My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago In Guitar Player (September and October 1989)
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September and October of 1989 were busy months for me as I returned for my second year at Hampshire College, where I continued playing guitar pretty much on my own, except for occasional bluesy jams with my friend Devin Griffiths who even then was an excellent blues player. Interestingly, September and October of 2019 have also been INCREDIBLY busy, which is why it’s been so long since posts here, and why I am combining these two issues into a single post.
The two-part interview with Pete Townshend by Matt Resnicoff covers 37 pages over two issues and as much as I love Pete Townshend I am not going to be able to do justice to these articles. And focusing on Pete means that I will have to shortchange the rest of the material in these issues, but we will touch on the cover story with Steve Morse as well as a very interesting interview with nonagenarian “Wizard of the Strings” Roy Smeck.
Following last month’s interview with John Entwistle, it seems that Guitar Player was on a real The Who kick in 1989. And why not? The band was reuniting for the first time since their “farewell” tour in 1982 and the excitement was running high for the show which featured Tommy in its entirety and selected hits from The Who’s later career as well as several of Townshend’s solo tunes.. Resnicoff spent a lot of the time in the interview discussing the staging for the tour, which was going to see Townshend mostly playing (amplified) acoustic guitar and protecting his hearing as much as possible due to tinnitus. While the tour was panned by many critics for all the extra musicians added to the stage (“three backing vocalists, the Kick Horns-five pieces of brass-and guitarist Steve Bolton, who’s doing merely competent, chorused-out whammied-up ’80s-style service to a library of classic crunch…”), if you listen to the recording in the Spotify playlist below, I think it sounds pretty darn good! Besides the Who’s reunion tour, Townshend was also discussing his recent musical The Iron Man. He sure did keep busy!
I remember reading these interviews when they first came out and thinking that Pete Townshend was a pompous doofus. I was not yet the Who fan I am now, and I didn’t appreciate Townshend’s music or intellect as I came to do in later years. I am particularly a fan of Pete’s mid-30’s and early 40’s output of songs full of self-loathing; I don’t think anyone ever wrote those kind of tunes as well as he did. I think I began to turn towards the Who a few years later in graduate school, when my friend Bill Bettler told me about his professor’s critical work on the Who’s music. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
It’s not so surprising that Tommy would be resurrected now, given its rather universally applicable themes, but it does seem odd that a band that’s so reflective of the times would reunite without a new record.
You see, I don’t think the band exists in the present day at all. I went to see the Everly Brothers at the Albert Hall, and there they were, big and fat and in person and all the rest of it, and they still had the same voices. Easier to accept them, perhaps, as the Everly Brothers, because they’ve always worked with bands, but had never actually been a band. For us, it’s a little bit different, so I felt the best thing to do was to make the lineup of the band as anonymous and capable as possible, in a sense….I felt that it’d be really good that Roger and John and I were just sort of stuck at the front of this wall of musicians, and that the audience actually felt that those three people were the survivors, if you like, the ones trying to deal with the problems we’re presented with at the moment–you know, the need to celebrate, live, what we do, despite all the terrible worries about both the moral and artistic problems of stadium performance.
Since Tommy the acoustic guitar has provided a sonic cushion for almost everything you’ve recorded, no matter how bombastic the context.
…I’ve been trying to reassure people that there is genuine, explosive excitement in acoustic rhythm guitar I mean, you only have to think back to the great players like Richie Havens, who’ve founded careers on it. And I can make an acoustic guitar fly. You know, there’s no question about it. And I feel much more comfortable on the acoustic than on the electric. But there are things it can’t do. It’s very difficult to make the transition, for example, from single-string work to heavy flourished work on acoustic guitar….But when I get to a comfortable thing like the “Pinball Wizard” bit, it just sounds so obviously right to me, and I just know it’s going to send shivers up people because it’s the sound that’s on the record.
This was the first interview I read with Pete where he expounded on the challenges and triumphs of writing songs to be sung by Roger Daltrey, who is such a different kind of person. If you haven’t read “Who Am I”, Townshend’s autobiography and “Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite”, which is Daltrey’s, you should as you will get many insights about this.
“I found it quite difficult to write for Roger; songs like ‘My Generation’, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ and lots of songs I wrote that never made that period, which I’ve got on demos, are embarrassingly macho because I was trying to find things that he would feel comfortable singing. I liked singing stuff like ‘Pictures of Lily’ and ‘I’m a Boy’, which I was later delighted to discover that Roger was happy to sing too. I thought, ‘How could Roger Daltrey, the tough Shepherd’s Bush guy, possibly sing about a boy who was brought up as a girl, wearing girl’s clothes?’ And he was quite comfortable with it. Maybe he didn’t understand it, I don’t know. I think he did, but by that time he just felt certain enough in his own masculinity not to worry about it.”
