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Pete Townshend: Dr. Who

Why it took twenty-four years for a new Who album, and why the guitarist doesn’t want to see Dylan or the Stones play again

The Who, Pete Townshend

The Who's Pete Townshend during The Who in Concert in Hollywood, California in July of 2002.

Chris Walter/WireImage/Getty

In June, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey gathered with their road crew and backing band at the cavernous Bray Film Studios an hour west of London to rehearse for the Who‘s sixth tour since their “farewell” outing in 1982 – and their first since bassist John Entwistle died of drug-related heart failure in Las Vegas on the eve of the group’s 2002 road trip. There was less than a week to go before the first dates in Europe. Daltrey was struggling to memorize the lyrics to songs from Endless Wire, the first new Who album in twenty-four years, and his frustration was evident. But Townshend’s spirits were high as he teased fifty-eight-year-old keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick for being so quick to take his shirt off in rehearsals. Townshend was looking forward to taking the band to America, although Daltrey had yet to agree.

Outside, Townshend’s girlfriend, singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller, showed off her new Airstream trailer – a silver TV studio on wheels that would be used to film her In the Attic Web series from the road as she followed the Who from one European festival gig to the next. Townshend is a technology geek – at sixty-one, he’s obsessed with the Internet, and the original plan was to broadcast part of every Who show on the tour via In the Attic, with revenues donated to charity. (Financing fell through, scrapping the project.) But Townshend’s Internet jones will not be denied: The Web figures on Endless Wire, which comes out October 31st, in the form of the Grid, a variation on Townshend’s Lifehouse concept, which dates way back to 1971’s Who’s Next, and which can best be described as using the Net as a giant tuning fork that harmonizes all of humanity.

Endless Wire features time travel, meditation and murder as well, laid out in songs that sound like they could have been written during the same era that yielded Seventies Who classics such as Quadrophenia. “This album is a real mixture,” says Townshend. “There are some songs that fit the Who’s Next pattern: sonic experiments with complex and careful techniques behind them. But there are also very bask analog eight-track home-studio recordings – even a few tracks that are just acoustic guitar and vocals. I think the album that this one most closely echoes is one I made with Ronnie Lane in 1976 called Rough Mix – but sonically it stands as a Who record somewhere between Who By Numbers and Who Are You.” The collection includes a ten-song “mini-opera” about a guy Townshend’s age watching three kids from his neighborhood grow up and form a band. “They’re a precocious group of guys from different religions, and they make a commitment to each other,” the guitarist told me during the first in a series of interviews that began at rehearsals and concluded in New York in September, early in the Who’s American tour. The different religions – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – are Townshend’s reflection on a post-September 11th world. (He was initially in favor of the war in Iraq, by the way, but has since changed his position.) But it’s also a story about a band trying to get along, a subject he knows all too well. “They accept one another’s extraordinary eccentricities,” he says. “That idea reflects very much the commitment I made when I was about eleven or twelve with John Entwistle, who thought I was very, very strange. A band is a very extreme form of co-dependency, to use the recovery term. It’s like a marriage, without the sex, without the ceremony, without the love, without the children, without the golf, without the Sunday lunches, without the in-laws. When you put a band together, you tend to accept that this guy or girl in your band can do the job, but, God, they’re so weird. And if you get a hit, you’re stuck with this weird person for the rest of your life.”

There’s been talk of a new Who album for six years. Why such a long delay?
We did a press conference in 2000 where Roger and John both announced they’d written songs for a new Who album. I was shocked. I went to Roger and said, “So you’ve written some songs, have you? Would it be possible for me to hear them?” Of course he hadn’t written any songs. He still hasn’t. And I went to John and said, “Have you written any songs?” He said, “Yeah, I’ve got ‘undreds. But I’m not playing them to him.” I said, “Who’s him?” And he said, “Roger. I’m not having my songs sniffed out by him.” And that was that.

