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Kennedy Center Honorees Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend
Daltrey and Townshend first met when the former threatened to whack the latter in the face with a belt buckle. A notorious bully at the time, and a prolific brawler for many years afterward, Daltrey was exactly the sort of alpha dog that Townshend was drawn to. ("I always wanted to be part of a gang attached to a strong male figure," Townshend says.) Initially, the Who was Daltrey's group, a cover band in pubs and dance halls around West London. As it became clear that the group needed its own material, Townshend discovered he could write a song and became the group's de facto leader.
"I once went to a Rolling Stones session," says Richard Barnes, a Townshend art school roommate and author of "The Who: Maximum R&B." "And they just booked this room and sat around smoking dope, trading licks, trying to spark off one another. The Who were never like that. Townshend wrote it all, by himself. He would just lock himself away and work and work."
None of the band liked anyone else in the band, according to Barnes, which makes the chemistry seem all the more a miracle. If Townshend hadn't met Daltrey, he would never have found a vocalist with the emotional range that his songs soon demanded, someone who could project chest-beating bravado and convincing fragility, sometimes in the same song. And if Daltrey hadn't resisted the urge to pummel everyone else in the group, he would have returned to his job as a sheet-metal worker.
"The more I go through life, the more I think there is some kind of order to the universe," says Daltrey. "This" -- his partnership with Townshend and the success of the Who -- "is no coincidence."
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To the great chagrin of his band mates, Townshend never wrote conventional boy-meets-girl love songs. Instead, he wrote about masturbation ("Pictures of Lily") and gender confusion ("I'm a Boy"). This was part of a strenuous effort to avoid subjects that might lure female fans. The fairer sex, says Townshend, is terribly fickle -- young women would have ditched the Who as soon as they fancied another band.
"Once they're done with you, they'll drop you like a stone," he says. "I used to say [to the band]: 'Don't go near them. Don't trust them.' "
Townshend has written homoerotic songs ("And I Moved," on his 1980 solo album, "Empty Glass," for instance) and he's hinted in interviews that he's dabbled in bisexuality, only to state later that those hints were misunderstood. But to understand his aversion to female fans, you need to know about Townshend's childhood, which is filled with the sort of stories that Fellini would have told if he'd been raised in London after World War II.
There was a year of deprivation and emotional abuse at the hands of a mentally ill grandmother, who, Townshend says, might have been prostituting herself to servicemen. (Most of "Tommy," he says, sprang from that ordeal.) And his mother cheated on his father, a saxophonist in a Royal Air Force band.
"I have a weird quirk," he says. "I hate being onstage and not knowing where my partner is, and I'm sure it's because my mum took me along with her when she went to see her lover, while my dad was onstage. If my partner is there and I can't see her, it starts to dig at me."
Townshend would learn all the details of his mother's affair in a confessional conversation with her 15 years ago, an experience that he says was like "putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle back in me." Only then did he realize that "I Can See for Miles," which broke the Who in the United States, was an attempt to cope with his anxiety. He was imagining a future in which computers would allow him to literally see around the world and spy.
"That was me saying: 'You glamorous women, you think that I won't know your secrets, but I will know your secrets. I don't know them now, but nature and technology will evolve and in the end I will see everything." In hindsight, Townshend regards much of his greatest work as an unconscious effort to make sense of the trauma of his earliest years. And this speaks to his slight consternation about the longevity of the Who. Rock was his therapy, and all those singles, albums and operas are, to a large degree, simply what this therapy provoked. He looks back at himself as a damaged kid who, almost accidentally and with perfect timing, turned his damage into singalong stories and irresistible anthems. He's just like any once-tormented artist, he says, but the crowd that came for this exhibit has never left.
"You can think what you like about me -- I know what I'm doing," he says. "I'm in an installation. I'm in an installation called the Who, the installation called the Who is part of a bigger installation called rock-and-roll and it has a function. When you're finished with it, tell me, stop buying tickets. I'll go back and I'll do something else."