Q&A: Pete Townshend is a Sufi Alcoholic

The Who man withstands a barrage of his own questions on the eve of his new solo anthology

Pete TOWNSHEND playing Gibson J200 acoustic guitar performs with the Who, touring Quadrophenia in the UK on December 1st, 1996. Credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

To get Pete Townshend to see me, feel me during a recent interview in Los Angeles, I chose a series of goofy questions suggested by his own illustrious oeuvre. Did the Who auteur – who was promoting his new solo anthology, Coolwalkingsmoothtalkingstraightsmokingfirestrokin: The Best of Pete Townshend – tell me he was not gonna take it, go psychoderelict, smash a guitar, catch a magic bus or initiate a legal matter? No, actually the middle-aged kid was more than all right with it. Should you read on as this punk meets the godfather of the concept album? You better, you bet.

Who are you?
A sufi alcoholic comes to mind. That song was one of my first realizations that the spiritual search and booze were the same thing. I've learned that being a drunk actually is a spiritual search, only you're looking in the wrong place.

Can you explain?
No. That song was about my inability to even speak. I don't think I've ever explained anything. What I do is analyze. It's interesting that my first song was called "I Can't Explain" and I've spent the rest of my life trying to do it.

So can you see for miles?
You know, I used to think I could. I thought I knew what was going on in the minds of the women in my life. Now I know I can't.

Is a little enough?
Well, if it's love, then yes. If it's cocaine, then never.

Will you get fooled again?
You mean playing Quadrophenia in Hyde Park? [Laughs] Undoubtedly I will.

In "Rough Boys" you responded to the original punks. What about the more recent wave like Green Day? Do you want to bite and kiss them, too?
I don't want to bite and kiss any of them, really.

Forgetting about that silly death thing, what else do you want to do before you get old?
This is a perfect example of something I definitely did not write for me. "My Generation" was something I really hoped to lumber Roger with.

So you hoped Roger died before you got old?
I hoped he hoped he'd died before he got old. No, it has nothing to do with death, it's about defiant life. If we put death completely aside, then the thing I'm really looking forward to is the summer. I taught my little boy, who is 6, to ride his bike a couple weekends ago. It's great to be there. I can't remember whether I was there when my two daughters learned to ride bikes.

At this point is that more of a release than smashing some innocent guitar?
I don't know that smashing guitars has ever been a release. It's been an action that has required me to pay for the one I just smashed and find another one. I love the guitar. It's a portable machine you can have in the living room – it's sexier than an accordion and smaller than a piano.

Do all the best cowboys really have Chinese eyes?
Yeah. In fact I researched it very, very carefully. I started with Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and just went right through them all. With that title, I was also drawing a much more complicated allusion, which I don't suppose I should get into, but it had to do with heroin.

Did Kurt Cobain connect with you?
Very much. I mean there's only one difference with him and me, and that was he was pretty, and that gave him a lot of problems. The pretty people tend to blow their brains out.

Pete, can you hear me?
I can't respond to that one. I can't get who the "me" is.

What did you make of the show paying tribute to your songs that Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle did two years ago?
It was good and bad. It was nice and it was hard. There were things that were very difficult for me – in a way it seemed to have less to do with Pete Townshend and more an expression of Whoism.

As you mentioned, you're doing Quadrophenia in Hyde Park with them, Zak Starkey and special guests. Does that mean you'll be engaging in more and more Whoism?
No, it's definitely a part of doing less and less. It's a plan – to get the flippancy out of the way – to make something of this piece that might incorporate the energy that they put in that tour they did. I mean, Roger lost nearly a million dollars. So if you've actually got a cohesive sit-down package – something like a version of Quadrophenia with Roger Daltrey singing and a few other people with names – you could do a three-month installation in Vegas or a worldwide tour.

How are relations between you and the other Who guys? Does love reign o'er you?
Relations are very difficult, but we do have a relationship. This is not a reconciliation after a divorce. There was never a divorce. There's been a kind of uneasy separation. There was a kind of a disablement. I was disabled. I just couldn't write the kind of music that Roger needed. People talk to me about how the Stones are still doing it, but it's cultural relativism. The Who and the Stones are so different as to be like Strauss and Gilbert and Sullivan.

How do you feel about taking a magical journey through your past?
There is a problem if you keep going back and ignore the new stuff. I work too hard to whip myself when Henry Rollins tells me that I shouldn't go back and fuck with my past.

Henry told you this?
Well, he said it in your magazine. I think what Henry really means – bless him, because I love him – is, 'Don't fuck with my Tommy, the Tommy I know.' Of course I can't fuck with that. He's got a copy of the album, and he can go to heaven with it.

So, Pete, are you taking a just-say-no attitude to joining together with the band for any new albums?
No. I don't want to make it sound like it's an addiction. I'm not recovering from the Who.

This story is from the June 13th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.