By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
* * *
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.
"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."
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."
* * *
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."