remnants: Pete Townshend Solo at the LaJolla Playhouse, June 2001

can't pretend that growing older never hurts

remnants: Pete Townshend Solo at the LaJolla Playhouse, June 2001

I am in New Orleans at Mardi Gras this week so in honor of the last time I was in town and the post about Daltrey’s 50th birthday show, I give you this ancient blog post about seeing Pete solo in 2002. It was a benefit for the La Jolla Playhouse, and Pete’s connection was through artistic director Des McAnuff and the Tommy Broadway musical, which started there. I have lightly edited the post for clarity but it is definitely something I wrote over 20 years ago.

I was just thirty-four years old and I was still wandering in a haze....

I am still a little horrified that I spent $500 on concert tickets this past weekend1. Or maybe I’m more horrified that I had $500 available to spend on concert tickets. (Just call me a rich yuppie software asshole wannabe. Ed Vedder will be coming over any second now to perform his weekly rendition of “Soon Forget” as punishment for my sins.2)

But it was Pete. And I missed too much Pete because of being, well, not here. I missed the PsychoD shows, I missed the Supper Club, I missed the infamous Berkeley Community Theater shows (Vedder reference #2: according to friends Who were there that night, Ed was sitting front row center with his brand new DAT recorder that he couldn’t get to work, and was asking people for help. “Sure, not that I’ve ever seen one of these before, but I think you press that button there...” I later found out that those shows were the first time that Ed and Pete met.), I missed HOB ’97. And of course I missed 89 and the Tommy revival and “The Who On Ice” but I would have missed those on principle even if I’d been in the country.

So, Pete. Solo. Alone. No annoying keyboard player or percussionist. Very expensive tickets. Open-toed shoes. I even packed (but chickened out on wearing) a skirt. There will be no pogoing tonight. It was, admittedly, not very rock and roll, at all. Not sure how I felt about that, either.

Night one was more about disbelief. I’d waited so long to see Pete like this. It was this lovely little cozy theater with cushy seats and lots of leg room, perfect acoustics (I mean perfect). Pete was effusive and warm and engaging and full of witty banter and stories. This is why we have something called “Storytellers,” but we have it because there are people like Pete Townshend who actually have something to say. Someone like, oh, say, Dave Matthews has nothing to say. Unfortunately, the whole thing was ruined once it became a concept and a promotional vehicle. Most of the people on that show would do well to shut up for another 5 or 10 years and then maybe they’d have something worthwhile to blather on about for an hour and a half.

Pete gave it all to us. He played, he sang, he took us on these seemingly stream-of-conscious journeys that always came back to the starting point. He talked about his son asking him for help with guitar chords and what does Pete’s son want to learn? Some “Blink one-eight-two” song. (He told the story again night two, and even went so far as to say, “Can I show you how to play it? Well, I wrote it....”)

The songs in the set were fairly standard, you could probably have guessed them in advance. “Pinball Wizard,” “Let My Love Open The Door,” “Sheraton Gibson,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. And then the ones I wouldn’t have guessed: “Slit Skirts,” “The Sea Refuses No River,” “Eminence Front”. “The Sea Refuses No River” especially, Pete whinged for 15 minutes before actually playing it, unfurling this lengthy piece of sheet music on top of his grand piano, putting it off as long as possible, telling us how bad he is on piano, that he plays so well at home but live and in front of people he just sucks. Was it perfect? No. But it was “The Sea Refuses No River,” introduced as a song from when he was doing heroin and being miserable, and the fact that I got to see it at all, ever, speaks for itself. And I think it’s a song that he probably should be stumbling over. Pete talked about that now he’s kind of surprised that he was able to create at all those years, let alone anything good. It was moving because of its imperfection.

I don’t know why I thought I should have some kind of Divine right to the blues...

I have never seen Pete do “Slit Skirts” live. I realize that espousing Chinese Eyes as any kind of touchstone probably opens up a whole Pandora’s box of what that says about me. I also do find some of the songs on there fairly dreadful (“Communication” anyone??). But “Slit Skirts,” “The Sea Refuses No River,” and “Somebody Saved Me” have always been my trilogy of hope from that record. I think I always identified with the despair and desperation and, finally, resilience that those songs hold. Those songs were (we know now) Pete at what was probably his rock bottom.

But, again, “Slit Skirts”. It too, like “The Sea Refuses No River,” had its bumps and its jolts and mixed up lyrics. But Pete covers the errors up like a master, and it was only the truly faithful who really noticed. The theatre crowd had no idea.

Night one seemed rougher, and night two was, I think, more musically proficient – but only in spots. There were some pretty big lyrical gaffes in songs like “Tattoo,” which surprised me.

