The Who Come To A Fork In The Road

Months before Keith Moon's death, the band speaks with Rolling Stone

October 5, 1978
the who cover illustration
The Who on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Illustration by Robert Grossman

This poor hotel,'' says Pete Townshend, gesturing at his spacious suite in the Navarro Hotel on New York's posh Central Park South. ''Mr. Russell, the bloke that manages this hotel, welcomes Keith [Moon] like an old friend. And yet, if any hotel has suffered at Keith's hands, it's this place.

''Keith actually picked a hole through the wall. Bobby Pridden, our road manager, had the group's record player in his room and he had a security bolt, a big hefty one, on his door. There was no way we could get in the door – we even got a key and couldn't get in.

''Keith said, 'I'm gonna fuckin' get in there.' He went into a closet and found a couple of loose pieces and started to pick. He sat there for two hours, picking at the bricks with a knife and his bare hands. And he finally got a brick out, and thrust his hand into the room. And started to pull other bricks out and finally got into the room – through the wall.''

This familiar tale belongs at the beginning, not because this is another story about the Who on tour, but because it isn't. Even though Who Are You, the band's first L.P. in three years, has just been released, they have no plans to go out on the road.

Nonetheless, Townshend, Moon and Roger Daltrey came to America in early August to promote the album. Only John Entwistle remained in England to wrap up the soundtrack for the first project produced by the Who's Shepperton Films studio, A documentary look at the groups career, The Kids Are Alright should be released around Christmas. But a film seems an inadequate substituie for a tour.

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A short clip shown during Townshend's and Moon's appearance on ABC's Good Morning America made it clear why touring is so essential for the Who. There was Roger Daltrey, his hair mod short, singing ''I Can't Explain,'' the group's first hit single, at London's Marquee club where the band got its professional start in 1964-'65.

The film clip is a perfect encapsulation of the spirit that has defined the Who for fifteen years, because, unlike any other band of its generation, the Who made their reputation performing, much more than recording. Partly this is because they recorded relatively few records: the Beatles made as many albums (fifteen) from 1964-'70 as the Who have made to date. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are remembered for hit songs like ''Satisfaction'' and ''She Loves You.'' The Who are remembered for their performances: the early guitar-bashing in England, the climactic appearances at Monterey and Woodstock. Even Tommy, their rock opera, came fully to life only onstage.

Everyone recognizes this, from fans to the group itself. Moon and Daltrey speak as romantically of touring as other men do of licentious high-school dream dates. John Entwistle says frankly, ''It's just not in me'' to stop touring. Even Pete Townshend admits he'd love to find a way.

But Townshend, for now at least, remains adamantly against a tour. His reasons are complex, but in essence there are only two: his family and his hearing.

''The last three years [of relative inactivity by the Who] have been the happiest of my life as far as my family goes,'' Townshend said on Good Morning America. And while Townshend is not deaf (yet), ''Electric guitar hurts my ears, It's bad to the extent that if I'm subjected to really loud noise for a long time, I get a lot of pain. And, apparently, pain is the indication of further damage.''

(''Really loud noise for a long time'' is, of course, an apt definition of a Who concert. As Townshend says of his guitar style, ''To some extent, the thing about that sound is the pain of it. The thing I used to adore was the fact that it hurt.'')

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Still, the Who seem more like a band than they have in years. The conflicts between Daltrey and Townshend have been resolved – they speak of each other as friends rather than as enemies enjoying a temporary truce. Keith Moon seems on the way to recovery from whatever physical and mental demons have plagued him. And Who Are You points to greater musical integration as well: John Entwistle wrote three of its nine songs, and Daltrey sings two of those, although he has sung only two other Entwistle numbers in his career. The playing is grand in the way that Who's Next was, which makes it ideal for onstage interpretation.

''We're not perfectionists,'' Townshend said on TV. ''We're idealists. We think that rock & roll is more than just music for kids. Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you to face up to problems. But at the same time, to sort of dance all over 'em.''

Because they're a Sixties band, the Who feel a special sense of responsibility (shared, perhaps, only by the ex-Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones) not only about musical matters but about questions of lifestyle, image and ethics. For Townshend, these are especially weighty concerns: rock is not just a livelihood and a fantastic source of energy, it is so much a cornerstone of belief that he sees his spiritual master, Meher Baba, ''through two slits. R & R.''

This sense of responsibility is at the core of Townshend's determination to avoid a lengthy tour. ''The problem with rock & roll is it's the kind of thing that when you become involved with it, you become obsessed. If my old lady's jealous of anything, it's not the people that share my life when I'm on the road – that's my problem. To some extent, she's jealous of rock.''

The problem isn't Townshend's wife, Karen, who in any case might be more sympathetic than most to the problems facing a musician: her brother, Jon Astley, coproduced Who Are You with Glyn Johns. Her father, Ted Astley, did the record's excellent string arrangements. But the issue isn't what Pete Townshend's wife expects of him; it is what he expects of himself.

To a certain extent, the rock business forces a divorce from leading any sort of normal life. Describing his relationship with Who manager Bill Curbishley, Townshend says, ''You know, if he goes and puts his name on four or five contracts that's it: the Who tour OR the Who break up. So it's like being a big having-your-nappies-changed kid. And then going home and being expected to be some kind of stable barometer.''

It is Townshend's despair of ever becoming truly adult that plagues his conscience when he thinks of touring. The responsibility he feels for his audience and the rock ideal is outweighed, at least for now, by the responsibility he feels to his family.

''The worst thing is when you actually get back after a lengthy tour, feeling that you can then stop living, saying, 'Well, I can't really give, because I've done my gig.' Well, how does any guy feel when he comes home at the end of his working day that he does every day of his life from Square One to Square Ninety? I mean, he's expected to come home and be the father, and be the husband and be the lover and be everything else. And somehow that is something that modern men are very aware of, because women have sort of taken 'em and shaken' em and said, 'Listen, this is what I want from you. It's more than just the pay packet at the end of the day, and your feet up on the sofa, and wait for me to serve you your dinner. I wanna relate to you. I wanna be with you.'

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''The kids, too. You were recently a kid, and I was recently a kid, and I demanded a whole lot more of my fuckin' parents, in terms of their realness. I wanted them to be more real than they were capable of being, to a great extent. To then take all those things that we demand and want today – all of us – and say that you're excused all of that because you happened to go on the road for fifteen or sixteen weeks at a stretch . . . that that absolves you of all normality, that you don't have to be normal in any sense of the word, because you're not leading a normal existence.

''All the atrocities of war. why are they created? Why do men spear babies on bayonets? Why do they do it? Because they're not normal, they're not living a normal life. When I see rock & roll being guilty of that, you know, that hurts.''

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