Roger Daltrey says that making Tommy, the 1975 cinematic adaptation of the Who‘s like-titled rock opera, was a turning point in his life for a surprising reason. “When we filmed it, we worked with lots and lots of extremely disabled people in some of the scenes, and some of them were very young,” the singer says. “It took me back to my teenaged years. I remember that dreadful period where you don’t quite know who you are, where you’re going. You’re always insecure. In a way, you are deaf, dumb and blind to the world.”
Reflecting on that experience led him to want to help teenagers, and in 2000 it inspired his association with the U.K.’s Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity that supports hospitals in helping teenage patients, since most health facilities cater toward children and adults. In 2012, the singer and Who guitarist Pete Townshend helped found a U.S. component of the organization – Teen Cancer America – and they have led its fundraising efforts, which include benefit concerts and auctions.
They’re hosting their latest gala – dubbed Who Cares About the Next Generation – tonight in Los Angeles, where the Who will perform along with Eddie Vedder and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. They’re also hosting a live auction, run by auctioneer Howie Mandel. David Spade and Paul Stanley, among other celebrity guests, have agreed to make appearances. The organization is also holding an online silent auction, which includes items ranging from a pinball machine signed by the cast of the Tommy movie, including Jack Nicholson and Elton John, an autographed lithograph of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” lyrics, a signed Cream guitar and other items of memorabilia, as well as tickets to concerts and getaways.
Proceeds will benefit both Teen Cancer America and the UCLA Health Autism Treatment Program, the latter of which is the interest of the private individual who helped organize the event. “We’ve been involved with autism charities since way back early in the Seventies,” Daltrey says, “so I’m very happy we’re sharing the proceeds of this night with them.”
What kind of a performance will the Who be doing at the benefit? Will it be like your Who Hits 50 shows?
What do you want us to do? Climb ropes and swing on swings? I don’t know. It won’t be much different from what we’ve been doing every night on tour, maybe just a little bit quieter. These shows are fun and casual.
How does it feel to be winding down this portion of the Who Hits 50 tour?
I’m very pleased we’re ending in good form. We can’t replace John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon], who died, but the quality of the music that we’re playing now and the way we’re playing it is as high as it’s ever been.
You still hit that high note in “Won’t Get Fooled Again” perfectly.
All that bloody singing and everyone remembers a scream. It’s brutal. It’s killing me. It’s the one song I want to drop every night.
It’s not the stuttering in “My Generation” that you want to drop after 50 years?
I try and rephrase the stutter every night. It’s a challenge. But the song doesn’t need the stutter so much as it needs the anger.
What are you looking forward to about the benefit?
Eddie Vedder’s gonna be there, and I just love Eddie. I’m sure he’ll come up and do some duets with us.
Eddie has sung with you over the years, and I don’t think he’s ever done the same duet twice with you.
[Laughs] Whatever he wants to sing with us, I’d be obliged. Let’s hope he doesn’t pick anything too obscure.
What would you like to hear him sing?
I just love to hear Eddie sing. I think he’s got such a distinctive, fabulous voice. He doesn’t copy, so that’s what I like; he does the Eddie Vedder version. It’s never easy to do because most people will just try and copy what the Who have done. He’s always himself.
You sang a song of his once, “Better Man,” with him at one of your solo shows.
It was in Seattle, and I know Eddie lives there. I was hoping that he would be there that night. I didn’t know. But he turned up, and it was great to do it with him. It’s a wonderful song, that.
There are some unique items in the auction. What do you find most interesting?
I think the “Yesterday” lyrics that were donated by George Martin’s son are really a prize. It’s one of a limited number of the lithographs of the original lyrics, signed by Paul [McCartney] and George Martin. That hopefully will make a lot of money.
When did you first befriended the Beatles and Paul?
We supported them in 1964 in at the Blackpool Opera House in Blackpool, England. It was on a Sunday night, and we were on before them. I remember our roadie at the time remarked how John Lennon was standing behind Pete’s amp at the back of the scrim, and he was listening to what Pete was doing. Now we were the first band to do all of that feedback stuff and John Lennon was apparently listening to that. On the next record [“I Feel Fine”], they starting using feedback [laughs].
What else do you remember about that show?
I remember not hearing one bloody note they played. The screaming was, like, the world’s most ridiculous noise. You heard the music for about two seconds, if that, and then it was just a barrage of high-pitched wails. And there was suddenly the smell of urine.
Apparently Beatles fans used to wet themselves out of excitement.
Was it that way at your shows, too, back then?
I don’t think so. No, we were far too ugly [laughs].
Well, I figured you remained friends since Paul wrote “Giddy” for you, years later.
Well, my wife was very good friends with Linda. All bands are like ships that pass in the night unless you live in a place where bands settle. In London in the Sixties, of course, we were all settled. Then the Stones went to live in France, due to their tax issues, and slowly but surely we became like ships that pass in the night. Now if you want to really mix with bands you have to live in L.A. I’d go completely fucking mad if I had to.
You’ll be seeing the Stones and McCartney again this October at Desert Trip.
The gang is going to be together but not together. We’re all on separate days. We’re all doing our separate shows. We will say, “Hello, good to see you again,” and go our separate ways, and that’s how it is. But it’s always good to see old friends.
You were previously quoted as saying it represented the “greatest remains of [your] era” and “I’m glad we made it.”
Is that what I said? “I’m glad we made it”? An awful lot of my pals from the Sixties aren’t here anymore. I know if you’ve noticed.
What does a fest like that say about the artists?
I think it’s a wonderful accolade to the music – here they are all of these years later, 50-plus years later, still drawing massive audiences, still out there playing, and the music seems to be meaning as much to a younger generation as well for all those artists that are on there as it did in the day. I think that’s a remarkable achievement for any musician.
