Pete Townshend: 'They want to give me a knighthood, but can't'
Ahead of their Belfast gig, Who legend Pete Townshend talks about his wildest days and the darker events in his life
Mere minutes into our interview and Pete Townshend is tucking in with the gusto that has stood him well these 70 years: to anecdotes, to philosophies, to past (and future) plans, to the plate of biscuits and pastries that has been placed in front of us in this drowsy Richmond hotel near his south-west London home.
"We used to come here every day for lunch," says The Who's brain trust, chomping on shortbread. "They did the most amazing sausage and mash. Rachel once had it every day for two weeks." Rachel is Rachel Fuller, the songwriter/guitarist/composer's partner the past two decades. He met the now-41-year-old when he "employed her to do some orchestrations on the Lifehouse Chronicles," he says of the 1990 box-set version of his abandoned 1970s rock opera.
The couple have worked together again on one of this summer's Who-related projects: a classical rendering of his 1973 Mods and Rockers concept record-turned-film, Quadrophenia. It's being released as an album on classical label Deutsche Grammophon - Lancastrian tenor Alfie Boe takes the place of Who singer Roger Daltrey - and performed at a one-off concert at London's Royal Albert Hall.
Between album and concert comes another burst of Who action: the band is headlining the main Pyramid Stage on the final night of Glastonbury this month. Was it an immediate "yes" when the offer came through from Worthy Farm? "I don't think it was an immediate yes from Roger," Townshend replies. "I don't really give a shit either way," he adds, perhaps protesting a little too much. "But I think Roger was a little worried that we already had three shows in Europe lined up, and they were close together. Roger's been needing quite long periods of days off in between shows.
"And there was doubt because it's so high- profile - and, of course, it's televised. So if you do goof, you goof big-time." But with a little juggling of their schedule, Daltrey was reassured. "We're playing great, so once he gave us the green light, we were good to go."
Townshend also has a special interest in fellow headliner Kanye West: "I've never met him, but I'm about to as he has a business proposal for me. He makes a big play of the fact that he's as much a businessman as an artist. But what he's always been is a bit of a grown-up Grayson Perry - he's very much a kind of installation guy. There's this desire among R&B performers to create a mystique and sense of danger, but I imagine I'll probably be disappointed that he's quite normal."
Before we can talk further about the ongoing vitality of a band currently celebrating their 50th anniversary with a world tour, which takes in Belfast next weekend, Townshend is detouring through a grab-bag of reminiscences.
There are quick-smart yarns about Soho in the 1960s; his musician father's summer residencies on the Isle of Man; The Who's 1968 gig at Paisley Ice Rink ("The ice was pink. It was full of blood!"); the 1975 Hollywood premiere of the film of Tommy; and his dalliances with Elton John. He starred - alongside Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed and Daltrey - in Ken Russell's film about the pinball wizard and was then at the height of his herculean cocaine intake.
"Yeah, that's right," Townshend nods. "Well, I never did coke. Well," he qualifies, "I did a couple of years of it - not like Elton, but I did a bit around him. And in 1980/81, I was hanging around the New Romantic scene, getting a bit depressed, marriage falling apart, ended up with a pretty blonde that I'd squire to nightclubs."
"I was thinking about Steve Strange," he motors on, now corralling the late Visage singer and New Romantic club promoter, "cos, when he died recently, I wanted to go to his funeral cos I really liked him. And I had an OD in his nightclub, Club For Heroes. I was with Paul Weller, and Phil whatsisname - not Oakey ... Lynott," he says, deciding on the late Thin Lizzy singer. "I think it was Phil Lynott who gave me the smack." Did he snort it? "No, I injected it. In the toilets."
This, disarmingly, head-spinningly, is Townshend all over. It's all out there, on the table. A lifetime of fame (he was a teenager when The Who had their first hit, I Can't Explain), thinking, overthinking, indulgence, spiritualism, addiction, sobriety and theorising can do that to a man.
His autobiography, 2012's Who I Am, was the same. Out it all poured. At one end, his theories on the post-war generation into which he was born; in too-simple brief, they weathered a brutal psychic hangover. At another, his mea culpa dissection of the circumstances surrounding his 2003 arrest on a charge of using his credit card to access a child pornography site.
Again, in too-too-simple brief: Townshend was testing what was out there, online, so he could confront the credit-card companies for being complicit in the abusive trade. He never viewed nor downloaded any images. And he was also trying to confront the childhood sexual trauma he thinks he suffered via his maternal grandmother.
"I came up against abusers when I was young, and I've had to go into a place in my life where I've had to forgive them. And I've had to, in a way, say that what happened to me probably helped me in my career." This is the carefully framed view now of the angry young man who wrote My Generation. "I can tap into the rage that I feel against them."
But, he acknowledges, while his arrest and the subsequent media storm, "was terrifying for a while"; he pauses, which is not something he does often, to weigh his words. "I think - it's hard for me to say this - but I think it probably, in the long term, was a good thing for me."
"I mean," he adds, snorting just a little, "the only thing that must be frustrating for those people who distribute gongs up in London, they probably want to give me a knighthood, but they can't."
The new incarnation of Quadrophenia is part of a full slate for the man who recently passed the age at which his father died. Is he focused on using his time as keenly as possible? "Not quite that. But about 10 years ago I did the music for a little art film for my friend Peter Blake. And in the [accompanying] interview he said he wasn't going to retire from painting, but he was going to retire from painting for money. I kinda take a leaf out of that book.
"I wouldn't want to retire. My mind is sharp, I love doing what I'm doing," he notes.
With original Who drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwistle having died, Townshend and Daltrey are the last men standing. Still, the band's 50th anniversary celebrations roll on.
There's another "swing" through America after their summer engagements. And, come rain or mud - the conditions that attended their Pyramid Stage appearance in 2007 - The Who are determined to provide a rousing climax to Glastonbury 2015.
Townshend knows better than most what the event means. "In '68 and '69 we'd had the experience of Monterey, of the Isle of Wight, of Woodstock - and although they were all dreadful for us, for me in particular," he says with feeling, "when I walked away from them, I realised that the audience experience actually has very little to do with what happens on stage."
Glastonbury especially, he acknowledges, "has this legacy, this variation and texture" that other rock festivals don't. "And I'm looking forward to my part. But it is just a small part. It would be wrong to call The Who the icing on the cake."
- The Who play the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on Sunday, June 21. For tickets go toticketmaster.ie