I had to try to rescue them because Roger had committed publicly to the idea that we were going to make a record, and he felt he’d look like a complete idiot if we didn’t make any new music. So we did “Real Good Looking Boy” and “Old Red Wine” for [the greatest-hits collection] Then and Now. But I couldn’t be driven by Roger’s needs. He’d never been a part of the Who’s creative engine. He longed to be a part of it, he longed to be able to wish it into existence, but it required me to come up with a piece of work I felt convinced I could carry for the rest of my life.

You were talking about how being in a band is like a marriage. But you and Roger have gone through a lot of separations in your forty-two-year marriage.
The idea of a commitment in a relationship is that it’s somehow of a higher value if it’s unconditional. In a business relationship, it’s of a higher value if it’s conditional. In other words, Roger and I feel we’ve achieved the most if he’s getting what he wants and I’m getting what I want. I realized that if I went to Roger and tried to honor our relationship, the chemistry we have together on a creative basis, that I had to take responsibility for the bit I always do and he would come in afterward, as he has always done.

When Roger and I were on our last tour with John, I sat with our manager, Bill Curbishley, on the last day and asked, “Are we gonna do this again?” He said, “If you want to, we can always do it again.” And I said, “Is there any possibility that we’re enabling John Entwistle? Rather than helping him, what we’re actually doing is sending him home with, after tax, probably a million dollars, half of it’s probably gonna go up his girlfriend’s nose.” God rest her soul, she’s dead now. I thought, “I don’t need to play old Who songs. I could sell them to fucking CSI.” When John died, I decided that if I were to ever go back on tour with Roger, it has to be artistically driven. I thought, “If we’re going to do this, we have to have new music, and it has to come from me.”

What at this point is the most fulfilling aspect of creating new material for the Who?
The attention it receives, and the powerful filtering and editorial process that is imposed when I work with Roger, my interpreter and partner. There is a sense that I am closing a circle here too – I did feel that when I completed songs for the last Who studio album, in 1982, that I had completely lost my connection with our audience. Somehow, today’s audience has granted me a second chance to reconnect as the Who’s chief songwriter, and it really does seem as though almost everyone has thrown away the rule book. Some of our live shows have taken this function of mine to a place that it seems no mere CD could ever reach. At Madrid, for example, as I played my guitar toward the end of the show, I felt like a triumphant liberating giant come to release a million captive children. Could make me a little vain.

You’ve been very involved with the Internet, and originally you planned to sell live Webcasts of all the shows on this tour to raise money for charity.
It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do more of that, because the Web site and the Internet have given the Who the most extraordinary ten years. Whenever we wanted to go out, we’ve gone out and sold out our tours. Now if Roger truly believes it’s because people want to look at his chest or truly believes it’s because Pete Townshend is a magical genius and people want to hear this music one more time, he’s wrong. I think it’s because we have this incredible tied-in fan base. The Web sites I’ve been running are like fan clubs. And fan clubs back in the old days really were the way that artists made sure that they got hits. If you had 400,000 fans and they all went out and bought your album on the same day, you got a fucking Number One!

This fan thing is very powerful. I don’t think that the big boomer bands are going to be able to do this much longer. I really don’t. We’re fucking lucky to be able to do it, but I don’t think we’ll be able to do it much longer. I don’t want to go out and see Bob Dylan. I don’t want to go out and see the Stones. I wouldn’t pay money to go see the Who, not even with new songs. I wouldn’t pay money to go see Crosby, Stills and Nash. They fucking make me sick. When I say that, what I mean is I’m ageist about it. I don’t want to look at these old guys in their self-congratulatory mode. Somebody gave me tickets for Marlene Dietrich’s last concert in London, and apparently she came out and she looked fantastic under the lights, but you know that she’s an eighty-year-old woman held together by glue and string. Why would you want to do that? I’d prefer to come and see Elaine Stritch down in the bar here. My point is, I don’t think it will go on much longer.

Our audience, our boomer audience, are sustaining it. It’s not young kids. People say, “Oh, I went to a Rolling Stones concert and there were lots of young people there!” Once. They come once. I went to see Jimmy Reed once. I went to see John Lee Hooker once. I went to see Jimmy Smith once. I went to see Ray Charles once. I just wanted to be able to say I saw him. If Charlie Parker had been alive, I would have seen him once. I saw Roland Kirk once. I saw them all once. I wouldn’t follow them around the fucking world. There’s a lot of people that come and see bands like the Who once.

