The Last Rock Hero

13 January 2003

The Last Rock Hero

By Gwynne Dyer

I wish he had not done it. I believe that his motives were good, but I never thought I would see the day when Pete Townshend would have to say: “I am not a paedophile.”

Let me tell you a story about the Who. It was in the late 70s, a decade after their first flush of fame, and Pete Townshend had been off the road for almost three years fighting his drink and drug demons. (No special breaks for rich and famous rock stars who get offered endless supplies of really good drugs, but as Joe Cocker put it in his anthem, “It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door.”) So they were getting back out in public in a tentative way, doing unadvertised gigs in small venues in the less fashionable parts of London.

I heard about the one at the Sundowner up in Edmonton at the last minute, and frankly I’d never been that far north in London before. Two more tube stops, and you’d be in Scotland. And like always, they gave value for money, playing the whole canon from ‘My Generation’ to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’. One hour, two hours, three and all four or five hundred people packed into the venue are uneasy, looking at their watches, because we’re a long way from home, and the last underground train is going now, and lots of us don’t even have taxi fare to get back to our parts of London. But they’re still playing, and nobody leaves.

So finally the Who leave the stage, close to midnight, and we all spill out into the winter dark wondering how the hell we’re going to get home. And there, lined up outside the theatre, are a dozen chartered buses with signs in their windows for all the different boroughs of London. It took a while, but they got us all home, right to our doors.

I am not a person who admits easily to having heroes, but if I were, Pete Townshend would be one of them. Certainly my only musician hero, and not just because the Who were the best rock band in history: the first who played it loud enough to make your ears bleed, the first who broke out of the simple guitars-and-love-song pattern of early rock’n’roll first synthesisers, first intelligent lyrics, first (and still best) rock opera — and the one band that always gave full measure no matter how rich, famous and stoned they got. Townshend himself, for all the early dramatics about smashing guitars on stage, always gave the impression of being an intelligent, serious, even moral man, in a trade that is not exactly drowning in those qualities.

Now he’s under suspicion for downloading child pornography from an American internet portal that gave access to thousands of kiddie-porn websites, mostly in Russia or Indonesia. So are about 7,000 other people in Britain whose credit card details were found when investigators in Texas broke into the site. About 1,300 homes in Britain have been raided in ‘Operation Ore’, and among those arrested already are a judge, magistrates, hospital consultants and a deputy headmaster, along with around fifty policemen.

This was all happening very quietly, so that other suspects would not re-format their hard drives before the police got around to knocking on their doors — but then somebody slipped the word to the Daily Mail in London that Pete Townshend’s name had turned up among the 7,000.

Only hours after the Mail hit the streets, Townshend called a press conference to explain that he had only visited the site once, as research for a campaign he was working on against child abuse. Some of the research would be incorporated in a book he is writing about his own childhood, for he was convinced that he had been sexually abused himself between the ages of five and six-and-half, when he was staying with a mentally ill grandmother. “I cannot remember clearly what happened, but my creative work tends to throw up nasty shadows, particularly in ‘Tommy’,” he said. And the mob who love to see the rich and famous brought low went: “yeah, right, he was doing research for a book.”

It was a very stupid thing to do, but if you look at Pete Townshend’s past the explanation is credible. His rock opera ‘Tommy’, written over thirty years ago, was all about child abuse at a time when the topic was not in the least fashionable. The scene in which the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” is left alone to be groped by his drunken Uncle Ernie “Fiddle about, fiddle about” is the first time that the sexual abuse of children actually comes up in mainstream English-language popular art. Townshend wouldn’t say that he only entered the site once if he actually had done so many times, because he knows that the police already have the credit card records.

The police might never even have contacted Townshend if the Mail had not run its story, for they are clearly exercising some judgement about which of the visitors to the site were actually users of child pornography: they haven’t arrested all 7,000 people on the list. But once Townshend’s name was in the public domain, they could not avoid arresting him — not with all those other prominent people already under arrest. So now he’ll probably have to wade through the whole long nausea of a trial, though he’s still likely to be found innocent in the end.

It’s a miserable business, and I wish he hadn’t done it — though not as much as he does, I’m sure. But this is a good man in a bad time and place, not a bad man.


This article is 950 words long. To shorten it to 675 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 4. (“Let me…doors”)