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The Rolling Stone Interviews
Edited by Joe Levy
Edited by Jann S. Wenner
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by Jann S. Wenner
September 28, 1968
The end of your act goes to "My Generation," like you usually do, and that's where you usually smash your guitar. You didn't tonight—why not?
Well, there is a reason, not really anything that's really worth talking about. But I'll explain the pattern of thought which went into it.
I've obviously broken a lot of guitars, and I've brought eight or nine of that particular guitar I was using tonight and I could very easily have broken it and have plenty more for the future. But I just suddenly decided before I went on that if there was anywhere in the world I should be able to walk off the stage without breaking a guitar if I didn't want to, it would be the Fillmore.
I decided in advance that I didn't want to smash the guitar, so I didn't, not because I liked it or because I've decided I'm going to stop doing it or anything. I just kind of decided about the actual situation; it forced me to see if I could have gotten away with it in advance. And I think that's why "My Generation" was such a down number at the end. I didn't really want to play it, you know, at all. I didn't even want people to expect it to happen, because I just wasn't going to do it.
But Keith still dumped over his drum kit like he usually does.
Yeah, but it was an incredible personal thing with me. I've often gone on the stage with a guitar and said, "Tonight I'm not going to smash a guitar and I don't give a shit"—you know what the pressure is on me—whether I feel like doing it musically or whatever, I'm just not going to do it. And I've gone on, and every time I've done it. The actual performance has always been bigger than my own patterns of thought.
Tonight, for some reason, I went on and I said, "I'm not going to break it," and I didn't. And I don't know how, I don't really know why I didn't. But I didn't, you know, and it's the first time. I mean, I've said it millions of times before, and nothing has happened.
I imagine it gets to be a drag talking about why you smash your guitar.
No, it doesn't get to be a drag to talk about it. Sometimes it gets a drag to do it. I can explain it, I can justify it and I can enhance it, and I can do a lot of things, dramatize it and literalize it. Basically it's a gesture which happens on the spur of the moment. I think, with guitar smashing, just like performance itself; it's a performance, it's an act, it's an instant and it really is meaningless.
When did you start smashing guitars?
It happened by complete accident the first time. We were just kicking around in a club which we played every Tuesday, and I was playing the guitar and it hit the ceiling. It broke, and it kind of shocked me 'cause I wasn't ready for it to go. I didn't particularly want it to go, but it went.
And I was expecting an incredible thing, it being so precious to me, and I was expecting everybody to go, "Wow, he's broken his guitar, he's broken his guitar," but nobody did anything, which made me kind of angry in a way and determined to get this precious event noticed by the audience. I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I pounded all over the stage with it, and I threw the bits on the stage, and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really meant to do it.
Were you happy about it?
Deep inside I was very unhappy because the thing had got broken. It got around, and the next week the people came, and they came up to me and they said, "Oh, we heard all about it, man; it's 'bout time someone gave it to a guitar," and all this kind of stuff. It kind of grew from there; we'd go to another town and people would say, "Oh yeah, we heard that you smashed a guitar." It built and built and built and built and built and built until one day, a very important daily newspaper came to see us and said, "Oh, we hear you're the group that smashes their guitars up. Well, we hope you're going to do it tonight because we're from the Daily Mail. If you do, you'll probably make the front pages."
This was only going to be like the second guitar I'd ever broken, seriously. I went to my manager, Kit Lambert, and I said, you know, "Can we afford it, can we afford it, it's for publicity." He said, "Yes, we can afford it, if we can get the Daily Mail." I did it, and of course the Daily Mail didn't buy the photograph and didn't want to know about the story. After that I was into it up to my neck and have been doing it since.
Was it inevitable that you were going to start smashing guitars?
It was due to happen because I was getting to the point where I'd play and I'd play, and I mean, I still can't play how I'd like to play. Then it was worse. I couldn't play the guitar; I'd listen to great music, I'd listen to all the people I dug, time and time again. When the Who first started we were playing blues, and I dug the blues and I knew what I was supposed to be playing, but I couldn't play it. I couldn't get it out. I knew what I had to play; it was in my head. I could hear the notes in my head, but I couldn't get them out on the guitar. I knew the music, and I knew the feeling of the thing and the drive and the direction and everything.
