During his recent performances at London’s hoity-toity Sadler’s Wells theater, there was little chance Pete Townshend would smash his guitar to bits. He was playing an acoustic, for one thing – and the shards would have gotten all over the London Chamber Orchestra, which was accompanying him for the premiere of Lifehouse, the rock opera that Townshend intended as a follow-up to Tommy. Several Lifehouse songs surfaced on Who’s Next back in 1971, but this February the whole thing was released as a six-CD set. Townshend is a busy man these days: He’s about to appear on VH1’s Storytellers; in May he’s putting out a single-disc digest of Lifehouse; then, in June, the Who saddle up once again for twenty U.S. dates.
What are the best and worst things about being Pete Townshend in the year 2000?
It’s all pretty good. The worst thing is having a failed marriage. I regret that. Although we’ve been separated for a long time, I think this is the year we’ve finally properly given up on it. The good thing is that I’m in a relationship now with a woman whom I work with quite a lot, who’s an orchestrator. It’s the first time since I’ve been separated that I’ve been out with an Englishwoman. I’ve mainly gone out with American women.
During the Who years, did rock and domestic bliss seem incompatible?
No. I’ve lived in a bit of a fantasy, I think. I always wanted there to be a kind of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward story, but they’re one of the great exceptions. I did hold Paul McCarmey in high esteem because of the way that he conducted his relationship. I have those kind of old-fashioned family values. And that has infuriated, to the point of hysteria, certain American rock critics and musicians, who think that once you’ve thrown a TV through a hotel-room window, that’s you for life and you don’t actually have a home to go to – you just grow a long beard like ZZ Top and live in a fucking Greyhound bus or something.
Is your relationship with your audience different these days?
When I appear as a solo performer, even the staunchest Who fans know that I’m going to do what I want to do and that it might be quite mischievous. So that gives me great freedom. Because with Lifehouse, I felt I’d taken a terrible risk. Some things Paul McCartney has done have turned out to be disastrous for him critically, whereas I thought he was very courageous, trying to write symphonic pieces. It’s not pretentious. It’s no more vain than doing a rock tour.
When the Who play now, do you get a time-warp feeling?
There’s a bit of a time-warpy thing, simply because of the huge chunks of time when we haven’t done it. It’s weird – it’s like the music takes its place in the great time clock. But you know what’s really weird? In ’96 and ’97 we were just playing Quadrophenia, and one day there were a couple of girls out in the audience with leather jackets and blond hair. And they were kind of shouting, “The Who,” and I thought, “A couple of rock-chick Who fans, just like the old days. It’s great that they’ve turned out for something as intellectual as Quadrophenia.” Then I realized that they were actually shouting, “Be the Who! Be the Who! Be the Who!” And I thought, “That’s weird. We are the Who.” What they meant was, “Pretend to be the Who. Pretend to be who you used to be.”
Your voice sounds amazing. Did you ever want to shove Roger aside?
I always had quite a nice voice, but I never owned it until 1980, when I did my first solo album, Empty Glass, with [producer] Chris Thomas. He said, “Why don’t you just sing?” And I said, “Because I sound like Andy Williams.” And he said, “So?” And I sound like Andy Williams – I’ve got a beautiful voice.
This story is from the May 11th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.