The Who’s Pete Townshend
“For awhile … Roger and I were thinking of giving up the Who ‘brand’ and just doing charity shows, being old buddies and taking up golf.”
“Our fans treat us like precious friends, not chattel. Performing is intriguing to me rather than exciting.”
“We have to try to offer as much familiar material as we can. In any case, I really love playing the classics.”
Fascinating words from a rock ‘n’ roll master.
Back in 2006, prior to The Who’s appearance at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena and shortly after the band released its “Endless Wire” album, I interviewed Pete Townshend, the British group’s iconic and ultra-energetic guitarist.
Then 61 and just four years removed from the death of bassist John Entwistle, Townshend was unrestrained, insightful and refreshingly frank about the state of the music business, Roger Daltrey and The Who, and his own hearing loss.
Much of this interview has never been made public, so enjoy these nuggets of wisdom from a Hall of Fame rocker with a rich – and loud – musical legacy.
Q: What do you miss most about not having John Entwistle on stage?
A: On stage, I miss the thunder. Off stage, I miss the dry wit, the calmness, the kindness – mostly of his indulgent and beneficent eye – his gratitude to me, his irritation with me. I played music with John since I was 12 years old. We met briefly prior to that when I was just 11. I sound like a resigned widow when I say we had 45 years together. Tragically, John’s mother outlived him, so she has the hardest role to play. John was quite simply adorable in almost every way. Like most rock casualties, the one area in which he could be criticized was in the way he looked after his own health. … All in all, though, no disappointment, no regrets, the most easy to love of all the original Who members.
Q: Does touring grow ever more difficult and more challenging the older you get, or does the excitement of performing live still blunt the rigors of the road?
A: It gets easier. The world is more amenable to treating rock stars like human beings these days. Some of our bad behavior as young men was a response to the way we were treated, not the challenge to authority and order it was seen to be by the press. We travel and hotel elegantly today. Our fans treat us like precious friends, not chattel. Performing is intriguing to me rather than exciting. I am always surprised by how it can be so different from show to show. An example might be our performance at the New York 9/11 concert. The excitement didn’t really hit me until the show was over, and I reminded myself that most of the crowd had been in uniform of some kind and that many of them had wept during our show. It wasn’t something to jump up and down about, but it was deeply moving and fulfilling.
Q: What characteristics of Roger Daltrey’s voice and delivery make him so well-suited to expressing the lyrics and music that you create?
A: What he does works to transform what I write into the kind of rock music people understand as Who music. He adds edge, bravura, anger, pure masculinity to my songs that are sometimes vulnerable, full of mixed messages and indecision. Rogers seems to add certainty. Some of my solo fans feel occasionally goes too far, and some of what comes over when I perform solo is more universal, more commonly felt. But in the end, any comparisons either of us have to make are far outweighed by the incredible power that seems to rise between us, almost in the air. I know there are times Roger would prefer me not be so noisy and flashy on guitar, but he allows me to be who I am, and to do what comes naturally to me. I hope I give him some artistic freedom.
For awhile during 2005, Roger and I were thinking of giving up the Who “brand” and just doing charity shows, being old buddies and taking up golf. But I never quite let go of the hope that my novella, “The Boy Who Heard Music” – though flawed, rambling, fantastical and, I have to admit it, my old “Lifehouse” idea somewhat rehashed – might provide inspiration for some new songs. Suddenly, when I had completed the serialization of “The Boy Who Heard Music” on a blog in February (2006), the lyrics came to me in a block. Once I had those lyrics, for “Sound Round,” started in 1971, “Pick up the Peace” (from) 1972 and “Endless Wire,” started in 2002, and the rest, I called Roger and told him we were back in business.
Q: In the past, you’ve expressed concerns about hearing loss and tinnitus brought on by years of playing loud music. Doesn’t a tour pose risks for you in this regard? How do you deal with those sound issues on stage?
A: The stage is not the problem. It has always been the use of earphones that has been my problem. Of course, I did use big amplifier stacks until 1978 or so, and I’m sure that didn’t help, but I was already marking time, aware that I had to watch my hearing and had first spoken about it in 1975 on the radio. Today, we just have to urge our kids not to use earphones while using alcohol and/or drugs. I think those occasions when I was in the studio having fun, wearing earphones to make sure I didn’t wake up the family, drinking for pleasure, I lowered my pain threshold and did the most damage. The Who are still pretty loud, but today our sound is full-range and properly balanced and measured. There is no danger to our audience and almost none for us on stage.
Q: Technology certainly has taken monumental leaps in recent years. In your view, what’s the biggest single advantage the Internet offers as a musician – either as an artist or as a businessman?
A: For many years, it has promised far more than it delivers. Apple and Microsoft and many others make machines and software systems that help people to steal music as well as buy it. This is a sad fact. Their products are built on the back of the long established music industry, and yet they resist properly supporting that industry. So individuals and individual artists take power. We open websites that we run ourselves. … Things are changing because the big content providers (AOL, Yahoo, Google, YouTube) are providing free access to massive bandwidth that individual artists could not afford, to use for visual media. That means we can now show our films, flash animations, videos, do live webcast shows, and stream our music without paying too much for the privilege. Of course, neither do we get paid anything … but it is an exciting time even so, and the big companies are beginning to do deals with artists directly. Frankly now, without the touring income we are enjoying, there would be no Who CD, no Who web activity, no new songs from me, no interest whatsoever in anything but maybe selling my life story to a book publisher and getting an Oprah to talk about the good old days. The Internet must start paying artists fairly for content somehow. Too many web startup billionaires are riding on other people’s talent. This degree of vampirism will not last much longer. Remember Hollywood in the ‘20s? Control of cinemas turned out not to be quite as significant as the studios thought. I read recently that new content providers on the Internet are thinking about calling themselves “studios.” Hmmm.
Q: How have audiences responded to the band’s new material?
A: We’ve played as many as 11 new songs in our two-hour show. … Audiences are supportive, but sometimes there is a hiatus of energy as they take in unfamiliar material. Many of our crowd will be hoping for an old personal favorite, and we have to try to offer as much familiar material as we can. In any case, I really love playing the classics.
And here’s one of them, filmed about a month before my interview with Townshend.