It used to frustrate me incredibly. I used to try and make up visually for what I couldn't play as a musician. I used to get into very incredible visual things where in order just to make one chord more lethal, I'd make it a really lethal-looking thing, whereas really, it's just going to be picked normally. I'd hold my arm up in the air and bring it down so it really looked lethal, even if it didn't sound too lethal. Anyway, this got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until eventually I was setting myself incredible tasks.
How did this affect your guitar playing?
Instead I said, "All right, you're not capable of doing it musically, you've got to do it visually." I became a huge, visual thing. In fact, I forgot all about the guitar because my visual thing was more my music than the actual guitar. I got to jump about, and the guitar became unimportant. I banged it and I let it feed back and scraped it and rubbed it up against the microphone, did anything; it wasn't part of my act, even. It didn't deserve any credit or any respect. I used to bang it and hit it against walls and throw it on the floor at the end of the act.
And one day it broke. It just wasn't part of my thing, and ever since then I've never really regarded myself as a guitarist. When people come up to me and say like, "Who's your favorite guitarist?" I say, "I know who my favorite guitarist is, but asking me, as a guitarist, forget it because I don't make guitar-type comments. I don't talk guitar talk, I just throw the thing around." Today still, I'm learning. If I play a solo, it's a game to me because I can't play what I want to play. That's the thing: I can't get it out because I don't practice. When I should be practicing, I'm writing songs, and when I'm writing songs, I should be practicing.
You said you spend most of your time writing songs in your basement.
A lot of writing I do on tour. I do a lot on airplanes. At home, I write a lot, obviously. When I write a song, what I usually do is work the lyric out first from some basic idea that I had, and then I get an acoustic guitar and I sit by the tape recorder and I try to bang it out as it comes. Try to let the music come with the lyrics. If I dig it, I want to add things to it, like I'll add bass guitar or drums or another voice. This is really for my own amusement that I do this.
I'm working on the lyrics now for the next album. The album concept in general is complex. I don't know if I can explain it in my condition, at the moment. But it's derived as a result of quite a few things. We've been talking about doing an opera, we've been talking about doing like albums, we've been talking about a whole lot of things and what has basically happened is that we've condensed all of these ideas, all this energy and all these gimmicks, and whatever we've decided on for future albums, into one juicy package. The package I hope is going to be called "Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy." It's a story about a kid that's born deaf, dumb and blind and what happens to him throughout his life. The deaf, dumb and blind boy is played by the Who, the musical entity. He's represented musically, represented by a theme which we play, which starts off the opera itself, and then there's a song describing the deaf, dumb and blind boy. But what it's really all about is the fact that because the boy is "D, D & B," he's seeing things basically as vibrations which we translate as music. That's really what we want to do: create this feeling that when you listen to the music you can actually become aware of the boy, and aware of what he is all about, because we are creating him as we play.
Yes, it's a pretty far-out thing, actually. But it's very, very endearing to me because the thing is . . . inside; the boy sees things musically and in dreams, and nothing has got any weight at all. He is touched from the outside, and he feels his mother's touch, he feels his father's touch, but he just interprets them as music. His father gets pretty upset that his kid is deaf, dumb and blind. He wants a kid that will play football and God knows what.
One night he comes in and he's drunk, and he sits over the kid's bed and he looks at him and he starts to talk to him, and the kid just smiles up, and his father is trying to get through to him, telling him about how the other dads have a kid that they can take to football and they can teach them to play football and all this kind of crap, and he starts to say, "Can you hear me?" The kid, of course, can't hear him. He's groovin' in this musical thing, this incredible musical thing; he'll be out of his mind. Then there's his father outside, outside of his body, and this song is going to be written by John. I hope John will write this song about the father who is really uptight now.
The kid won't respond, he just smiles. The father starts to hit him, and at this moment the whole thing becomes incredibly realistic. On one side you have the dreamy music of the boy wasting through his nothing life. And on the other you have the reality of the father outside, uptight, but now you've got blows, you've got communication. The father is hitting the kid; musically then I want the thing to break out, hand it over to Keith—"This is your scene, man, take it from here."
And the kid doesn't catch the violence. He just knows that some sensation is happening. He doesn't feel the pain, he doesn't associate it with anything. He just accepts it.
