The Who Speak for God?

This morning I looked up the Rolling Stone interview with Pete Townshend. I found it revealing & illuminating. Who’d have thought such things of a rock musician? Connections to eastern religions are often acknowledged. But understood as god working to salve the pain of humanity and rectify injustice, the interview casts writing & lyrics in a whole new way:

Pete Townshend is a seminal figure on the rock & roll scene. His band, The Who, have been around since the mid-1960s. I heard on the radio that Townshend told the Rolling Stone Magazine the song “Love Will Open Your Heart,”  was conceived as Jesus singing to us. Consider the lyrics “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free. That’s My love.” Rock & roll was often depicted as “the devil’s music.” Words, lyrics, can open us to different ways of being. In the following excerpt, Townshend speaks of the spiritual connection, background, and origin of several songs:

“A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up f***** standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”

Poetry and song can allow us to address matters too far beyond the pale for society to swallow. This was true for the prophets, it is true today. Townshend continues:

“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.

“It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the f****g words, they scare the s*** out of you.

“Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!

“And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated.”

I don’t necessarily aim to scare the hell out of anybody. Much of what I have to say may make others uncomfortable. The softening effect of music, poetry, and lyrics is a form of accommodation. Writing is, and has always been, a powerful tool for social change. Accommodation, as Townshend observes, allows otherwise unpalatable realities to be heard.

The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend (06/26/80)

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