Who’s introspective? Pete Townshend is, in a new two-hour release from Audible that is effectively a casual audio sequel to his formal autobiography, 2012’s “Who I Am.” The new project, “Somebody Saved Me,” is an Audible Original that’s essential listening for anyone who cares about the Who, which is a demographic that has a pretty substantial overlap with people who care about rock ‘n’ roll generally.
In the 27th installation of Audible’s laudable “Words + Music” series, the Who’s songwriter and guitarist goes deeper into what he calls the Who’s “middle age,” a period that’s bookended roughly by the death of drummer Keith Moon in 1978 on one end and the equally sudden passing of John Entwistle in 2002, a time frame he admits he didn’t deal with as much as he could have in his book. Townshend talks about the band’s on-again, off-again status in the wake of those tragedies and why he and singer Roger Daltrey ultimately carried on in both cases, even as the band’s main creative force has not been shy about sometimes preferring the less lucrative benefits of his solo career over dealing with the band legacy decades on. The audio mini-memoir — which also includes his present-day remakes of 10 favorite tracks from those years (including “Eminence Front,” “You Better You Bet” and “Let My Love Open the Door” — concludes with Townshend weighing the current touring routine the band is settled into this year and sounding surprisingly at peace with the Who taking on an inspirational, valedictory role in 2022. (The link to hear the full two-hour Audible Original can be found here: audible.com/SomebodySavedMe.)
Variety talked with Townshend about how and why he did the Audible Original, along with several of the subjects covered in the audio project, like what it means to age gracefully in a medium where fans now expect their heroes to rock, not die, after as well as before they’ve gotten old.
Did somebody at Audible have the concept to focus on a specific period in your and the Who’s career, or was it your thought that the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s hadn’t been explored as much as you would have liked, or that fans would like to hear about?
When I spoke to Bill Flanagan, who I knew as a journalist and a producer for VH1 and MTV (and who interviewed Townshend for “Sombody Saved Me,” although his voice is not heard), he said that he wanted to look at the specific years when I was under extreme pressure. Because (starting in the late ’70s) I had two very, very lucrative deals — one with the Who, one solo — in which over five years I was supposed to produce seven albums. And bearing in mind that I’m not particularly prolific, and I like to record demos of every song I present to myself or to my producer or to Roger Daltrey, this was an impossible mission. And yet I signed both deals and proceeded ahead. And that was over ‘78, ‘79, ‘80 and ‘81. And at the end of ‘81, I was really in the depth of a massive personal crash. … It seemed to me like it was something that I’d touched on in my autobiography, but not to the extent that I spoke about (it here)… I thought it was a tricky period to talk about: the death of Keith Moon, the Cincinnati disaster (in which fans were killed trying to get into a Who concert in 1979), and the death of John Entwistle, because he went into decline, financially mainly, after that period.
But it just felt too sore, too tender, for me to do, so I turned it down. And in turning it down, I also turned down a really fantastic fee that they offered. And then a bit later I spoke to the people that fund the cancer organizations that I’m involved in, Teen Cancer Trust in the U.K. and Teen Cancer in America, to see whether or not I could get the money from Audible directly to the charity clean and free of tax — touch wood. And they said, yes. So I decided to do it. When I did, I crossed my fingers. I thought, this could be dangerous for me. It could be a scenario in which I reveal stuff that I don’t want to reveal or talk about. It could be that in a two-hour interview — in fact it was six hours of interviews, in three two-hour stints — I could just slip up and say something that will get me canceled or something non-PC. Nonetheless, I decided to do it. You probably know a little about me, and I think one of the difficulties that I have is journalists can go back into history and dig out interviews and present them back to me, and I regret some of the things that I said, not because they’re untrue, but just because they maybe would have been better left unsaid. In this context, there was the fact that I had the right to review it and to edit it if necessary. Not that I did. And I’m so glad I did this, because I just loved every minute of it.
