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Kennedy Center Honorees Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend
"She said, 'Barbra Streisand never does interviews, and she did this one,' " Townshend says, pitching his voice a little higher to impersonate his publicist.
Why would someone so loquacious turn down the chance to talk?
"It's the one part of this 'Groundhog Day' existence that I can control," he says, cheerfully enough. "I do have to play 'Won't Get Fooled Again.' What I don't have to do is talk about it."
Townshend shifts around in his chair a lot as he speaks, as if he's trying to manage a constant excess of energy. Most over-interviewed celebrities have a ready jukebox of answers, which they sing time and again. Townshend never says the same thing twice -- and while his riffs are never dull, some are hard to follow.
"Look at the real reason that the Who exists as a brand," he says at one point, "which is that the brand itself has been exalted as something which represents something which the brand itself has no right to call its own." It's a bit like watching a Thoroughbred horse on a 10-mile track: For certain stretches you have no idea where he is, but you're pretty sure he's galloping and you hope that he's coming back. Which he does. He is candid, occasionally wicked and allergic to banalities.
Here he is on Bruce Springsteen's forays into folk music: "He's headed to the Hudson with a banjo." On "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes," one of his solo albums: "It was an incredibly pretentious album. I loved how pretentious it was." On his contemporaries in rock bands: "We're now waiting for the last few of us to die. I think that's what we're doing."
Townshend has three children, all by a wife he's been separated from for years and whom he is currently, and amicably, divorcing. For the past 12 years, he's been with Rachel Fuller, a woman in her mid-30s who, Townshend says, has written a play based on her experience as an organist in a crematorium. She makes a quiet appearance during the interview, to serve tea.
"Shall I play cocktail music for your friend?" she says with some irony when Townshend gets up for a bathroom break.
Townshend and Daltrey are on tour promoting 2006's "Endless Wire," the band's 11th album and its first studio production in 24 years. But this is less a group than a business arrangement of two men who respect each other and keep their distance. "We love each other, but we are not social buddies," Townshend wrote in a 2006 e-mail on a fan site.
That might be as much as you can expect from a partnership that has survived fame, fallow years, death, breakups and several reunions. When Townshend was arrested in 2003 on suspicion of possessing child pornography, Daltrey was his most vocal defender. (Townshend was not charged, though his name was placed on a registry of sex offenders for five years, now passed.)
"He's my brother," says Daltrey, sitting on a sofa in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton, some 20 blocks south of the Carlyle. "He's my best mate. We don't see each other a lot, but I find him deeply entertaining, deeply interesting. Of course, sometimes it's frustrating. Sometimes I say, 'Oh what a [jerk], don't be so bloody stupid.' But there's almost a telepathy between us."
Daltrey has a way of talking that is slightly defiant, as if you had dared him to say whatever he just said. He also has a terrific laugh, and he cracks himself up a lot. He's fit and trim and surprisingly bookish-seeming, wearing glasses, his laptop dialed into a BBC science show. He is 64 and has three children and 13 grandchildren, and he's been married to the same woman for 41 years. If this strikes you as too conventional for the lead singer of a supergroup, you are mistaken. Asked to name the randiest member of the Who, he thinks for a moment. "I suppose in some ways I was a shagaholic," he says, chewing on a fig from a fruit platter. "I just liked female company on the road."