Pete Townshend: ‘I woke up with a needle in my arm and Phil Lynott standing there’
The Who guitarist on addiction, his new novel and why he’s still touring 40 years later
Pete Townshend: ‘In Ireland, you go to pubs and you see not just good musicians playing together, but supremely good musicians playing together, and it’s a shock that they’re not making millions of quid filling Wembley Stadium.’ Photograph: Terry McGough
“Phil Lynott was a good friend, but he was a heroin addict when I knew him,” Pete Townshend recalls. “He reminded me a lot of Jimi Hendrix, who, in the flesh, had no light. But as soon as he started to play music, light would happen, like a shaman. Phil was like that. He’d work at my studio in Isleworth, and when he played, he kind of caught fire.
“We had a great night out in [promoter] Steve Strange’s Club for Heroes in London once, with people like Paul Weller and Chrissy Wood, Ronnie Wood’s ex-wife. I woke up with a needle in my arm and Phil standing there, looking at me passed out. Do you know what my big disappointment was? That I wasn’t on the front page of the newspaper the next day. I was in a club with Paul Weller and Phil Lynott, and it was the only time in my life I was ever going to overdose, and nobody knew!”
Townshend lets out a hearty laugh – 40 years later, it’s less of a brush with death and more of an anecdote from his wild days – one of the many in his artillery.
Now 74, Townshend focuses on his creative output before rock’n’roll adventures. This autumn, The Who’s guitarist and songwriter is releasing their new album, simply called Who, promoting it with key shows, and unveiling his first fiction novel, The Age of Anxiety. In the annals of a private club in Chelsea, he’s looking dapper in a grey cashmere coat whose well-fitted sleeves cover the heavyweight watch that’s peeping out; it doesn’t feel like his style to have it on display. Mostly, he’s remarkably calm for someone taking on a year’s worth of work in one season.
He points out that it’s a usual pace since he joined the seminal rock act The Who when he was 19, an impressive 55 years ago. Between their 100 million album sales, he’s brought genre-defining rock operas such as Quadrophenia and Tommy to film and stage (fans range from Ben Kingsley to Eddie Vedder to Tony Blair), released his own solo work, written non-fiction books and guested on songs by Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Elton John.
So I believe him when he says that “it’s not as bad as it has been before. Back in 1979 and 1980, it was chaos. I’m avoiding getting myself into those kinds of muddles. I do a lot of saying no. No I’m not going to talk to them, no I’m not going go on X Factor . . .”
Today, he’s come from his home in Richmond, where he lives with his second wife Rachel Fuller, proverbially wearing his author hat. Yet The Age of Anxiety is more than a book; it’s a libretto that informs a still-to-be-completed rock opera, art installation and album.
It follows a group of London “arty farty types” as they impact each other’s lives, for better or worse. Walter is a rock star in his prime, whose life shifts direction when he begins hallucinating sounds. Around him are women enamoured: his Waterford-born wife Siobhán Collins, her fiery sister Selina with a clairvoyant mind and a murderous past, her friend Floss, and Rain, his beloved friend from childhood. Then there’s Nikolai, a former musical idol of Walter’s, who “lost his marbles” and turns into an Outsider Artist. Louis, the narrator, is an art dealer looking to get rich from his paintings, and Frank Lovelace is a music manager, getting rich from Walter.
Lest we think it, there’s no Townshend in disguise among these characters. “As a celebrity author, people are going to be wanting to find me in it. But no, the thesis that I wanted to pitch was not autobiographical,” he says. “The thesis is, whether you’re a writer, artist, dancer, musician, film-maker, do we have to open ourselves up in some way psychically or intellectually to the needs of our prospective audience? Who are we working for?
“In Ireland, you go to pubs and you see not just good musicians playing together, but supremely good musicians playing together, and it’s a shock that they’re not making millions of quid filling Wembley Stadium. It’s because they’re artisans. They’re virtuosos, and they don’t make any fuss about it. In a way, I wanted to exalt that. It’s about the responsibility, as much as the afflictions of the artist.”
The Irish influence in the book stems loosely from his mother’s (slightly psychic) family from Co Cork and his occasional sailing visits to Duncannon. “When we [The Who] first performed in Cork, we were a little band and I wanted to go to Gillabbey Street in Cork, because it’s where my mother’s father was born,” he says. “I remember driving down, and it was a long, muddled drive. The next time we went, in the 2000s, there was this motorway that went all the way down, and you didn’t see the sea, so it all felt very different. But the book takes us to Duncannon, and it seems you can’t really screw around with an estuary. It still feels little bit lost in time.”
