A week before John Entwistle dies, Pete Townshend, 57, sits in a building overlooking the Thames in southwest London. He bought this property in 1976 and for years ran it as a spiritual center for the guru whose teachings he embraced in 1967, the late Indian mystic Meher Baba. (Townshend still prays and meditates every day, and he occasionally believes he feels Baba's presence, which he characterizes as both "pink" and "incredibly humorous.") In the novel Townshend has just written, The Boy Who Heard Music, this building appears as a lunatic asylum, but these days, in the real world, it is a recording studio where, a few days ago, the Who were rehearsing for their forthcoming American tour. (After Entwistle's death, the Who decided to carry on with the tour, but Townshend declined to speak further with Rolling Stone) The Who stopped making records in 1982 and have toured only occasionally since then, but there have been recent signs that their career is reawakening – not only with this tour but with the suggestion that later this year they would begin recording an album.
It is Townshend who has been most resistant to working as the Who during the past two decades. He has been busy writing books, musicals and his own music. (Recently he began compiling a database of his unpublished music and has already documented 1,500 pieces.) As he talks, it's clear that his feelings about the Who – and about many other things – are complex and conflicted, but he discusses them openly and thoughtfully, and he is often mischievously keen not to show himself in the best light. When he occasionally gets angry and raises his voice, it lasts for a minute or two and then – on the surface, at least – he resumes his regular soft manner, spiky in attitude but gentle in tone. Throughout our conversation, his cell phone is propped up against the window next to us, and at just after five in the afternoon it rings. Each day at this time, he is automatically sent a weather report from Cornwall in southwest England, where his boat Zephyr is based. These days, sailing is his other grand passion.
"I had one mission this year, to write a book – which I thought was going to take me until June, and I finished it in May," he says. "So I've got the rest of the year to go sailing or do whatever I want." Instead, for a couple of months, he has decided to tour with the Who. "This," he says evenly, "is something that I'm really quite inclined to do at the moment."
Right now the Who are at their most active in twenty years. Why has that come about?
Well, it's really just an unfolding of events. We did [the Concert for New York City], and a lot of that was quite cosmic. There was a lot of talk about "Should we play the heavy stuff or not?" and I just said, "We should just do what we do, we shouldn't rationalize this too much." I went into Eric [Clapton]'s dressing room and into Billy Joel's dressing room, watching the monitors. James Taylor was on, singing "Fire and Rain," and everybody was crying, and then these pictures were coming on and it was like, "Oh, my God, this is like being in a Lebanese fucking village, the weeping and the wailing and the gnashing of teeth." And I thought, "Well, either this is going to work for us or it isn't." I think if we had known what the atmosphere was going to be like in advance, we would have played a different kind of show. When I came off, I thought, "I went out there with a fucking sneer on my face and I machine-gunned the audience! What the fuck?" But it was OK. And afterward I realized that we'd started something that wasn't finished.
And that's the first time you'd really felt like that?
Yeah. I agreed with Roger [Daltrey] that, in order to keep him amused this year, we should go back to New York and play a couple of shows. Our manager was on the phone the next day to say, "This is arrogance, to think that you can go back to America now and just play a couple of shows." I said, "OK, just book what you need to book."
You always make it sound as though you're doing Roger a favor.
[Snappily] Well, I am.
How is that?
How is it not? You know, I don't think there's anything wrong in doing somebody that you care about a favor. It is something I am doing for Roger and John and for other people in the Who's camp. It's not just a favor; it's also, in a sense, a thank-you, an acknowledgment of solidarity and friendship.
Does he get annoyed when you make it clear that you consider it a favor?
[Pause] It sounds patronizing to say that he's grateful, but I think, in a way, I'm grateful, too, for pushing sixty and being in a band where you can get together with a couple of old mates and rely on some kind of weird cosmic energy to inhabit you and inhabit the audience. And it's pretty bloody reliable. And you can use it for all kinds of things. You can use it for charity events, you can use it to buy yourself a boat if you want to, you can use it to simply go out and enjoy playing music. What you can't use it for is creative work. Unfortunately. So the next bit of the Who's jigsaw puzzle has been the bit where Roger has been fighting hardest, which is to get the Who back into the studio and doing new, fresh creative work. What's been an uphill struggle has been for me to get Roger to accept that it's going to be incredibly fucking hard, and it'll probably be terrible. And he's willing to spend a couple of years producing something which is absolutely terrible. I can't afford to do that.
You have been rehearsing a couple of new songs, one by Roger and one by you?
So are they new Who songs?
This is interesting, because after we ran through Roger's song, "Certified Rose," one of our inner circle said, "I love it, but it's not a Who song," and I wanted to strangle him. I nearly did strangle him, actually. I love it.
I believe the first real kind of détente between you and Roger was triggered by the conversation you had, in about 1998, when he came to you and said that he felt impotent and powerless. How was that?
It was pretty scary. He came to my house. Going back a couple of years earlier, we did Quadrophenia. We came to the States with it, we did a few shows in Europe, and then, as always with me, I lost all interest in it. So I quit. It was the following year that Roger came. He felt that I had fucked him over. He also went on to say a whole lead of other things, which were to do with unspoken contracts from childhood: that we were a band, we were lads from the street, he was going to go into the gutter. We looked at each other in the eyes, we swore to be together for the rest of our lives . . . it was real marriage stuff.
Halfway through the conversation, this stuff that he was saying was making me cry – it was so brutal, it was so nasty and it was so aggressive. And elements of it were true, but lots of it wasn't.
Do you cry easily?
No [laughs]. So in the end I stopped him. I said, "Roger, listen, this is hurting too much, you're just going to have to stop. And all I can tell you is to go away, and I swear to you I will think about it." And so he left, and then he called me back about two hours later and he said, "I've been thinking about this, and I went too far – and I'm really sorry." He said, "I just want you to know, I don't care what you do, I don't care if we ever go out again. I'm your friend, I love you, and all I care about is that you're going to be OK." And I said, "What I feel proud of is that at our age you feel you can come and do it. It's nice that you can be fucking honest." Because years ago I would have had to read this in a newspaper.
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