‘This is not gonna go well.” Those were Pete Townshend's first words after he arrived on the Berklee Performance Center stage and took a seat before Friday's eager sold-out crowd. Perhaps his self-deprecation stemmed from the fact that the event was billed as an interview and “short performance” and he was uncertain how the audience would take to being part of the week's media blitz promoting his new memoir, “Who I Am.”
But Townshend has long been not just the seeker he once wrote about — always searching for purpose, always inquisitive — but one of rock music's foremost hands-on theoreticians. The combination made him a lively, thoughtful talker. Besides, it’s not every day that folks get to see the architect of the Who anywhere other than a cavernous arena.
Since selling books wasn’t an issue (the ticket price included a signed copy), it might not have been necessary for Townshend to hold forth for 35 minutes in a directed talk glancing across topics that everyone could read about later. But the written word couldn’t capture his frustrated affection for Who drummer Keith Moon (who “never controlled the time of a track, he just decorated it”) or the pensiveness with which he reflected on what he called the running narrative of his career: the boy out in the audience, who grew up in the shadow of World War II thinking there was no future.
He was able to go off-book in a brief Q&A, where one audience member’s sharp observation — that Who bassist John Entwistle was the outside songwriter for whom Townshend most frequently played — led him to admit that “they never fell under my fingers, his songs.” He also tersely refused an offer to sign and/or smash another fan’s guitar.
After all that, the 15-minute solo performance showed why any of the preceding even mattered. Townshend moved effortlessly between arpeggiated fingerpicking to frenzied strumming on “The Acid Queen,” and his slightly downtempo “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (sung with a soft resignation that contrasted with Roger Daltrey’s blustery original) was a master class in how to approach acoustic guitar as a percussion instrument, as well as rhythm guitar like a lead instrument. And the instant opening song “Drowned” ended, one boy out in the audience, possibly a music student, launched to his feet and started throwing his fist repeatedly in the air in ecstatic joy.