The Secret Jewish History of The Who – The Forward

Editor’s note: In honor of Pete Townshend’s 77th birthday, we’re revisiting his band’s Jewish history that we first looked at in 2015.

The Who, the English rock band, are in the middle of another tour, one which they claim could be their last – a claim they have been making since at least 1982. On this tour, The Who mainly perform their most famous hits and fan favorites, including songs like “Pinball Wizard” from their rock opera, “Tommy”.

If the band’s visionary songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend had succeeded, “Tommy” – an allegory of a traumatized messiah – would not have been the band’s first rock opera. After a 1966 visit to Caesarea, Israel with his first wife, Karen Astley, and the ensuing outbreak of the Six Day War, Townshend began work on “Rael”, a song cycle loosely based on the Israel’s struggle to survive despite being outnumbered. by his enemies. “Rael” – short for “Israel” – was hijacked, in part due to demands from the Who’s record label for faster delivery of more hit singles, and “Rael” was relegated to the shelf. The only song from this project is called “Rael” and appears on the late 1967 album, “The Who Sell Out”.

A closer look at who Pete Townshend is, which he provides in his aptly titled autobiography, ‘Who I Am’, reveals a man who, despite not being Jewish himself, has great empathy for the people. Jewish and who sees the world through the world. eyes of a figure of Jewish influence.

The son of musicians with a rocky marriage, Townshend in his early years was shuffled between relatives, friends and neighbors as his parents came and went, maintaining relationships outside of their marriage. In his autobiography, Townshend becomes nostalgic not for the comfort of his family, but for the Jewish world that protected him: “We shared our home with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents were Jewish. . I remember a noisy and happy Easter with lots of Gefilte fish, minced liver and the aroma of slow roast beef brisket.

English rock musicians Roger Daltrey (left), on vocals, and Pete Townshend, on guitar, both of the band The Who, perform on stage at the International Amphitheatre, Chicago, Illinois on December 8, 1979. Photo by Getty Images

After being raised by his grandmother, a period during which he was abused by her, and the parade of boyfriends running in and out of his apartment, he returned to his parents. Again, his environment gave him the most security and happiness: “I was seven years old and happy to be home again, back in the noisy apartment with the toilet in the yard back and the delicious aroma of Jewish cuisine upstairs. It was all very reassuring.

The Who evolved from a band called The Detours originally led by vocalist Roger Daltrey, who played guitar at the time. The band included bassist John Entwistle, a high school classmate of Townshend. When the band’s lead guitarist left the band, Entwistle recommended his friend. As Townshend recounts, the audition went something like this:

Daltrey: “Can you play ‘Hava Nagilah’?”

Townshend: “Yes.”

Daltrey: “You’re in. See you next Tuesday night.”

Thus began The Who, a unique group of misfit musicians, none of whom played their instrument in the conventional way. Drummer Keith Moon was no mere timekeeper; it was more of a textual and orchestral approach, and if you listen to the band’s early singles you’ll be surprised to hear drum solos where there would usually be guitar solos, which Townshend rarely played. Bassist John Entwistle filled the musical midrange with soaring arpeggios and riffs, sounding more like the work of a keyboardist than a bassist. And Townshend approached the guitar solely as a vehicle for sound and impact. “In rock ‘n’ roll, the electric guitar became the main melodic instrument, taking the role of the saxophone in jazz and dance music, and the violin in klezmer,” Townshend wrote.

In recent years, Townshend’s thoughts have again turned to the concerns he voiced “Rael”. As he told a Rolling Stone interviewer in 2006:

Last week I was reading about this book that just came out. These are the Polish Jews who came out of the concentration camps and returned to their homes, who had been picked up by Christians who thought the Jews would not return. What happened was another wave of anti-Semitism in which dozens of people were massacred by Christians in Warsaw. The premise was that there was witchcraft. The Jews, of course, drank the blood of children. I went there, it’s done. F—king hell. And I was like, ‘Why am I so excited about this fucking story?’ But that’s because, as a child, my best friend, Mick Leiber, was Jewish. We grew up in a community that was about a third Polish. We lived in a house that was divided into two, and in the upper part lived a fairly devout Jewish family. Polish Jews were the children I played with. They were my people. I remember saying to my mother: “Aren’t the Poles from Poland? And she replied, “Yes, they were Britain’s first allies in the war.” I would say, ‘But they’re not like foreigners. They are like us. And she said, “Yes, they’re like us.”

Unlike other British rockers, including Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, who are strong supporters of a cultural boycott of Israel, Townshend has a pro-Israel stance, as he told the same Rolling Stone interviewer at about the Who’s album, “Endless Wire,” a 10-song “mini-opera” about kids forming a rock band in the post-9/11 world.

And where are we today? We are in the same anti-Semitic apologetic denial – it’s a rag of politics. Trying to blame Israel for defending a country we created. And I’m not even Jewish! Jesus p—King Christ. And let’s start with him! Sweet Jesus. This album absolutely had to contain several songs about Jesus the man, Muhammad the man, but not about Christianity or modern Islam. They are both potentially anti-Semitic today. And I think the thing is, when I was working on this album, I was just thinking, ‘It’s time for me to finish my story.’ At this time in my life, with the nuclear threats coming from Iran and Korea, I get so impatient with the ex-hippies around me. I’m suddenly thinking like an extreme reactionary, right-wing, warmonger… Holy shit, come into my brain! The incredible death toll in the last war clearly shows that we cannot afford to wait to be struck down again. It’s my opinion. This is my story. Peace is something that must be done. It does not come from passivity.

Incidentally, “Endless Wire” also includes a song called “Trilby’s Piano”, a song about the hidden and forbidden love of a Jewish man named “Hymie”, sung by Townshend.

Apparently Townshend’s immersion in all things Jewish has rubbed off on his longtime musical partner Roger Daltrey, who when asked some time ago if the band would really stop touring, moaned like an old Jewish man: “We will always do shows for charity. , when we can, because it’s of enormous value to people and Pete [Townshend] and I love to play. But we will not do long and laborious tours. It kills us.

Seth Rogovoy writes frequently about the intersection of popular culture and Jewishness for the Forward. He was often mistaken on the streets of major metropolitan areas for Pete Townshend.

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