‘I carry The Who brand with pride’

by Roland Kelts

I first met The Who’s Pete Townshend 10 years ago at a hotel near his home in London for an interview. He entered the first-floor suite energetically. When he sat down, his crossed legs bounced with barely contained passion in response to each question.

The 2-to-3-hour interview I’d anticipated turned into a lunch chat and an entire day’s discussion, culminating in Townshend’s 8 p.m. departure, with this promise: “If you’ve got any burning questions, I’ll come back in an hour’s time.”

Townshend is a rock legend, of course. But unlike his comrades in the rock pantheon, he’s brutally self-critical, hyperarticulate, and accomplished in a range of fields: He has won Tony awards for his work on Broadway; he has published fiction short stories; and in the 1980s he worked as a literary editor at one of Britain’s most prestigious publishers, Faber & Faber. He was also arrested by the British police in 2003 for accessing child pornography on the Internet. Shortly thereafter, he was exonerated, and the sting operation targeting him is now under suspicion. Those of us who have cared about Townshend’s career know he has written about the horrors of child abuse, and served as a patron of related charities, for years.

On stage, Townshend smashed guitars (the last one, incidentally, at Yokohama). In the studio, he also smashed musical boundaries with The Who’s two rock-opera masterworks, “Tommy” (1969) and “Quadrophenia” (1973), as well as on philosophical solo albums. His band mates have died — drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002 — along with 11 Who fans, who were killed in a stadium crush in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1979.

In short, as a star Townshend is unassailable. But he’s also accessibly human, as naked and raw as his exceptional protopunk band, The Who.

A month ago, Roger Daltrey, the other surviving member of the band, announced that The Who would tour Japan for the first time on its own next year. A recent documentary by Paul Crowder and the Oscar-winning director Murray Lerner, “Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who,” is set to premiere in Japanese cinemas in 2008. It’s already available on DVD for U.S. and European fans seeking a Christmas fix.

But the nod to Japan is new. Sixty-two-year-old Townshend is keen to return to this country (“I really wish to play there soon”), but wouldn’t commit to dates in this recent e-mail interview. In their halcyon years, The Who was always contradictory. Despite the fact that only two of them remain alive, they haven’t lost their knack for disagreement.

Could you reflect on your brief, first visit to Japan for the Rock Odyssey 2004 festival in Yokohama and your forthcoming visit in 2008?

Our first visit was wonderful. As guests of (festival headliners) Aerosmith, we were treated like dignitaries. I don’t think anyone was ready for us to be so powerful. I was amazed at how well we played.

I loved Japan, and I was surprised by that. I didn’t expect to like it so much. Of course I knew and liked lots of Japanese people, so I should have known that I would like their country.

In the documentary, you and vocalist Roger Daltrey seem hellbent on your futures as band mates. Are you more excited about your future now than you were 30 years ago, when Keith Moon died?

Rock as it was has been dead for years. Rock was so much a process of discovery. What has been discovered can only be rediscovered. For the new young fans, that is wonderful. For the old fans, that is nostalgia.

I was not exhausted in 1978. I was tired of Keith Moon. His death was a relief in a way because I didn’t have to worry about him anymore, worry that he might never play a great concert ever again. But it was also a terrible thing that he died when he did because he was starting to allow his vulnerability to show, and he was such a lovely man at that time. He was kind, and still funny, but less bent on destruction for its own sake.

Today, The Who is a brand that Roger and I carry with a lot of pride, but a certain amount of trepidation. Our music is demanding.

“Endless Wire,” The Who’s first new album in 24 years, was released last year. Are you now free of the old demands you and the audience put upon yourself?

We are not entirely free, neither do we need to be. We can re-create the old sound, even if it might be contrived in part. What I have been forced to do as writer for The Who is accept that we can’t do what The Eagles just did and make an album in The Who style and sell records. People expect us to be different, to take chances. At the same time, in a paradox that is hard to deal with, they also want us to stay the same. Not a lot has changed. I’m just a broader songwriter today.

In the documentary, Roger Daltrey mentions growing annoyed that the visual elements of The Who’s stage shows in the mid-1960s were drawing attention away from the music. It seems that your solution was to develop more ambitious musical ideas, forcing the audience to pay attention to both visual and aural aspects. Would you agree?

Roger is good in this film, but there is some revisionism going on.

In fact, from the very beginning we had been obsessed by “image.” It was clear that even our rock ‘n’ roll elders understood image-building and PR. Some of them, like Johnny Kid & The Pirates, dressed up in silly costumes, but you never forgot them. Their band also happened to be blindingly powerful and driving. I never regretted the visual stuff, and always felt it was a big part of the work we did. I still like to have a highly visual show.

Would you agree that one of your many roles in the band was artfully “sabotaging” The Who’s macho image?

I am not unique in this. I also don’t really think we were macho. However, as men today, Roger and I take no sh*t from anyone. I don’t mean that in the macho way it sounds. I am perfectly happy to suffer a few fools. I am not a snob, I am not super-intelligent, and I am not politically skilled, and I don’t care much for facts.

I am good at entertaining, and reflecting what the audience is feeling, and to a lesser extent, as they get older, what they are actually doing. If you associate us with “Spinal Tap” for example, Roger and I are both likely to thank you rather than get antsy.

You see, “Spinal Tap” was a truthful and affectionate observation of progressive rock at its most vulnerable. It didn’t mock.

In the film, you are quoted referring to the early 1980s, a low period for The Who. You say: “It was me that was the problem, not rock ‘n’ roll.” As a fellow messed-up artist, I’d like to know to what you are referring.

I have mentioned alcoholism before. But my problem in 1982 was not an “ism.” My problem was me.

I began to operate better with the extreme polarities of my life if I had some medicine. That medicine could be overwork, isolation, creative grandiosity, financial irresponsibility, music and/or alcohol. I found it hard to juggle three pressures. One was my beloved family; the second was my beloved band; the third was my beloved self — the artist.

Low self-esteem has hit me occasionally, and may have roots in my childhood. But I felt outside rock by 1984 because I couldn’t find a way to medicate myself that would allow me to juggle everything I needed to juggle. Booze was my last reliable prop, and in the early ’80s, it stopped working.

I left The Who in 1982, the year I stopped drinking for the next 11 years. I had no medicine that worked to stop my mind, my conscience and my mouth.

I am an artist who has been successful. If people like me aren’t working we tend to talk too much, and usually about ourselves.

One day I’ll hear from you (about) why you describe yourself as a “messed-up artist.” The thing is, I already know your story. My story is a bunch of Who songs that I wrote to try to tell your story. At least, I hope that’s what happened. That’s what I intended.

Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” (www.japanamericabook.com).