Pete Townshend just put out Who I Am, a soul-baring 503-page autobiography that instantly ranks with the best rock memoirs, but he still has plenty more to say. He hopes to release some of the hundreds of pages he cut from early drafts (including a detailed account of the genesis of Tommy) in some form, maybe even as a multimedia “online experience.” And after the rigors of book promotion, the thought of his upcoming Quadrophenia tour with the Who actually seems kind of relaxing. “I’m looking forward to getting on the road and having a nice rest,” says Townshend, who’s sitting in his piano-equipped suite at New York’s Carlyle hotel.
There’s so much personal stuff in this book – is it wrong to assume you’re beyond embarrassment at this point?
I can be terribly embarrassed. But I’m in a business where you sell yourself by the fucking pound. Before I made the decision to continue with the Who, I was at art school – I wanted to be an artist. And I genuinely wish that’s what I’d done, because of the price that I and everybody around me has had to pay. I tend to use my defects and vulnerabilities to provide reflective catharsis for my audience – and in the process, I’ve become exposed.
I’ve come to accept that, but my ex-wife, for example, would much prefer that I’d never, ever said anything or written a single song. You know, particularly any song that I now say, “I wrote it for this girl.” Did you hear from your ex-wife about this book? It’s none of your business! [Laughs]
You had to push Roger Daltrey to do Quadrophenia now. Why is it so important to you to take it on the road again?
I’ve got limited choices now. Not just because of my hearing, but also because something happens to me when I’m on the stage, particularly when I’ve got an electric guitar in my hand and a great band behind me. The zone I go into is not the same as the zone Carlos Santana goes into. I become almost like an idiot dancer meets Baryshnikov, meets some great athlete. I start to do things that I shouldn’t be doing, sometimes my guitar gets too loud – but those are the moments that the crowd really seems to adore the most: when I get into this huge, demonstrative, physical display, accompanied by extraordinary guitar-playing. I play so much better today than I did when I was a young man. Maybe the biggest quantum improvement has been since John Entwistle died, because he left me the space to fill.
So what’s the problem?
What happens is that I hurt myself. I come off, I’ve got a dodgy knee, or my arm is almost dislocated, because I’ve swung it too often. But I feel that when I do Quadrophenia, I don’t have to do quite so much of the antics. It’s more controlled. And I’m never gonna do anything any better than Quadrophenia for a rock band. I have two roles in it: I can sing songs, and then stand back and kinda go, “I am the composer!” The Wagnerian moment.
Will there be other songs in the encores?
Maybe just three or four hits. But Roger is in a new place – he wants to experiment.
You guys are one of many legendary rock acts still touring in their late sixties. How would you have felt about that 30 years ago?
I think it would have deeply shocked and upset me, and I think it probably does deeply shock and upset me. There’s a bit of me inside that’s a punk kid, kinda going, “This is shit.” I may be different to all those guys because I’ve never liked it – I’ve never got as much fulfillment from doing a great gig with the Who as I have from sitting at home, with a tape machine and a guitar and a synthesizer, cooking up some great bit of music, knowing that that’s more than one gig – it’s a fucking century of musical impact.
You mention Roger Waters a lot in the book – is The Wall as good as your rock operas?
It doesn’t end with the kind of spectacular rock anthem you’d write, though.
I’m not ashamed of praying onstage. In a sense, we discovered the rock anthem through that. At the end of Tommy there’s a prayer to a higher power – “Listening to you, I get the music” and “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.” Rock audiences of the late Sixties would always stand up. They would suddenly feel, “Ah! I see, we’re gathered here in order to lose ourselves in this plea for grace.” And that’s what the rock anthem is. Bono might think he’s rallying the troops or something, but he’s aware of the power of congregation. And Bruce Springsteen started to anthemize much, much more basic things, like, “We’re driving through the streets of New Jersey and we feel like fucking God!”
Looking back, what triggered Keith Moon’s decline?
What happened with Keith was he realized he was going to lose his wife – he had spent his whole young life worrying that she was going to run off with Rod Stewart or somebody. And he medicated carelessly using cocktails. I don’t think I’d be here today if I drifted into cocaine use earlier than I did.
Ten years ago, you said you had 1,600 pieces of unreleased music.
I have more now.
What’s going to happen to that stuff?
As the end approaches? I’ve already spoken to the British Library and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t have the time or inclination to weed out the crap myself, and there’s some real shit in there.
Do you think that 2006’s Endless Wire will be the last Who album?
You know, I don’t. I’m not promising anything, but we too, like everybody else, have a 50th anniversary coming up. And I unashamedly like to celebrate anniversaries.
Will a guitar band ever change the world again?
It could happen any moment. But who knows? I don’t know!
This story is from the November 8th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.