The Who

The Who’s Pete Townshend grapples with rock’s legacy and his own dark past.

Of all the key figures from rock music’s glory days, the Who’s Pete Townshend is the one to have had most deeply interrogated — on albums like “Quadrophenia” and in his own writing over the years —the relationship between musicians and their audience. That decades-long preoccupation, which has resulted in so much thrilling, questing music, resurfaces on “WHO,” his band’s first studio album in 13 years, as well as Townshend’s first novel, “The Age of Anxiety,” out in November. “Paul McCartney thinks he knows who he is,” Townshend, 74, says. “Mick Jagger thinks he knows who he is. Keith Richards thinks he knows who he is.” A resigned look passes over his face. “I don’t.”

You’ve spent 50 years exploring the archetype of the confused, messianic rock star, including in your new book. For part of that time I’d even say you were living that archetype. What’s left to mine there?

You’re looking for clues in the wrong place. I couldn’t write about Wall Street. I couldn’t write about crime. I have spent 55 years working in rock. I remain in familiar territory. I’ve always regarded the rock-star phenomenon with immense disdain. I’ve had my moments, which have been gloriously recorded and exalted — but brief — when I’ve felt: I’m going to try and do this job. I’m going to try to be a proper rock star. Then I would do it, and it wouldn’t work. I was counterfeit. There are very few people truly authentic to the cause: David Byrne. Mick Jagger. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Deborah Harry.

Authentic to what cause?

Authentic to the perceived, accepted ideal of a rock star. Now, online, you’ll see a throwaway statement — “rock is dead” — which is something that we in our genre have been considering since the ’70s. But what is rock? Rock is hip-hop. Rock is probably Taylor Swift. Rock is, dare I say it, Adele and Ed Sheeran. They’ve dared to take on that mantle, and they have to deliver. They’ve got to do something spectacular as performers. Not just as recording artists. They’ve got to do something amazing, and if it includes dancers, if it includes too much video, then they’re cheating. They know that, we know that and the audiences know that. That’s why audiences will come to something like a Who concert or a Stones concert, where there might be some video, there might be a symphony orchestra, but at the end of the day it’s about: “Can you dance for two and a half hours without dropping dead? Can you sing without lip syncing for two and a half hours?” It’s about sport. It’s about entertainment as a physicality. It’s about an endurance test.

Is that really interesting to you, the idea of a rock concert as an endurance test?

It is. It’s a part of what I bring to my table. I want to be fit, I want to be strong and I want to be able to move and sing and play conventionally. I’m talking about a performance standard that has risen out of the ashes of the halcyon years of rock ’n’ roll.

Is that performance standard an anachronism?

Let’s just talk about the Who. What people want from the Who is the music to be live, I suppose. And yet, for example, we cheat by having musicians on the stage who can read musical charts as if they’re computers. But I don’t feel that they’re a cheat. I feel that they add to the experience.

I’m wondering what exactly you mean when you say that today’s pop stars have to “deliver.” My impression is that there was a serious belief from, say, 1965 till about 1970, in rock’s potential to be a galvanizing force for social change. I don’t think I’m being cynical in suggesting that no popular music, let alone rock, feels as if it carries that kind of charge anymore. The stakes are lower. But when you say musicians have to deliver, my hunch is that you might be implying something beyond just a good album or tour. Is my rambling here making any sense?

I understand exactly what you’re saying. I was just talking about delivering an excellent record and an excellent performance. But take the case of the Who. “I Can’t Explain” was our first single. It was a hit. Kids heard it, and they came and said, “This is helping us.” And I thought: This is my commissioning group. This is the party that’s going to love whatever I do.

If we take that as a given, which I’m not sure it is, what happened to that invention? Well, I wrote “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which was essentially saying to the audience: “Just [expletive] off. I’m not going to be your tool.” It led to the question, If you’re going to say “[expletive] off” to revolutionary thinking, then what it is that you are going to do? That is a process that I’m still involved in.

