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Music

Can they see the real Pete?

After the initial tabloid trashing of the Who guitarist over a visit to a child porn Web site, Britons seem ready to accept his explanation that it was for research.

January 17, 2003|Phil Sutcliffe | Special to The Times

LONDON — A week ago, a British fan of the Who giving a spin to some great old favorites --"My Generation," maybe, or "Pinball Wizard" -- might have taken a moment to imagine Pete Townshend, brilliant songwriter and whirlwind guitarist, at home in a plush London suburb enjoying the fruits of a rock 'n' roll life well spent.

Sure, everyone knows about the wild years, the smashed guitars, the heroin addiction, the alcoholism, the sad deaths of Who drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle. But Townshend was a rebel for decency, a champion of peace, love and understanding with fire in his belly, his career apparently crowned with deep and fond respect.

Today, though, he sits practically incarcerated in that handsome house. He is said to be shelling out $3,000 a day for a team of security guards, his fears of vigilante attack regularly reinforced by insults shouted from passing cars. The words are crude, but they all mean one thing: "Pedophile!"

Yet the wider feeling among his countrymen seems to be that those verbal abusers are in the minority. With Townshend, the perception of a rumbustious integrity is so ingrained that the jaded British actually seem inclined to invoke that weary old notion of believing innocence until guilt is proved.

Even the infamous tabloids have restrained their denunciations.

Certainly, at the start of the week they wielded heavy innuendoes when Townshend outed himself as the pop star named on the list of 7,200 Britons who in the mid-'90s had used Texas-based child-porn Internet portal Landslide Promotions. (Busted in 1999, its proprietor was jailed for 1,335 years.)

For instance, on Monday the Daily Star's front page opened with "revelations that Townshend paid to view sick images of kiddies" and withheld until the 21st paragraph his explanation about visiting the site only once and then for research in connection with a book he is writing.

But after the initial frenzy, tabloid coverage became notably less slanted, while the broadsheets began to reflect the widespread faith that Townshend was fundamentally OK.

The Independent's Deborah Orr asserted, "His defence is compelling.... His account is entirely credible." An unsigned Daily Telegraph editorial even snarled a little on his behalf: "The police saw fit to send 12 officers to arrest Pete Townshend.... Anyone who has been burgled recently may wonder where they suddenly found the manpower ... paedophilia mania is sweeping the land."

Of late, this "mania" has meant local restrictions in Edinburgh schools on parents photographing their children's nativity plays and local papers deciding not to publish pictures of junior sports teams.

Despite these strange undercurrents, though, most people here seem to believe Townshend is clean. His fans want him to be. They need all that music, the memories, the days of their lives to come through intact and untainted.

Talk to fans and profound emotions surface immediately, often relating the Townshend uproar to memories of Gary Glitter, the '70s glam-popster who was jailed for four months in 1999 for downloading child porn and later shown to be a predatory pedophile.

For Ruth Adams, 42, a stained-glass window maker from Gloucestershire, the issue took her back to playing the Who and Gary Glitter with her friends when she was 12: "Looking at Pete Townshend's face in the newspapers, I see someone who is wounded. I do believe what he says about research. I think it's part of a healing process because of the abuse he suffered as a child.

"But Gary Glitter was my hero, and when I heard he was a pedophile, although I was in my late 30s by then, it affected me as if I was a kid again. He broke my heart, betrayed me. We invest so much in the artists we love."

A 38-year-old bank worker from Derby found her feelings ran so deep that when she finished speaking, she asked not to be named.

"I have faith in Pete Townshend," she said. "Everyone I know wants to believe he's innocent. But I was a Gary Glitter fan too, and I was devastated when the truth about him came out because I realized that when I was 12, I loved him so much I'd have gone with him if he'd approached me. I wouldn't have known it was wrong. Adults have to take responsibility for protecting children, not abuse their emotions and their trust."

At least, the faithful millions can take heart from the music world's reaction. In a business where gossip is hard currency, even those close to him say they'd never heard the smallest rumors that Townshend is a pedophile.

TV director Simon Witter, 40, who has interviewed Townshend at length, says, "This story really hit me because the Who meant so much to me while I was growing up. But the great thing about Townshend is his painful honesty. He is always looking for truth in the widest sense. I believe he is completely innocent. For me, this doesn't undermine his heritage, but it does cast doubt on these paranoid times."

Keith Altham, 60, the Who's publicist until the mid-'80s, has known Townshend for 35 years. "The whole thing is ludicrous," he says. "I constantly saw him around kids on the road and his behavior was always impeccable. He was foolish to go to this site even for research. But that's all. He doesn't deserve this. He does deserve respect."

Arrested on Tuesday, Townshend was released on bail until Jan. 28 to allow time for his computers' hard drives to be checked.

If this backs up his claim that he went to the Landslide site only once, it would still be an offense under the U.K.'s Protection of Children Act of 1978, but he could be released with the minimum punishment, a formal caution. (The maximum sentence is 10 years per offense.) However, police often take months to process these cases, so the verdict could be a long time coming.

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