Getting back to the auction, there’s a replica Keith Moon drum kit that you and Pete signed up for auction. How badly would he beat those up?
It’s very hard to damage a bass drum unless you put a bomb in it. As the Smothers Brothers found out, that damaged the bass drum.
It damaged everything, looking at the footage.
We had no inclination it was going to be that big a bang. No inclination of how dangerous it really, really was. When you study the video and you watch Pete’s reaction, and he’s patting his head, and the reason he’s patting his head is because his hair is alight. His hair was smoldering. The blast blew me over. I went flat on my face. It stunned me [laughs].
In 2013, you had teased this trek as the Who’s last big tour. Does it have a sense of finality?
Yes and no. It’s the end of this type of tour, I’m sure. We’ll take a break for a couple of years, and by the time that’s over I’ll probably be 74, getting on 75. I don’t know if I can physically do what I’m doing now at 75. That’s an impossible question to answer. I don’t feel it.
I know how much I’m putting into it and how much it’s taking out of me. Only I know that. I’m just being honest. I can look very lively on the stage but when I come off I can hardly walk. It’s killing me.
What are your immediate plans for when the tour is over?
Sleep [laughs]. I don’t make plans. Something will come through that I’m interested in and I will do it. The other part of my life, which is the charities, is a full-time job in itself. I don’t need any more work that’s for sure.
Are you working on music?
I’m working on a solo project but I don’t know whether I’ll ever release it. I’m working on a biography; I don’t know if I’ll ever release that. I’ll only release it if it’s a good book. I don’t care how long it takes.
I won’t sign a publishing deal. People sign a publishing deal and they have to put it out because they’ve taken the money. Well, bollocks to the money, I don’t care about the money I want a good book. If it takes five years, then it takes five years to write it.
What makes a good memoir in your opinion?
It’s about getting an angle that carries the reader with you. You can’t do just a series of events. Most of the rock biographies that I’ve read I kind of got bored with about halfway to two-thirds of the way through. I hope not to fall into that trap.
What does your solo album sound like?
I don’t talk about albums until they’re done. I’ve got five great tracks; I’m looking for another five. Finding great tracks is really difficult; I don’t want anything mediocre on it. A lot of albums exist today but I don’t want to record shitty music. You know, I started off as a soul singer. I’ve never done a soul album. I’m playing some stuff like that. I’ve got ranges in my voice that people have never, ever heard. We’ll see.
You said in the past that Pete has hundreds of songs that could be recorded. Would you ever make another Who record?
We’ve talked about it, but it’s not going to be easy. There’s no record industry anymore. Why would I make a record? I would have to pay to make a record. There’s no royalties so I can’t see that ever happening. There’s no record business. How do you get the money to make the records? I don’t know. I’m certainly not going to pay money to give my music away free. I can’t afford to do that. I’ve got other things I could waste the money on.
Well, the music industry is constantly changing.
Well, it’s been stolen. The way the Internet has come about has been the biggest robbery in history, like musicians should work for nothing.
Artists get paid for streaming, but not like they did for albums.
You’re joking. You get paid for streaming, my ass. There’s no control. Musicians are getting robbed every day. And now it’s creeping into film and television, everything now. You notice, the Internet is a slowly but surely destructive thing in all ways. I don’t think it’s improved people’s lives. It’s just made them do more work and feel like they’re wanted a bit more, but it’s all bollocks. They feel like they’re wanted because they got 50,000 Facebook likes or whatever, and it’s all bollocks. It’s all rubbish [laughs]. Look up for a while. Live in the real world.
“The Internet is a slowly but surely destructive thing in all ways. I don’t think it’s improved people’s lives.”
You’ve said in the past that getting Teen Cancer America established was difficult, compared to the U.K. Has that changed?
It’s much different than I thought it would be. I thought the difficulty would be the hospitals. That’s actually been the easiest bit. The fundraising has been difficult, and I think that’s just a matter of getting what we’re about out there.
What broader goals do you have for Teen Cancer America?
In my opinion this is just the start of getting the hospitals to realize that this age group is very different. This age group should have a space of its own in all hospitals. They shouldn’t be with children and they certainly shouldn’t be with adults. It’s not good for adults, for children and certainly not teenagers.
It must be very difficult psychologically on teenagers to get a cancer diagnosis, since many people in that time of their lives already feel helpless.
We can’t even imagine it. We see it and we think we imagine it, but the truth is you can’t. I’m sure they didn’t imagine it to be what it is. What I do have to say on a positive side, I haven’t met one of them who lived through it that didn’t gain something really positive from it.
What kinds of stories have you heard from the patients?
I met a mother and a son, who was 17, in Chicago and he’s had a very bad bone sarcoma. He had a piece of his leg removed. I said to him, “How long were you in hospital?” He said, “I was in between a year and 18 months.” I asked if he had met any other teens there, and he said, “No, I was with two five-year-olds.” My brain just went, “How did he end up so normal?” It was extraordinary.
When you think about your Teen Cancer endeavors so far, what makes you proud?
I set myself a target of 25 hospital wards in England. Now we’ve got 30 hospitals, and they’re good ones; they’re fabulous ones. We have to pay for it. We supply it with specialized staff. I’m pleased we’ve achieved that, and we’re keeping it going. We’re international now. In addition to America, Australia has accepted our program and other countries are coming in.
We’ve already made breakthroughs in medicine. Just the fact that pediatric and adult technicians can work together, we’ve made breakthroughs in medicine. I’m very proud of this charity, we’re very much a team, and I’m proud of the achievement. The way it gets done is with people with passion.