Pete interview in NZ Listener

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Sat Feb 28 14:37:50 UTC 2009

Thanks to Carrie Pratt for finding this:

Interview by Nick Bollinger

Just over 40 years after the Who last visited New Zealand, and ahead of their concert in Auckland at the end of March, the first thing Townshend recalls about the 1968 tour is that it was a chance to see a beloved aunt. “[She] had emigrated to Wainuiomata many years before for the sake of the health of my Uncle George. My Aunt Queenie came to see me in Auckland when we arrived, to say hello. It was quite sad because the newspapers had made us look like criminals and yobbos. Even so, it was nice to see her after 15 years, a gentle soul.

“The hotel we stayed in was old-fashioned and the manager, worried by what he’d read about our behaviour in Australia, lined us up to give us a lecture. No room service. No room keys. No service of any kind. First sign of trouble we’d be out. We only stayed one night. I don’t really blame him when you see what the papers had written about us. The next morning when I woke up, I realised the manager had been serious about no room service, and the operator told us we’d have to buy breakfast outside the hotel because he’d shut the restaurant in honour of our visit. I went out and bought some milk, sugar and cornflakes and called down for a plate and spoon. The manager wouldn’t let me have one, so I ate my cornflakes from the sink, and left a £5 tip for the maid.”
How much does the audience who will flock to Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium in March to see Townshend, Daltrey and ring-ins perform as the Who appreciate the distinction?
“I think the audience can appreciate that the old Who will never function again as they once did – as innocently, I suppose,” writes Townshend in an email answer to my question (email being his preferred mode of interview). “Roger and I know how to do what we have always done, but we are much more conscious of the process now, the device of letting our audience live out their own wish while we play the old songs.

“The fact of the matter is that the Who as a band stopped working when I quit in 1982. However, the brand would not die. That was partly a record company hanging on to a catalogue asset, but also partly Roger’s passion for what he believed we had achieved, and could one day do again. I let go, and I think John Entwistle did too, but Roger never gave up trying to bring the band back to harmony with the brand. I might seem to be talking about the name, and just the name. But the brand had been identified very strongly with the technique we stumbled on – which was providing music for people, mainly young men, to use as a kind of therapy. They put themselves into our songs, and sometimes even into us, and we found ourselves acting as alter-egos, or myth figures. We felt quite passive in this role, and focused on our performances most of all.
“Today, Roger and I work with the brand, and until we have the courage to stop calling ourselves the Who, must accept that brings up many difficulties.
“At least this particular Who tribute band features two of the original members and you don’t have to listen to a bunch of Hollywood actors and actresses caterwauling their way through the history. I am able to say this about the movie Mamma Mia! as a very sincere Abba fan, but also as someone who acted as music director to the same appalling wonderment in Ken Russell’s Tommy.
“By the way, Ken Russell told my partner, Rachel, that he thought the Mamma Mia! film was wonderful. However, someone who looked remarkably like Elvis stood to watch our show in Atlantic City last month. It’s easy to summon up the ghosts.”

But even if Townshend and Daltrey today are doing more than simply summoning up ghosts, surely it feels different to step onstage now, at 62?
“It is different, I think, for me, perhaps not so much for Roger. I feel a difference in that I suddenly feel outside my own music. I perform it as a musician rather than a voice. I feel that if I try to make it sound or look as though I still relate to this music, it will make it less useful to the audience. I want to be as transparent as possible, and so I become rather like a conductor – I throw myself into the music, but I don’t relate to it myself. I respond hugely, though, when it’s clear the audience is inside the music, especially younger people, that’s amazing for me.”
“Rock (and pop) is best when it is transparent,” he says, “when we can find ourselves easily inside the music. Then we travel with it, and it works like a medicine, or a fix, or a release. It might also allow us to feel a part of a group, or society. In this, it is different from other art forms (if you will allow me to call it art), in that the narrative, the story, the leading character, must be the listener not the performer. This is why some of the biggest performers in rock and pop are apparently so empty; they are actually practising a kind of provisional humility, often without knowing it. Good examples come most easily from pop – like Madonna and Michael Jackson. But in rock there is Mick Jagger, who is like a puppet master. None of us who are his friends really know him all that well; he is happy for us to make him who we each want him to be. It is a great gift he has, I think, and I treasure him for it.”
...To me, the most convincing defence already existed in Townshend’s music. Sexual abuse of children and its traumatic consequences had, after all, been a theme he had explored in his songwriting as far back as Tommy. Have the events of 2003 put him off ever addressing this subject again?

‘I was unconscious of what I was doing when I wrote Tommy,” he answers. “When I started it, I thought I was writing a spiritual tale, a kind of rock Siddhartha. It emerged eventually as a post-war horror story with a fair smattering of ill-fitting black humour added by Moon and Entwistle. It was much later, in the mid-80s, after a period of therapy, that I came to terms with my own childhood sufferings, and those of some of my peers, and understood how they had manifested in Tommy and other songs. If I had looked carefully at my work as a writer in the 60s, I would have seen evidence that I had been damaged in some way.
“What was surprising was that my work expressing this was so popular with the public, so I was obviously not the only one. I don’t mean we are all abused, though some of us were; I mean we all suffered in some way in the post-war years, all of us baby-boomers, or knew someone who had survived abuse.
“In 2003, I was working with disturbed adults, and they were my main concern, not children. The adults, like me, like to describe themselves as ‘survivors’. I think I was experiencing a kind of ‘White Knight’ syndrome so common among rock stars. I wanted to be the one who made a difference. However, by the time I was arrested, I’d already given up trying to make sense of the internet’s ills in public, and had decided instead to privately fund a survivors’ helpline, and help adults, real people I could touch and speak to. The charges against me were all dropped in the end, and so that help-line is what I concentrate on today, and it is very worthwhile work. I will never return to this issue again as a journalist or polemicist. But I can’t -promise that my future creative work won’t again reveal some pain from the past.”
Townshend has answered the last of my emailed questions, but is clearly on a roll and, circling back to the start of our exchange, offers these further thoughts about the Who’s imminent visit.
“I think it’s fairly safe to say that we are determined to perform in New Zealand at full power, and we are making sure we don’t perform when jetlagged. We’re travelling east to west all around the globe in stages to make certain of this. 
“It has been a long, long time since we played our music in New Zealand. Yours is a country that, in a way – because of my beloved Aunt Queenie and Uncle George, and our strange and unhappy visit back in 1968 – means a lot to me. It is full of intimate memories, despite the fact I have spent just two days there in my entire life.
“Today, my three children are grown up, I have some freedom, and more time to travel, no contracts to work out, and I am coming to play in New Zealand with a feeling of real anticipation and pleasure. Let me tell you something honestly: it isn’t often I feel that way about my work.”  -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month! 


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