Plus the future of The Who, memories of Moon and Entwistle and his rocky relationship with Roger Daltrey
Townshend turns 70 on May 19: he is just over a year younger than Daltrey. In the afterward to Who I Am, Townshend writes self-deprecatingly about the ageing process. “I am growing old of course,” he noted (then still a mere 67). “But I am still in the early stages of disintegration.” Is that still the case?
It feels like an ongoing process. It’s very strange, because the signals that you get are the ones you’re familiar with from reading about people who preceded you.
In my case, my memory is excellent. It’s not about losing my keys or forgetting the name of a composer. It’s about being on a country walk with your dog and there’s a stile. You get to the top of it and you’re going to jump down and you realise that if you do that, you might break your leg. The first sign I had of it was when I fell of a bike, a long time ago, 1991, on the Isles of Scilly. I know now that if such an accident happened to be, it would probably kill me. I’d need new hips, new knees, new this, new that. You’re reminded of being older through the things you can’t do, more than the things you can.
Are you surprised you’ve made it this far?
Yeah, I should be dead. I had a period in ‘80/’81 where I was experimenting with quite extreme drunks. I was very, very depressed, very overworked. I thought about this quite recently, when Steve Strange died. I adored him. I went to his club once, with Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife. I ended up taking something, or being injected with something. I OD’d. My driver took me to hospital. They gave me one of those big adrenalin injections. I woke up with this fucking six-inch needle in my chest. They should have called the police, really. But anyway. So I’ve actually died, nearly died.
But Keith and John aren’t with us. How do you remember them?
Roger has done this sequence, which is in the Quadrophenia show, where be brought them back from the dead. There’s this bit where we do “Bell Boy” and Keith appears on screen and sings his part. And on “5:15”, John’s extraordinary bass solos that he did in 2002…. That’s kind of how I’ve been remembering them. But I have special memories of both of them. The main one of Keith is in his last years. I set him up in a flat, the one he died in. every night at 11 o’clock he’d ring me up. He was the first man to say to me, “I love you.” With John, it’s our childhood together. He never changed. I remember being in my parent’s house in Acton, rehearsing. We both had little amplifiers, probably four watt ones. My grandmother, who I hated, came in and went, “What a fucking row! Turn it off!” I got my little blue amplifier and threw up at her, shouting “Fuck off!” She ducked and it hit the door frame and shattered. She glared at me and shut the door. I look at John. He had this characteristic of rubbing his nose with his finger and just went [Townshend rubs the side of his nose with his index finger], “Nice one….” That was John and to this day, that’s how I remember him.
Do you have a key memory of Roger?
My big moment with Roger was at Woodstock. He’d grown his hair long. His wife had suggested this. She’d also suggested that to accentuate his rather wooden movements, he wear a shawl. So he had a hippie shawl with bits hanging off it. He had this chamois leather coat made, with strands on it. [Director] Mike Wadleigh lit Roger and I with single spotlights. This was about four in the morning. I’m on my knees, playing, and I look over at Roger and he looks like a god. He looks beautiful. He looks happy, he looks kind. That’s when everybody in the band said, “Oh, fuck. We’ve actually got a singer, a star. Someone who’s going to carry us.”
So what about now? What does an average day entail for you?
I always like, if I can, that there be something creative involved in it. Often it’s business. Music licenses, tax matters, staff, property. The average day would be to get up, see Rachel – we sleep in separate rooms – spend time with the dogs, then get into the day, after about 8.30. I spend about an hour writing, then that writing would bleed into whatever other creative work I was doing. I’m working on a libretto. So I might do a bit of that. I’m still doing quite a lot of archive work. Have lunch. Might read a bit in the afternoon, or work in my studio.
Do you think much about your legacy?
Yeah, and I get quite angry about that. Probably because of my days at Faber, I remember Eliot’s letters, and Ted Hughes: what do we do with The Iron Man from the Young Vic production? That kind of thinking. And the way Ahmet Ertegun and Jaan Wenner wanted to turn the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame into a legitimate museum of music. It’s been on my mind that bits of shit that I think are valueless might be very interesting to people in the future. On the other hand, I don’t particularly want to honour the bits of shit. What we all know as writers is once something is about to hit the public, it’s a very good idea to edit it.
In the instance of Jimmy Page; his focus on curating Zeppelin’s archive has been to the exclusion of making new music. Do you ever worry about falling into a similar trap?
It may be appear thus, but it may be unbeknown to us that Jimmy is writing music. The problem that he would have is that everybody wants him to play “Stairway To Heaven” for the rest of his life in the same way that people want me to do what I’ve been doing all my life. So there’s that feeling, yep. For me, though, I write all the time. I have record companies who are committed to both support my solo catalogue with Universal and also to provide seed money for any new project that I want to do.
Do you have any ambitions left?
I shouldn’t bother to pretend to complete with Madonna, Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams. I should just do whatever the fuck happens. I’ve been writing music for this piece that I’ve been working on which I’m describing as a possible installation since 2008. It has a working title of Floss. I want to allow myself an art school moment. When I left art school to be in the band, I walked about from my passion at the time, which was kinetic sculpture. I tried to imagine that The Who would be like an art school project. In some ways it was, but in other ways you’re dealing with other human beings who have their own stories and needs.
Will you have time for another Who album?
I don’t know. It may never happen. Not because Roger and I wouldn’t have time to knock it out, and I think I could write songs we would love to play together. But what’s the point of doing it if we’re not going to go out and plug it and tour it and stand by it? We have to fight what every artist our age fights. Which is, we go and do a show and we’re only doing the show because our record company wants us to do the shows so we can be seen to be supporting out new work and our audience don’t want to hear the new work. They only want to hear the old work. This starts for artists with their third album, as a rule.
Can you envisage a day when you stop entirely?
No. I went through that when my hearing started to get really bad, which is one of the reasons I left the band [in 1982]. But more recently, I’ve had help with my hearing. I’m quite surprised that my hearing is as good as it is. I do wear a hearing system.