Interesting stuff. And with the Who’s new album due soon, it is fascinating to read current interviews where Townshend discusses still consciously trying to write songs for Roger, and Daltrey speaking out about being so lucky to sing the songs of a genius like Pete.
One thing that always stood out to me reading interviews with Townshend, Clapton, Beck and other Brits was when they discussed Jimi Hendrix. All of these guitar gods felt challenged by Hendrix’ style but there is also a sense that he threatened them somehow. In Townshend’s case it might have contributed to his feeling that white people were only pretending to play blues, but there is always a psychosexual element as well. Here’s an example:
Was it intimidating to have [Hendrix] happen around you?
It destroyed me. Absolutely, completely destroyed me. [Pauses] Just destroyed me. I mean, I was glad to be alive, but it was horrifying. Because he took back black music. He took R&B back. He came and stole it back. He made it very evident that that’s what he was doing. He’d been out on the road with people like Little Richard, had done that hard work, and then he’d come over to the UK. And when he took his music back, he took a lot of the trimmings with it too.
You were quoted as saying that the guitar was really all you had, and that you’d put it through ceilings and amplifier grilles because you were frustrated by what you could do with it and what you perceived you couldn’t. I’d guess Hendrix might have shifted your emphasis.
It did shift my emphasis. I suppose, like a lot of people, like Eric for instance, for a while there I think we gave up, and then we started again and realized…it was very strange for Eric and me. We went and watched Jimi at about 10 London shows together, and [Clapton] wasn’t with a girl at the time, so it was just me, my wife-to-be Karen and Eric, going to see this monstrous man. It got to the point where Eric would go up to pay his respects every night, and one day I got up to pay my respects, and he was hugging Eric, but not me–he was kind of giving me a limp handshake–just because Eric was capable of making the right kind of approach to him. It was a difficult time. You have to remember the other thing about him, that he was astonishingly sexual, and I was there with my wife, you know, the girl I loved. And you could just sense this whole thing in the room where every woman would just [claps] at a snap of a finger. I mean, there were situations sometimes where Jimi would do it. He wasn’t particularly in control of his ego at the time….I found him very charming, very easy, a very sweet guy. You know, I just kept hearing stories. I mean, one story I’ve heard–I think I might have been there–was the night that he went up to Marianne Faithful when she was there with Mick Jagger and said to her in her ear ‘What are you doing with this asshole?’ There were moments like that when he would be very, very attracted to somebody and felt that he would actually be able to get them, and he just couldn’t resist trying. There were no boundaries, and that really scared me. You know, I don’t like that kind of megalomaniacal perspective.
Ah! Except now…
Well, I think it’s very important to respect other people’s relationships. I’m not saying property or territory or emotional space, but their relationships. You know, with relationships there are always opportunities, If you’re a sophisticated person, you know when you see somebody that if there’s a chance of you and them having a relationship together somewhere else at some other time, that a look is enough. It doesn’t need you to go up and say in somebody’s ear ‘What are you doing with this asshole?’
Jimi became sure of himself. I’m talking about the first two weeks he was in London; you know, it was a new band, and they were just taking London by fucking storm! You can’t believe it….I suppose I went away and got very confused for a bit. I kind of groped around. I had a lot of spiritual problems, I asked my wife to marry me before it was too late [laughs], and started work on Tommy a bit later.
I just felt that I hadn’t the emotional equipment, really, the physical equipment, the natural psychic genius of somebody like Jimi and realized that what I had was a bunch of gimmicks which he had come and taken away from me, and attached to not only the black R&B from whence they came, but also added a whole new dimension. I did actually feel stripped, to some extent, and took refuge in my writing.
Well, there sure is a lot to unpack there. Sheesh! But no time to dilly dally–there is another whole interview to cover!
The second part of the Townshend interview continued with topics ranging far beyond simple guitar discussions. The following two lengthy excerpts have Pete discussing the music scene of the late 1960’s compared to that of the late 1980’s and of the role of drugs in the creative process. He takes swipes at Woodstock (which just celebrated its 50th anniversary) and Live Aid in the course of his remarks.
Do you think that bringing back Tommy now is a way to cajole a spiritual reawakening, a sense of reflective self-awareness in the American culture?
….[In the ’60’s] people were devastated by what was going on around them. Devastated. People don’t admit it; I find myself in a sort of a class of one, having the courage to admit that I hated Woodstock, and it was actually quite horrible to be up to your neck in mud. And in a sense, people were looking for something to hang onto. Tommy actually filled a need; there were people out there with a spiritual hole in their life which they filled up–and partly created—by using psychedelic drugs. Everybody was using psychedelic drugs, and the people who weren’t were using strong hallucinogenics, even though they didn’t know it, in the shape of marijuana. You know, if you took six joints in a row you were in the first stages of a psychedelic experience anyway. And that was just rampant. You’d look out at an Electric Factory audience, or a Fillmore audience and you’d realize that at least a third of them were on serious LSD trips and the rest were stoned. And Woodstock, well, the whole audience was on LSD. It’s really quite a grotesque idea, that you’re actually there with a million mad people. ….