Pete seemed very touched by the death of John Lee Hooker the day before the first night’s show. Night two he came out for the encore with this lovely Epiphone (which looks like the one he’s holding in one of the Chinese Eyes singles covers) and played “Driftin’,” a blues classic, as well as the Mose Allison version of “Eyesight to the Blind”. It was during those very loyal and deeply feeling songs that I realized that Chinese Eyes was, in itself, Pete’s version of a blues album. Okay, it was rich white rock star takes heroin, gets estranged from his wife, and makes himself miserable, but hell, Eric Clapton’s made a career out of that. (Ouch!)

The first night was over in the blink of an eye, which to me is always the sign of a really great show. I don’t want to sound clichéd but for me that first night was magic. It didn’t seem real.

Night two : a last minute upgrade from sixth-row aisle seats – a Playhouse representative explaining that some “special guests” needed our seats. Sure, we’ll move. So we are now 6th row DEAD CENTER, we are in the $1,000 seats. I guess the expensive seats were the first few rows, and then the center further up. Now I feel out of place.

I’m not going to say that these people weren’t fans, but it was just ODD. Luckily, the people sitting right next to us were huge fans, and were incredibly enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Our seats were perfect. They were better than the first few rows. They were just about level with the stage and only six rows up. It was really kind of overwhelming, Pete so close and so unadorned, without six security guards between us and the stage.

This show was different, somehow, in how I reacted to it. It wasn’t as overwhelming for me. The folks next to us were experiencing the show as I experienced it on Friday, while it’s a little less intense on my side. I’m able to listen more carefully, notice small details. For me, the gift of this show is in the small insights and the details. I know he talked a lot – people were complaining about this before the show – but I expected him to talk a lot and I dunno, I would have been disappointed if he didn’t address us often and at great length.

Back to the whole contradiction thing. It saddened me that many of the diehard Who fans I’d expect to see weren’t in La Jolla this weekend because of the ticket price. As the House of Blues shows have proved, high ticket price does not equal true fandom. And there were parts of the show where I sat and wondered how much these shows meant to everyone in the audience and why they were there. Night one we sat next to a young teenage kid and his dad, and my first thought was, “is he here for himself or for you?” (We had that discussion on the Springsteen list during the Reunion tour, people bringing their kids, putting them in really hard to get floor seats, using their kids as props to get Bruce’s attention at the backstage entrance.3) But I was delighted when this young lad sprung to his feet applauding madly after “Eminence Front,” completely unprompted by dad. He was a fan. I don’t know if the father was – if he was then he must have just been glowing inside to share this with his kid.

To play devil’s advocate, Pete was introduced by Des MacAnuff as a “raconteur” and I wonder if he didn’t really TRY to be Pete Townshend because that’s what he was there to do. On the other hand, age may have mellowed him a bit, but he’s still Pete, and he’s just not very good at forcing things. I remember how awful he looked at the Daltrey Sings Townshend shows. He didn’t want to be there, didn’t plan to be there, so Roger changes the name of the show to “Daltrey Sings Townshend” and suddenly Pete has no choice. He shows up, looking 10 years older than he does now, and sings an odd arrangement of a PsychoD song that it took about a dozen diehards at least a minute to recognize. (Whispering in the second row: “What is this?” “I don’t know, what IS this?” “I think it’s from Psychoderelict, but I don’t recognize it at all...”)

I don’t know. Maybe I’m tired of being cynical. Maybe it’s just too much work. I’d much rather evaluate these shows on what they meant to me, and my immediate, pure, emotional reaction to them, rather than try to focus on the faults. Maybe because I got to experience these shows, instead of having to chronicle them. I don’t know. More like, maybe it’s because of all the years I didn’t have an option to see Pete. I still feel a level of guilt at spending the money, but then again I remember all the various times in my life when I didn’t have any money at all to spend on a normal rock show. I missed too much back then.

The errors and the roughness didn’t bother me all that much. To me, they were an indication of how uncontrived the evening was. In the end, I walked out feeling like I’d spent two evenings in Pete’s living room. I felt like I’d seen something incredibly special. I felt rich and happy – not rich in a monetary sense, but rich in all the years I have as a fan of the Who and of Pete’s music. Just really fucking lucky.

  1. Two shows, it was a benefit, I stayed with friends.

  2. This will only make sense to you if you are a Pearl Jam fan of a certain age. Eddie used to dedicate "Soon Forget” to Paul Allen and Bill Gates and not in any respectful way.

  3. Amazing how literally nothing changed and only got worse. It was before we had the term “Brucebait.”