Insofar as we’re now able to look back at the rock era as a completed thing, what do you see you and your peers as having achieved? There’s a subset of living musicians who are trying to carry whatever it was they garnered from the era of LSD, the Vietnam War and the decline of the Vietnam War through to the present. Joni Mitchell is still carrying it. Neil Young is carrying it. David Byrne is carrying it. Brian Eno is carrying it. We’re carrying what we each decided to share of the load. And what is the load? The load was this massive question.

Which is what? The massive question was: Who are we? What is our function? What is our worth? Are we disenfranchised, or are we able to take society over and guide it? Are we against the establishment? Are we being used by it? Are we artists, or are we entertainers?

Is there an honest reading other than a pessimist’s for what the answers to most of those questions ended up being? I think so. Rock ’n’ roll was a celebration of congregation. A celebration of irresponsibility. But we don’t have the brains to answer the question of what it was that rock ’n’ roll tried to start and has failed to finish. Neither do our journalistic colleagues, no matter how smart they think they are. Greil Marcus is not going to write the book that has the answer. He’s not going to come up with the goods. For God’s sake, neither could the Rolling Stones or the Who. That’s not going to happen. That postwar vacuum that we tried to fill — we did fill it for a while, but then we realized it was fizzling out. The art proposed the questions without offering solutions. So what the Who are doing at the moment — we’ve made a good album. I hope it’ll do O.K. I don’t need it. Nobody needs it. Some of the subjects of the songs are quite deep, but they’re not as brave as “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which is saying: “[Expletive] off. I’m going to solve this problem with my guitar and my singer with long, golden hair and a big

While we’re on that subject: The old mythology of male rock stars as hypersexed icons cutting a swath through their tour dates feels more and more suspect the further we get from the ’70s. But that mythology is still a part of the glamour of that era. How do you look back at the sexual dynamics of rock stardom? That’s not my story. I’m not going to say I wish it were, but there were times when this gawky, big-nosed guy in a band — who always seemed to be having sex with people — would actually be in bed with his overly fingered Playboy magazine. I was performing for the gang. I was performing for the men. You have to talk to the guys who got the girls and ask them how they perceive their past behavior. I don’t have one of those huge sexual-conquest counts. It’s not a conversation I can have. It just wasn’t me.

You alluded earlier to rock’s failure to finish what it set out to do, whatever that was. How much was your audience — baby boomers — complicit in that failure? It was a parallel experience for the musicians and their audience. What we were hoping to do was to create a system by which we gathered in order to hear music that in some way served the spiritual needs of the audience. It didn’t work out that way. We abandoned our parents’ church, and we haven’t replaced it with anything solid and substantial. But I do still believe in it. I do believe, for example, that if I were to go to an Ariana Grande concert — this iconic girl who has achieved so much, and rose up after the massacre at her concert in Manchester with dignity and beauty — that I would feel something of that earlier positivity and sense of community.

How does nostalgia — your own and your fans’ — affect the criteria for what makes a good Who concert in 2019? That criteria must be different than it was in 1969. Now I perform the wonderful music that I wrote when I was young, that was so successful that people still want to hear it, and I perform it to the best of my abilities. Blah, blah, blah. What I really want now is a couple of moments on the stage in which I have the potential to wreck the whole thing. If I can do that, then I’m happy. Just for a moment.

In your novel, there’s this purist musician character, Crow, who has a line — which I assume you wrote tongue-in-cheek — in which he’s talking about his band and says something like, “We’re not going to be the Who and sell out.”

Maybe it’s just because the bottom dropped out of the music business, but why isn’t selling out a source of hand-wringing the way it once was for the Who? The concept almost feels quaint now. Selling out has lost the stain, because musicians can’t hold a purist’s stance anymore. They have to accept the dollar and also the fact that the dollar is helping deliver the message. But the concept Crow was addressing in the book was about selling out what the music meant to somebody. In other words, if you add a chewing-gum commercial to “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” then you forget what it meant to you when you listened to it while you were having a rage at your sports teacher or whatever.

