One of them died. The other three got old, at least by rock & roll standards. In 1982 they made It's Hard, their last album, which none of them liked. Then they did their last tour. And then they went their separate ways: Pete Townshend successfully battled alcoholism and drug addiction and became a moderately successful solo performer and, on the side, an editor for the Faber and Faber publishing house. Roger Daltrey embarked on an odd career, sporadically releasing indifferently received solo albums and taking on film-acting roles, including a recent one in a version of The Threepenny Opera. And John Entwistle, who says he didn't even see Townshend for several years after the band broke up, tried to interest people in his new music and grew frustrated that they never let him escape the shadow of the Who.
They never thought they'd get back together, though they hooked up every once in a while. They played Live Aid, though Entwistle calls the appearance "a disaster." They did a short set at the British Phonograph Industry Awards ceremony in 1988. And they celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary in Great Britain last year by posing for photos together on London's Wardour Street, but Townshend says nobody ran the photos. And then the rumors started: Townshend had reconsidered . . . Entwistle was broke . . . The Who might make an album and was looking for outside songs . . . The album was off, but a tour might be in the works . . . The tour was on, and they stood to make a lot of money . . .
"There's no way I'm broke," says Entwistle of one of the more prevalent rumors. "I've got a house that's worth 3 million, I've got a hundred and fifty grand in cars, and I've still got 200,000 pounds worth of guitars [though he auctioned off 100 of his 266 basses not long ago]. But cash flow is always difficult to maintain, because whenever I earned any money, I spent it on something I could look at . . . So yeah, I need the money from this tour very much. Everybody needs more money."
There's another reason, Entwistle says, for the tour: "Because they won't let me do fuckall else. The only way I can play in front of a big audience is with the Who." And playing for big audiences was always the real home for a band that made eleven studio albums in twenty-five years while contemporaries like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones made upward of two dozen. Onstage the Who's music took on enormous power, Townshend's windmills and kicks only part of one of the flashiest, ballsiest shows in rock. Onstage the band helped develop the sound that became heavy metal, documenting it on Live at Leeds well before it became, as Townshend puts it, "immortalized in the gross, disgusting object that was Led Zeppelin." Onstage the Who made a lot of its money, routinely selling out stadiums. And sometimes the band's presence caused havoc (most notably in Cincinnati in 1979, when eleven fans were killed in the crush to get in the doors to a Who concert).
So even though Townshend decided against a tour late last year – preferring to devote his time to Iron Man, a theatrical show and album based on a British children's book – he eventually reconsidered. "It's very difficult, when you've changed your mind, to explain why you've changed it," he says, running a hand through his thin beard as he sits in an upstairs office between Who rehearsals. "But this is an anniversary year for the band, and I desperately wanted to do something. I wanna see the Who's catalog out there, I wanna see people buying the early records.
"I'd spent an immense amount of time thinking about the negative aspects: the trouble that I might have with my hearing, the fact that the Who are a spent force creatively and so couldn't ever go into the studio and produce a decent record. And we're too old, and this group kills people, and music does not belong in stadiums. But it's what the audience feels about the band that's important."
The self-examination is typical of Townshend. Long acknowledged as one of rock & roll's most expansive – and often as one of rock's most articulate – talkers, he's always ready to tell lengthy tales or look at his own work frankly and philosophically. Certainly, he can come up with justifications for just about every thing he does. His droopy eyes and long face make him look sad much of the time, but his conversation is often self-critical.
At the moment, though, Townshend is grinning as he tells a long, drawn-out story about why he changed his mind. He talks about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner in New York City last January, about how he was moved by some of the induction speeches and stunned by his first exposure to the music of the seminal gospel group the Soul Stirrers. He began to think about how rock & roll is America's music.
"It's a rich, valuable inheritance of the only thing America has indisputably done right in its couple of hundred years, which was the emancipation of black religion," says Townshend. "And I just felt that this is the music I was partially responsible for bringing back to America when the Who came over in the Sixties with a catalog of R&B songs. And I suddenly thought, 'This is shit. They want us to come back and tour, and this is their music. It's not my fucking music.' And I suddenly felt that I'd been obstructive, obdurate and obstinate. All the obs. And I thought that I should get my shit together." (Of course, he admits, this didn't stop him from delivering a biting speech that welcomed the Rolling Stones into the Hall of Fame but also slammed them for burying personal differences and planning their own big-money reunion tour.)
With many asides, the story continues. Townshend went to the airport to return to London, looking forward to flying club class – "no creepy people, none of the bullshit of traveling first" – but switched to tourist class when his flight was delayed by fog. Trying to find a way to cope with his unfamiliar, claustrophobic surroundings in coach, he decided to pass the time by figuring out how much he'd saved by downgrading his ticket. It turned out to be about $165 an hour.
And then, after twenty minutes of a story that seems to be getting increasingly far afield from the basic question – Why are you touring? – Pete Townshend grins and brings it all back home. "By the time we landed," he says, "I suddenly realized that the whole nub of the thing, the other thing about coming back to America and touring, was that America was gonna insist on sending me home very, very rich. And that's a good feeling."
So Townshend arrived home and told his wife, "Listen, I've procrastinated a lot about two things: one is whether or not to do this tour, and the other is whether or not we should adopt children [Townshend and his wife, Karen Astley Townshend, have two grownup daughters, Emma and Arminta]. And you know, I think I'm gonna do both. Let's get some kids, and let's do this tour."
A couple of weeks later, he adds with a laugh, the tour was being booked, and his wife was pregnant.
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