Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend, during a Who concert in Spain, 2007

Pete Townshend, during a Who concert in Spain, 2007

Well, this was an easy interview with Pete Townshend back in October 2007. I submitted my questions via email to him on a Wednesday afternoon, and he replied the next day. He was clearly in a good mood, as was I. It was great not to have to transcribe an interview, but the email format makes it impossible to ask follow-up questions.

Pete and Roger were promoting the new Who DVD, Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who, which came out the following month.


I GOT (THE FILM’S DIRECTOR) MURRAY LERNER INTO TROUBLE A FEW YEARS BACK WHEN HE SAID ABOUT THE DOCUMENTARY: “I’M GOING TO TRY AND PUT YOU IN ANOTHER WORLD THAT ALMOST SMACKS OF … SCIENCE FICTION … I’M GOING TO PLAY AROUND WITH STYLIZING INTERVIEW VOICES THAT CHANGE INTO MUSIC AND BACK.” IN THE END, IT TURNED OUT TO BE QUITE CONVENTIONAL. WAS THIS AT YOUR BEHEST?

Dean! You are still getting people into trouble? At our age? Hope you’re well. We can smell showbusiness smoke over here and we are sympathetic. It’s almost as though the Governer is about to walk into the flames, his artificial skin will peel away, and the Cyborg he really is will out of the fires. Or maybe Michael Moore can put out the fires by pissing all over them the way he pisses over everything else. Am I in trouble yet? Why can’t Arianna put out the fires using plagiarized fire-fighting collateral from the internet? That should do it. Let us begin.

Dean, I’ve had nothing to do with this project. At the beginning, when John Entwistle was still alive, I felt there might be a studio film that could be made. I met, and very much liked the filmmaking team Nigel Sinclair and Roger Daltrey decided to use. That was the Pennebakers. In a sense, there are three obvious teams they could go to; Albert Mayles,the Pennebakers and of course Murray. Roger and Nigel eventually moved away from the Pennebakers who also felt I was being hard to reach. I was. I didn’t want to be interviewed about interviews. And their style is very fly-on-the-wall, a technique I am immune to. Is see the flies I’m afraid. I swat. They die. In a real sense any interview or questionnaire about this project for me, or for Roger, will tend to move in the direction of layered revision. Anyway, by contrast, what Murray promised was exciting I have to say. But to work, it needed me. He never called. He never wrote. I think maybe he had been instructed to give me a wide berth. I’m not sure I could have worked with him as I was writing so intensely all the way through the period of filmmaking. Murray is described as a fox. I like him very much and he is respected by many of he filmmakers I know from the Isle of White filming, despite the fact that they didn’t get paid.

GIVEN THAT THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT IS THE GREATEST ROCK-DOC EVER, WAS THERE SOME INITIAL (OR EXISTING) DOUBT THAT THIS PROJECT WAS REALLY NECESSARY?

I’m doubtful. I always have been. Even so, it has found its niche. Roger hasn’t seen it, but what makes this newer film interesting is that the balance seems to be restored: at last, Roger gets his say; the early footage of him demonstrates what a great R&B singer he was. He also becomes the story don’t you think? It almost begins and ends with Roger as the focus. We hated him, now we love him. That was never the real story, but it’s the one that sells. Suddenly at the very end of the film we begin to suspect someone may have been playacting.

HAD YOU SEEN THE FOOTAGE OF THE RAILWAY HOTEL GIG (FEATURING THE WHO WHEN THEY WERE KNOWN AS THE HIGH NUMBERS) BEFORE? WHAT SPECIFIC MEMORIES DO YOU HAVE OF THAT SHOW? (SHAGGING BIRDS, ETC?)

