I was watching an interview of Pete Townshend by Andrew Marr on BBC TV the other evening. Pete was talking about guitar-smashing. As most know, Pete was the first guitar-smashing rock artist. I read on Wikipedia that he “… saw his guitar smashing as a kind of auto-destructive art…” He aligned it with the art of Gustav Metzger. It was Metzger in fact who coined the term: auto-destructive.
There’s a parallel in music: danger music. A major name in Danger Music is Dick Higgins. There’s a performance of one of Higgins’ pieces on You Tube. This is one video I wouldn’t embed in a blog. Here’s the link, but be warned in advance! It didn’t do me any physical damage to listen to this performance (some danger music is designed to do just that to its listeners) but I was deeply disrupted.
Disruption. I’m almost certain that in the Andrew Marr interview, Townshend said that his guitar-smashing was auto-disruptive and not auto-destructive. He said it was about trying to get more sounds out of his guitar. I can understand that. When I was in my first year of my fine art degree at university, our first project needed to end up with a large black and white drawing. Mine was so big I had to stand on a table to work on the top bit. I fell off, and ended up with a bonus artwork – an arrangement of black and blue – on my thigh!
During the course of this black and white drawing, I got more and more irritated at not being able to get a black-enough black. I tried and wrecked all sorts of implements in the process. Until it was pointed out to me that black was black (is it?) and that what I really needed to do was to consider the juxtapositions of the black areas with the whites and off-whites. The tonal arrangement! And so maybe Townshend should have considered using another instrument, to get his tonal arrangements to work, instead of smashing up the guitar?
What’s the difference between auto-destruction and auto-disruption? You could argue that disruption necessarily destroys, even if it’s just the destruction of a fleeting equilibrium, like when a drop of rain falls into a pond. Setting that argument aside, it occurred to me that all artists auto-disrupt. It’s a kind of discontent with a status quo, a steady state. Artists what-if ? They tend to want to disrupt bad situations and hence are also idealists. Auto-destruction, the movement, is also about protest.
I’ve realised that in making art, I auto-disrupt. First, it’s an external kind of disruption. My Books of the Dead series contain material which, for instance, I’ve burnt. There’s a symbolic connection with cremation, but also something else. Some other things. The destruction of prettiness in favour of something more approaching truth. Not equating truth with ugliness, but something damaged – disrupted by catastrophe of one kind or another – seems to be more profoundly true to life than the superficiality that untarnished prettiness seems to convey. There’s pathos in there, too. After all, humankind exists within the catastrophe of its mortality, doesn’t it? So disruption is an attempt at compassion.
This kind of disruption stems from a desire to auto-disrupt in an attempt to feel more deeply, an attempt to connect more deeply with humankind and to love more. I suspect that behind Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing, is the same desire. And that the art of auto-destruction is, at source, a desire to love better.
- Pete Townshend: ‘I can get a bit self-righteous’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Pete Townshend on The Who and his memoirs Who I Am: A Memoir (thesun.co.uk)
- Steve Doocy Confronts The Who’s Pete Townshend About Stealing ‘The Windmill’ (mediaite.com)
- Pete Townshend: why he won’t get fooled again (telegraph.co.uk)
- Pete Townshend Goes Acoustic on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ (rollingstone.com)
- Pete Townshend interviewed on ‘Daily Show, ‘Fallon’ and at Barnes & Noble, where he also performed (videos) (brooklynvegan.com)
- Thoughts on guitar smashing (dpatlarge.wordpress.com)
- Pete Townshend was told to give up music (contactmusic.com)