Pete Townshend may have finally answered the question posed by his iconic band, “Who are you?,” in Who I Am, his recent autobiography. In the brutally honest tome, Townshend takes us from his rough-around-the-edges upbringing all the way through the rise of the loudest rock band ever, interspersed with dramatic rock-star ups-and-downs—especially downs, namely drugs and infidelity. It’s cut with a dry humor, but Townshend’s memoir is serious and thoughtful.
We reached the Who guitarist-songwriter on the road as he and Roger Daltrey tour their 1973 rock opera, Quadrophenia. Chatty, funny and deadly honest, the 67-year-old rocker seemed to relish taking the long view of his life and work.
You write about schoolyard gangs in your book, and you’re back in a band again. Do you find comfort there?
With the Who, I feel comfortable. I think you’re right, I feel this is an extension of the gang. I think people love it when at the end of a show, Roger and I, who have allegedly hated each other all of our lives, hug. It’s ‘Ahhh, look, they’ve overcome their obstacles.’ It’s like fucking On Golden Pond or something. We take great stock in the fact that we’ve been working together such a long time and there’s so much that can be left unsaid that goes back to the neighborhood. The fact that the Who were a gang at one point did give me a sense of continuum. After Chinese Eyes, I did try to create a gang—I hired a bunch of people and tried to create a band. It felt as futile as when Bowie did the Tin Machine thing, it really wasn’t a band at all.
You also write about having a spiritual enlightenment at a Holiday Inn in Rolling Meadows.
Yeah, it was one of those kind of sublime moments. The only reason I know it was Rolling Meadows was I wrote about it on a piece of Holiday Inn notepaper. There it was with a little drawing of the nation’s innkeeper.
Rolling Stone ran a cover story of yours titled “In Love with Meher Baba.” Where are you now in terms of seeking spiritual satisfaction?
In order to have faith, or follow any other organized religion, I’d have to suspend a degree of disbelief. In a sense, the god we trust politically is a slightly different god than the one we bring into the fray when we enter a rock concert. One of the things I can say with absolute conviction is that I worship that god. I think that when a crowd is at a really great music event and they start to lose themselves, they find themselves in a crowd and because it is physical and mental and looking for something uplifting and life enhancing…. I think when people gather together in large numbers to do that, there’s a sense of congregation, and I’m happy to be a part of that.
What have you got in store for us with the Quadrophenia tour?
Well, I haven’t had a lot to do with it. I was worrying Roger for the last five years to try to bring Quadrophenia back out again, and he has insisted that he has complete control of it. So I first saw his video presentation a couple of few weeks ago when we were rehearsing it. It’s a story about life in the U.K. and our neighborhood, rather than the story of Quadrophenia—it’s almost like a biopic in some ways. It’s Roger and I performing Quadrophenia in a very pure way. At the end, we play some old hits and say good-bye and crowds seem to like it. We’re getting reasonably good reviews but it’s early days yet. I can’t see what’s on the screens behind me, but I get a feeling from the crowd that it’s working.
The Who plays Allstate Arena Thursday 29 and Friday 30. Who I Am is out now.