A similar situation happens later on in the opera, where the father starts to get the mother to take the kid away from home to an uncle. The uncle is a bit of a perv, you know. He plays with the kid's body while the kid is out. And at this particular time the child has heard his own name; his mother called him. And he managed to hear the word: "Tommy." He's really got this big thing about his name, whatever his name is going to be, you know, "Tommy." And he gets really hung up on his own name. He decides that this is the king and this is the goal. Tommy is the thing, man.
He's going through this, and the uncle comes in and starts to go through a scene with the kid's body, you know, and the boy experiences sexual vibrations, you know, sexual experience, and again it's just basic music; it's interpreted as music, and it is nothing more than music. It's got no association with sleaziness or with undercover or with any of the things normally associated with sex. None of the romance, none of the visual stimulus, none of the sound stimulus. Just basic touch. It's meaningless. Or not meaningless; you just don't react, you know. Slowly but surely the kid starts to get it together, out of this simplicity, this incredible simplicity in his mind. He starts to realize that he can see, and he can hear, and he can speak; they are there, and they are happening all the time. And that all the time he has been able to hear and see. All the time it's been there in front of him, for him to see.
This is the difficult jump. It's going to be extremely difficult, but we want to try to do it musically. At this point, the theme, which has been the boy, starts to change. You start to realize that he is coming to the point where he is going to get over the top, he's going to get over his hang-ups. You're gonna stop monkeying around with songs about people being tinkered with, and with Father's getting uptight, with Mother's getting precious and things, and you're gonna get down to the fact of what is going to happen to the kid.
The music has got to explain what happens, that the boy elevates and finds something which is incredible. To us, it's nothing to be able to see and hear and speak, but to him, it's absolutely incredible and overwhelming; this is what we want to do musically. Lyrically, it's quite easy to do it; in fact, I've written it out several times. It makes great poetry, but so much depends on the music, so much. I'm hoping that we can do it. The lyrics are going to be okay, but every pitfall of what we're trying to say lies in the music, lies in the way we play the music, the way we interpret, the way things are going during the opera.
The main characters are going to be the boy and his musical things; he's got a mother and father and an uncle. There is a doctor involved who tries to do some psychiatric treatment on the kid which is only partly successful. The first two big events are when he hears his mother calling him and hears the word "Tommy," and he devotes a whole part of his life to this one word. The second important event is when he sees himself in a mirror, suddenly seeing himself for the first time. He takes an immediate back step, bases his whole life around his own image. The whole thing then becomes incredibly introverted. The music and the lyrics become introverted, and he starts to talk about himself, starts to talk about his beauty. Not knowing, of course, that what he saw was him but still regarding it as something which belonged to him, and of course it did all of the time anyway.
This theme, not so dramatically, seems to be repeated in so many songs that you've written and the Who have performed—a young cat, our age, becoming an outcast from a very ordinary sort of circumstance. Not a "Desolation Row" scene, but a very common set of middle-class situations. Why does this repeat itself?
I don't know. I never really thought about that.
There's a boy with pimple problems and a chick with perspiration troubles and so on.
Most of those things just come from me. Like this idea I'm talking about right now, comes from me. These things are my ideas, it's probably why they all come out the same; they've all got the same fuckups, I'm sure.
I can't get my family together, you see. My family were musicians. They were essentially middle class, they were musicians, and I spent a lot of time with them when other kids' parents were at work, and I spent a lot of time away from them when other kids had parents, you know. That was the way it came together. They were always out for long periods. But they were always home for long periods, too. They were always very respectable—nobody ever stopped making me play the guitar and nobody ever stopped me smoking pot, although they advised me against it.
They didn't stop me from doing anything that I wanted to do. I had my first fuck in the drawing room of my mother's house. The whole incredible thing about my parents is that I just can't place their effect on me, and yet I know that it's there. I can't say how they affected me. When people find out that my parents are musicians, they ask how it affected me. Fucked if I know; musically, I can't place it, and I can't place it in any other way. But I don't even feel myself aware of a class structure, or an age structure, and yet I perpetually write about age structures and class structures. On the surface I feel much more concerned with racial problems and politics. Inside I'm much more into basic stuff.
You must have thought about where it comes from if it's not your parents. Was it the scene around you when you were young?
