Pete Townshend's daughter looks back on her extraordinary childhood

As the Who prepare to headline Glastonbury next Sunday, Pete Townshend's daughter Emma looks back on her extraordinary childhood in the shadow of one of the world's greatest rock'n'roll bands - starting with the day she went to Woodstock in a carry-cot
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the last year of the 1960s my parents, still little more than teenagers, packed up their bags and headed off to the States to spend another summer living in America, while my dad was touring. Two years before, in June 1967, they had done the same thing. That year, their destination had been Chicago and then on to Monterey Pop. Monterey had been the first real rock festival: up till then only folky acts such as Bob Dylan had managed to get on the bills at jazz festivals such as Newport. But Dylan got into all that famous trouble when he played electric guitar at Newport, and so amplified music had to find another home.

"Oh, Monterey was lovely," my mum remembers, smiling nostalgically about a day of meeting people who would become lifelong friends. "Yes, well, she had a very nice time," recalls my dad, later and separately, putting on a comically cross voice. "She'd just had her hair cut into this short, short perm, and she looked like Betty Boop. Everyone kept coming up and asking me, 'Hey, where's Betty Boop? Where's Betty Boop?' No one was interested in me, they just wanted to find her."

But in 1969 my parents were heading for Woodstock. And this time, they took a new baby with them: me, in a carry-cot. They weren't the only people taking a baby. My friend Justin Kreutzmann was also born that summer, and his dad, one of the Grateful Dead's two drummers, can be seen clearly in the movie footage climbing out of a helicopter with Jerry Garcia; slung conscientiously over one shoulder is Justin's diaper bag.

Monterey Pop had been held in a mellow Californian June at the height of flower power, with only 200,000 visitors. Woodstock was a chaotic half a million, in a boiling hot August, with resentments brewing between those who had lawfully bought tickets and those who had torn down fences, eventually forcing festival organisers to make it free. "It was bad," says my mum. "We set off thinking it was going to be nice, like Monterey, but with a baby. But even the traffic made you feel like it was chaotic and awful. It was already clear it was going to be a nightmare, because everyone was in such a panic. And there was this terrible, out-of-control atmosphere in the backstage area. Everyone walking round saying 'You better go back, or you're going to get stuck here.'"

My parents were left with a dilemma. "We thought that because you were such a little baby that I should go back, so I went back to the hotel," says my mum. "And actually then I had quite a nice time. Quite a few people had just stayed at the hotel, and the bad things seemed to happen somewhere else. Someone got electrocuted who climbed up on the fence, I think. Next morning in the hotel the money all seemed to have disappeared, and I don't know whether anyone got paid. Rumours were running around that someone had run off with it."

My dad's experience was even less happy. The bill was so long on the Saturday that the Who didn't go on until three o'clock in the morning, after both the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival, which you'd have imagined would have mellowed out any crowd. However the Grateful Dead had been mildly electrocuted every time they touched their guitars, which nobody took as a good sign. Still, the Who managed to play a 24-song set. "It just felt so different once you have a child," my father says, ruefully. "It was just nasty."

Woodstock ended up being a significant moment in our family life, because from then on my mum stayed at home in England with us, and my dad went away on his own. My sister and I learned to read, we got fed muesli and home-made fishfingers, and developed pangs of longing for the extremely forbidden sliced white bread. We lived this very predictable, organised life at home, and dad went away and came back, with no regularity, no pattern, no predictability.

People always seemed surprised when I tell them that we lived in this relatively normal way. My friend Justin comments on growing up amongst the Grateful Dead: "Everyone has an image of what it must have been like, they just assume they know, because the Grateful Dead were this hippie band, that it would be really caring and sharing, really San Francisco." Everyone thinks they can imagine what your childhood was, because they've heard stories about people throwing televisions out of windows. But no one ever threw a television out of the window, although my dad did once threaten to when I refused to come and eat dinner before the Generation Game had finished. My mum drove us to piano lessons and helped us plant our first seeds. And dad's greatest excesses at home were generally concerned with enthusiastically supporting our slightly wilder fantasies, which were usually to do with gerbils getting to live in doll-houses, like the Two Bad Mice in Beatrix Potter.