You cover a lot of history in the project, but some fans may be tempted to skip to the end to find out what your feelings are now about touring with the Who, and whether you’re happy or at peace with touring, because it’s well known that you haven’t always been eager to flog the hits, as it were. In fat, there’s a funny moment in the audio piece where you talk about how, when John died, people expected you to finaly give up touring, and you imagined fans thinking, “This is it, Pete can stop complaining and fuck off.” [He laughs.] You do say that one reason you carried on in the early 2000s was because you still had this whole infrastructure you didn’t want to let down. But you certainly could have stopped at a lot of points in the 20 years since then.
John’s death was a bit of a cheat. We were supposed to stop talking about (touring) when we hit 1982, which was the last tour for the Who in that era of the Who’s work. But we went on (starting with a “Quadrophenia” retrospective tour in the mid-’90s). And what of course happened when John died, which I speak about, and I’m happy to speak about it again, was that it was a shock and it raised certain questions. It was very similar to what has happened to Dave Grohl and the band with Taylor Hawkins. It was a sudden “he’s gone” — he’d just gone. It was unlike the scene with Keith Moon, where Keith over a period of two years went into decline. And when he started to get the program, when he started to clean up, we realized in a sense he’d lost his mojo. You know, so much of what he was about was to do with his crazy lifestyle and his crazy way of living and performing and the way that he apportioned his energy. But with John, it was just shock. We didn’t know how ill he’d been. He’d kept it secret that he’d had a heart problem. And Roger came into my hotel room in L.A. with tears in his eyes wondering what we should do. And I just said to him, “Listen, if we can find a bass player, we should just go on. Because it’s just you and me now, and that’s clean, it’s clear.” Perhaps it was what we’d needed right from the very, very beginning, just to have a conversation with “You’re the singer. I’m the songwriter. Yeah, I can play some bum notes on the guitar (too) but you’re the singer, I’m the songwriter. This is clean. This is clear.” And that’s how I felt. So I do try and touch on that.
And then that brings us into the present day. Today, I am very, very torn about roadwork, very torn about performing. I’m torn about it because, partly because if I was working as a solo performer, I would certainly perform all the songs that I’ve had success with from my solo albums, but I think I would perform a lot of other stuff as well. And one of the problems that we have with the Who is, Roger always says when he’s putting a list together, “Pete, we haven’t got time to play all of the really good songs that you’ve written in your life.” And so we do long shows. They’re arduous, physically — but fulfilling. And I find it very easy. We’re (performing) with an orchestra at the moment, and I find that makes things even easier for me. I know exactly when to shoot with both barrels, and the rest of the time I can just play off the band. And some of the contradictions that fans may (know about), when I’ve actually gone so far as to say, “Oh, I hate fucking touring,” it will be about really be about me wanting to be at home. And when I say home, I don’t really mean home. I mean studio. [Laughs.] … And so it’s just about being away from my place of work. I feel divided, because I feel that the creative work that I get involved with on the road is about spending a lot of time waiting, waiting, waiting, traveling, waiting, waiting, going on stage and having maybe 10 to 15 minutes of expressive, creative guitar. Sometimes it’s great. And some, because I put my finger on the neck and it’s in the wrong fucking place. [Laughs.] I just like being at home, in my studio, with my wife (Rachel Fuller), who’s also a musician and understands everything that I want to do with my life as a creative.
But you say something toward the end of the audio piece, that there’s something that feels part of the greater good about it for you. And that it has to do with being at a period of life that a lot of the fans are also in that period of life, where you know it is inspirational for them.
Recently I’ve been looking at the fact that as soon as there was an opportunity for me to do what I felt was politically appropriate and right-minded work, I started to do it. That would have been when I was probably out of the Who for the first time, say in the ‘80s, getting involved with Amnesty International, returning to the scenario of dealing with the dying embers of apartheid in South Africa, charity events with Rock Against Racism and all kinds of stuff, as a solo artist. And I questioned it while I was doing it. I questioned it because I think a lot of people look at people that do stuff for nothing, that get involved in charity work, and think they have something to hide. They have something to burn. And I knew I had something to hide.
