Pete Townshend and The Who: Richard Goldstein Goes Backstage
Rock 'n' Wreck
By Richard Goldstein
In the backstage halflight of the RKO 58th Street Theatre, Peter Townshend awaits his cue. Stagehands pace furiously, shouting orders in bizarre New Yorkese. A stray go-go girl stands rubbing her op-art eyes until they redden and streak. A straggling Blues Magoo, a soggy member of the Mitch Ryder Band, a distant Mandala, mill about like condemned men waiting for the padre. High above, streaks of blue and magenta soar across the ceiling. Onstage, Murray the K is doing his patois while the audience shouts: "We want...we want..." anyone.
It is the fifth show of the fourth day in Peter Townshend's week. He cracks his knuckles; his throat. Peter is making his American debut as lead guitarist and composer of the Who. Murray the K is about to introduce him to that pulsating mass of squealing, squirming THEM.
Muffled scratching is audible from behind the stage door. The Groupie brigade. They bribe the doormen with a wink, a kid-giggle. You can never lock them out totally. They squat outside the dressing rooms, scratching like exiled cats. "Let them in, it's a party, isn't it?" The big one with braces and a huge distended tongue is eyeing Keith, the drummer. Paper cup in hand, he slips on the corridor floor. "Better watch it," she murmurs.
"Why?" Keith laugh-answers.
"Cause I might jump you."
Even though this is New York and it is cold and rainy out, the groupies are scratching. In Germany, Peter had to haul off on an especially demonstrative cat. In London, they rip clothing. In New York, they scratch on doors. The big one raced down the gray stairwell, past Mitch Ryder in his purple see-through plastic shirt. ("He sat on me," she exalted. "Keith sat on me.")
Peter brushes past a livid Murray and turns on his guitar while Keith Moon -- famous Keithy of the pop-art tee shirt and the rubber wrists -- mounts his drums. The bored curtains creak open and the Who blast off.
They do their song -- "My Generation" -- because it is basic and easy and it gives Roger Daltrey a chance to pucker his lips and shout: "Why don't you just f-f-f-fade away" while the kids gasp "Didhesay? juheahthat?" Also, "My Generation" is one of the least challenging of the Who's creations and in a treadmill show like this, nobody does anything real. Even the best material becomes routinely strenuous played five times a day. ("10.15 a.m." says the sign beneath Peter's dressing room. "Fines if late.") So, they sing: "People always put us down/Just because we g-g-g-get around," and they roll the vowels a bit for variety and they twang the magic twanger.
Peter Townshend pulls hard on the wire which connects his guitar to its amplifier until a flash of light explodes behind the echo box. It is what everyone has come to see. Because the Who has built a reputation, not on their compositions or arrangements, but on their ability to attack a song. Every night, they smash the stage up a bit. Sometimes a guitar neck splits, or a drumstick goes awry, or an amplifier bursts a blood vessel. But any real destruction is coincidence. Mostly, the Who manages to set off a minor chemical flash and an impressive cloud of smoke which rises overhead an stinks up the backstage area (disgruntled, the go-go girl holds her nose and mutters: "I smell the Who"). Then, Roger takes his microphone and rubs it affectionately against Keith's cymbals while Keith flays the air with a half dozen drumsticks. Peter cracks his guitar over his knee, usually avoiding the stress points. He waves it overhead and throws it crashing to the ground. It survives.
The Who's act ends with Keith shoving the drums from under him until they tumble like loose wagon wheels all over the stage. When the curtains close, everybody rushes in to assess the damage, while the crowd whistles: "More." By which time, Peter is backstage and into the gray again. It is comforting -- all that brick passivity. By the time the fifth show is over, one begins to look at any wall that doesn't glow as a bed.
(Peter unbuttons his Who-face as the go-go girl mutters something like: "You smelled great tonight.")
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]