I also hassled my dad continually to take me to the British Museum, because I'd become obsessed with Egyptian mummies. About six months into my non-stop barrage, he finally caved in and took me one quiet weekend morning. He remembers that I sat down, happily copying down labels of Shabtis, the little sculptures they buried with the dead, and drawing out the hieroglyphics contained in the cartouches: the circles which tell you the important names associated with the pieces. He sat there, "bored to death", he says. He got to the point where he was seeing things moving in the cases. Then this woman started buttonholing him. "What are you doing to this poor child? This is the most boring room in the British Museum! I can't believe you," she said. "What a bloody horrible person you are, making your child sit there and do that on this beautiful day. God, you make me sick." There was no convincing this woman that, in fact, the child had forced the parent to the British Museum after months of nagging.

Most important of all, we never, ever missed school. My mum was training to be a teacher by the time I was five, and education was always seen as the most important thing. "Oh my God, really?" says Justin Kreutzmann, when I tell him this. "Jesus, we would get a phonecall from the manager halfway through the school term saying 'Your dad is in New York City holding people out of hotel room windows, you have to come here and make him feel normal again,' and school would be totally forgotten, we'd just pack up and go and be with him." But then perhaps Justin's childhood was more real. Perhaps mine was a carefully constructed (omega) fake thing that hid all of the misery and anger somewhere else. Can there be rock'n'roll without that stuff?

One certainty is that from the time I was born there was always music going on. To spend more time at home, my dad built a studio in the house. One of my earliest memories is the feeling of black-plastic studio cabling under bare feet. And immediately, even as a really tiny child, I wanted to join in. "I didn't really want you to have piano lessons," Dad says now. "I used to love the little weird tunes you used to make up. And then some well-meaning person taught you both to play 'Chopsticks' and it was like torture."

Some of the music I loved came from my mum, too. Her dad had written music for film and television programmes such as The Saint and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. She had run off to art school and developed a taste for Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. She was very organised, and made tapes before we set off on summer holiday, buying three or four new albums so that we had something to listen to in whatever isolated spot we ended up.

At the grand age of 29, she developed an almost incurable passion for Bruce Springsteen, resulting in the boiling hot summer of 1976 now being inseparably associated in my mind with "Born to Run", which we played over and over on a little cassette player. Finally, when I was 10, she committed the ultimate maternal disloyalty by actually leaving us in England over Independence Day weekend to go and see Bruce play at home in Meadowlands, New Jersey.

My father, on the other hand, would have some oddly un-rock'n'roll musical enthusiasms. In 1975, the house was filled with the sound of Abba. "'SOS' is the best pop song ever written," he will still insist. "It has all those Swedish folk elements that tap into whatever elemental musical self we have." Another time, he came back from Tower Records with 11 boxes of records. In the boxes, there were no less than three copies of "Off the Wall", Michael Jackson's first solo album. Exactly why did you buy three, I asked him? "Well, it was so good! I just kept thinking I had to be sure to pick up a copy, and I was in a rush, I couldn't remember what I had already got, but I thought, well if I get more than one, I can give it to people as a gift."

And so to the first job I ever had: putting all of my dad's records into alphabetical order. But he wanted them in categories too; the blues records were all to stay together, and the same went for the heavy operas, in box sets of six immaculate pieces of vinyl. I was about eight, I think, not equipped with much useful knowledge for the job. Doing it, I learned about who went where, and began to be able to tell something useful from the cover. Blues records had heavy-looking, sad covers; jazz seemed to have a lighter, breezier feel. But what to do with Charlie Mingus, or Miles Davis? I got the enormous sum of £10 for the whole job, which whiled away a few weekends. Over the course of the next few years, some of these names became real musical presences for me. Talking Heads, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles. I began to be able to identify the sound of whole record labels: Motown, Atlantic records, East Memphis.

Of my four grandparents, three were professional musicians, who had all been in armed forces entertainment during the war. There are fantastically glamorous photos of my dad's parents, he a saxophonist and she a singer, lounging on sofas. Sunday lunch discussions concerned royalty payments, orchestration fees, and a secret new process being developed by computer boffins at an American naval college in New Hampshire, called "sampling."

My favourite A&R man was also my dad's: Mo Ostin, who ran Warner Bros. He already had on his label Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits, Randy Newman; now he signed a little-known, tiny, dark-eyed genius from Minneapolis. Prince turned out album after album, and we received them with total joy, marvelling as each one got better and better and better. I distinctly remember being in Venice and listening to Parade. I said to Dad, "I don't understand how it would be possible to make music any better than this." He was struggling for words: "He's not just a genius!" he spluttered, "He's a quantum genius!" We both stared at the grey sky, feeling both exhilarated by the art and completely depressed.

