Pete Townshend: The Who's Final Days

The Who guitarist confronts alcoholism and the end of his band's run

June 24, 1982
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Pete Townshend on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustraion by Julian Allen

Pete Townshend has met the enemy and recognized the bleary eyes staring back at him across the chasm of the last two decades as his own. Townshend and his band, the Who, were the subject of a story in the first issue of Rolling Stone, and over the last fifteen years, the magazine has published at least a half dozen substantial interviews with the guitarist (as well as such self-penned pieces as "The Punk Meets the Godmother," RS 252). This is Pete's third full-fledged Rolling Stone interview; in the two years since his last one, he has suffered something very much like a middle-age breakdown. With the Who typically adrift in the wake of their awkward 1981 album, Face Dances, Townshend moved out on his family (wife Karen and daughters Emma, 13, and Minta, 11) and plunged into London's heady new nightlife. He made the scene with the New Romantic kids at a Club for Heroes. He raved all night at the venerable Venue. And he found himself gravitating naturally?toward the society types at the Embassy Club. The nights became a blur of booze and cocaine and pills, until one sobering day he realized he had become an alcoholic and a drug addict. He nearly died.

Townshend says he survived his two-year binge with some help from his family and friends, and that he has now started a new life. The Who may not be a major part of it: the group will probably continue to record, but Townshend will increasingly occupy himself with outside projects (such as "Ball and Chain," the track he worked on for Elton John's new Jump Up! album, and the duct version of "That's Why the Lady Is a Tramp' he recently produced for New Romantic avatar Steve Strange and a frog-voiced French female singer named Ronny. He hopes to complete a book of short stories, and he'll continue turning out solo albums. His third, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, is his most explosively kinetic and personally revealing to date and features some of his strongest, most assured singing. Its visceral power would seem to confirm Townshend's contention that he's over whatever private horrors precipitated his extended bout of dissipation. But traces of pain and even confusion are apparent in the album's lyrics, and in the interview that follows.

It was conducted a few weeks before Townshend's thirty-seventh birthday and four days before he and the other members of the Who Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Kenney Jones and perhaps a second guitarist, Andy Fairweather-Low were to begin work on the band's next album, due out later this year. We met in a softly carpeted art-deco suite in the St. James's Club, a discreet sanctuary tucked into the cul-de-sac of Park Place, a few minutes' stroll from St. James's Palace, but very far indeed from the rock & roll streets of Townshend's youth. Pete sat on a pale blue velour sofa looking very English-eccentric in hound's-tooth bow tie, brown-and-beige saddle shoes and baggy checked trousers with a long, looping key chain. An Oriental waiter brought a luncheon trolley topped with a single, perfect pale pink rose. Townshend ate a small, grilled beefsteak. Wine was poured, but Pete drank milk.

The title of your new solo album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes – what's that mean?
Basically, it's about the fact that you can't hide what you're really like. I just had this image of the average American hero – somebody like a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne. Somebody with eyes like slits, who was basically capable of anything – you know, any kind of murderous act or whatever to get what was required – to get, let's say, his people to safety. And yet, to those people he's saving, he's a great hero, a knight in shining armor – forget the fact that he cut off fifty people's heads to get them home safely. Then I thought about the Russians and the Chinese and the Arab communities and the South Americans; you've got these different ethnic groups, and each has this central image of every other political or national faction as being, in some way, the evil ones. And I've taken this a little bit further – because I spent so much of my time in society, high society, last year – comment on stardom and power and drug use and decadence, and how there's a strange parallel, in a way, between the misuse of power and responsibility by inept politicians and the misuse of power and responsibility by people who are heroes. If you're really a good person, you can't hide it by acting bad; and if you're a bad person, you can't hide it by acting good. Also – more to the point, really – that there's no outward, identifiable evil, you know? People spend most of their time looking for evil and identifying evil outside themselves. But the potential for evil is inside you.

I think the album is fairly cathartic in some ways. The writing ranged over the last two years, which have been very, very peculiar for me, 'cause I've been through a lot of really weird things. I went through the normal, continuing heart-searchin' over the Who, and I lived away from my family for quite a long time as well; we have a house in the country, and I was living there, mainly. I made a lot of deliberate pleasure trips to New York and L.A. I spent some time in Paris, a lot of time in the country working on a book of short stories and other times just knockin' about with some of the London club-scene people.

I enjoy a lot of that life, in a way. But all the time, behind the scenes, I was writing songs and recording in fairly long spurts. Then, late last year, I had to abandon recording the solo album because I couldn't work. I was quite capable of spending all night doing nothing, but as soon as I actually tried to apply myself to something, I seemed to get physically exhausted. And very much unlike me, I had sort of drifted into the drug scene, because it's so much part and parcel of the club life, you know – taking cocaine to keep going all day, things like that.

That really drains you.
Yeah, and I hadn't realized quite how much. Because what happened was that I decided that it was a drinking problem, that I was an alcoholic. And I went to several doctors who confirmed that. So I stopped drinking, and I spent five days in a clinic, initially. A lot of hypnotherapy, individual therapy with various people. But I carried on with the drug thing a little bit. And then I realized that both things were really affecting me, that in order to assist me gettin' off alcohol, I had used a lot of tranquilizers. One in particular: a drug called Ativan, which is of the Librium-Valium variety. And I became addicted to it. So in January, I went to Meg Patterson in California; she'd helped Eric Clapton get off heroin. And she said that Ativan is more addictive than heroin.

Anyway, once I stopped taking everything – not just drinking, but doing anything at all – and started to be careful about my diet and got into a routine of regular exercise, the transformation was instant. Now I feel superhuman. Also, I had managed, with a lot of assistance from my wife, to reestablish myself in the family, and that's great for me. I mean, it's something I desperately missed.

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