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Pete Townshend: The Who's Final Days

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Had drugs and drinking been the central causes of your family problems?
No, no, no. I've always had a drinking problem. Like every writer, in a way. But the family thing mainly had to do with work pressure – with my inability to stop working. Filling in time, when I had spare time, instead of working on relationships with my close friends and building up a solid, day-to-day empathy with my wife and family. After a long tour, say, I would tend to immediately immerse myself in something else, you know? I was always avoiding the main issue. And I think a lot of that comes out in the material on this album. Unfortunately, a lot of unhappiness comes through. But there's also a great feeling that I seem determined to win, somehow. You can feel it in a lot of the songs, that there's a determination to overcome. And I managed to do it.

Were you able to explain to your daughters what you were going through?
To some extent. I mean, it's early for me yet. You know, it's interesting you should say that – that's the kind of thing that never occurred to me, to ever even sit down and talk to my kids about the kinds of things I go through in my work. I'll sit down and talk to Paul Bonnick, my driver, about everything from my latest case of VD to the way I feel about the isolation of me kids. But I'd never sit down and talk to them directly. To a great extent, I suppose a lot of things that they know about me, they've read in newspapers. So I do have to start to deal with that.

During this period, did you also feel removed from the members of the Who? Did you see them a lot?
No, I didn't. The English tour last year was just too much to take. We weren't playing well enough. And a lot of that was because I was pretty peculiar most of the time. I think we all were, though. And Roger was really having serious doubts about whether or not we should go on.

How did you feel about that?
I suppose under normal circumstances I would have felt, hey, this is my opportunity to get out of the band and all the responsibilities it entails. But I didn't. I did the reverse – I really lammed into Roger, and I said, you know, we should really think seriously before we make any rash moves. I raised some of the points he'd raised to me in the past, when I'd felt the band had gone past its prime. I also told him I didn't feel that I could write for the band if it was just gonna go into a recording studio. I felt that we had to perform live. I need that live feedback as a writer. There were also rumors about Roger's being unhappy with Kenney, and Kenney's being unhappy with the fact he couldn't communicate with Roger. And there was a bit of communication breakdown. I think Roger felt very strongly that we really were missing Keith more than we knew. And . . . that I accepted. But he also felt that some of the changes we'd made – like bringing in Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards – had kind of disguised what was really wrong; which was that the heart of the band wasn't the same. And I have to agree with him – the heart of the band isn't the same. But that's not to say we still can't achieve a lot, in a different area, and continue to celebrate the magic that was there, but not get preoccupied with it. Anyway, everything's fine now. Roger got everyone at it, as usual, and it was all for the good.

How did the band feel about the last album, Face Dances, for which you brought in Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk?
Kind of mixed. It's not improvin' with age, either [laughs]. I think the chemistry was wrong, and it wasn't just Bill Szymczyk. I don't think we were really quite working together. Roger says that you could feel on Face Dances that the band wasn't a band. And what I'd like to see happen on the next album is for the Who to feel like a band, and work as a band.

Do you see the Who doing extended works in the future – not like Tommy, necessarily, but other large-scale projects?
Well, first, I don't see the Who going on for very much longer. I think that with this next album, and with the next protracted period of work we do, we're really gonna throw ourselves into it 100 percent. And then we're gonna stop. I'm pretty sure of that. It's not because we want to, but because we've come to the point where we don't really want to go through all these periods when the public and our fans and the record company and even we don't know what the fuck's gonna happen next. The tension is just too much. And this period when we work on the band, I'm gonna really think about very little else. I'm worried about it, because I've become accustomed to doing lots of other things. And I like the richness of what I do in other areas. That's become almost as important to me as being in a band. And I think when you get to that point, you have to think very seriously about what it is you're doing it for. Because it's always been too important for us to do just because we enjoy one another's company. And I think basically one of the reasons we're working together at the moment is that we enjoy one another's company. It's as simple as that.

If the Who did break up, wouldn't there be something missing in all of your lives?
Yeah, I would say about a million dollars a year.

Nothing else? Are you all beyond that?
I think that, far from there being something missing, the very fact of not being involved in it anymore would allow us to take a different stance on what we've done – to enjoy it, to luxuriate in it, to celebrate it, to cherish it and to draw the best from it. Rather than always see the past as something that threatens our future – which is something that seems to be an irreversible feature of the band today. I don't know: I think the Who will break up – not break up, but stop working – before the Stones do.

What's the difference between the two groups that would allow that to be so?
The Stones have got fuck-all else except rock & roll. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that's all they've got. And we have got a lot more. Nothing as important as what we've achieved, but we've got a lot more. Enough to allow us, I think, to even consider a last waltz, as it were. As far as our recording career, I don't know how many more records we'll do together or whether I'll continue to work with Roger the rest of me life. I don't really know.

Will the Who still tour to support the next album?
Yeah, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't do a certain amount of work. But after that, I really think we've had enough. At least for now, we seem to have to know that we're asking one last big effort. We have to feel that there is an end to it; otherwise, I don't think we could really go in with the right mood.

Would you personally approach touring with a new attitude this time, trying not to get wiped-out on the road?
Yeah, I would have to, because I'm never gonna drink again. In a way, I'm quite looking forward to it as a test. I'm happy to have sorted out my family problems once and for all. I always felt and hoped that it was possible. I didn't want to be a rock casualty in any sense, because I've always felt that one more rock casualty is just another headline for a couple of weeks, and then everybody gets really . . . not only bored, but everybody feels betrayed. Because although rock casualties make good copy in the NME Book of the Dead, they don't make good copy in the lives of rock fans, who have a slightly higher emotional involvement in the musical form than its just being, you know, like a circus, full of Berlinesque, decadent assholes who don't know how to spend their money, et cetera.

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Song Stories

“Santa Monica”

Everclear | 1996

After his brother and girlfriend both died of drug overdoses, Art Alexakis -- depressed and hooked on drugs himself -- jumped off the Santa Monica Pier in California, determined to die. "It was really stupid," said the Everclear frontman, who would further explore his personal emotional journey in the song "Father of Mine." "I went under the water. Then I said, 'I don't wanna die.'" The song, declaring "Let's swim out past the breakers/and watch the world die," was intended as a manifesto for change, Alexakis said. "Let the world do what it's gonna do and just live on our own."

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