
The lyrics to "Sheraton
Gibson" make it an anomaly for Who Came First; Pete acknowledged in
Sounds that it was "included for musical value rather than content. I wrote
this two years back after a really good barbecue with the James Gang, their
managers and families outside Cleveland. I had a good, good day. The next day in
Pittsburgh [the titular hotel was actually in Cincinnati], I was not only
missing home as usual, but also Cleveland. This was the first time I ever used
I had just listened to Self Portrait by Bob Dylan, sat down and wrote ten
simple songs directly into the tape machine without stopping. This was one.
Others I remember were 'Love Ain't for Keeping' and 'Classified'."
The poetic lyrics to "Time Is Passing" are indicative of an awareness of
nature that now informed Townshend's writing and would peak several years
later on Quadrophenla. The themes of liberation via music and
renouncement of false leaders (Don't listen to people talk. Don't listen
to 'em selling souls. Don'tlisten to me or words from men above.)
are straight out of LifeHouse, although the song apparently isn't.
Most of the material on Who Came First could be classified as demos, but
only two of the numbers actually became Who records. "Nothing Is Everything,"
named after a book of Baba teachings entitled The Everything and the Nothing,
was a rousing LifeHouse element which the Who had released - as "Let's
See Action" - on a 1971 UK single. "It's about the people who act in a
revolution and the people that sit back," Pete noted.
"I thought it also said a lot about the way we forget our souls most the time."
Written as the theme song of LifeHouse, "Pure and Easy" - which opens
Who Came First ("I put it first because I like it the best") - is one
of Tow shend's superb creations. Although the band version, a Who's Next
outtake, remained unreleased until 1974 (when it was gathered on Odds &
Sods), the song was a fan favorite even before its appearance on Who Came
First. The Who made it a concert staple in 1971, tying it to the of "The
Song Is Over," which quotes its first line. With lyrics of sublime spiritual
beauty, "Pure and Easy" conflates the metaphysical power of m with the
transcendence of love, underscoring an achingly pretty melody an uplifting
ascending chord progression. There once was a note, pure easy, playing so
free like a breath rippling by. The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me.
Forever we blend is forever we die.
Daltrey's cousin, Graham Hughes, photographed the who-came-first? star-and-egg
cover. "The idea and title came from a brainstorm Graham,' recalls Townshend.
"They were real eggs and, so they wouldn't break, I was hung in a Peter Pan
truss. I was so distorted by this that photo had to be retouched in any case, so
it could have been done equally well with a cut-up."
In a loquacious print ad that ran in American magazines. Townshend (in part).
"My own last ten years have been pretty far out. I took a dope, played at
Monterey, played at Woodstock, met Dylan, had tea with Jagger, jammed once with
Hendrix, saw the WHO come to a greater height of personal unity than I ever
thought possible; I also heard about Meher Baba, and stopped using dope.
Since the band began I have written songs at home in my studio and served them
up to the group as completed single tracks, with all instruments either played
already, or at least indicated. For the musician that can't read music - can't
really communicate anyway - the only way to get across what you want is to play
it. That's what I've been doing. I'm getting to be pretty good at a whole
range of instruments, even the violin! I also can manage to run an eight-track
and all the associated hardware. Electricians don't confuse me any more.
Control knobs don't scare me any more.
"These tracks are all tracks that I've recorded at home. I play on all of
them except "Forever's No Time at All" - that, along with the rest of the
album, I engineered. Ronnie Lane and I got drunk one night and recorded his "Evolution"
song, and apart from these two exceptions, all the music is from my own head. On
this album, in this context, it is dedicated to Baba. Not for him to listen to,
his ears aren't around, but so that he will be around whenever it's played."
Townshend estimates that Who Came First ultimately raised $150,000 in the
USA, "most of which went towards making a film about [Sufi leader and Baba disciple] Murshida Duce's life. In the rest of the world, around £ 40,000
(then $96,000) was raised and went mainly to the Avatar Meher Baba Trust in India. More is being raised for the Trust with this re-release.
It will be used to support the dispensary, school, hospital and pilgrimage
center facilities in Meherabad near Ahmednagar."
The bonus tracks on this CD, all drawn from the three Meher Baba tribute albums,
have never been commercially released before. The demo of "The Seeker"
contains one verse (I asked questions of my idols...) omitted from the Who
version. Pete wrote in
a 1971 article, reprinted by Rolling Stone, It suffered from being the first
thing we did after Tommy... It sounded great in the mosquito-ridden swamp
I made it up in - Florida at three in the morning, drunk out of my mind. But
that's where the trouble always starts, in the swamp."
Also from Happy Birthday are "The Love Man" - a lovely song of praise
filled with subtle shifts in tone, rhythm and, in the bridge, a perplexing
change of perspective - and "Day of Silence," written on my Marshall and
Rose English mahogany upright piano.. .on July 10th, which is the day followers
of Meher Baba choose to spend without speaking. I wrote the lyrics the day after
so that I wouldn't break my silence."
"His Hands" and "Lantern Cabin," the latter proving what an accomplished
pianist the guitarist had become, are both from With Love, the third Baba
album, which was released in March 1976. As is "Sleeping Dog," an amusingly
irreverent (if abject) tribute to the master.
Pete Townshend, 1992. "I am still a disciple of Meher Baba. However, in the
middle of my life with him I had a serious collapse. I tend to keep my mouth
shut about my spiritual life now - who knows what might happen NEXT?"
Ira Robbins, with thanks to Wayne King
New York City
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