The Day I Met Pete Townshend
Story and Photos by Lawrence White
Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein, Pete Townshend
It was 1979 and I was on an assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine. I was to photograph Pete Townsend after the Robert Klein Radio Show inside RCA Studio in midtown Manhattan. The art director needed one portrait for layout and we were up against the deadline. My specialty as a film photographer was the quick portrait and even faster developing times so that last-minute images could be added to a layout.
This opportunity came during the time period just after the classic album, Who Are You, and while the band released Quadrophenia and the great film/album, The Kids Are Alright. A busy time in the life of an artist.
As I understood it, the photo was to illustrate Mr. Townshend for an article about him as an artist in transition at the moment of intense change in his career. Portrait format. Timeframe 5 minutes at the most. I decided to use my Nikon FE with a 50mm, F2.8 lens plus a 35mm F2.8lens as a backup. I chose Tri-X B/W film for flexibility in tight surroundings and with unknown lighting conditions. (For the real photo-nerds, I developed the film in Edwal FG-7, classic dilution, gentle agitation every 30secs. Standard Kodak fix and washing times.)
When I arrived at RCA and checked in, the producer advised me to wait in the back of the main room. When I asked who the additional guest was I was pleased to learn it was Rodney Dangerfield. During his interview, he famously said of Pete Townshend, “He is the Who, I am the what.”
These were tough days for Pete. He was going through personal problems with sobriety, his marriage, and was still reeling from the death of drummer Keith Moon. I had been a fan of the band since they first appeared with My Generation in 1965, Their second album, A Quick One, has one of my favorite early Who tunes, Boris the Spider written by bass player John Entwistle. The band's performances, played with abandon, were legendary and Pete’s display of violence by smashing his guitars at the end of each show was a highly revolutionary act in those days.
I patiently waited for the show to end and as requested by the producer I did not bring out my camera or create a distraction. I took the opportunity to scan the space to find a likely place to capture the image. A standard flash was simply not going to create the mood to convey the emotion. I saw a location that was slightly off the set with a single diffused reflective light. When the show had been taped, I took out my camera and captured a single image of the three entertainers chatting. The producer then introduced me to Pete who agreed to walk to the space I had seen to create the image.
The lens aperture and f-stop were set so I would be able to complete the job without making demands on his busy schedule. Pete is hip to photography and was impressed that I did not choose the safe route with a flash. I explained that often it is best to use available light which can be seen rather than flash which is only really apparent when you view the photo later and it can wash out the subject. Not a good idea for a pale rock star.
I explained the motif for the image and that I felt the noir type light would illuminate his eyes in such a way that it would reflect the dynamics he was experiencing in his life. He was down with the concept and looked directly into the lens while being bathed in luscious light. It was clear from this close portrait that he was a man going through changes. He appeared vulnerable and world-weary as one might expect from his recent life experiences.
As has been my method for all these years, I captured a single image and one for safety. It is a daring method but it does not give the subjects enough time to get bored. The key is preparation.
We then went to the elevator together to exit the building. I recall we discussed the advent of synthetic music in our conversation never realizing how profoundly the photo industry would be radically changed less than 25 years later by electric digital photography.
When we reached street level, I asked if I could capture one more image as he rushed across the wide sidewalk to a waiting car at the curb. The way he was dressed in soft cloth jacket, neck scarf, a Sherman cigarette casually smoldering on his lip, the cup of tea, the envelope with sheets of lyrics was the essence of a poet. His sharp glance towards something in the future clicked for my eye and I captured the candid image. The moment I saw the film after developing it I knew I had it and indeed it was the photo that was used.
As Pete ducked into the car, he asked "did you get it? I assured him that the images would be great and thanked him for cooperating. As he closed the door, I said something like, “hope to see you on stage next time.” He smiled and waved with a thumbs-up as the car squeezed into traffic.