I didn’t shag birds. That was someone else. I remember the collection of tribes. On the one hand my Ealing art school buddies. They were there because the promoter was my flatmate Richard Barnes (later Who biographer). This crowd knew about auto-destructive art; they had attended the same Gustav Metzger and Malcolm Cecil lectures I had. They also understood the visual image building that we were developing. The other faction were the local Mod kids who found it hard to dance to Keith Moon’s crazy drums, but recognized in our band a medicine or therapy that might work for them as individuals. We were ‘mirroring’ right from the start, and most Mods felt lost in the crowd. That was part of its wonder, the Mod thing, being able to lose yourself. But our music seems to register with them: they were real people underneath, frightened, lonely and yearning for affection and understanding. Untreated, the Mod movement could have become very dangerous indeed. Tamla Motown music stopped the Mod rebellion at source.

YOU SAID YOU TRY TO WRITE FOR A CHARACTER THAT YOU FIND IN THE AUDIENCE … LOOKING AT THAT FOOTAGE, WHAT CHARACTER DO YOU SEE? AND HOW DOES IT COMPARE WITH THE (ELUSIVE) CONTEMPORARY CHARACTER?

I can actually see two of the boys I always kept in mind when I was writing songs in my early days: Lee and Martin Gaish. The character would have been elusive then too, but you may already know my story about the little delegation that visited me at the Goldhawk Club after our first hit Can’t Explain. They almost gave me instructions how to proceed from there. They wanted more songs about their inner aguish, their inability to express themselves, their fear of romance.

BOTH FILMS UNDERSCORE (TO ME) THAT THE WHO WERE AN EARLY PUNK-ROCK PROTOTYPE. BUT THAT’S NEVER STATED. DO YOU FEEL LIKE A PUNK GODFATHER IN SOME WAYS? (WITH APOLOGIES TO IGGY POP).

Iggy and I are in complete accord. I did the talk; he did the walk. OK, I did some walking too. It was impossible to be in a band in Shepherd’s Bush or Flint Michigan and not to prefigure punk. It was in our genes. What is strange is how the Who, the MC5 and the Stooges saw the future. We responded to what we saw in different ways. I saw a spiritual or artistic solution. The MC5 saw street fighting. The Stooges saw frenetic shamanism and outback, frontier-style free living on the frontline. All of these things have come true. In fact, impossibly, they have all come to be in parallel.

SIMILARLY, IT’S OFTEN BEEN STATED—BUT NOT IN THIS DOC—THAT JIMI HENDRIX COPPED A LOT OF HIS ACT FROM YOU. DO YOU AGREE? DO YOU THINK THE PUBLIC’S APPRECIATION OF YOUR GUITAR PROWESS (NICELY COVERED IN THE SECOND DISC), HAS BEEN DAMPENED BY YOUR OWN INSECURITIES ON THE MATTER?

Jimi could have stolen my Geena Davis lookalike wife and I would have bowed gracefully. There are times when you just have to accept that someone is not just better than you, but also has no control over their genius and their immanence. I was never that interested in being a guitar player, or even a star. Today I am keen to play good guitar. Strangely enough that change necessitated some humility on my part; I had to put up with being compared with other players who could play much, much faster and cleaner than I can. But I am prepared to bleed when I play, so I make sounds like no one else. I like what I’m doing today. Occasionally it feels close to jazz; but close to Jimi? That’s a tough one.

MICK JAGGER OFTEN SEEMS DISDAINFUL OF—ALMOST EMBARRASSED BY—ANYTHING RELATING TO THE STONES THAT’S MORE THAN 5 SECONDS OLD, SUCH IS HIS PASSION FOR TRYING TO ENSURE THAT THE STONES ARE SEEN AS A CONTEMPORARY BAND (GOLDEN-OLDIES SETLISTS NOTWITHSTANDING). DO YOU FEEL A TAD ‘GUILTY’ FOCUSING ON THE GLORIOUS PAST WHEN YOU WANT TO GET PEOPLE EXCITED ABOUT THE GOODLY NUMBER OF EXCITING YEARS AWAITING YOU?

