The Pete Townshend of 1968 was radically different from the Pete Townshend of 1967. Sure, they might have looked and sounded the same, both on stage and off, but the Pete Townshend of 1967 was still a purulent and angry young kid rebelling against any and all powers of authority. It took some mental rearranging for Townshend to begin his climb towards maturity and fulfilment.
Part of that had to be found, and part of it had to be thrust upon him. By 1967, Townshend was one of a large number of counterculture figures who were experimenting with psychoactive drugs, specifically LSD. He had channelled his frustration and dissatisfaction into destruction, both in concert and afterwards in hotel rooms, but drugs began to become a frequent outlet as well. Townshend was relatively averse to the intense psychedelic experiences of LSD, but it took a massive dose at the Monterey Pop Festival to keep him away for good.
With few other places to turn, Townshend began looking to spirituality and religion for answers. It was then that he began to read up on the teachings of Maher Baba, and Indian spiritual leader who claimed to be an Avatar. Baba’s beliefs preached universalism that diverged from traditional religious texts, with a core component of trust, love, and compassion being essential to his rhetoric. For over 40 years, Baba had undertaken a vow of silence.
The effect that Baba had on Townshend was profound. “I don’t try to sell this remarkable man,” Townshend recalled in 2007. “If you are really interested there are many websites. I am devoted to him as a silent influence in my life. I started studying his writings in 1967 – planning to go and meet him. But, he died in 1969 and I never met him. I have been through periods of intense engagement and immense doubt. At the moment I am uncertain what I feel, but my faith in Meher Baba as a genuinely gifted teacher full of extraordinary insight is capable of surviving some uncertainty.”
“I don’t really know who he is, but I have come to love him. It will appear insane to say I feel his presence in my life – and I know we are capable of all kinds of self-delusion – but I like to think I am open-minded enough not to dismiss every slightly metaphysical idea I have as nonsense simply because it can’t be proved.”
Baba took a major burden off of Townshend in his personal life, but his teachings also influenced his musical career as well. Townshend had wanted to express Baba’s teachings in musical form, and the result that he eventually came up with wound up being the starting point for The Who’s first full rock opera, Tommy. Baba’s philosophies also influenced his next attempt at a rock opera, Lifehouse, the remnants of which can be found in the song that references him by name, ‘Baba O’Riley’.