Who leader Pete Townshend is better, you betcha

by Jon Bream

McClatchy Newspapers

12 December 2006


Fans come away from concerts with indelible memories of a particular song, a rocker’s outfit or something said from the stage. The star, however, may be more likely to remember what happened offstage.

That was the case of Pete Townshend and The Who’s 1970 concert at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.

“I remember it well,” the guitarist-songwriter said in an e-mail interview this week. “But I remember best having dinner after the show with the artistic director and his daughter who had a complete set of Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys. We had played `Tommy’ (at the Guthrie) and the director - whose name I have in my diary but that is at home, I’m afraid; could it have been Frank Whiting? - was encouraging me to continue to work on rock opera.”

Townshend’s memory is pretty good. While Whiting, who died a decade ago, wasn’t the Guthrie’s artistic director - it didn’t have one at the time - he led the University of Minnesota Theater and helped bring Tyrone Guthrie to town.

“I think (Whiting) might have been the first to introduce me to the term `musico-dramatic’ work,” Townshend said.

His latest musico-dramatic work is “Endless Wire,” the first Who studio album since 1982, which closes with a mini-rock opera. On their current tour, The Who perform 11 songs from the new disc, which has received mixed reviews but a “wonderful” reaction from concertgoers to the new tunes, Townshend said.

“Now that more of them are better known by fans it is even easier to present them, but we play lots of old hits too. It’s a good balance, I think.”

E-mail interviews are about as popular with music critics as the latest Barry Manilow album. Townshend, however, was as thoughtful, funny and generous in writing as he has been in past conversations. He thinks this tour is better than The Who’s 2002 trek, which was delayed a few days after the death of bassist John Entwistle of a drug-induced heart attack.

“Having new songs to play is what makes (this tour) special,” he said, “but also we are now used to working without John. We still really miss his amazing sound, and his sweet temperament, but we are developing and evolving in new ways.”

Moreover, the guitar hero is thrilled to have fellow Rock Hall of Famers the Pretenders as opening act. “They are the best we’ve ever had - equal only to the Clash,” he said.

On tour, the British legends are finding a mixture of young and old fans. Connecting with the crowd can be confusing for an over-60 rock star, as was the case recently in Boston.

“Last night a young woman with her mother - who looked like a very sexy young creature to this old bugger - held up a sign asking me for something quite intimate,” he said. “The mother indicated she had approved the request.”

Flattered as he was, he remembered how certain kinds of socializing with women had derailed U.S. careers for British Invasion bands in the 1960s. “So I watch carefully to see who is the one I should smile at the most. I am happiest when - also last night - a half-drunk guy started heckling me for playing `You Better You Bet,’ which he thought was cheesy. We were screaming at each other angrily, then both started to laugh. The man thing I can understand - must be my Irish blood.”

With the new album and new tour, Townshend has found that his often less-than-friendly relationship with singer Roger Daltrey, The Who’s only other original member, “just gets better. We’ve always respected and loved each other, but have often said we don’t care that we don’t actually always like each other. That is changing now; we do like each other. Maybe this happens because of an increased dependence, but more because we see each other very clearly now.”

Daltrey recently told the New York Times that making “Endless Wire” gave him a sense of closure about The Who. What did Townshend think of the singer’s comment?

“Is he going fishing?” the guitarist responded.

Never the retiring type, he finds performing and recording “quite easy, but writing songs is a conundrum sometimes. I often write songs that sound like they belong in the catalog of Irving Berlin or Cole Porter rather than The Who.”

Right now he’s struggling with a different kind of writing. Having done a stint as an editor at a British book publishing house in the 1980s, he is writing his memoirs, and hopes to publish them before he turns 65 in 2010.

“I am up to 1968, the premiere of `Tommy’ at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London before an audience of baying, drunken journalists baying that I was sick,” he explained.

For someone who wrote the classic lyric “hope I die before I get old,” Townshend finds no challenge in aging as a rocker, other than health.

“I’ve never been sick yet, apart from self-inflicted troubles,” he said. “Aging is rarely graceful I’m afraid - there are so few exceptions. When I look in the mirror, I see a very competent Jewish lawyer. I would trust him with my divorce, not sure about my evening at the arena.”

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