Kennedy Center Honorees Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Life for a rock star in the fifth decade of his career is filled with the sort of absurdities that Pete Townshend knows how to savor. Like the time, during a recent show, when he slammed his pick against his guitar strings in a new and kind of violent way, high up on the fret board. It was a throwaway move, some improvised hot-dogging, but fans went nuts.
"And there's a guy in the front row in his 60s who's been to most of the Who's concerts in the last 49 years and he started yelling 'GAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!' " says Townshend, mimicking a man in the throes of a seizure. "It was scary. And I kind of stopped and I went to the edge of the stage and I sort of said 'What?' And he said 'Yaaa,' by which he meant 'Uh, I like what you were just doing.' " Townshend is sitting in a very plush chair in the middle of the very plush living room of a suite at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. At 63, dressed like a mannequin from a Prada store, right down to the black ankle boots, he could pass for a fashion-forward professor of literature, and at times he can sound like one, too -- referencing British playwright Harold Pinter, defining the word "semiotics." But in his blue eyes, there's a gleam of hangdog weariness that you couldn't get in the Ivory Tower.
"It sounds as though I'm denigrating the Who fans," he goes on. "But they want an action. This is ballet, this is theater, this is circus. It's not real. That guy is right in front of me and he seems to think I'm killing the guitar, or wrestling with a dragon, or overthrowing the evil empire. I don't know. But whatever he's feeling, it brings him to the front row."
There is part of Pete Townshend that is confounded by the eternal fuss about the band he co-created in London in 1964, with Keith Moon (on drums) and schoolmates John Entwistle (bass) and Roger Daltrey (vocals). To Townshend's amazement, the world's appetite for the music he wrote in his 20s and 30s has never gone away. If you had told him at 19 -- a sullen Ealing Art School dropout with a baronial nose -- that he'd be singing "I Can't Explain" in his twilight years, he would have guffawed. But that song and a few dozen others, like "Pinball Wizard," "My Generation" and "Baba O'Riley," are among the most beloved baubles in rock's permanent collection. Although the band has officially retired a few times, we keep demanding that the Who re-form, and with some ambivalence, Townshend keeps saying yes.
The curtain calls don't end. Townshend and Daltrey -- the only surviving members of the group -- will take a bow at the Kennedy Center Honors tonight. The prize has stirred some complicated feelings for Townshend. He's delighted, he's flattered -- and he thinks it might be a sign he should hang it up for good.
"We'd never been heard," he says, the "we" referring to the British working class of his upbringing. "So we created our own language, which was rock-and-roll. And this honor is the establishment saying, 'We hear you.' And that's a strange thing, because if they can hear us, maybe we don't need to do this anymore. It's like somebody saying to Tupac Shakur, 'Ah, I understand what you're saying.' Well, you're not supposed to understand what he's saying. You're supposed to be [expletive] scared."
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The semiofficial reason for giving a British rock band this American prize is that the Who helped resuscitate interest in American blues. It's a serviceable explanation, because the Who was among the British acts of the '60s that revered Muddy Waters, B.B. King and their peers. But the band never approached the revivalist passion of the Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton, and anyway, the Who is a quintessentially British act. Its members wrote British melodies, set their songs in British locales, and -- in the early days -- targeted British kids, particularly the hordes of amphetamine-gobbling, scooter-riding Mods of the mid-'60s who were their original fans.
But the band is one of those U.K. phenomena -- like Monty Python, Philip Larkin and fried cod -- that are specifically British and thoroughly universal. Until the Who, the pop song was a modest A-frame, built on pretty straightforward emotions, like regret, love and yearning. Townshend designed large and elaborate mansions, and the characters he set loose in them needed more than a hug, a kiss or blue suede shoes. They needed therapy. His first rock opera, "Tommy," in 1969, is the story of a victim of child abuse. His second, "Quadrophenia," in 1973, stars a young man in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
He put the power chord at the service of the neurotic, adding angelic harmonies to jet-blast noise so the band could sound like choirboys at a riot. He wrote about sex, but in a way that suggested that it was twisted and sinister. He is arguably the first rock star whom Freud would have loved. The good doctor would have heard a line like "I'm gettin' funny dreams again and again," from "I Can't Explain," and said, "Go on."
And Townshend will go on. This particular afternoon in November, he will spin out eloquent, funny and digressive monologues for more than three hours. It's as though he's been waiting in Room 910 for months, bursting with opinions, theories and anecdotes, hoping someone would knock on the door and listen. Which is a bit of a surprise, because initially he declined this interview, citing his busy schedule. He relented after the Kennedy Center applied some pressure.