Right off the bat, Pete Townshend wants one thing understood. It's about that image he's got: You know, the guy who rips out power chords at a volume that put the Who in The Guinness Book of World Records, who thrashes it out toe to toe with Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle onstage, who leaps into the air kicking his legs in midchord, who windmills his arm frantically as he slashes at his guitar strings, who sometimes ends the show by smashing a guitar to bits.
What Townshend wants you to know is that he doesn't do that shit anymore. He can't: If he plays too hard or too loud, he gets a sharp ringing in his ears. It's called tinnitus, and it's also brought on by stress, including things as seemingly minor as being handed a telephone when he doesn't know who's on the other end. And it means that if you've bought tickets to see the reunited Who celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary on the road this summer, you'll see a different Pete Townshend.
Take the windmill. "They won't get it," says Townshend. "I warned 'em before, and I'm warnin' 'em again. They won't get it, for a number of reasons."
Townshend pauses for a second, then elaborates. "There are two ways to windmill," he says. "There's the way I windmill, and there's the way that every other asshole windmills. When I windmill" – he starts speaking slowly and emphatically – "I . . . break . . . off . . . the . . . ends . . . of . . . my . . . fingers. Flesh flies off. Blood runs under my fingernails. When I windmill, I fucking windmill, right? And I can't do that to myself. I really can't. I don't care enough about the audience, and I don't care enough about the music anymore. I care more about the state of my fingernails."
Townshend stops, and for a second he looks even sadder and more morose than usual. "I mean," he says quietly, "that's a terrible thing to happen to somebody in rock & roll.
Who are they? On the face of it, the answer seems clear: They're the Who. Standing in a cluttered second-floor rehearsal room on a quiet residential avenue just down the street from one of London's toniest shopping districts, there's Pete Townshend strumming his guitar and John Entwistle cradling a bass and Roger Daltrey sitting on a stool and singing some familiar lines: "That deaf, dumb and blind kid/Sure plays a mean pinball" and "It's only teenage wasteland" and "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss" and, of course, "Things they do look awful c-c-cold/Hope I die before I get old."
The tall, sad-eyed guitar player with the big nose, his thinning hair tied back in a ponytail; the bearded (and now completely gray) bassist, a metal spider around his neck; the athletic-looking, curly haired, blond singer: Here is the Who, rehearsing for its first tour in seven years. Something, however, is amiss in this small room. The Who has always been four guys making as much noise as they could, but on this sunny London afternoon the band is fifteen strong. Besides Townshend and Daltrey and Entwistle, there's the drummer Simon Phillips, a recent replacement for Kenney Jones, the former Faces drummer who joined the band in 1979 after Keith Moon's life of excess ended with an overdose of pills he was taking to combat his alcoholism. And there's also a keyboardist. And a new lead guitarist. And a percussionist. And a five-piece horn section. And three backup singers.
All the while the man responsible for most of this music is off by himself, isolated in a glass booth at the side of the studio. Not only can Townshend no longer hear well enough to play lead guitar, but his ears are so damaged by years of exposure to loud music that he has to be in a quieter setting. So the band has hired Steve "Boltz" Bolton, a tall Scotsman with a mountain of hair and a rockabilly wardrobe. Rumors that Joe Walsh would handle these chores were started, Townshend says, when Walsh said he'd step in if Boltz didn't work out and Walsh's and the Who's managers decided they might as well draw up a contract just in case.
Nobody's made any calls to Walsh lately, but as the band runs through a cross section of Who classics, a certain fire is missing. Though the songs still sound tough, this outfit is too busy learning the new arrangements to cut loose the way the old four-piece band would have done. Everybody's expecting that sense of abandon to come in time – but then again, it could be tough to manage without Townshend in the thick of things.
"The confidence isn't there yet," says Roger Daltrey. "And with Pete by himself, that's making it very difficult Although he's in the same room, it feels like he's not there. I bet if you took the wall away, the music would improve 100 percent. It's insane, innit?"
For now it's also making for some unsettling moments. There's the time, for example, when the big band somewhat tentatively plays "My Generation" while the backup singers try to work out a vocal arrangement for what was once a slice of unadulterated rock & roll grunge. Or the run-through of the dramatic ballad "Love, Reign o'er Me," during which it is Daltrey who windmills his arm in the style of the Townshend of old. The Townshend of today, meanwhile, cradles an acoustic guitar, motionless as he leans against the wall of a booth that's been decorated with a cheesy painting of a big-eyed puppy and several flowered curtains.
So once again: Who are these guys? Or rather: Are these guys the Who?
"Well, I feel like the Who," says Townshend later. "The three of us, when we work together, have part of the magic that the early band had. I think, in a sense, Keith's death had a kind of compounding reduction in that magic, and Roger, John and I add up to about fifty percent of the old Who. But it's there."
Townshend begins circling the subject, the way he often does in conversation. "In a sense, the name refers to the audience's feeling about what the band means to them," he says. "And that's got very little to do with what the band actually does these days, which is nothing. The band has done nothing in years. There is no band. It's wrong, really, to call it the Who, because it isn't the Who. It's a bunch of session musicians brought together to play Who material. It's kind of authenticated because of our presence, but that's all, really."
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