And my dad's record collection became a source of the greatest pleasure to me. All of Aretha Franklin, all of Stevie Wonder, quirkier things like the B-52s and Stephen Sondheim. But it wasn't entirely a childhood of music. We spent a lot of hours sailing little boats around the coast of Cornwall; there was a weekly trip across the bay from the cottage where we stayed, to get the NME, which came back in a waterproof bag so that it would be pristine on return.

As a family we also spent a lot of time following the spiritual teacher Meher Baba, who my parents, and all their friends, had become interested in. The Who song "Baba O'Riley" now appears most regularly on the titles of CSI New York, but was originally written in connection with the Indian guru, whose smiling face was prominently displayed in most houses I visited as a child. Meher Baba's teachings, touched with Sufism, were inspiring to this generation of seekers.

We went as a family to meet the Murshida, leader of the Sufism Reoriented movement in California, and spent the long, hot summer of the bicentennial year living in Walnut Creek, San Francisco, finding out what it was like to be suburban American kids, running from one backyard to the next. We were still small enough to climb into other people's houses through the cat flaps (though maybe they were enormous American super-size catflaps). As far as spiritual indoctrination went, we went to yoga classes, learnt about reincarnation, went camping in the mountains and drank out of streams; it was very, very gentle. You'd be hard-pressed to see it as anything cultish; it was less My Life in Orange and rather more The Big Lebowski.

Once I was in my teenage years, my dad and I also spent an uncountable number of hours watching Inspector Morse. Those two quiet hours on the sofa, the pace of it, suited the slight awkwardness you might get between a teenager and a dad. The sharing of something you both know you really love, without necessarily having to have any kind of conversation.

Having a famous person for a dad didn't seem especially remarkable at school. When I was about eight, my friend Samantha's mum was on TV in a Benny Hill movie and (omega) I thought that was 100 per cent more impressive than my dad being in a band. And then when I got to secondary school, the atmosphere was set by the headmistress, who was considerably more impressed by properly establishment parents such as John Mortimer and Woodrow Wyatt (The News of the World's "Voice of Reason") than she was by my apparently louche father.

I don't think it was very important to me that other people saw my dad as famous; to me, he was just my dad. Who is really that impressed by what their dad does? I don't know - I was interested in it; but it was hard for me to see the person who would carefully make very, very thin toast, and other little snacks for me when I was ill, as being anything other than my dad. As a teenager, it was probably more significant just that both my parents were not very much older than me. When I was 14, my dad was only 38. They still went to parties and bought records. I knew that they'd taken drugs. It doesn't leave much room for rebellious teenage acts when your parents have done it all before you. Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous is so funny because we can all see how that cool-parent, square-child dynamic could come about. But sometimes having him as a dad coloured things: occasionally, I would be reminded it was always the first thing anyone knew about me. At university, I ended up at a college with a great choral musical tradition, and it was a relief to hang out with classical musicians, who might have been impressed if my dad had been Stockhausen, but, frankly, not some guy from a rock band.

Nowadays, my relationship with my dad is still often measured out in the back-and-forth lending of Kurt Wallander mysteries and conversations about Inspector Lynley. "Did you guess the end of that?" I longed for the Fred Vargas detective novels, that appeared originally in French, to be translated so that I could share their weird sense of humour with him: what a delight when the first one appeared.

And I have several times found him in a dressing room before a show, totally engrossed in a Patricia Cornwell novel; she is responsible for developing our love of the slightly gruesome to a new level. Dad became an armchair expert on forensics. I like the fact that I know that he would watch CSI religiously, even if he had no connection with it. "I watch all of them," he happily relates. "I watch the repeats even. And I get to meet the people in the cast. They come and meet up at shows," he says laughing. "I got to meet Horatio Kane."

And other books go back and forth between us, too. My dad and I have a shared passion for Paul Auster and Michael Chabon. He finds books for me that I haven't seen anywhere else: a collected non-fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, an amazing biography of Herman Melville.

It was a good moment for me when I finally began to be able to repay the favour of all the great music he had introduced me to. Two years ago, I gave my brother Joe Illinois, a Sufjan Stevens album . Joe played it to Dad, and he ended up really loving that. We never imagined we'd be able to sing along as a family to the lines "Abraham Lincoln was the Great Emancipator", but we found that we could. (But I never succeeded in getting my dad to like Radiohead; Kid A made me excited to be alive, excited about the possibilities of an art form that I have such an interest in, excited that it's still possible to change things.)