It was that when I was a kid, I had been through this terrible period of neglect and abandonment by my mother, who handed me over to her mother, who had abused and neglected her. And eventually when I returned to my family, I was fucked up, basically. I was fucked up in a way from 7 years old. I went back to my mum and dad who’d separated and really got back together for me. And I survived by retreating into imagination. And obviously in the end that helped me creatively, but it’s not who I wanted to be.
So I think in a sense, the idea that when it comes to a tour, that what I might be able to do is sell some tickets, please some fans and make Roger happy — because Roger loves nothing more than to be on a stage; he’s a proper trouper – but also give employment to the people around me who support me, not just when we’re on tour… The idea of providing work for people after two years of the pandemic has been a part of this. It’s actually made me feel good about myself. Then I wonder, why do I feel good about myself? That’s a question that I really need to take to my Freudian analyst. You know, I have to take it to Austria!
Because I don’t really know what it’s about, but I’m very, very driven in a sense to try to position myself in a place in society where I can do some good, even if it endangers me. And I think that being on the road is dangerous — too much flying, too much contact with crazy people. [Laughs.] But it feels right to me, and so I’m trying to do what feels right. If you talk to actors and actresses who make movies, as I’m sure you do, Jesus, the amount of time that they spend apart from their families, it’s no wonder that their marriages and their affairs don’t last. You know, it’s not as bad as that — (his wife) has been with me for two weeks and has gone back home for two weeks and she’ll be back, so I don’t feel suspended in mid-air.
Do you ever look around you at your contemporaries and think about what they’re doing that you are as well? Obviously the Stones kind of had to face similar things that you did when Charlie died and that sort of thing. But everyone seems to be pushing the envelope of what’s possible for longevity in a career, and these things do seem kind of miraculous, however much drudge work may be involved in doing the touring that you’ve done for close to 60 years.
Well, the rewards outweigh the drudgery, don’t they? It feels like a job to me and it’s well paid. But the difference is, if we do what Keith Richards talks about… saying, “Look at B.B. King or look at Louis Armstrong: they played until they dropped”… The difference is that our music, the music that the Stones and the Who and the Beatles created in the early ‘60s, was music which wasn’t necessarily for dancing to. It was music in which we danced. We were the athletes. We were the ones that jumped up and down. You know, there’s no way now at my age I can do what I did in my twenties. There’s been some sort of measurements, of me jumping in the air, and at one point, one guy said, “Listen, you were seven feet in the air. It’s almost impossible.” You know, I’ve slashed my arms; I’ve lost fingers that had to be sewn back on. All kinds of shit has gone on in my life.
And if you look at Mick Jagger, this guy, he’s had a heart bypass. You know, he’s still doing what he did when he was 16. He’s probably dancing more vigorously now than then. So that’s the gateway, you know. We can play music. I can sit in a jazz band and play banjo until I’m 90, I’m sure — maybe in my Florida care home, with my own jazz band, I hope. But I won’t be able to bring the kind of vigor and energy to what we do on stage that I suppose a lot of young fans coming to see the band sort of expect. You know, I remember my physio saying to me, “Pete, stop swinging your arm. You’ve got no cartilage left there.” That’s why I can still do it! That’s the actual physical part of it.
And why was it that I wrote “I hope I die before I get old”? You know, it was so necessary that we drew a line between the post-war and the war-bound generation. You know, I’m really conscious of it now, that if I was going to say anything to Putin, it would be to say, “Listen, this isn’t fucking ‘My Generation,’ man. Grow up.” You know, the day that they dropped that bomb on Hiroshima, that was the end. There can be no more… There was this still this sense when I was in my 16 or 17, pre-Cuban crisis in ‘62, where there was still the possibility that we could all get blown away. And you can joke about it, but it’s now 60 years later, and we’ve lived in a period of relative peace. You guys (in America) had Vietnam, and everybody’s had Afghanistan; we had Iraq. Everybody’s had their taste of it. But, the world is still turning — long enough for us to fuck it up. [Laughs.]
