Pete Townshend: The Who's Final Days

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Keith Moon has been dead nearly four years now. Do you think he'd be the same if he were still alive?
I don't know. It would have been a shame to have seen his obvious unhappiness increase. I think that's really what got to us, that he was never really happy. And with him, it wasn't a matter of doing what I've done – doing a U-turn and picking up the pieces – because I don't think he ever knew happiness. He was one of the most difficult people to return love to. Because he was such an expansive guy, and you had to act in such a sensational, larger-than-life manner, you know? I mean, you didn't say hello to Keith: it didn't matter if he'd only been out of the studio for five minutes, when he came back in, he insisted on kissing everybody on the lips.

Have you ever felt that you must be unhappy in order to create?
I've read that's Roger's impression. He once said, "God forbid the day that Townshend hasn't got any problems, because he won't write." I think if you're miserable, you write about things that are close to you. And if you're okay, you look a bit wider afield for subject matter. There's always plenty to get miserable about temporally.

So just because you're happy, it doesn't mean you become John Denver.
No. I mean, if you're unlucky enough to be born John Denver there's not much you can do, really. But there are moments when I've listened to John Denver and he has actually gotten across to me the joy he feels from standing in the Colorado mountains. It's just that he does it in every song, and I get a bit bored with hearing about the mountains and the spring flowers and the trees and everything. I think they're going to look just as black as New York City when the bomb drops.

I gather you actually like New York quite a bit.
I love it. I've got a lot of friends there, like David Bowie. But there's something weird about it. I mean, I'll go to New York and ring Mick up, and I'll go and see David Bowie. But they're both over here now, and I wouldn't even dream of ringing 'em up. It's peculiar; it's a different kind of life for me. I like New York, but I don't see a hell of a lot happening. You know, the AM/PM club is just full of the same old musicians who've come from the same old gig, doing the same old thing. David Byrne has got the weight of the whole thing on his shoulders, as far as I can see, and the last time I saw him, he looked it, you know?

I read the piece you wrote about the Jam in Time Out magazine. I know they're loved in Britain, but I've never been able to accept them as the heirs to the Who – I just don't think they deliver the sonic punch that the Who did. They're not that strong a group.
Well, I politely said that toward the end of the article. That there's not much music I don't like, but I don't like theirs. I like the image they're trying to put across, and I like their commitment. But somewhere, it's falling short. I think they're starting to realize that now, and maybe their new album gives an indication that they might be trying to improve . . . . I think I'd go further and say one thing I didn't say in that article, which is something my publicist said: "The Jam lacks a sense of humor." That's the thing.

Julian Lennon, John's son, is another young London rocker of whom we may have a pretty jumbled image in the States. Is he okay?
I saw him last night, and he was extremely morose and arrogant, which is very unlike him. I think maybe he feels he's been used a lot. And I think, to some extent, he has. Particularly by all the flighty young girls on the make. I think that must be very strange for him. I mean, I was very flattered by it, when I had gotten onto the club scene, to suddenly be surrounded by beautiful blonds of seventeen years old. Then you suddenly realize that, basically, they're just standing next to you in the hope that there's going to be a photograph, or that you might give them a million pounds or something stupid. And five weeks later they look like they're dying. There's something very tragic about it, and I think Julian is too intelligent to go through that and not become a bit scarred by it.

Have you heard any of Julian's music?
No, I haven't. But Zak, who's Ringo's son, seems to think he's all right. And Zak's a very, very harsh critic.

Were you close to John Lennon during his five years of seclusion? Or did you grow close to his music?
No, I didn't, really. I liked the Rock 'n' Roll albums a lot, and the Imagine album. But I didn't particularly enjoy his solo stuff. One of my favorite records of all time is "Strawberry Fields Forever." But I've always had very strange feelings about the Beatles, because for me they were too remote, as stars, and possibly always will be. I know the remaining members very, very well. I have a good relationship with Paul and Ringo, and I see George occasionally; he's a bit of a recluse, but I see him and I feel perfectly relaxed with him. We've got a lot in common, particularly the interest in mysticism, and gardening, and we live close to each other in the country. But John never . . . . I spoke to him once on the phone. I was staying at the Pierre in New York – he had a suite there – and he came on the phone and we had a quick chat. I said, "Do you fancy a drink?" Not meaning. "Let's go get drunk." And he just said, "No, no, no. I'm just not into any kind of scene like that at all." And I said, "Well, what kind of scene?" You know? I wasn't suggesting a scene, I was suggesting getting together for a drink. And I thought then, you know [croons]: "Goodbye, John . . ." Perhaps I, like many others, was never meant to know him. And I wonder whether his chosen form of remoreness wasn't actually slightly instrumental in his eventual tragic death. In other words, can you really be Greta Garbo? You know? I mean, what an idiot that woman was. She becomes a great big star and then says, "I want to be alone." Why didn't she just stay where she was in the first place? I know my unique status causes me a lot of problems, but nothing that I want to run away from. I know things can get out of control – you look at somebody like Andy Gibb at the moment, who's sort of lost in space, and you feel very sorry for him. But I feel Lennon belonged to the people. And the irony, of course – the tragic irony – was that he seemed to be coming to terms with that and starting to work again.

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