I have seen the Who play a lot of times, but I'm sure there are thousands of people in the world who've seen them more times than me. I have spent quite a few gigs lying on the sofa backstage reading a book, generally using my other hand to spoon M&Ms into my mouth; the book often, but not always, Agatha Christie. Lately, since my friend Jo's dad died suddenly, I've been much more worried about the finite nature of things; and consequently about actually seeing the show. If people talk to me through even one of the songs, these days I really mind, as if they are stealing my time, my precious moments. I wonder if Jade Jagger feels like this. She and her dad have that sort of feline confidence that makes you think they will probably go on forever.

In 2007, the Who finally play Glastonbury. Daltrey and Townshend will take to the festival stage, all these years later, after all those births and deaths. People say Glastonbury has changed, that now it's full of City boys, that it's full of the kind of people who are organised enough to pre-register for tickets and then get online at exactly the right moment to purchase. That's to say, not hippies. But people go to festivals for the same reasons as they always did - looking for a moment they'll remember for the rest of their lives.

Two years ago, Coldplay were last on the bill on Sunday night, and I listened to them on Radio 1 in the car, having driven home, sitting outside my house and looking up at the same stars. You could hear the size of the crowd at Glastonbury: fields and fields of people all sitting outside in the night sky. They were all singing along to "Fix You". Hundreds of thousands of people, all accompanying Chris Martin, knowing all the words whether they actually liked the song or not. You can get swept away by that at a festival, and find yourself hoarse after singing along to something you previously thought was very, very cheesy. The next day I spoke to my friend Tim Vigon, who manages the Zutons and the Streets. "Oh my God, it's my ambition to manage a band that goes on last at Glastonbury. I was sitting on the sofa watching Coldplay and I was just consumed with jealousy. Listening to that noise of them all singing: everybody singing your song. As the sun is going down."

That noise of everybody singing your song. The rush of that. I know a Who crowd will always go mental for "My Generation", but the song that I find the most perfect, as night falls, is "Baba O'Riley". It is the perfect song for a big crowd in a field. The whole song reminds me of being tiny, when my dad was in his home studio working out a lot of the weird streams of noise that appear on the song. I can remember hearing these very first synthesised patterns floating up from downstairs, and the strange garbled music of a huge rewinding 24-track tape player that lived for a while on the landing outside my bedroom, squeezed in next to the washing machine.

When Roger Daltrey starts singing, the first line is plaintive: "Out here in the fields". The tune stays anchored on just a few notes, lifting and falling. The melody is suspended above the huge chords of the song, giving it a strange touch of melancholy. This May, I have spent a lot of time driving through the English countryside, and although in the past I have mostly heard this song in darkness at rock concerts, it somehow seemed this summer to connect to the cow parsley and the red campion filling the lanes, the pylons and oak trees running next to the motorway. There is something pastoral about the song.

And now I know why. For most of my life, I have only known snatches of lyrics from "Baba O'Riley": "We don't need to be forgiven." But it turns out to be a song about farming for a living, finding forage in the lanes and hedges, after some sort of disaster. However, the point at which people really throw their hearts into singing along is the famous refrain, "Teenage wasteland, it's only teenage wasteland". And the crowd sings the word "wasteland" with such fury, so fiercely, knowing what a wasteland teenage years can be; but at the same time with a kind of savage joy.

What does it mean, that this is the bit people go crazy for? Well, I don't think you will find short stories about modern city life in the Who's music, as you might get from Joni Mitchell. I don't think you will find the drama and sadness of love affairs, as you would from Abba, or the sticky sexual stuff you get from Prince. What you get is a whole crowd of people who were all teenagers once, for whom that song brings back all the feeling of it. The sense of it being May or June - the sap rising, the flowers budding, the birds courting. The wild sense of wanting to try everything. The raw sense of heartbreak when it happens for the first time, when you don't understand how anyone could ever have survived the pain. The way the tune rises and then falls, to a more adult, anchored place, suggests the journey that teenagers all make.

But, for the moment, while you are yelling your head off, out in the middle of a field somewhere, you are getting back all of what you've lost; all the fierceness and foolishness of being 17, all over again, as if it had never been gone. s

Comments