But I think it was necessary. It was necessary to say, “Listen, we have to start a new way.” And the boomer generation has made huge mistakes. They’ve been self-indulgent, they’ve been wasteful, they’ve done all kinds of things that are wrong. But we’re still here, and our music is still here, and our music, occasionally every now and again, seems to fit the moment. And some of the songs that I’ve written fit today extremely well — “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Eminence Front,” “Another Tricky Day,” and “My Generation” maybe, even. There’s a whole load of songs that fit the fact that we’re still living in an autocratic society, in which people with power and money can change the direction of society and of the planet. And it’s just not right.
I was about to ask if there was any particular song you do on tour now that feels like it has a current resonance for you in this day and age.
There’s something about “Eminence Front,” for me, because it’s one that I sing and I lead myself. It’s the idea, as I was just saying, that probably male chauvinist power is at the root of it. But it’s the idea that we believe in our own myths, and ultimately, of our past and our present coming to bite us. And it’s very strange that that song came out of, I think, probably watching “Miami Vice” or something, and they were the first people to license it. [Laughs.]
You do a lot of assessment in the Audible piece of the skills and talents of people who’ve been in the Who, as long-term players like Keith and John, and shorter-term ones. You’re candid in saying that it sometimes bothered you that, as great a drummer as Keith was, playing with a sense of swing on some of the latter-day songs you were writing wasn’t something that was in his wheelhouse. Which raises the question: Does it still mean a thing even if it ain’t got that swing? And then you mention that when Zak Starkey came into the band, you almost didn’t want him because he was an acolyte of Keith’s style. You talk about how much you really enjoyed Kenny Jones being in the band, and Rabbit. So this piece was a chance to really get into the nitty-gritty of different players’ styles.
Absolutely. I did welcome Kenny into the band, and in solo work, I worked with Simon Phillips, and God, that guy could do anything. He grew up like me: his father was in a famous post-war U.K. dance band, and my dad played clarinet in a jazz band. We both grew up with this romantic music from the war era, you know, everything based on standards, and it had a swing to it. And I remember my dad fixing me up to go and see Bill Haley live. I went with my buddy — we were 11, at a cinema in London — and came back, and I said to my dad, “Could you hear it (on the radio)?” And he said, yeah, yeah, and I said, “What did you think?” He said, “Pete, you know, I’m not gonna lie on this stuff…. But, it swings.” And of course, Bill Haley was a swinger — he swung! And so I think in a sense, that for me was important.
But you know, the Who’s music is on-beat. It was always on-beat. And Keith fit very, very well when we stuck to the code. It’s when we went off the code, when I wanted to go into a swing, that I noticed that. And there are very, very few Who songs that swing in the way that I would describe it. Whereas for example, with the Stones, Charlie was a jazz drummer. He could swing all the way, right from beginning to end, and yet he managed to play for the most important basic rock band in the world. So the things fit, for sure.
Overall, though, would you say you were OK with the Who’s music being less about swing and more about… thunder?
Yeah. You know, I remember when we first started working, when we first found Keith, we were still playing small clubs in and around London, and I was experimenting with making feedback noise. It was really, really loud, and very, very distorted, and very, very frightening — I hoped. I was a bit of a cheesy-looking kid, so I don’t think I scared anybody as a human being, but I wanted to scare them. I wanted to wake them up, I suppose. This memory, this glitch, this bridge place that we were going through where what I wanted to do was to remind people of the noise of war, of the sound of pain and of death — and yet also to liberate us from it. So it was an artistic act, inspired by the great auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger.
And everybody around the early Who, including the members of the band, dissed that. They said, “Oh, fuck this. It was just a gimmick. It was Pete showing off.” But it was a very considered idea that we could make our music thunderous and warlike, and thus hold a mirror to the previous generation and move onwards. And Keith really worked so well with that. He was such a fantastic listener. If he had a talent outside of his musical talent, outside of his ability to play more notes than was strictly necessary [laughs], it was that he listened. He was a good listener.
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