Pete Townshend gets the Axe
by Regis Boff
There were feathers in the hair of some of the road crew.
I was on the main floor of some Miami arena in the seventies leaning on the front of the stage and watching the rigging come down while talking to one of The Who’s managers, Jackie Curbishley.
I don’t remember which of us first noticed this, but it was curious enough to send us around the stage to where the crew had already backed the trucks in to load up the gear.
No matter the band, the battle that raged between the crews and the VIPs after the show was forever the same. It was class combat at its finest. The Who’s crew, many of whom were with them from the very beginnings, busied themselves importantly with tormenting the backstage guests. The general hospitality areas for shows were ordinarily adjacent to where the road crews were always agitatedly breaking down the equipment and piling shit into the trucks.
Half of the crew was actively hallucinating by the end of each show from no sleep while nearly all the visiting guests were wringing their own white knuckled hands unconsciously due to the onset of too many haphazardly swallowed drugs that were mixing gravely with their cocaine.
The roadies would speed half-ton speaker bins down ramps aiming them deliberately into pockets of assorted record company executives, movie stars and a massive array of self-important locals, who had been dressing themselves for weeks for this very moment, forcing them to dive out of the way. The road manager would be screaming at these poor posing buggers to move somewhere that did not exist, as he tried to separate women from their dates like some slavering, erect feral sheepdog.
In the fifties there was a horrific boat accident in India (the land of Hindus and veteran non-swimmers). A severely overloaded vessel dumped hundreds into the Ganges where the lucky ones quickly drowned while others were bitten by snakes or eaten by crocodiles. This describes accurately this normal backstage warfare. What Jackie and I saw that particular night was an entirely new species of bedlam.
There was a oversized crowd of people intermingled with most of our crew shoving each other to get a look inside one small door that led into the giant hospitality area. Most had a certain amount of feathers on them. The ones at the front were desperately pushing backwards like they were terrified of being pressed by the crowd’s momentum into the room itself.
Jack and I pushed our way in. Things became more strenuous to describe when inside.
When all these, now old, arenas were built, there was no such thing as sprinkler systems. Water piping systems latticed every hallway in the entire building. These were all were tunneled into glass covered wall closets where huge hoses were spun and hung on hooks; some could be 200 ft. in length. Beside these hoses was a great huge nob to turn them on and always a long fireman’s ax. This imposing little number had a handle that measured at least 4feet in length and a steel head that suggested that forests somewhere down the hall might need some straightening up. The instrument had a sharp blade on one side of its flat head and a great evil hook on the other. It was meant to break through locked doors to escape from fires. The head was always painted a blood red.
Keith Moon leaned on such an ax in the middle of the room, panting heavily.
Pete was standing next to John Entwhistle in a corner having a cup of tea. John was smoking and being characteristically John, just ever so slightly unimpressed. Roger was sitting next to Bill, Jackie’s husband, protecting the only remaining sofa. Jack and I quietly move in and sat down with them. Anne Weldon was probably there along with Jim Callaghan, the band’s head security guy, but I can’t remember clearly if there were any others.
Moon had to have been at this for a while and it would have taken a forensics expert to puzzle together a timetable for the wreckage. A gigantic coffee urn laid spent on the floor appearing to have just stopped writhing and spewing hot liquid after the delivery of a catastrophic blow to its midsection that had burst its contents across the wall and the backs of a half dozen fleeing guests. Bill noted that the coffee wall stain reminded him a little of Led Zeppelin’s drummer if you cocked your head just a touch.
The feathers had come from the promoter’s hapless judgment to try to astonish everybody with posh pillows. Their fluffs had all settled to the floor providing a lowland daybreak view of a massive swan slaughter.
The long buffet table had been capably cut in half, but the splintering showed that Keith must have consumed much energy to get finally through its steel bracings.
It was apparent that we had arrived at the end of only a particular round of this drummer’s match with his bordering physical universe. Nothing yet had been decided, at least not in his mind, (it was certain that the room would have capitulated and called it a day had it been allowed to).
He leaned on the ax all soaked in sweat and splattered with vegetables and dip. He was clearly having difficulty getting a deep breath from fatigue or perhaps he had simply swallowed too many feathers while whacking the pillows.
His wetness was no longer stage sweat as that had long since dried and been toweled off. He still had on his stage outfit, a baseball player’s jersey, (he bought outfits from players as he went from city to city), Santa suspenders and a kelp green ascot. His hair hung in disappointed dark ringlets having lost their contest to do anything but hang from the weight of cocktail sauce and the occasional shrimp shard.
From my standpoint this was going to be expensive but not so very complicated. I, without much fanfare, recorded the damage they did and charged them individually. This included nearly everything from stuffing “catch and release” sized fish for John to Moon’s revolving battalions of hookers. I believe the band trusted me in this, as they never once challenged me. If there were a real grey area I would sit down with Bill for help. Most times he would just pay the difference himself. I would expect a phone call later in the tour from this promoter asking to be reimbursed for all this carnage.
When it came to his fabled and theatrical devastation Moon was more Judy Garland than anybody else in my mind. His demons loved their drama and regardless the personality he recruited to expose at any given moment he was an extraordinarily spontaneous genius. No one ever wanted him to stop.
Having finally gathered his breathing to a plateau where he appeared content that unconsciousness was being held at bay, he was off again having spotted something taunting him in the long rows of unbroken glassware.
By this time some of the onlookers at the door had begun warily inching back in. This proved ill-fated as Moon was just then set to tee off in a cricket match using the axe as his bat and a half dozen pitchers of orange and tomato juices as his balls. He was perched on two poorly balanced ice chests and a chair cushion. He had chosen the door as his target so most of these plucky invaders were now being pelted with glass and suffering unresolvable stains that intensified a new backwards stampede out the door
Into this lawyer’s fantasy of billion dollar lawsuits and ruined low cut blouses stepped Townshend.
Pete commanded that Keith turn over the ax as he had “sensed offense” from a large glowering and yet untouched black clock on the wall. This clock, according to Pete, was attempting an uninvited walk-on into Moon’s coffee urn wall mural. He called it that “uppity fucking clock”.
This profoundly appealed to Keith as he was clearly now fraying from exhaustion and the lack of an immediate and large audience, having driven them screaming from the room now twice, at least.
With a conspiratorial glint in his eye, he turned away from the eavesdropping clock and secreted the axe to Pete.
Townshend took hold of the axe and brought it hard into the unsuspecting clock, cutting it exactly in half at 12:46 AM.
He turned, walked over to me, handed me the ax and said, “Put me down for one clock”.