I wish he had not done it. I believe that his motives were good, but I never thought I would see the day when Pete Townshend would have to say: “I am not a paedophile.”
I am not a person who admits easily to having heroes, but if I were, Pete Townshend would be one of them. Certainly my only musician hero, and not just because The Who were the best rock band in history: the first who played it loud enough to make your ears bleed, the first who broke out of the simple guitars-and-love-song pattern of early rock ‘n’ roll, first synthesizers, first intelligent lyrics, first (and still best) rock opera — and the one band that always gave full measure no matter how rich, famous and stoned they got.
Townshend himself, for all the early dramatics about smashing guitars on stage, always gave the impression of being an intelligent, serious, even moral man, in a trade that is not exactly drowning in those qualities.
Now he’s under suspicion for downloading child pornography from an American internet portal that gave access to thousands of kiddie-porn websites, mostly in Russia or Indonesia. So are about 7,000 other people in Britain whose credit card details were found when investigators in Texas broke into the site. About 1,300 homes in Britain have been raided in “Operation Ore”, and among those arrested already are a judge, some magistrates and hospital consultants, and a deputy headmaster, along with around 50 policemen.
This was all happening very quietly, so that other suspects would not re-format their hard drives before the police got around to knocking on their doors — but then somebody slipped the word to the Daily Mail in London that Pete Townshend’s name had turned up among the 7,000.
Only hours after the Mail hit the streets, Townshend called a press conference to explain that he had only visited the site once, as research for a campaign he was working on against child abuse. Some of the research would be incorporated in a book that he is writing about his own childhood, for he was convinced that he had been sexually abused himself between the ages of five and six-and-half, when he was staying with a mentally-ill grandmother.
“I cannot remember clearly what happened, but my creative work tends to throw up nasty shadows, particularly in ‘Tommy’,” he said. And the mob who love to see the rich and famous brought low went: “Yeah, right, he was doing research for a book.”
It was a very stupid thing to do, but if you look at Pete Townshend’s past, the explanation is credible.
His rock opera, “Tommy”, written over 30 years ago, was all about child abuse at a time when the topic was not in the least fashionable. The scene in which the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” is left alone to be groped by his drunken Uncle Ernie, “Fiddle about, fiddle about” is the first time that the sexual abuse of children actually comes up in mainstream English-language popular art.
Townshend would not have said that he had only ever entered the site once if he actually had done so many times, because he knows that the police already have the credit card records.
The police might never even have contacted Townshend if the Mail had not run its story, for they are clearly exercising some judgement about which of the visitors to the internet site were actually users of child pornography: they haven’t arrested all 7,000 people on the list.
But once Townshend’s name was in the public domain, they could not avoid arresting him — not with all those other prominent people already under arrest. So now he’ll probably have to wade through the whole long nausea of a trial, though he’s still likely to be found innocent in the end.
It’s a miserable business, and I wish he hadn’t done it — though not as much as he does, I’m sure. But this is a good man in a bad time and place, not a bad man.