About a year ago, as I was signing with Rhino to publish my book on my own semi-aborted-career as a 'rock star', My Life In the Ghost of Planets - The Story of a CBGB Almost-Was, David Dorn, then the head of the Rhino eBook project, commissioned me to write a book on The Who and my interactions with them as a 'front-row fan'. I'm currently plowing through the final draft of The Who: Choosing My Religion and thought it might be fun to put an excerpt up on Huffington Post.
This, below, is a recounting of one of the most intimate and odd encounters I ever had with my life's hero, Pete Townshend of The Who...
In early 1981, I, along with all my cohorts at the East Village record store I was running, flipped for Adam Ant's "Ant Music" album, a rollicking ant-idote to the then increasingly smug and self-important New Wave. We wore out the grooves on at least three copies. We just loved the silliness, the manic tribal drumming, the odd minimal arrangements, the Jolly Roger meets Tonto look... Drove sensible customers nuts, I can assure you.
So, it was big news indeed when it was announced that Mr. Ant and his fellow Ants were going to play The Ritz in New York City. The Ritz, now Webster Hall, was a classic early-20th century mid-size ballroom with a stage and a semi-surround balcony, capable of holding about 2000 people. As the single hottest Brit export that season, Adam had handily sold it out.
Naturally, me and my Ant-maniac pals were smushed together down front. Adam and the Ants sauntered on and were... underwhelming. I mean, it was fun 'n' all, but, the sound was anemic. The band seemed unrehearsed and were trying to cover that up with that sneering attitude certain Brit acts used to have when coming across the pond to "conquer" America. Mostly, Marco, the Ants' sterling guitarist and creative force, was almost inaudible under the over-mic-ed barrage of 3 drummers.
As the sonics became more and more monochromatic, I was starting to get bored. As my mind was beginning to wander, I heard someone behind me excitedly announce, "Pete Townshend is upstairs in the balcony!"
Yeah, right. Winston Churchill is here, too, no doubt! Anyone with an "outsize hooter" was Pete Townshend. But, then, I heard another urgent voice say the same thing and then another and another...
Fuck! Really? What on earth would Pete be doing at an Adam Ant concert in New York?!
Well, okay, so, what with the preening Mr. Ant being a disappointment, I decided I might as well go up to the balcony to check out this Pete nonsense! I shoved my way out of the seething dance floor crowd and climbed the stairs. I slowly wandered through the throng of VIP-wannabes-types who usually inhabited the balcony, checking a hundred faces as I passed. I got to the far end, no Pete Townshend. I knew it! Asses!
Damn it, I'd wanted Adam and the Ants to kill me the way the album had. No go. Now, I wanted to see Pete. No go. Kinda sucky night.
Go home! I said to myself and, for once, I agreed.
I headed back to the exit staircase. As I got within 30 feet of the stairs, a guy about my height, with his back to me, made a gesture that brushed my shoulder. I turned to say, "Sorry." and there, no more that four feet behind me, was that unique nose-heavy profile, intently chatting up a young to-die-for blond woman who, wide eyed, was hanging on every word.
Fuck, should I even interrupt? He seemed morose yet laser-focused on this very pretty blond female. I turned away and then turned back. What the hell... I told myself it was ridiculous to not say hello. Resolved, I reached out and tugged Pete's sleeve. He half turned, looking peeved at being interrupted, and, now that I was really looking, he was actually kinda disheveled. Here was the "Woke up in a Soho doorway, policeman knew my name" Pete, in the all-too-mere-mortal flesh.
He nodded perfunctorily without meeting my eyes, clearly loaded, frankly.
He now squinted at me, but, still unseeing through his bleary buzz-mist.
"It's me, Binky."
At the mention of my name, his eyebrows shot up, his red-rimmed eyes went wide.
Suddenly, he grabbed me full-force, pulled me to him, and gave me a hug so tight, his arms wrapped around my torso, that my breathing was constricted. And, he wouldn't let go. So, neither did I. He put his hand on the back of my head and pulled me down to his shoulder, so, I did the same to him. I remember thinking, "My God, his hair is as soft a baby's!" His head was sorta on the small size. We stood like this in the middle of the throng for maybe a full 15 seconds just absorbing each other's heat and vibes. His clutch on me had a desperate quality, as opposed to jolly-reunion. As it was happening, I said out loud in my head, "This is a dream."
I opened my eyes and met rock journalist-diva Lisa Robinson's, standing about 10 feet away. She was beaming with a delighted and slightly maternal look that said, "Wow, Binky, I'm so glad to know all those stories about you and The Who are true!"
In fact, it now seemed like at least 20 people were ogling us... "Who the hell is this guy Pete Townshend is clinging to?!"
Pete suddenly pulled away from me, and with great purpose, almost an anger, dragged me by the collar of my jacket away from the crowd around us and into a dark alcove.
The moment we were somewhat alone, Pete urged, "Take off your glasses, Binky."
I did as I was told.
Instantly, Pete bopped me square in the nose. Hard enough to draw tears. Hard enough that I actually saw bright flashes of light. A real no-kidding fuckin' punch in the nose!
I was dumbfounded, doubled over, a very sharp pain in the center of my face.
I looked up at Pete. He was standing there, arms folded in triumph, big So there! grin on his face.
I intuitively knew what had just happened.
Pete was punishing me (punching me!) for not sending him a condolence letter about Keith, a few years earlier. I'd tried. Wrote about four, tore 'em all up, threw 'em all away. I was unable to properly express my sorrow and regret and feared that my anger at Keith for letting himself go and then doing something so obvious would show through my platitudes...
[Pete and I had had an off-and-on correspondence going for almost a decade, something I devote a full chapter to in my book. It had been a long time since I'd written, but, letters-from-Binky were an established occurrence. A letter of condolence letter would have been expected and the absence thereof would have been noted... Seeing as the fucking engine/heart of The Who had died!]
I stood straight up and declared, "I deserved that, didn't I!"
Pete laughed, and then glaring at me with no humor whatsoever, he growled, "Yes, you fucking well did!"
Neither one of us offering the other any more explanation or apology.
Then, once again, his mood changed.
He grabbed my shoulders, utterly empathetic, and practically pleaded with me to tell him I was doing fine. I assured him I was.
"Good, Binky, that's good... ", with an air of Dickensian despairing distraction. He seemed to be on a seriously raw edge.
He was with some people, sort of apologetically jerking his thumb back towards the very pretty blond. He dramatically declared that wished he could stay with me, but, he was stuck. He seemed lost. He seemed on the verge of saying something and stalled. By now, I was really concerned about him. Deciding to be one less weight on his psyche, I grabbed his arm, "Whoa, no problem, Pete! I'm on my way out. It's just great to bump into you here."
His shoulders kind of slumped with a palpable gratitude. We looked at each other. He assured he and I would get together some day to "talk about it all".
We made our way back to his entourage, his famous face leading the way through the crowd.
I said my good night. He glumly waved and turned his attention back to that eager young thing.
The next morning it was announced that the visionary Kit Lambert, The Who's long-time manager, and Pete's artistic mentor, had fallen down a staircase in his home in London, and had died of his injuries the day before.
My God, Pete!