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Ghost Canyon

Pete Townshend        (The Who) Pete Townshend (The Who)
‘Just Who Do You Think You Are ?’

Few bands in the history of rock & roll were riddled with as many contradictions as the Who. All four members had wildly different personalities, as their notoriously intense live performances demonstrated. The group was a whirlwind of activity, as the wild Keith Moon fell over his drum kit and Pete Townshend leaped into the air with his guitar, spinning his right hand in exaggerated windmills. Vocalist Roger Daltrey strutted across the stage with a thuggish menace, as the late bassist John Entwistle stood silent, functioning as the eye of the hurricane. These divergent personalities frequently clashed, but these frictions also resulted in a decade's worth of remarkable music.

As one of the key figures of the British Invasion and the mod movement of the mid-'60s, the Who were a dynamic and undeniably powerful sonic force. They often sounded like they were exploding conventional rock and R&B structures with Townshend's furious guitar chords, Entwistle's hyperactive bass lines and Moon's vigorous, chaotic drumming. Unlike most rock bands, the Who based their rhythm on Townshend's guitar, letting Moon and Entwistle improvise wildly over his foundation, while Daltrey belted out his vocals. This was the sound the Who thrived on in concert, but on record they were a different proposition, as Townshend pushed the group toward new sonic territory. He soon became regarded as one of the finest British songwriters of his era, as songs like "The Kids Are Alright" and "My Generation" became teenage anthems, and his rock opera 'Tommy' earned him respect from mainstream music critics.

Townshend continually pushed the band toward more ambitious territory, incorporating white noise, pop art and conceptual extended musical pieces into the group's style. The remainder of the Who, especially Entwistle and Daltrey, weren't always eager to follow him in his musical explorations, especially after the success of his first rock opera, ’Tommy.’ Instead, they wanted to stick to their hard-rock roots, playing brutally loud, macho music instead of Townshend's textured song suites and vulnerable pop songs. Eventually, this resulted in the group abandoning their adventurous spirit in the mid-'70s, as they settled into their role as arena-rockers. The Who continued on this path even after the death of Keith Moon in 1978, and even after they disbanded in the early '80s, as they reunited numerous times in the late '80s and '90s to tour America. The group's relentless pursuit of the dollar was largely due to Entwistle and Daltrey, who never found successful solo careers, but it had the unfortunate side effect of tarnishing their reputation for many longtime fans. However, there's little argument that at their peak, the Who were one of the most innovative and powerful bands in rock history.

In a recent rare interview with Pete Townshend, now 56, and stayin clear of all issues related to the passing of the beloved Entwistle, we first discovered why 1993 was such a poignant year in his life. “In the last 20 years I’ve only drunk for one year, which was 1993. I’ve been eight years without a drink now.”

Why that particular year ? “I had ‘Tommy’ on Broadway and it went to my head. I thought, ‘Even if I have got a bit of a problem with alcohol, it doesn’t matter,’ but of course it did. It doesn’t matter how much money I had, it still ended up coming out of a club, seeing a builder’s skip and thinking, ‘Oh, what a lovely place to spend the night !’ My head went completely and I used to do that all the time. My limo driver would be waiting for me to wake up. There were probably people walking past saying, ‘isn’t that the bloke from The Who asleep in that skip ?”

Was there anything in particular that made you quit drinking ? “There was one day when I said, ‘That’s enough’. I didn’t go to a clinic, I just stopped. What I’d managed for 11 years before I thought I could manage again. It was messing up my life.”

Have you had any help over the years ? “Certainly, yeah I’ve had help over the years. I’ve had counselors. I had a therapist for three years, but I don’t know if that really helped or not though. I just know I’m all right now.”

Do you ever crave alcohol at all these days ? “I don’t even think about alcohol, but I know I wasted a lot of money on it !”

Describe yourself in one word “Workaholic. Now I suppose to some extent I’m a workaholic. The self-obsession in my work. I think I’m getting better. I’m managing my recovery.”

Since kicking the booze – and drugs years before that – Pete has split from wife Karen, mother of his son and two daughters and for nearly six years has been dating 28-year old musician Rachel Fuller. “We’re going well. There’s some stability n my life. She’s a lot younger than me though ! When I look in the mirror I don’t see a rock star anymore, I see a little balding old guy who looks a bit like someone’s uncle.”

Are you comfortable with that ? “Yeah, I’m very comfortable with that !”

Do you still get a kick out of playing all those classic old Who songs ? “When I play these old songs, I suppose it does come flooding back. With my history I don’t really want it to come flooding back, as it’s not all good ! The actual reality of it is when you start to play something that you haven’t played for a long time and in some cases 20 years, it takes you back in a very, very real way to when you were younger. When you were, in my case, sadder and more frightened and more arrogant and when Keith Moon, our drummer, was alive.”

Any studio stories to tell ? “A week back we started to play a song called “Young Man Blues’ and I got into it and my hand was completely covered in blood ! I was playing the way that I used to play - I used to knock a couple of fingernails off within about five minutes. There’s an adrenaline rush – you don’t feel anything sometimes. It’s not about being too old. It’s about when I started doing this. I didn’t know it was gonna hurt me – not my hand, but me.”

Pete is also penning a semi-autobiographical book about what might have happened if he hadn’t joined The Who. “I’m writing a novel so I didn’t want to do any dates this year. Roger pleaded with me to do some though.”

What was it like touring back then ? “For me, I’ve always been very much rooted at home. I didn’t like touring. I loved being on stage with The Who, but I didn’t like touring.”

Why did you stop touring back in the early 80s ? “Well, we didn’t stop because Keith Moon died in 1978, we stopped really because we were making bad records and they were selling more than ever before ! I found the place that I was going as a live performer was taking me away from the pace I’d come from as a writer. I was very much a British writer. A blur style of writing. Very London.”

What was your upbringing like ? “I wasn’t working class. My parents were musicians, but I understood people around me and could write for them and about what was happening. As The Who got bigger and bigger I lost touch with all that.”

Will there ever be a new Who record ? “We’re all sort of keen to do it for a laugh. It’ll be fun to do it because we enjoy playing together. A lot of it I would do just to play with Zak(Starkey). He is such a great guy, like Keith’s little sorcerer’s apprentice. A little Mickey Mouse at Keith’s heel really.”

Doesn’t Zak actually have a connection to Keith Moon ? “Yeah, it’s a weird story because he got his first drum kit from Keith Moon ! Ringo was kind of, ‘I’m not giving him a drum kit. I don’t want him to be a f**king drummer like me. I want him to have a proper job.”

Zak took over from Kenney Jones who joined The Who from The Faces after Keith Moon’s death. “Zak’s brought a new energy. It might be good to go into the studio and see what happens. But ultimately, we might also find that our record audience – like fans of so many other artists that have got mature – may not wanna go out and buy our new CDs. It’s like The Rolling Stones – a lot of their albums weren’t great but up until the middle 80s they were selling well.”

What, aside from you girlfriend, do you love most about life ? “I love the creative engine of The Who.”

Do you have any fears in life ? “It worries me that I don’t want to waste my time. I certainly won’t spend a year on making a new record. I’ve got 1,500 pieces of music knocking around but whether or not any of them are gonna work with The Who, I don’t know. I don’t know what The Who is any more. But without getting too pompous about it, I think there’s something that I can tap into which then kind of feeds like an electrical current through the band and if I’m in good shape – if I’m connected to that; if I can allow it to flow somehow – it energizes.”

Interview for Chrisam Enterprises, Inc./Exclusive Magazine

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