This is simply a difference in point of view. My friend Paul Weller refuses to look back, and fights hard to stay in a new realm. I think maybe my sense of history itself, and the way it interpolates into my writing, makes the evolution of a piece, or a period, or a fashion we started, more intriguing. The Stones are not a good eyeglass to use in order to study the evolution of pop and British post-war style. The Who are. Mick himself would agree I feel sure, he’s something of a historian himself. I think Mick and Keith still love the music they discovered back in the ’60s. I love it too, but as much for where it led me as an ‘installation’ artist as for its beauty and soul.

IT TOOK A LONG TIME AND THE DEATH OF HALF OF THE BAND, BUT IT SEEMS THAT YOU AND ROGER HAVE FINALLY BECOME GOOD FRIENDS, EVEN THOUGH YOU DO HAVE DIFFERENT LIFESTYLES? BUT IT’S NOT LIKE YOU HANG OUT AND GO TO EACH OTHER’S PLACES FOR DINNER PARTIES, RIGHT? HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE FRIENDSHIP? WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO AWAKEN HIS “THUG” OR “YOB” TENDENCIES?

I think the only thing that makes Roger regress these days is frustration with his own ageing physicality. He is a soldier on the stage, and hates not to give what he knows is his best. I can do a good show with a broken arm and a bottle of brandy in my gut – or at least I once worked that way. He gets angry, then depressed, when he does what he feels is a bad show. But it was Roger himself who defined the great rock voice: a bum note and a bead of sweat. He was hitting out at me for doing theatre musicals I think, and for tidying up Tommy for Broadway. We get along well today. We plan a vacation together soon. We were thinking of inviting you Dean. (Usually at this point, I say “…and we’re not inviting you.”)

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE COMMERCIAL/CRITICAL RECEPTION ACCORDED ENDLESS WIRE?

I was disappointed it wasn’t bigger. I worked very hard on it and for a very long time. It felt like a modest masterwork to me. Properly balanced. Some critics were quite dismissive, as though I hadn’t thought it through, or was moving back to my old pretentious self. I think it’s tricky for music critics to get properly inside new work. Some critics got it though. All my writing tends to build on past projects, and threaten new ones. Commercially it was not a hit; it did OK. I am not going to do what Bruce has just done and go all the way back, though I respect his need for the old heavy machine to get over the weight of ideas he carries right now. I am not going to bring in a hotshot young producer who wants to make the greatest Who album ever made. I want to enjoy what I do, and I really enjoyed making Endless Wire. The artists I admire, and would like to emulate, who still make records I like, are Roy Harper, Robert Wyatt and Wilco. But I am writing for the Who. The f**king Who. This is more than music I’m afraid. If you listen to the CD, you hear the CD. Compare it to Amy Winehouse or Robert Plant and Allison Krauss and maybe you will find what I do wanting. I just never want to be a mere recording artist. I want more. I am more. I will continue to strive for more. Why? Great music doesn’t seem to do what it once did. What is that? Mirroring. It is medicine. That is what I invented in pop. That is what the Who as a band advanced as a craft and in performance. That is something that Roger and I may be able to continue to do today. I sound almost as crazy and ambitious as Murray now.

WHAT DO YOU/THE WHO HAVE IN THE HOPPER?

Roger and I met for lunch and we are going to do a show in Las Vegas. Only kidding. We have been offered a slot in Las Vegas for billions of dollars, but we’d prefer to do a show in the middle of the Malibu Fire right now; same thing really. You can see I am worried today, preoccupied with the fires in California. I have so many friends who have homes, and many of them very modest ones, from Santa Barbara to La Jolla. If I am going to stand among ordinary good Americans doing their thing, I’d prefer to stand with them while they fight fires rather than while they are starting them. Hell, I’ll stand alongside you whatever you do. But Vegas beckons old farts like Roger and me. If it had a lake, our agents would no doubt say ‘and the sailing is great Pete!’ as they do about Australia, that is an equally tricky performance prospect. The sailing recommendation would of course work best for New York and San Diego—even Miami: they have water too. I’m avoiding the question aren’t I? Brilliant. Best to you Dean.

###

NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my book Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is now available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 2007-2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

<>