What the young people are doing at the moment is very different. I think they’re actually trying to make some kind of sense out of their parents’ experiences. They’ve been told about this dream, this wonderful time–you know, you look at the lineup of Woodstock, and there’s not a bad fucking band there! [Blog editors’ note: he must have forgotten about Sha Na Na.] And when you listen to the charts today, or if you look at Live Aid, for example, there was a lot of rubbish. I say rubbish–that’s a bit cruel. There was a lot of very average stuff.
In musical terms, that era really does seem a lot more appealing.
A lot of young Americans say just that: they’re trying to get context….I mean, people who are in their teens right now, and are particularly intelligent music listeners who can recognize the genius of something like Prince, or the genuine talent of a band like U2. They’re stunned by artists like Madonna or Michael Jackson, by their ability to manipulate the audience, their craft, to make so much money so quickly and to stay sane. How do they do it? So the first thing you say is that they’re not sane, that they’re actually lunatics. But none of them are, they are all extraordinary people, and in the case of Prince, you’re dealing with an indisputable, giant genius who is only going to appear in context over the next two or three hundred years. You know, he’s Chopin, that’s who he is. He’s today’s Chopin….
Now how does a young record buyer deal with all that? Only by tracing how Prince could possibly have been created. He has to know all about Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard, two major influences in Prince’s career. He’d then have to know all about Joni Mitchell, because she is another major influence on all of the harmonic substructures of Prince’s music, all of the delicate suspensions and stuff. You then have to see how Joni Mitchell was affected by all of the rock people around her; how she was affected by my writing, and how she was possibly affected by the constant use of suspensions and such by the other British musicians she associated with.
The black musicians of the moment are actually rewriting the book on stardom . This is yet another new punk invasion, in a sense, with big house-music and rap artists creating companies which they then completely and utterly dominate. And they understand that the reason you run a company after you’ve had a rap hit is because…you only want to be a star for five minutes.
It’s been said that Live at Leeds and the Who’s live performances during that period gave birth to heavy metal. Yet it’s been reported that you despise the form. Is that true?
I don’t despise it. I think it’s very light-hearted, isn’t it? You know, I’m not into men in Spandex trousers with hair like that [holds palm one foot from head]. I’m kind of confused as to why these guys look like that, and why it is that they think they look so cool. Maybe they would just say that I was old-fashioned, I don’t know….But today, a lot of these guys in Spandex trousers and hair like that are playing some of the most unbelievable guitar, and you can’t really argue with it.
Again, ask a simple question, get a dissertation for a response. I do think it is interesting that Townshend can be textbook “it was better in my generation” at the same time as being able to recognize greatness among the next generation of artists. Speaking of long answers, this next one about drugs and other mind-altering substances tells us lots about Pete Townshend:
Do you feel that once you began to use marijuana during your early twenties it opened up many creative doors?
I think it was really important–maybe not as important as alcohol is for somebody as shy as I am socially [Townshend drank bottles of cognac a day for many years], but very, very important, because it does change your perception of music and it allows you to enjoy without analysis. I think it allows you to stand outside yourself as a listener and as an observer when you perform….And it’s sad, in a sense, that as a drug, marijuana actually tends to turn you into such a softball in the end. But I think it’s still a very, very useful artistic relaxant for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s very successful socially; you tend to giggle too much, you know. I still think that alcohol is very good socially. But both things have been disastrous for me, ultimately, because I’ve relied on them too much….
When you’re drunk, you know that you can get away with going up to somebody that you’ve got absolutely no hope of ever even politely brushing their cheek, and just saying ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world-I love you, I want you, I’ll give up everything just for you.’ And she might turn around and say ‘Oh, that’s very flattering, I’d love to have you as my friend.’ When you realize you can do it drunk, you then realize that it works sober, too. It’s just having the courage to say it, having the courage to do it, having the courage to go for what you want. And the same is true with music. If you’ve got the courage, you can do without marijuana what you can do with it.
The article does have lots of stuff about Townshend’s gear, his chord structures (don’t play the third in a chord with distortion) and much more, but you can probably find that in other interviews more widely available. I hope you found these excerpts to be as interesting as I did.
The Steve Morse interview by the always dependable Jas Obrecht was a little less philosophical than the Townshend ones, but still quite interesting. My lasting memories were that he had given up a career in music to become an airline pilot, and then returned to music, which I found fascinating. I’d been a fan of the Dixie Dregs in high school, and I have always found the way that Morse can go between that kind of jazz-fusion music to playing in Kansas and Deep Purple to be amazing. But in re-reading the article now, Morse’s maturity and wisdom are what stand out to me. Of course, Morse was 35 when this interview took place, so one would expect “maturity”, but he seems much more grounded than, say, Pete Townshend who is a decade Morse’s senior.