It’s noticeable that even now, when you’re at an age at which your sense of self might be more likely to be relatively settled, you’re still willing to entertain skepticism about your identity and the roles you’ve inhabited. I don’t want to go into this too deeply. I’ve been thinking about it. Last year I took a sabbatical, and during that time I did some quite special therapy. One of the things that I’ve realized looking back — I have photographs of myself as a child. I was so beautiful. I know all children are beautiful, but I was uniquely beautiful. My mother at some point made this huge mistake, which was to dump me into darkness. I came out of it — and I’m sorry to say this, but I came out ugly. So with the question of identity, my work has been about trying to recover innocence and real beauty too. And if I can’t be beautiful, then I’ll create beauty, and if I can’t create it, I’ll get your attention by being angry, by being violent, by apparently not giving a [expletive]. But getting back to an earlier question, I think a lot of people went through the ’60s not trying to find themselves. I think a lot of us thought we already knew. I remember having a conversation with George Harrison about how he could reconcile following Krishna with his having to lay out lines of coke in order to talk about Krishna with me.

What did he say? I can’t remember, but I do remember being convinced by his incredibly elegant answer! Anyway, I’d love to have a long conversation with Irvin D. Yalom about who I might be, because I am a man without a psychological backbone. That affects my work. If “Tommy,” for example, is a reflection of that plunging into childhood darkness that I mentioned, then one question that I ask is, Jesus, why did people like it so much?

“Tommy” is coming back to Broadway in 2021. You’ve come back to that music so many times and in so many forms. Is it painful to keep revisiting work that was, like you just said, a reflection of the abuse you suffered? Yes, it is. I shouldn’t do it. The thing for me about “Tommy” is that the writing was all unconscious.

But it’s not unconscious anymore. You’re aware of where “Tommy” came from, and yet you still keep coming back to it. Is that about catharsis? I’m working something out. The Who perform a piece of “Tommy” onstage, but we don’t do the violent stuff. And, remember, “Tommy” ends with a prayer. A secular prayer to the universe celebrating the spirit of life, the value of suffering, the transformation of suffering into joy. And it’s a death, a hopeful transformation. I wish I were in Tommy’s shoes, in a joyful moment of waking up one day and disappearing into dust. I’m not quite there, and I don’t know whether I will get there. I’ve been waiting, and I’m pushing 75.

Are you saying that you’re wishing for a graceful death? Or that your death might have some larger meaning? A hopeful transformation is what I wish for at the end of my life. I would be comfortable with wherever it was. Whether it would be turning to dust or falling into the hands of astral angels or finding myself at the gates of heaven and being turned away.

Do you think about the intended audience of your work as much as you used to? I’m particularly interested in that as it relates to your novel, because I found it just about impossible to separate reading the book from what I know about you and your music. The question of readership was not uppermost in my mind when I started the book. One thing that I did have in my mind was that I had abandoned my art-school thesis,

which was to be a deconstructionist, and I did that because I had a hit song. When that happened, I was in the middle of this fantastically stimulating course at art school with a whole bunch of radical thinkers, and that intense period of finding myself creatively collapsed because I was out there with this band. And I never liked it. I still don’t like it.

Don’t like what? What I do with the band. People always say, “You seem like you’re having a good time.” Last year I said to my wife, “I must be such a good [expletive] actor.”

So then why stick with the Who? You can’t need the money. I think it’s probably for the greater good. I may not like it, but I can’t say it’s hard. It comes incredibly easily to me. That’s probably the reason I would so carelessly let it go in 1982. I’d done my best to try to serve this revised group after Keith Moon’s death, and it wasn’t going to work. I thought: I’ll just do a solo career. I’ll do what I want. And I did. I did a couple of solo projects. I worked as an editor at Faber & Faber. I had a lovely life. Money did bring me back in the end: That was the Who’s 25th-anniversary tour. After that it was nearly 11 years before we got back together properly. So I did try stopping. But then I suppose I thought, [Expletive] it. I’m now 60-something. If I go deaf, I don’t care. It seems to make a lot of people happy. People believe I’m happy doing it. This was something that I could give to myself to do, which I’m good at. As long as it’s my decision to do it, that’s O.K. I’m not on a great mission anymore to get anything from it.

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