The rock star who wrote "Hope I die before I get old" is now a pensioner. In 2011 Pete Townshend spoke to Simon Garfield about life in a "celebration machine"—and the moment that was nearly his downfall
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011
Rock music in 2011 is not quite what it was in the mid-1960s. For one thing, it is full of challenging coincidences, such as the one reported by Pete Townshend in a recent e-mail. “I was supposed to be sailing in the St Barth’s Bucket Race on March 24th,” he wrote. That’s right: the writer of “My Generation”, “Substitute” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” now spends part of his time as a yachtsman in the Caribbean. “This was arranged last August,” he added. “In a challenging coincidence Roger Daltrey will be performing ‘Tommy’ on that very day for Teenage Cancer [Trust] at the Royal Albert Hall.”
More than most rock stars, Townshend notices what is going on in the world, and he felt he was meeting the challenge in the only decent way he could. “In these straitened and tragic times I have decided I have to do something useful rather than try to enjoy myself on a yacht while so many people are in trouble, and I am going to see Roger today at his rehearsal studio to offer my services in some way. I hope I will be able to perform with him, possibly sing ‘Acid Queen’ as I did when The Who played at Woodstock.”
Daltrey wasn’t sure. He had already announced that “Tommy” would be played by a new bunch of musicians, which meant no place for Townshend on his own rock opera about the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who turned out to be both a mean pinball player and a misappropriated seer, a concept that has sold 20m records. “I offered to perform,” Townshend wrote the next day, “but Roger and I agreed in the end that it might be best for him to do his show alone, just to properly test the new model…” Later, he expanded. “Our manager Bill [Curbishley] says that this is a safe place for this experiment. Like doing a run-through in our living room. I know Roger is nervous, but I went to his rehearsal yesterday and his musicians are superb, calm, and will provide the musical support he needs.”
I wondered if I was a silent witness to the break-up of one of rock’s greatest bands. But the following day, at 6.46am, this landed: “Dear Simon, Roger changed his mind. He has now agreed I can walk on and play ‘Acid Queen’ solo. Things change every day at the moment. He is extremely distracted, and of course very busy as usual at this time. – Pete”
Four hours later, this: “I’m definitely back on again. Doing ‘Acid Queen’ and ‘Baba O’Riley’...come if you can.”
A week or two earlier I had spent a few hours at Townshend’s home in Richmond, discussing the world of a rock star in the late afternoon of an explosive career. The conversations had ranged from his attitude towards fans (“there is something very strange about them”), his time as an editor at Faber & Faber (“I don’t think P.D. James liked me at all”) and his current reading matter, a horticultural monthly (“I subscribe to the idea that as you get older you should try to make a garden”). We also discussed his arrest in 2003 for giving his credit card details to an online company that traded in indecent photographs. But we began by talking about the memoir he has been working on for years.
He has reached the first performance of “Tommy” in 1969. “A lot of my friends who were journalists turned against me,” he says. “They said, ‘this is sick, this idea. You’ve gone too far, Pete. It’s unforgivable because you’re smart and we trusted you.’ They didn’t like the idea of a deaf, dumb and blind boy playing pinball. There was outrage.” The band tried to win them round by showcasing the album at Ronnie Scott’s in London. “We played it very very loud and also gave away lots of free booze. Needless to say, we got a standing ovation.”
Townshend’s memoir, which, at 80,000 words, is “about a third” done, is provisionally entitled “Pete Townshend: Who He?” Recently he was walking to lunch, along the Thames from his house, when another name suggested itself. A man on a park bench clutching a can of lager asked him, “Are you Pete Townshend?” He confirmed that he was. “Effing legend!” the drinker replied, and now Townshend is considering that for the book title instead. But what sort of effing legend is he?
First of all, a very British one. He was born in west London in May 1945, right at the end of the war in Europe. His parents were show people—his mother a singer, his father a saxophonist in the Squadronaires, the Royal Air Force big band. Pete’s formative years were spent at Ealing Art College, where he was inspired by Larry Rivers, a “saxophone-playing, heroin-addicted gay lunatic”, the auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger (the inspiration behind his guitar-smashing) and the writer David Mercer, whose play “The Generations” inspired the title “My Generation”. “He was an incredibly impressive speaker. He said, ‘Once you’re on the left, you have to stay there whatever happens. I don’t care if you become a fucking billionaire—stay there!’ And I’ve always kept that in mind.”
The Who as we know them came into being in 1964, and soon became the most powerful, iconic and humorous emblem of the Mod movement. But their scope would extend far beyond a fashionable subculture. On stage, they were all you could hope for in a rock band: brutally arresting, unnervingly unpredictable and blisteringly loud. Then as now, pop music was dependent on a character-led plot to thrive, and The Who offered much. There were Daltrey’s Tarzan acrobatics with a swinging microphone, and the raw emotion in his voice, ranging from angelic yearning to a raging throttle. There was the bassist John Entwistle’s prowling menace, the traditional “quiet one” turned dangerous uncle. There were Townshend’s scything windmills of excitement and improbable leaps, vividly illustrating the visceral force of his songs. And then there was Keith Moon, a complex public lunatic, who lived as he drummed, with every complex flaw on brazen display. On their best nights, such as the one captured on the album “Live at Leeds” in 1970, the crowd witnessed a type of bombastic heist, an excessively glorious musical offence.