Pre-Teenage Wasteland

Townshend trapped by deaf, dumb, and blind laws


Iconic rock star Pete Townshend, guitarist and songwriter for The Who, isn't the first prominent rock star you might expect to be caught up in child porn accusations. His image has never been sneeringly libidinous, like Mick Jagger's, or transgressively intellectual and blandly creepy, like David Byrne's. (Since one can't be too safe in this current hysterical environment, let me underline that I am not accusing either man of an interest in or possession of child porn.)

Townshend's niche has always been more big brotherish—concerned, conflicted but honest, deeply fascinated with and understanding of the confusions, manias, and travails of teens — particularly teen boys. That used to sound noble and valuable to his fans. (And yes, I'm one of them—from age 14 to 24, his classic saga of a conflicted teen, Quadrophenia, was my hands-down favorite album.) Now it sounds creepy and possibly damning, in the wake of Townshend's arrest (though still without official charges, and he is not now in custody) on suspicion of possessing child porn on his computers. The rocker's collaring was part of an international police operation known as Operation Avalanche. (Priests, also formerly admired for an ability to relate to and mentor young men, are similarly tainted these days.)

Ah, the dark shadows are easy to see all through Townshend's career, if you look for them. He's written two songs about porn and masturbation—"Pictures of Lily" and "How Can You Do It Alone?" The plot of Psychoderelict, his last album of new material from 1993, centered on an aging rock star disgraced by a scheming media over an affair with an underaged girl. The plot of his most famous work, Tommy—a runaway hit as a double LP, a Broadway show, and, well, an interestingly peculiar Ken Russell movie—concerns a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball messiah who is, among other things, sexually abused by his wicked Uncle Ernie.

The whole case shows how perceptions can change. News reports might lead you to think that Townshend's confession that he has viewed internet child porn only came last week as the police net closed in. In fact, it came in an impassioned anti-child porn essay that appeared on his Web site, spun off the suicide of a friend haunted in adulthood by memories of child sex abuse. He discussed how horrified he was to discover how easy it was to find the stuff, and the horrendous nature of the stuff he found. In that context, no one anywhere raised an alarm or called for a hanging. But in the context of a legal investigation, that very same behavior that seemed perfectly understandable seems disgusting and damning.

It could be, of course, that this was a devilishly clever attempt to lay the groundwork for an alibi a year in advance. Those who want to hang him will be quick to believe that. But Townshend has always been known for a disarming, even if often foolhardy, openness. Just look at his refreshing declaration, after being implicated in this current mess, that when it comes to the adult stuff, "I've always been into pornography and I have used it all my life." This does not seem to be a man cleverly manipulating the media to maintain pure innocence.

While some might—and have—maintained that the mere violation of the law about possessing or viewing the images should be enough to pillory Pete, motive is important. And if Townshend's motive is as he maintained, it ought not be a legal matter. To avoid thoughtcrime, the laws should concentrate on those committing the abuse of making the stuff, not just seeing it under any circumstances. Even what seem to be completely legitimate reporters and researchers can be snared in the web of current child porn law enforcement. The disgust many feel for Townshend does not come from the thought that—my God!—he may have violated a statute. It comes from the thought that he is a predatory creep who gets off on and approves of images of children forced into sexual situations. But not everyone who might ever have seen such an image fits into that mold.

But perfectly proper hatred of child porn and child sex abuse has become somewhat cancerous in our culture. When the wildest therapist-induced "memories" of previously forgotten past abuse are given quick credence, where the attorney general insists that even material that isn't actually child porn ought to be treated that way legally if it seems like it might be, or where possession of kitschy nostalgic gay erotica whose specific nature the owner could well not even be aware of, as with Pee Wee Herman, is considered a reputation-destroying criminal offence, a sense of proportion or making fine—and important—distinctions about motives can't be expected.

It is perhaps too easy to blame the cops or the media when circuses like this irreparably destroy a man's reputation. Of course, they were both just doing their jobs. It's the people making the unkind inferences who might want to consider being ashamed of themselves. There are the usual lessons—hoary, but always worth noting—about the value of not leaping to conclusions, making unsupported and damaging inferences, sullying people's names without strong evidence. In this case, those lessons arise from the enforcement of statutes that are as deaf, dumb, and blind to important questions about motive as was Townshend's Tommy.