As leader of The Who, Pete Townshend is responsible for some of rock's greatest moments and most important evolutions. Where would we be without songs like "Baba O'Riley," albums like Who's Next, and rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia? What would our musical landscape look like without smashing guitars, windmill power chords, and the stories created by Townshend's vivid imagination? Without The Who it's hard to say what rock would look like, but one thing is for sure, it wouldn't be "My Generation."
Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend
With Townshend and vocalist Roger Daltrey recording 2006's Endless Wire - The Who's first studio album since 1982's It's Hard - and touring again as The Who, JamBase Editor-in-Chief Aaron Kayce exchanged emails with Townshend, checking out where he is today as well as uncovering some of the magic and pain that makes him a true legend.
1. After all that has been accomplished - from playing music, writing it, creating concept albums, films, theater, books, charity work, awards and more - what single thing – an album, a song, a moment in time – are you most proud of when you look back over your amazing career?
I feel most proud about managing to be a reasonably good father three times. I am immensely proud of my three children. In my career I think I am most proud of Tommy and Quadrophenia – for different reasons. Tommy because it is so successful and so far reaching (and is probably deeper in meaning than most critics allow). Quadrophenia because it is pure music, nothing more, and yet so many people have told me it reflects something they felt changed the way they felt about their early years.
2. There seems to be an obvious theme in much of your songwriting of disillusioned youth and spiritual triumph over physical or earthly struggles. Where does this recurring theme stem from? Was this something you dealt with as a child? Something you see in the world? What's the root?
I suppose I did see the desire for some kind of spiritual ideal among my friends in my youth yes. And I think I experienced it, but only in later years. I set up the longing for spiritual perfection when I was young, not realizing that it can be achieved simply by accepting I have a right to be happy.
3. You were very heavily influenced by Meher Baba. Could you tell those who may not be familiar what this man brought to your life?
I don't try to sell this remarkable man. If you are really interested there are many web sites. I am devoted to him as a silent influence in my life. I started studying his writings in 1967 – planning to go and meet him. But, he died in 1969 and I never met him. I have been through periods of intense engagement and immense doubt. At the moment I am uncertain what I feel, but my faith in Meher Baba as a genuinely gifted teacher full of extraordinary insight is capable of surviving some uncertainty. I don't really know who he is, but I have come to love him. It will appear insane to say I feel his presence in my life – and I know we are capable of all kinds of self-delusion – but I like to think I am open-minded enough not to dismiss every slightly metaphysical idea I have as nonsense simply because it can't be proved.
4. One thing that always made The Who stand out was the manner in which the rhythm structure was set up. The band would often build off your rhythm guitar, letting Keith Moon [drums] and John Entwistle [bass] sort of go crazy over the top of your foundation. This is not the standard procedure for rock bands. I'm curious how the band developed this style, and if it was something that required extra attention or if it was somehow just natural?
This is true. I think I have always been more interested in rhythm than melody. I certainly have never tried hard to be a 'fast' player. Keith and John were faster than me. So I just sat back and propped them up.
Pete Townshend - The Who
5. The Who is responsible for some of the greatest live performances ever, so much so that the band earned the title "Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World." Beyond just being incredibly talented players, what do you think made it possible for Daltrey, Moon, Entwistle and yourself to earn this title?
We were pretty intense about our playing, and about performing. We all adored show business for its own sake, too. We liked stunts, tricks, gimmicks, ideas and special effects. But, deep down I think a lot of our power may have come from frustrated anger – a sense of impotence. Other artists didn't seem to share this in quite the way we did. Our music was quite vengeful in a way. The uplifting subtext came from a mixture of humour and a genuine belief that music could set us all free. It seems trite - and I think we knew that if music could do anything at all it would do it only for a short period - but that is what we believed. So, we were truly passionate.
6. Thinking about these famous, intense live performances, what is one of your favorite, most striking, or most excessive memories of touring and performing with The Who during the 60s and 70s?
I felt uncomfortable most of the time. I was unhappy a lot of the time. When I was confronted with the 'excesses' of touring I was rather ashamed by it. When I became decadent myself (in the late '70s) I briefly enjoyed my new role. But, I am happiest today. I enjoy performing now. I have fun, and I am genuinely pleased to see the people in the audience where once I felt they were a burden to me. The best memories are the most recent, playing on tour in the USA in November .
7. So much of what made the live shows legendary in the early days was what the four of you created together. With Moon no longer going insane on the drums and Entwistle gone as well, how do you feel the live shows compare today to 30 or 40 years ago? How do you go about compensating for the lineup changes?
There is little point analyzing it. It is different. Roger and I would have preferred Keith Moon and John Entwistle didn't die. The band that we have now is not pretending to be better. It is different.
The Who in 2006 by Tony Stack
8. How has your musical relationship, both in terms of writing and performing, with Daltrey progressed in the past ten years or so? Have the two of you been brought closer as the two remaining original members of the band?
We are much more open with each other. We still have different ideas, and sometimes come into conflict, but there is respect and love between us that has probably always been there, but now we feel we can speak about it without seeming weak.
9. In thinking about Endless Wire, how does the content and the songwriting differ or compare to previous albums? The past few years have seen many intense, emotional incidents - from Entwistle's death to dealing with the law - did any of this play into the songwriting?
I tried to gather songs that spoke for where I am today. Mostly, I wanted songs that Roger felt good about performing, and would mean something to our audience. This is the tricky bit. How do you know in advance what an audience wants from you? I drove blind for a while. When I suddenly got the idea to do a mini-opera based on my "The Boy Who Heard Music" story - which is in effect something of a fairy tale - I knew I was going to be able to reach the audience. John's death, the law, none of this would inspire a song that would mean much of anything except to me. I did write a song for John called "Old Red Wine" (he loved Claret) but it is not among my best.
Pete Townshend - The Who
10. What is your favorite new song?
I like "In The Ether." That is not a popular choice. It is a song I feel expresses how it feels to be getting older and feeling lost - as lost as one felt when young and yet feeling at last that pain may have a purpose.
11. What bands or artists do you currently draw inspiration?
Bob Dylan, always an inspiration.
12. Finally, what does the future hold for you? What dreams are you currently pursuing?
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For more on The Who check out: www.thewhotour.com and for more on Pete Townshend specifically, go to www.petetownshend.com.