One of the things which has impressed me most in life was the mod movement in England, which was an incredible youthful thing. It was a movement of young people, much bigger than the hippie thing, the underground and all these things. It was an army, a powerful, aggressive army of teenagers with transport. Man, with these scooters and with their own way of dressing. It was acceptable, this was important; their way of dressing was hip, it was fashionable, it was clean and it was groovy. You could be a bank clerk, man, it was acceptable. You got them on your own ground. They thought, "Well, there's a smart young lad." And also you were hip, you didn't get people uptight. That was the good thing about it. To be a mod, you had to have short hair, money enough to buy a real smart suit, good shoes, good shirts; you had to be able to dance like a madman. You had to be in possession of plenty of pills all the time and always be pilled up. You had to have a scooter covered in lamps. You had to have like an army anorak to wear on the scooter. And that was being a mod, and that was the end of the story.
The groups that you liked when you were a mod were the Who. That's the story of why I dig the mods, man, because we were mods and that's how we happened. That's my generation, that's how the song "My Generation" happened, because of the mods. The mods could appreciate the Beatles' taste. They could appreciate their haircuts, their peculiar kinky things that they had going at the time.
What would happen is that the phenomena of the Who could invoke action. The sheer fact that four mods could actually form themselves into a group which sounded quite good, considering that most mods were lower-class garbagemen, you know, with enough money to buy himself Sunday best, you know, their people. Nowadays, okay, there are quite a few mod groups. But mods aren't the kind of people that could play the guitar, and it was just groovy for them to have a group. Our music at the time was representative of what the mods dug, and it was meaningless rubbish.
We used to play, for example, "Heat Wave," a very long version of "Smokestack Lightning," and that song we sang tonight, "Young Man Blues," fairly inconsequential kind of music which they could identify with and perhaps something where you banged your feet on the third beat or clapped your hands on the fifth beat, something so that you get the thing to go by. I mean, they used to like all kinds of things. They were mods and we're mods and we dig them. We used to make sure that if there was a riot, a mod-rocker riot, we would be playing in the area. That was a place called Brighton.
By the sea?
Yes. That's where they used to assemble. We'd always be playing there. And we got associated with the whole thing, and we got into the spirit of the whole thing. And, of course, rock & roll, the words wouldn't even be mentioned; the fact that music would have any part of the movement was terrible. The music would come from the actual drive of the youth combination itself.
You see, as individuals these people were nothing. They were the lowest, they were England's lowest common denominators. Not only were they young, they were also lower-class young. They had to submit to the middle-class way of dressing and way of speaking and way of acting in order to get the very jobs which kept them alive. They had to do everything in terms of what existed already around them. That made their way of getting something across that much more latently effective, the fact that they were hip and yet still, as far as Granddad was concerned, exactly the same. It made the whole gesture so much more vital. It was incredible. As a force, they were unbelievable. That was the Bulge, that was England's Bulge; all the war babies, all the old soldiers coming back from war and screwing until they were blue in the face—this was the result. Thousands and thousands of kids, too many kids, not enough teachers, not enough parents, not enough pills to go around. Everybody just grooving on being a mod.
I forget if I read this or whether it is something [producer and engineer] Glyn Johns told me. You and the group came out of this rough, tough area, were very restless and had this thing: You were going to show everybody; you were a kid with a big nose, and you were going to make all these people love it, love your big nose.
That was probably a mixture of what Glyn told you and an article I wrote. In fact, Glyn was exactly the kind of person I wanted to show. Glyn used to be one of the people who, right when I walked in, he'd be on the stage singing. I'd walk in because I dug his group. I'd often go to see him, and he would announce through the microphone, "Look at that bloke in the audience with that huge nose," and of course the whole audience would turn around and look at me, and that would be acknowledgment from Glyn.
When I was in school the geezers that were snappy dressers and got chicks like years before I ever even thought they existed would always like to talk about my nose. This seemed to be the biggest thing in my life: my fucking nose, man. Whenever my dad got drunk, he'd come up to me and say, "Look, son, you know, looks aren't everything," and shit like this. He's getting drunk, and he's ashamed of me because I've got a huge nose, and he's trying to make me feel good. I know it's huge, and of course it became incredible, and I became an enemy of society. I had to get over this thing. I've done it, and I never believe it to this day, but I do not think about my nose anymore. And if I had said this when I was a kid, if I ever said to myself, "One of these days you'll go through a whole day without once thinking that your nose is the biggest in the world, man"—you know, I'd have laughed.