Obrecht began the interview by asking “what would you have a would-be Morse clone take from you?” The answer revealed Morse’s modesty as well as his wide-ranging ears for different guitarists:
“Let me answer by example. I’m influenced by [DiMeola, Yngwie, Vai, Satriani] but I’m more influenced by their accomplishments than by their note selections. Pat Metheny was another big influence on me. I never strive to get his tone exactly, or his sense of composition, but I admire his individuality. Same with John McLaughlin: I very much admire his personality and individuality. I admire Jeff Watson’s drive and energy level. Eric Johnson is incredible, too. Vinnie Moore is another great guy who has that same kind of Eric Johnson attitude–you know, real mellow but very, very able, which I like. It’s like those Ninja guys: they’re real polite and everything but you know they could break your neck in a second. The things that motivate you should be your influences, rather than the end product. I would like people to be influenced by my attitude more than my note selection. My note selections are the result of everything else.”
What a good answer! And I think it is applicable in fields other than music as well. I don’t expect to see such thoughtful, mature (and concise, Pete Townshend) remarks in Guitar Player so it really stands out. Obrecht went on to ask Morse about his thoughts on guitar schools, and why he teaches so many clinics; the answers are similar to the one quoted above, showing a thoughtful, confident musician who understands the nature of the music business, and how it is not always synonymous with “music”.
Are guitar schools a good thing?
Definitely. In fact, even if there were just a tree out in the middle of the field where people went every Thursday night just to get together and play and exchange licks, that would be beneficial. The fact that there are meeting places for musicians to have cultural exchange is significant and it’s grown so much since I’ve been playing. It just accelerates the process.
What are the advantages of doing guitar clinics?
It keeps me in touch with the people who pay for my breakfast, and that’s very important for me. Instead of approaching my career as looking for that big shot, that one big break, I’m totally the other way around. Like I said before, I don’t even care what the album sells. At one time I did, maybe in the first week it was coming out, and then I said ‘Wait a second! What are you doing, Steve? Is there something you could do to change that, besides what you’re already doing?’ I said no, I forgot about it, and I started thinking about the music and the tour. And it’s been a really happy moment ever since I realized that. My business is in repeat business. I do my very best every time I tackle a project, and the people who are exposed to it reward me by coming back and buying the next one, if they like it. That’s why these clinics are very special. It gives me a chance to give something back, because I can reach a lot more people than if I gave lessons.
I always touch on a little bit of my philosophy, too. There are some definite messages that I want to pass on, Things like, a guy shouldn’t expect to be in one band and make it big and have enough money to live on for the rest of his life. That happens to one out of literally ten million people in the world. The fact is, you’ve got to be broad-based, very well-educated, and you’ve got to be good with people just to get by in this business. I’m not discouraging people from getting into this business, but I’m trying to make it a realistic evaluation. Because reading Guitar Player, these guys are saying ‘Wow, man. If I could just get this, I’d be happy.” Then they get it, and they realize it’s not what they meant. The business is just different than anyone could possibly imagine it. And you have to experience it to know what I’m talking about.
The article goes on at length about Morse’s then-new Music Man signature guitar, his approach to using delay and composing with computers and other topics, all of which 19-year old me paid close attention to. But this is already a very long blog post and these excerpts were the ones that resonated the most with me as a 49-year old.
Roy Smeck was a guitarist and ukelele virtuoso in the early days of recording. Jas Obrecht caught Smeck shortly before his 90th birthday (a new song for Stevie Nicks? “The Edge of Eighty-Nine?”) and the results were…interesting:
I think the bits I like were when Smeck claimed not to be aware of “modern guitar players such as Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen”, responding that he knows “the big players, like Eddie Lang. You know: the outstanding showmen”. In an example of “throwing shade” decades before the term became popular, Obrecht adds an editor’s note “Eddie Lang passed away in March, 1933”. In fact, he seems to be unaware of any other living guitarists besides one Roy Smeck. You can read the whole interview above–while one doesn’t want to pick on a man born before the Wright Brothers first flight it is hard not to think that Smeck comes off as a rather awkward, uncomfortable person to deal with. But check out this movie about Smeck (from about 6 years before this interview), and he was a pretty impressive musician:
But I think I prefer Steve Morse.
That’s it for now. There is a very extensive (over 10 hours of music) playlist for your listening pleasure–check it out! The November issue looks to be feature packed–another Joe Satriani cover, plus articles on the Doobie Brothers and John Lee Hooker among others. Until then, keep on picking!