Sorry, I can’t get to excited, pro or con, about Pete Townshend saying as he did last week on Good Morning America, “I’m a bit of a neocon.” First, he’s likely to walk it back if pressed, and second, as with Tina Brown in 2003, and her hilariously ahistoric reference to the “neocons of the ’30s,” does he even know the lineage of the word and what it means? (As Jonah Goldberg wrote in 2003 as neocon was beginning its ascension as the post-9/11 epithet of choice among the left:
If you don’t know how to use the word “neocon,” don’t. Seriously, don’t. If you’re even the teensiest bit unsure, don’t. Because when you use it wrong you illuminate such vast swaths of ignorance so as to make it difficult to be taken seriously on other subjects.
But I’m not sure why Townshend feels the need to talk politics at all when he does an interview.
As I’ve written before, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when The Who and Townshend seemed omnipresent – movies! Concerts! Solo albums! Tours! – Pete was my inspiration for first learning to play guitar, and then learning to “write” music on a multitrack recorder, as Townshend explored in the liner notes of his 1983 anthology of his demo tapes, Scoop. Everything multimedia I’ve done since – the videos, the podcasts, the XM show, etc. – all stem from reading about The Who, and how Townshend “wrote” music for them.
And creating Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, etc., is certainly its own genius. I don’t expect any great political insights from the man. Because, even in the mid-1970s, as he was writing “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “Slip Kid,” with its refrain that “There’s no easy way to be free,” and even as he was pledging his heart to his Meher Baba, his religious muse, he was perfectly capable of saying, as he did in 1974, that “I feel that the most spiritually correct of all political states would be a Communist one:”
Penthouse: Do you have many political convictions?
Townshend: Well, it it’s possible for someone who’s reputedly a millionaire — I’m not, incidentally — I’m morally very left-wing. I suppose as a member of the Who I’ve earned quite a lot of money. I’ve also spent that money. I’m a capitalist, yet I feel that the most spiritually correct of all political states would be a Communist one. But I think all politics are useless unless the component parts — the people, the leaders, the organizers, and the workers — are spiritually together. Communism at its purest can be corrupt, hurt people, and not do its job. Capitalism at its finest and most effective — even in a period where it was really working, like Fifties’ America — stands and falls on the quality of the people involved in it. It’s really great when you’ve got a good bunch of leaders leading you, but when they turn sour, you realize how little control you actually have to change them.
Most of The Who’s music in the 1970s was blissfully apolitical, but the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister would change that, as Townshend would rail against Thatcher’s reforms in England — and is still bitter about her rise in politics in his new autobiography. There’s a clip on YouTube of his promoting his White City solo album and longform video on the David Letterman show in the mid-1980s, where, after Letterman asks him about his then side gig, editing books for British publishing house Faber & Faber, Townshend goes on long rant about Thatcher, and you can hear the murmurs in Letterman’s audience: wha? Huh? Whatever, dude.
And White City is a fascinating project in its own right — with thundering music that as its accompanying video illustrates, champions…a depressed 30-something man passing his days nihilistically living on the dole. So much for “No easy way to be free.”
But who cares? I don’t follow politicians for their musical genius; I’m not going to care much either way about a musician’s insight into politics. In other words: won’t get fooled again. At least this time.
Update: Who Are You?