All Over The Road
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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Who in Australia

Article from: The Australian

PETE Townshend often feels sleepy before a show. At 63 the Who's chief songwriter and guitar craftsman could be forgiven 40 winks before turning his attention to entertaining a crowd, but the affliction is nothing new. He has been calm to the point of dozing in the dressing room since the 1960s.

"Maybe that's just my peculiar variety of nerves," he says. "I am very calm before a show. I don't psyche myself up. Quite the contrary."

AUDIO: Iain Shedden speaks with Pete Townshend

This preparatory inner peace could explain why Townshend has become, in a career spanning 45 years, synonymous with an explosive, dynamic and often extremely loud stage presence. The energy has to come out somewhere. As the foil to singer Roger Daltrey in what, at its peak, was known as the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world, Townshend's signature windmills and piercing riffs are the stuff of rock legend.

Australia got to see that Townshend energy, that craftsmanship, when the Who made their first visit here in 36 years in 2004. As the two surviving original members, Daltrey and Townshend were the focal points on that trip, despite the experienced players around them that included Ringo Starr's son Zac Starkey on drums. But it was Townshend who dazzled most.

Now, after a more acceptable gap, they're coming back, this time for a handful of shows that includes an appearance at the Australian Grand Prix.

Townshend is excited about the visit: he has friends here as well as fans. He acknowledges that the extraordinary absence of the group from these shores for most of its career, after they were thrown out of the country for what was a minor misdemeanour on an aeroplane in 1968, was a mistake on their part. Two visits in the past five years, however, are not just about making amends for all the years we -- and they -- missed out on.

"Of course I have regrets," Townshend says. "But it's a big world, and I didn't feel we had enough time to consistently tour all the places we should have visited. Japan was another country we just skipped. I had a family and I wanted to be a proper father, and I think I managed that. In the end, America and Britain tried to swallow us up."

Given the Londoner's dislike of the rock'n' roll lifestyle, for which he was a poster boy in the Who's early career, perhaps we should be grateful that Townshend is coming to Australia at all.

"I resist touring and have done all my life," he goes on. "I am never willing to do as much road work as my band-mates would like. I think we are playing Australia now out of a real desire to make a connection, to enjoy the people and the country, and not to make amends, sell records or make money. I have so many really good friends there, or from there. We are coming because Australia is a part of our world, and our lives as artists. It really means something to us."

Townshend and Daltrey stand in 2009 as two of rock's great survivors, not least in their own band, which lost drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, both to drug-related causes. More than that, however, the two remaining members have emerged, five decades into their careers, as friends and with the Who's credibility and pulling power intact.

In December last year Daltrey and Townshend were honoured at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, for their achievements in the Who. The band is the first rock ensemble to receive whatis one of the US's most prestigious cultural awards.

To see the two musos with their arms around each other and singing each other's praises, as they did after that ceremony, is not something that would have come so readily to either man during the Who's heyday. Bust-ups were not uncommon, and that's before we get to the antics of volatile drummer Moon.

They cultivated that hostile image on stage by smashing up their equipment on a regular basis, but there was real animosity bubbling underneath, particularly between the singer and guitarist. It was this friction, to a degree, that gave the Who an edge over other rock bands at the time. Now, however, there's a mutual respect -- what Daltrey calls fraternal -- as well as an acknowledgment that they should enjoy life and music and what they have created as they get old. As Daltrey pointed out on their last visit, he can still get away with singing My Generation in the noughties, because there are plenty of fans from his generation coming to see them play it.

In the beginning, when Townshend and Entwistle formed an unlikely banjo and French horn duo to play trad jazz in the early '60s, rock'n'roll mayhem was far from Townshend's mind. Even when the band was formed and had secured a lucrative recording deal, after a few false starts as the Detours and the High Numbers, the prospect of them emerging as oneof Britain's greatest rock exports was as unlikely as Moon, their last recruit, having a quiet night in.

The zeitgeist was the making of them. Not only were they recording one hit song after another, such as My Generation, Substitute, ICan See For Miles and I Can't Explain, they became figureheads for the mod scene in London at the time, which helped generate morepublicity.

Being mods and pop stars wasn't enough for Townshend, however. He wanted to make successful albums as well, and not ones that were made up of a few hits and fillers. The albums that followed -- A Quick One and The Who Sell Out -- had conceptual components, but in 1969 Tommy changed the face of rock'n'roll. No one had given much thought to the idea of a rock opera before that. The album and their performance of it cemented their success at home and across the world, particularly in theUS.

