By Brian Ives
“I wouldn’t be windmilling a Fender Telecaster if it weren’t for Pete Townshend.”
So said Bruce Springsteen, from the stage of New York City’s Best Buy Theater, at MusiCares’ 11th annual MAP Fund Benefit Concert, where he was presenting Townshend with the Stevie Ray Vaughan Award for his commitment to helping other musicians with addiction. The Who‘s manager, Bill Curbishley, was also honored with the From the Heart Award for his work with MusiCares, which offers programs and services to members of the music community including emergency financial assistance for basic living expenses and medical expenses.
Springsteen was one of many artists there to pay tribute to Townshend; Joan Jett (currently opening for the Who), Billy Idol, Willie Nile and Roger Daltrey all performed, accompanied by the Who’s touring band (John Corey on piano, Loren Gold on keyboards, Pino Palladino on bass, Frank Simes on keyboards, Zak Starkey on drums, and Pete’s brother Simon Townshend on guitars), in tribute to the songwriter.
Springsteen’s speech, however, was as powerful as any of the performances. Here are some of the excerpts:
“Pete’s got a long history of working hard and raising spirits and money for worthy causes… I could go on and tell you what Pete’s done for others, but I think I’ll tell you about what Pete’s done for me.
It was the summer of ’66 or ’67, it was the first American tour that the who were on, and I’m on a long line snaking out of Convention Hall down the boardwalk. And in big type: ‘Herman’s Hermits!’ And then: ‘The Who!’ I was the young, pimply faced teenager who managed to [put together] enough money to see my first rock concert ever. Pete and the Who were young, pimply faced teenagers with a record contract, a tour and a rude, aggressive magic. They were on this tour, of all things, opening for Herman’s Hermits. There was no justice!
The first band out, I think, were the Blues Magoos. You folks remember the Blues Magoos? I don’t believe you. But they had a great song called ‘Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet’ and these electric suits, and the suits lit up. And it was high level special effects for the time.
Then the Who came out and they played for probably no more than thirty minutes. Pete, in a cloud of smoke, demolished his guitar, bashing it over and over into the floor and his amplifier. The audience was filled with a significant amount of teeny boppers waiting for [the Herman’s Hermits hit single] ‘Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.’ So they sat there with their mouths agape. Like, who are these guys? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? All I knew was that, for some reason, this music, and the demolishing of perfectly fine instruments, filled me with incredible joy. There was something wonderful about the wanton destruction of good, commercial property. It was the joy and giddiness of the riot, that the Who managed to safely attain. Semi-safely attain! But all I knew was that it made me happy and it thrilled and inspired me.
I was in a band called the Castiles, I was about 16 years old. We had a gig the next weekend at a Catholic school dance. So I went out and bought a smoke bomb and a strobe light and I brought them over to the gig. and as the night neared its end, I wasn’t able to smash my guitar [like Townshend] – it was the only one I had! – so I lit the smoke bomb in the Catholic school basement and turned on the strobe light and I climbed on top of my amplifier holding a vase of flowers that I stole from one of the upstairs classrooms, and with this huge flourish I raised the vase of flowers as the flickering, blinding strobe lit me, with smoke all around me, and as the nuns looked on in horror, I smashed them onto the dance floor. I jumped off the amp and stomped all over the petunias!
The vase of flowers simply failed to have the grandeur of a newly minted Telecaster being smashed to splinters, but we worked with what we had. I went home smiling, feeling a blood bond with Pete Townshend, and I never looked back.
As I grew older, the Who’s music seemed to grow with me, the sexual frustration, the politics, the identity… these themes coursed through my veins with every concurant Who album. I always found myself there somewhere in their music. ‘The Seeker’ is the guy in ‘Born to Run.’ There’d be no “Down in Jungleland’ without Pete’s slashing bloody attack on his instrument. Pete is the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time. He showed you, you don’t have to play any lead. It’s an amazing thing to behold.
Pete managed to take the dirty business of rock and roll and somehow make it spiritual and turn it into a quest. He may hate this, but he identified the place where it was noble, and he wasn’t afraid to go there. I took a lot of that with me as the years passed by. So Pete, I’m here to say, congratulations, well deserved, and thanks for not just Who’s Next and ‘Who Are You,’ but for who I am.”
Springsteen wasn’t the only person to speak about Townshend: Daltrey, who performed two songs on his own and two with Townshend, said from the stage, “He’s written some of the most important rock music of the 20th century. He writes from a place from within the human spirit. not many people dare to go there. He opens up wounds, he opens himself up, completely naked, in his songs and thats why they mean as much today as they did when he wrote them all those years ago.”