It works out fine, right? Because those same artists aren’t going to be touring forever. It’s not like fifteen years from now you’re going to be like, “Oh, I guess nobody wants to come to our shows anymore.”
No, my point is when you look at the commerce behind the music business, what’s running the whole thing is live shows. The problem for the Who is because we can go out and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket grosses, we’re a commodity and treated as such. It would be nice if it was the same with the record, but it won’t be. Universal are probably stamping around today thinking, “Oh, my God, not another fucking Who record. Oh, my God, what do we do? Thank God for the Scissor Sisters!”

Many of the new songs relate to a novella that you published online. Was the entire album inspired by that?
All the songs on the album were started while I was building the backbone for the novella The Boy Who Heard Music. The story is underpinned by rage and passion about events of abuse in my childhood that had been retriggered as I wrote about them in my autobiography, and my mother’s recent return to active alcoholism. The two scenarios may well be interrelated. My mother was very, very brave to reveal some incidents in my childhood to me when I interviewed her some years ago. I was grateful to her. She didn’t come out looking like the perfect young post-war mother – but I felt she had made up for it by being steadier with my two younger brothers, and by staying wildly married to my father until his death. However, I think she felt quite a bit of pain at relating what had happened to me as a little kid, and communication between us has been quite strained ever since.

Can I ask you to talk about those childhood events in greater depth?
I’m afraid that’s as deep as it gets.

You’ve mentioned to me that the song-writing process for Endless Wire came in two spurts. Each time you were working with similar ideas, but with a more positive attitude the second time.
It was a more positive process the second time and moved more quickly. It’s actually a technique I’ve used over and over again in my life, which is that I come up with a story or concept that inspires me to write songs, one way or another. I find it very difficult just to write songs in space or after sitting and reading the newspaper. Three I wrote after watching The Passion of the Christ, but generally I have to be in my own little neighborhood space. I have to keep re-creating it over and over again. You could call the groove I describe a rut. I can’t break out of it. I’ve tried, but I keep going back to the fact that, you know, when something really big has happened to you, like for Americans now, this weekend, 9/11, the people that were here, they’re forever changed by that. It’s crazy to pretend otherwise.

I was born on the very last month of the fucking war, and out I come into the world looking for laughter and fun and a new life, and what happens is I land in this peculiar planet called England, and it was weird. My entire function is about trying to deal with expiating my childhood difficulty that came from the denial of previous generations.

Last week, I was reading about this book that’s just come out. It’s about the Polish Jews who got out of concentration camps and went back to their homes, which had been taken over by Christians who assumed the Jews weren’t coming back. What happened was another wave of anti-Semitism in which dozens were slaughtered by Christians in Warsaw. The premise for it was that there was witchcraft going on. The Jews, of course, drank the blood of children. Been there, done that. Fucking hell. And I asked myself, “Why am I so heated up about this fucking story?” But it’s because, as a kid, my best friend, Mick Leiber, was a Jew. We grew up in a community that was about a third Polish. We lived in a house that divided in two, and in the top part lived a Jewish family who were quite devout. Polish Jews were the kids I played with. They were my people. I remember saying to my mother, “Aren’t Polish people from Poland?” And she said, “Yes, they were Britain’s first ally in the war.” I’d say, “But they’re not like foreigners. They’re just like we are.” And she said, “Yes, they’re just like we are.”

With The Boy Who Heard Music, I wrote a story about three kids from the neighborhood who are my daughter’s age, who are asking the same questions I used to ask my mother, in a shadow echo.

A shadow echo? Like the return of the repressed?
Right. The problems of generations, and the denial of our parents’ generation, echoes onto the next one. I know this is the stuff of psychoanalysis, and I know we have to live in the moment, but our response to what happens in the world today is tempered and shaped by the way we were brought up to deal with trauma, spectacular attacks on our sanctity, prejudice, brutality, bullying, religious fundamentalism, all those things.