The album is nearly complete, but will be released in 2020 or 2021 once the art installation has taken shape. “I’d seen The Age of Anxiety as a magnum opus: a big piece that might be the last thing that I do, just because of its sheer scale,” Townshend says. “But I don’t intend to stop writing music or doing solo projects. It’s just been overwhelming. I started it in 2008, I’ve done several experiments. I was once hoping that I could do the entire thing on a piano, then using electronic music. Then I realised that it would be better if I stuck to what I know, which is rock music, but it wasn’t flexible enough. Then I tried it with an orchestra with James Morgan, and of course, an orchestra is fantastic.”
Soon after our meeting, I read an interview with Townshend in which he says that the prevalence of great guitarists “have literally exhausted the possibilities of guitar” now. It certainly feels like he’s more fired up about the multifaceted nature of this creative project, especially when contrasted with straightforward music endeavours. By his own admission, music is less of a calling and more of “a good way to make a living. I’m good at it and it’s easy,” he tells me. “I’m unusual in that I don’t get much joy from performing, but I don’t find it hard and it’s fulfilling, and it this time of my life, it’s quite dignified.”
I certainly didn’t expect him to be ambivalent about performing, especially as this summer saw him and The Who singer Roger Daltrey, with Ringo Starr’s son Zak Starkey on drums, return to Wembley Stadium 40 years after their first visit (this time, with orchestra in tow). When I ask more about how he found those early, intense days of touring, he explains that alcohol helped.
“I didn’t like being in a rock band, and I didn’t like the rock business, and I don’t think I would have stayed in there had I not been a drinker,” he says. “It was what it enabled me to stay, because I didn’t use drugs for a long, long time. I wasn’t quite as pure as Roger Daltrey claims to be, but I stopped smoking marijuana in 1967, so I was 22. I didn’t start using any kind of drugs again until briefly in about 1979, just after Keith Moon died.”
The death of The Who’s drummer in 1978 from an overdose in a London flat was a pivotal moment in music history; Moon was one of the high-profile rock’n’roll casualties of that era. Yet it didn’t stop The Who in their tracks – in his autobiography Who I Am, Townshend explains that his decision to carry on “was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane . . . I was shaken to the foundations, and my mind flipped”. The group took to the road with a replacement drummer months later, and the film version of Quadrophenia was released soon after that.
“The shock of it was that we knew it was going to happen,” he says. “I worry that we still do that in our business. [The DJ] Avicii was obviously so deeply depressed. I thought he was such a talented young man. But I don’t think his manager, or Amy Winehouse’s team for that matter, have cause to be ashamed because we certainly didn’t know what to do. We couldn’t moderate Keith. He was living in a fantasy, but he was also medicating himself into inaction.
“We couldn’t work out what the hell was going on. His sister, for example, is still alive and perfectly normal. She had the same parents, she’s a year older than him. Why isn’t she a nutter? His mum just died last week. Lovely lady, very normal. And I know his aunts. They’re lovely and normal and you look at Keith and wonder what was it that made him so strange. His self-destruction was poetic and creative.”
One of the lucky ones, Townshend has been teetotal for 30 years, during which he’s turned his attention to helping others fight the battle of addiction – Adam Clayton of U2 being one case in point. “Adam’s a very close friend. I know the others in U2 too, and I think he’s the one that tries to be the most normal,” Townshend says. “I don’t know Larry [Mullen] very well, but I knew Paul McGuinness, their manager for a long time.
“And I know why he’s not their manager anymore,” he adds, with a mischievous smile. “Because he had an argument with Larry, I think, about how much the Zoo TV tour cost. It’s not Larry’s fault and not Paul’s fault. It’s probably [collaborator] Brian Eno’s fault.”
Looking ahead, sailing trips aside, Townshend’s next visit to Ireland is already planned for next March, at the start of The Who’s tour. Given the changes in the music industry since the band’s first single I Can’t Explain, Townshend questioned the album-then-tour model this time around, but decided it stood.
“We perform to audiences that are quite happy to listen to the old songs, but every now and again, you’ll get some snotty young kids saying ‘they’re out playing the same old s**t, f**k off and leave it to us’. And you just think, ‘they’re right’. It’s about the creative dignity required to kind of go on the stage.
“No album that comes out today will make anybody rich, but it’s certainly worth making music creatively if it’s going to get listened to. We have enough fans to sell 100,000 copies maybe, which today gets you a number one. It’s crazy. If I put out a record in the 1970s and it sold 100,000, I would have killed myself.”
Yet here Pete Townshend is, rolling with the punches – and ready with his own moves too.
Pete Townshend’s The Age of Anxiety is out now. Who is released on November 22nd, and The Who play the 3Arena, Dublin, on March 18th, 2020