Pete Townshend, the legendary songwriter and guitarist of the Who, performed the rock opera Quadrophenia in Toronto last month with singer Roger Daltrey. Before the concert he chatted about his new autobiography, Who I Am, elaborating about working with equipment that failed his visions, frustrations with bandmates and the need to get excitement at our own feet.
Quite a lot of musician autobiographies have come out recently. Have you read any?
I read [Bob] Dylan’s. But I kind of already did that sort of thing with Horse’s Neck, in 1995. But I haven’t read any of the others. From what it sounds like, I would quite like reading Neil Young’s.
Compared to your book, it’s rambling and quite loose.
Well, it would be, wouldn’t it? He is a rambling kind of guy. He’s his own man, slightly more grounded than I am, as far as staying in his own space. He’s quite a good friend, actually. We’ve got a lot in common.
With Who I Am, I was fascinated with your upbringing. You see yourself as a visionary back then, with your drawings and concepts as a child. Looking back on your career, were you a visionary?
It sounds quite conceited to put it like that. But, yeah. I think imaginative and creative, and, a lot of the time, lost. It was very interesting to hear the Rolling Stone review of the Who show at Barclays in Brooklyn. The review said Quadrophenia was terrific done Roger Daltrey’s way, freed from Townshend’s overthinking. What made it sting a little is that I know that it’s true. I do overthink.
Where do you think that comes from?
I was fortunate to be the son of a pop musician. And then ending up at art college, at the time the function of songs was changing. We were hearing the blues from America, which added to the incredible melange of music that we already knew about. Suddenly we hear Howlin’ Wolf for the first time. It was a cry from the soul, and the very fact that he called himself Howlin’ Wolf. And then we hear the new stuff, from people who were influenced by the blues artists, like Jimmy Smith, Mose Allison and Ray Charles. So, we’re hearing things in a new way.
And so how did all that influence your own musical vision as a teenager?
I suddenly realized that the timing was perfect, if I could only keep the balls in the air. I had been a backstage boy, with my dad’s band, and I knew that the only way to keep the balls in the air was to keep the creative work ahead of the performing machine, the managerial machine and the brand machine. The ideas had to precede the band. For a while, I couldn’t find out where to invest those ideas.
There was no blueprint back then, in the early 1960s. And if there was, you weren’t following it. What was your plan?
My idea of an artist was to change the world. I wanted to delight in my own fantastical thinking. And, then, suddenly, there we are – we’re in the middle of the Mod revolution. These boys were struggling with sexual identity issues. They dress differently. They don’t have the butch, ice-hockey mentality that the boys had in America. It was a different world, and it was my audience.
At this point, what were you thinking? Was it performance? Image? Songs?
I think it was everything. The childish visionary stuff linked through. I realized that all of my childhood dreams could be made real. There was a sense of possibility that I saw could be made real. That worked for a while – up until Lifehouse.
Lifehouse, at the turn of the seventies, was the failed experiment in film, live performance and conceptual music. In your book you write about the other members of the Who, who weren’t always interested in the narratives and conceits to your music. How frustrating was that?
I didn’t have control of the band. It’s comforting for me now to say that Roger Daltrey has always been the leader of the Who and I’ve been the creative engine. But when it came to sitting down with the band, every member had an idea of what the Who should be. Every one of us had a different view. I was hard on the guys in the book, but I take a very insular view. I was the writer. I really pitched a lot of ideas to the band, and sometimes it didn’t work. I couldn’t get the ideas past them.
The band’s first hit was Can’t Explain. And you write about a moment as a child where you heard orchestral sounds in your head, and experienced a euphoria that you’ve never been able to replicate. Is a lot of your music borne out of frustration?
I don’t know. It might be that I’ve slightly missed the boat. If computer-aided composition had been around in the 1970s, I could have done the most extraordinary work. I was tireless. I was energized. I was inspired. So, frustration? I blame the equipment.
How about the Who’s live shows, and the potential realized. Was the Woodstock performance the peak?
I think so. We didn’t realize it at the time of course. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realized what the band had achieved. But we weren’t the only one. Sly and the Family Stone – what an amazing band. They did the enormously elongated coda of I Want to Take You Higher. I thought it was amazing, that they got people on their feet. I thought we should do that with “listening to you, I get excitement at your feet.” Of course, by the time we got to perform it, the crowd was in their sleeping bags. We had to really pummel them. After the 45th time of “listening to you,” eventually they got up.
In the coda of the book, you stress that we should all “just play,” in your words. What do you mean by that?
It’s as much a message to me as it is to anyone else who might be looking for any kind of wisdom from me. I think play is going for those moments when you lose the sense of whether it matters what the outcome is. You should lose the sense of whether the experience is a good one or a bad one. So, you may want to play a song really beautifully, but what is important is that you play it.
We lose that, when context and competition enters into the equation, right?
It’s like the thing I wrote about banging away at the piano as a little kid and my wonderful Aunt Trilby looks up and says, “That was wonderful.” And because in my head, it had been wonderful, I looked up at her and said, “I know.” The whole idea that because Bruce Springsteen can play better than I can, or you can, that he has a better time and that he’s happier when he plays than I am when I play or you play, it’s arrogant. The feeling of context undermines our ability to play. Instead, we need to just throw our stuff into the mix.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
On Wednesday evening, the Who performs (along with Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, Eddie Vedder, Roger Waters, Chris Martin, Kanye West and Dave Grohl) at the 12/12/12 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Hurricane Sandy benefit is televised in Canada on AMC; information at 121212concert.org.