Who's Jewish? Pete Townshend, circa 2000.

The Secret Jewish History of The Who

The Who, the English rock group, recently launched their 50th anniversary world tour, saying that it will be their last — a claim they have been making since at least 1982. On this tour, the Who are mostly performing their best-known hits and fan favorites, including songs like “Pinball Wizard” from their rock opera, “Tommy.”

If the group’s visionary songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend had had his way, “Tommy” — an allegory about a traumatized messiah — would not have been the band’s first rock opera. Following a visit to Caesarea, Israel in 1966 with his first wife, Karen Astley, and the subsequent outbreak of the Six-Day War, Townshend began work on “Rael,” a song cycle loosely based on Israel’s struggle to survive despite being massively outnumbered by its enemies. “Rael” — short for “Israel” — got sidetracked, partly due to the demands of the Who’s record company for faster delivery of more hit singles, and “Rael” was consigned to the shelf. The only song that has surfaced from that project is called “Rael” and appears on the late 1967 album, “The Who Sell Out.”

A deeper examination of who Pete Townshend is, which he provides in his aptly titled autobiography, “Who I Am,” reveals a man who, while not Jewish himself, has great empathy for the Jewish people and who sees the world very much through the eyes of a Jewish-influenced character.

The son of musicians with a tempestuous marriage, Townshend in his early years was shuffled around among relatives, friends and neighbors while his parents came and went, carrying on relationships outside of their marriage. In his autobiography, Townshend waxes nostalgic not for the comfort of his family, but for the Jewish world that protected him: “We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket.”

After a stint being raised by his grandmother, a period during which he was abused by her and the parade of boyfriends tramping in and out of her flat, he returned home to his parents. Again, his surroundings gave him the most security and happiness: “I was seven, and happy to be home again, back in the noisy flat with a toilet in the back yard and the delicious aroma of Jewish cooking from 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 chum of Townshend’s. When the group’s lead guitarist quit the band, Entwistle recommended his friend. As Townshend tells it, the audition went something like this:

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

Townshend: “Yes.”

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

And so began The Who, a unique group of misfit musicians, none of whom played their instruments in conventional fashion. Drummer Keith Moon was no mere timekeeper; his was more of a textural, orchestral approach, and if you listen to the group’s early singles you’ll be surprised to hear drum solos where there would typically be guitar solos, which Townshend rarely played. Bassist John Entwistle filled the musical mid-range with soaring arpeggios and riffs, more like the work of a keyboardist than a bassist. And Townshend approached the guitar purely as a vehicle for sound and impact. “In rock ‘n’ roll the electric guitar was becoming the primary melodic instrument, performing the role of the saxophone in jazz and dance music, and the violin in Klezmer,” Townshend wrote.

In recent years, Townshend’s thoughts have once again turned back toward the concerns he expressed “Rael.” As he told an interviewer for Rolling Stone in 2006:

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

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

Apparently, Townshend’s immersion in all things Jewish has rubbed off on his musical partner of 50 years, Roger Daltrey, who, when asked recently if the current tour is indeed really the group’s last, groaned 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 won’t do long, schlepping tours. It’s killing us.”

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

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