And where are we today? We’re in the same anti-Semitic apologetic denial – it’s a dishrag of a policy. Trying to blame Israel for defending a country we created. And I’m not even Jewish! Jesus fucking Christ. And let’s start with him! Sweet Jesus. This album absolutely had to have several songs about Jesus the man, Muhammad the man, but not modern Christianity or Islam. They are both potentially anti-Semitic today. And I think the fact is that, when I was working on this album I just thought, “It’s fucking about time that I completed my story.” At this time in my life, with nuclear threats coming from Iran and Korea, I am becoming so impatient with the ex-hippies all around me. I am suddenly thinking like an extreme reactionary, right-wing, warmongering . . . . Fucking hell, come inside my brain! The incredible numbers of dead in the last war make it clear that we can’t afford to wait to be hit again. That’s my opinion. That’s my story. Peace is something that has to be made. It doesn’t come from passivity.

If Endless Wire continues to deal with the same themes you’ve always explored, how would you say your understanding of those themes has changed in the twenty-four years since the last Who album?
Now, everything is just about statistics. However big America appears from the outside, it’s full of people who’ve been bludgeoned into insensibility by statistics. Andrew Oldham, the ex-Rolling Stone manager who now lives in Bogota [Colombia], sent me an e-mail this morning. It was a rant from somebody about the failure of the record executives to sell records. Something about how Christina Aguilera sold 300,000 the first week but then only 100,000 the subsequent week, and the promoter doing her tour is terrified that her tickets aren’t going to sell. One of the Simpson girls, I don’t know which one, has sold only 50,000 CDs. I’m looking through the e-mail and thinking, “Statistics, statistics, statistics. What does this mean? Does this make us bad people?”

The point is, I had been thinking, coming back to the world with new music, why would I want to stand onstage and play a great guitar solo? It would be to help people get in the zone, to forget themselves for half an hour. To demonstrate that there might be some poetry, something a little higher than statistics.

What’s the “mirror door” that you refer to in one of the songs?
The mirror door came out of a kind of a rant I had with myself. When I was young, I used to talk about the fact that the Who were like a mirror, and then I realized that wasn’t quite right. What we were was very transparent. The true great artists, the Dylans, make you believe you’re looking into a mirror, and then, bang! You’re changed. So “mirror door” is how I would describe the artistic process. You walk up to something you believe is going to tell you something about yourself and then it tricks you and you change. The mirror is actually a doorway. You’re changed and you can never go back.

As the album’s release approaches, do you have any anxiety about how people will interpret the meaning of are new songs?
Once the song is out, I don’t have a problem with people feeling whatever they’re going to feel about it. You take a song like “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which has been rightly fingered now as a reactionary tune written to say, “Listen, I can’t cope with the counterculture. I’m twenty-four years old and I’ve got a baby. Please don’t come a-knocking on my door and say, ‘The revolution is happening, Pete, and you’ve got to lead us.’ Go away.” When Roger sang it, suddenly it became almost the anthem of the counterculturalists. You say to somebody, “I’m not doing it,” and they hear you say, “I’m doing it.” Like, “I’m not going to tell you that I think President Bush is a bad man.” And people go, “Oh, OK, so President Bush is a bad man.” Let me tell you again: He fucking is not a fucking bad man, you fucking idiot. And the debates I had backward and forward through Harvey Weinstein with Michael Moore were beyond belief. He wanted to use my song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” [in Fahrenheit 9/11]. I said to Harvey, “The guy wants to misuse the misuse of the song.” It’s not political or partisan or parochial. I do feel like, as an artist and a writer, I float above it all, like Updike or Roth. I float above it all and look down at all you guys running around, and I think, “I don’t have the answer, but I can write the theme tune.”

I suppose when I start to talk about myself as an artist, I feel like I’m retreating. I know what I’m responsible for is simply the artistic process. And the artistic process comes from living in a house in a country and trying to work out how to become a better artist and more truthful. I just follow my heart. Sometimes, maybe too often, I follow my pain. I’m trying hard to stop doing that. I’d very much like to stop doing it before I die, before I get old, before I become Kurt Cobain becoming Pete Townshend. However, as an artist I feel I am at the top of my game. I may never get any better. But I can try.


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