Hundreds of die-hard Who fans lined up outside Barnes & Noble at New York’s Union Square last night for a revealing conversation between Pete Townshend and Rolling Stone‘s editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner to celebrate Townshend’s new book, Who I Am: A Memoir. The 45-minute interview spanned Townshend’s epic life, with the guitarist discussing everything from how his troubled, abusive childhood influenced the Who’s darker music to his difficulty continuing the Who without Keith Moon and John Entwistle. “It ended in a good place,” he said of his personal struggles. “I’m alive, I’m happy, I’m healthy and I’m good at what I do and I find it easier.”
Wenner famously interviewed Townshend in Rolling Stone in 1968, when the guitarist opened up about the concept of Tommy. Their shared history was clear; at one point, Wenner recalled the two watching the Stones record Let It Bleed in London. Townshend said he started writing Who I Am in 1997, but pulled the plug after his publisher wasn’t satisfied with a draft. “They wanted the sex, drugs and rock & roll book and I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I came back to it in 2005, put it down again and I looked at my watch and said ‘I’m 66, I’ve got to get it finished!'” Townshend’s goal, he said, was “to write about the way the postwar period in the U.K. set up the conditions which was exactly right for us to discover our music.”
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But the project forced Townshend to confront the darker side of his childhood. Onstage, he described a period between ages four and six when his parents sent him to stay with his grandmother, who he described as “very Victorian, dominating, bullying and screwy with no moral basis.” Townshend visited his mother while working the book, who helped him recall memories he had shut out. “I wanted to be angry, but it was exactly the opposite,” he said. “She filled me in on these two years and I started to see why so much of my writing is so dark, why so much of my cold presence on the stage appeared to be angry, rage . . . What I discovered in the book is all of this stuff made me who I am. It was great because it had tempered me and done something in the way I process everything I see around me and come across creatively. The audience loved what I did because they too each had their own shit.”
Wenner also asked Townshend what he thought about other recent rock autobiographies. He praised Dylan’s Chronicles, calling it “poetic,” but thought less of Keith Richards’ Life and Eric Clapton’s Clapton. “I got about halfway through [Life] and I started to find myself thinking ‘I know all this,'” he said. Discussing Clapton, Townshend said, “I don’t know that Eric does himself a great service. He’s such a good friend and I think he makes himself look too uncomplicated. I think he’s a lot deeper, a lot darker, a lot more interesting than he portrays himself.”
Townshend also acknowledged that Roger Daltrey has been the one pushing the band to take risks lately, adding that he’s given the singer control of production and onstage video for the band’s upcoming Quadrophenia tour. “He’s working on a new dramatic scenario for it, working on a new video, trying to find a way to be comfortable being the narrator,” he said.
Townshend also opened up about the difficulty he’s faced continuing the band after John Entwistle’s death in 2002. “We feel the ghosts of Keith and John,” Townshend said. “The second phase of the Who in a sense was really when we started to tour again around the year 2000, 2001. We were still able to evoke the sound, particularly with Zak Starkey. Now it’s much more difficult even though Zak’s there. John’s sound was very big and rich and organic. When John died, there was a hole in the sound onstage and I was able to grow into that and find space. And I have to say as a guitar player, I prefer working without John. But as a member of the Who creating the incredible, powerful, driving, visceral sound, he’s gone. I can’t really do that again.”
At one point, Wenner asked Townshend why he hasn’t made a solo album in 20 years. “I write lots of music, I record lots of music. I probably write a song every couple of days,” he said. “I have a very big archive of unfinished material.”
Currently, Townshend is working on the musical project Floss, which he said he is about two-thirds finished, which he described as “a story with music, characters, a Aristotelian plot line very different from what I’ve done in the past. . . . The thesis is we’re all terrified. We’re living in terror, we’re living in anxiety, discomfort and the fear that we have is for the future, the fear for our children’s future, we’re worried about the planet, we’re worried about terrorism, being able to sustain life as we love it, we’re afraid we can’t guarantee peace.”
Townshend said he loves Lady Gaga and constantly listens to music. “I just kind of surf Spotify and last.fm and iTunes and stick it on my iPhone. I listen to a lot of new music.” He added that he predicted digital downloads “back in 1985 and before that in 1971. I knew there the digital revolution would change the way art happens and is made and is sold and we’re not finished yet.”
The conversation was followed by a brief acoustic performance, with Townshend playing soulful renditions of “Drowned” from Quadrophenia and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from Who’s Next.