This hugely creative period for Townshend coincided with his introduction to the teachings of Meher Baba. This was reflected in some of the songs on an even more elaborate project, Lifehouse, which was abandoned as a concept but emerged, finally, in 1971, as Who's Next. That album, created when Townshend and Daltrey's relationship was at a low point, features the classic Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Riley and is considered by many critics to be the group's masterpiece.

Today Townshend acknowledges this period as frenetic, although he won't, or can't, say which album gives him the most pride or sense of achievement.

"I don't use that particular word, achievement," he says. "I'm not one for pride, especially not in something as horrible as the Who. But I am grateful for the fact that Roger and I have overcome so many difficulties and at last become good friends. It once seemed impossible. We have always enjoyed strong mutual respect. Now we share a familiarity and reliable loving trust."

My Generation became an anthem of youth in the '60s, of course. Youth culture and rock'n'roll were happily married. No matter how long the Who keep singing it, it's never going to have quite as much meaning is it did then. Is rock dying, Pete?

"It would be wrong to try to guess if it will go on," he says. "I thought rock was finished a number of times in the past. The older bands mean more the longer they survive, but only historically speaking. Our shows are very different to the way they used to be, but Roger and I still go for the burn. In a sense we are struggling with ageing.

"Most people who are young deride the old and the establishment. In my young day that was justified, I think. I respected the men and women who had fought and given their lives for me, but I could not respect the fact that they could not see how hard it was for my generation to contribute and feel valued in the post-war world. Today, youth is more powerful, or at least has a voice. They are a little more tolerant of older people, and older performers."

Townshend can expect more than mere toleration from Australian audiences. While album sales are not what they used to be, his guitar technique simply gets better as he gets older. It's also quite different from how he used to play in the Who's glory years, thanks to breaking his wrist in a cycling accident 18 years ago. "The practice and musical exercise work I had to do to get it flexible again changed the way I play, and I am a slightly better player today," he says. "I still have to practise all the time to keep loose.

"I may be pedantic here," he adds, "but because I don't always enjoy my job, I often look for a reason for why I carry on. I carry on because I get fulfilment, it feels right, and appropriate, and my work as a performing musician seems to be what I do best. An award (such as the Kennedy Centre honour) simply affirms that I made the right decision to do what I am best at, and not what might have made me a happier man, like running a little bookshop and reading all the stock."

Literature is an important aspect of Townshend's life. He has always been a man of letters and a purveyor of seminal rock tunes. Since the days when the Who were the darlings of London in the mid '60s, Townshend has been writing -- for magazines and for his own pleasure -- about the band, about rock'n'roll and about a whole variety of other topics including spiritualism, religion and child pornography, the last of which got him into a spot of bother, later proven unwarranted, with the boys in blue in 2003.

Today he talks about his writing in guarded terms. Yes, he has been prolific, as a songwriter and as a writer who has embraced screenplays, poetry and autobiography, but he's less keen to put his opinions or thoughts online, as he did liberally for a while in recent years.

His autobiography has been rumoured to appear for years, but he is still only partially through the writing of it and is guarded about where and when it might appear.

"I have stopped work on it for a while," he says. "I haven't published anything online since 2007 and I only excerpted about 2 per cent of what I have written so far. I won't do that again online. I am a good writer, I am aware of that. But I can write when I'm too old to do anything else. It will wait."

Considering his impressive body of work, Townshend would be quite entitled to rest on his laurels before his bus pass arrives. But clearly the guitarist and his buddy Daltrey are not too old to rock and they plan to keep touring for as long as it's enjoyable.

"I think it's important to be happy, and I am happy today, but artistic fulfilment is more important to me than feeling happy. I have allowed myself a gift in a sense.

"When someone notices what I've done, or what I've done with my fellows in the Who, it does mean something. It brings me a sense of acceptance I think. I grew up in a world in which the word duty was important. I feel fulfilled because I feel I have done my duty, and at the same time, looking back, I struck a nice balance between the Who and other things I wanted todo."

So, is there anything left to achieve after all this time in rock'n'roll? Any regrets?

"My ambitions, if revealed, would make me look pretentious," he says. "My regrets, if revealed, would see me in jail."

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