It was huge. At that time, it was the reason I did everything. It's the reason I played the guitar—because of my nose. The reason I wrote songs was because of my nose, everything, so much. I eventually admitted something in an article where I summed it up far more logically in terms of what I do today. I said that what I wanted to do was distract attention from my nose to my body and make people look at my body, instead of at my face—turn my body into a machine. But by the time I was into visual things like that, anyway, I'd forgotten all about my nose and a big ego trip, and I thought, well, if I've got a big nose, it's a groove and it's the greatest thing that can happen because, I don't know, it's like a lighthouse or something. The whole trip had changed by then, anyway.
by Jerry Hopkins
July 26, 1969
How did you start this . . . decide you were going to be a performer?
I think I had a suppressed desire to do something like this ever since I heard . . . y'see, the birth of rock & roll coincided with my adolescence, my coming into awareness. It was a real turn-on, although at the time I could never allow myself to rationally fantasize about ever doing it myself. I guess all that time I was unconsciously accumulating inclination and listening. So when it finally happened, my subconscious had prepared the whole thing.
I didn't think about it. It was just there. I never did any singing. I never even conceived it. I thought I was going to be a writer or a sociologist, maybe write plays. I never went to concerts—one or two at most. I saw a few things on TV, but I'd never been a part of it all. But I heard in my head a whole concert situation, with a band and singing and an audience—a large audience. Those first five or six songs I wrote, I was just taking notes at a fantastic rock concert that was going on inside my head. And once I had written the songs, I had to sing them.
When was this?
About three years ago. I wasn't in a group or anything. I just got out of college and I went down to the beach. I wasn't doing much of anything. I was free for the first time. I had been going to school, constantly, for fifteen years. It was a beautiful hot summer and I just started hearing songs. I think I still have the notebook with those songs written in it. This kind of mythic concert that I heard . . . I'd like to try and reproduce it sometime, either in actuality or on record. I'd like to reproduce what I heard on the beach that day.
Had you ever played any musical instrument?
When I was a kid I tried piano for a while, but I didn't have the discipline to keep up with it.
How long did you take piano?
Only a few months. I think I got to about the third-grade book.
Any desire now to play an instrument?
Not really. I play maracas. I can play a few songs on the piano. Just my own inventions, so it's not really music; it's noise. I can play one song. But it's got only two changes in it. Two chords, so it's pretty basic stuff. I would like to be able to play guitar, but I don't have any feeling for it.
When did you start writing poetry?
Oh, I think around the fifth or sixth grade I wrote a poem called "The Pony Express." That was the first I can remember. It was one of those ballad-type poems. I never could get it together, though. I always wanted to write, but I always figured it'd be no good unless somehow the hand just took the pen and started moving without me really having anything to do with it. Like, automatic writing. But it just never happened. I wrote a few poems, of course.
Like, "Horse Latitudes," I wrote when I was in high school. I kept a lot of notebooks through high school and college and then when I left school for some dumb reason—maybe it was wise—I threw them all away. There's nothing I can think of I'd rather have in my possession right now than those two or three lost notebooks. I was thinking of being hypnotized or taking sodium Pentothal to try to remember, because I wrote in those books night after night. But maybe if I'd never thrown them away, I'd never have written anything original—because they were mainly accumulations of things that I'd read or heard, like quotes from books. I think if I'd never gotten rid of them I'd never been free.
A question you've been asked before countless times: do you see yourself in a political role? I'm throwing a quote of yours back at you, in which you described the Doors as "erotic politicians."
It was just that I've been aware of the national media while growing up. They were always around the house and so I started reading them. And so I became aware gradually, just by osmosis, of their style, their approach to reality. When I got into the music field, I was interested in securing kind of a place in that world, and so I was turning keys and I just knew instinctively how to do it. They look for catchy phrases and quotes they can use for captions, something to base an article on to give it an immediate response. It's the kind of term that does mean something, but it's impossible to explain. If I tried to explain what it means to me, it would lose all its force as a catchword.
Deliberate media manipulation, right? Two questions come to me. Why did you pick that phrase over others? And do you think it's pretty easy to manipulate the media?
I don't know if it's easy, because it can turn on you. But, well, that was just one reporter, y'see. I was just answering his question. Since then a lot of people have picked up on it—that phrase—and have made it pretty heavy, but actually I was just . . . I knew the guy would use it and I knew what the picture painted would be. I knew that a few key phrases is all anyone ever retains from an article. So I wanted a phrase that would stick in the mind.
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2007
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Back Bay Books