One of the most gifted rock guitarists of the last 50 years — and the main songwriter and creative force behind The Who — Pete Townshend spent decades touring the globe and writing rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. He helped define rock 'n' roll for his generation and many to follow.
Townshend tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that he never set out to have such a significant cultural impact. "I definitely, in the early days of The Who, knew that I wanted, more than anything — more than being a performer, more than being a songwriter, more than providing any service for the audience — I wanted to be an artist. And I was teased about that."
In his memoir, Who I Am, Townshend composes the story of his life in more than 500 pages. The book is a compendium of conflict — between the private man and public performer, between the rock legend and an all-too-human husband and father, between addiction and sobriety, and between longing and belief.
Here, he talks with Lyden about the life experiences that shaped his art.
On how his childhood informed his musical career
"I have memories of being on the band bus with my mom and dad. ... She was singing in the band sometimes. My dad was playing saxophone. And we've been on this cranky old bus, and I can remember driving up English country lanes and then arriving at a wonderful dance hall.
"And I'm a little kid, you know, a tiny kid, and I really don't — I don't have any difficulty at all with life in those times. I was happy. I knew I was on the right side of the blanket. I was, you know, I was on the right side of the curtain. The audience was out there. ...
"I knew ... even at 4 1/2 years old, who I was going to be. ... But when I was 4 1/2 years old, my mother found a lover, a rich lover. She was fed up with my dad touring, always being away. He spent a lot of time — he was in an Air Force band, so he played a lot in Germany. And she sent me to live with my grandmother, who was very, very ill mentally, deranged, spoiled, strange, Victorian disciplinarian, and certainly not loving. And so the contrast was so awful, and I blacked it out.
"... When I was about 6 1/2, just before I turn 6 ... my parents got back together again and took me back. And so then life was wonderful again. I was back with the band, back with the colorful parents, glamorous parents. So my life has always been about these extremes. And I found those extremes, too, when I started to work with a band."
On being teased about wanting to be an artist
"I was teased about that, because it seemed pretentious to claim to be an artist when you're playing guitar in a silly rock band who smashed their guitars and wore jackets made of flags. [But] I wanted to operate as an artist. And as an artist, my brief was that I wanted to serve my audience, and my audience were the people in front of me. So that was the job."
On viewing himself as an artist and a journalist
"It's interesting that being in a pop band in the '60s, for me, my role was not just entertaining. It was also slightly journalistic. ... I would talk to people. I would find out what's going on in their heads. I would observe them very, very closely. I will try to find things about them that would enrich not only my craft, but that would touch them.
"And Quadrophenia grew out of the fact that ... for a lot of the time, I didn't have that kind of access to the audience. I had to just look at the four guys in the band ... I had to measure our audience through looking at them. And there were four very, including myself, four very eccentric characters ... I still like to think of myself as, above everything else, as an artist with a stroke of journalism."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Pete Townshend spent decades writing rock operas like "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" and touring the globe with one of it's biggest bands, The Who. His music with The Who helped to define rock 'n' roll for his generation of postwar youth as well as those that follow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GENERATION")
THE WHO: (Singing) People try to put us down. Talking about my generation. Just because we get around. Talking about my generation. Things, they do look awful cold. Talking about my generation. I hope I die before I get old. Talking about my generation. This is my generation. This is my generation, baby.
LYDEN: Turns out that one of the best writers in rock loves storytelling as much as he loves composing, and he has finally composed the story of his own life for the page. Townshend's new memoir "Who I Am" is a compendium of conflict between the private self and public performer, between being a legend and an all-too-human husband and father, between addiction and sobriety, longing and belief and maybe, most of all, between being a very young child and looking back at that child's life who perhaps is at the heart of everything Pete Townshend has done with The Who.
PETE TOWNSHEND: But we want to ask: what was your Who moment? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
LYDEN: It took Pete Townshend a long time to write that young boy's memoir, that man's memoir, but he has done it and it is stunning. And we want to welcome him here to the studio. Pete Townshend, thank you very much for being here.
TOWNSHEND: Thanks for having me.
LYDEN: So would you tell us about this journey? You take us through over 500 pages. There's not a lot that it seems you've held back. And as a very, very - you are the definition of the word superstar. You get to craft a lot of your own story. But in this book, you showed a lot of really candid doubts, and I'm wondering if it was perhaps more cathartic to put it on the page as a writer as opposed to putting it into songs as you've done for so many decades.
TOWNSHEND: Well, I've tried to avoid catharsis in my songwriting. I've tried to make sure that when I sat down and exercise that particular craft that I served the true master, which is, of course, the audience and the audience that I grew up with, the neighborhood crowd that I grew up with who are now in my age group, my demographic, 50 to 70 years old. You know, I still, when I sit to write a song, I want to write songs that touch those guys.
And so this book, of course, it was, in a sense, cathartic but this is stuff that, you know, as I was writing, I thought, you know, I've got to try to bring some new stuff here because I've talked about myself so much. "Tommy," for example, had a strong, unintentional autobiographical thread. And odd other songs that I've worked on in the past have had that.
So I've referred that, and in so doing, I talked about my childhood with my dad, with my grandmother, my mother who went through an errant period and a difficult period of her own and then joining the band when I was very young, my out-of-school years. All of that stuff I've talked about. So the catharsis in this for me was really, when I finished it and put it down and look back, was a sense of gratitude that I'd survived.
TOWNSHEND: And really just simply that. And I don't mean survived a terrible, terrible life, but just that I'd managed to survive the writing of the book.
LYDEN: Well, there's that. It did take, I think, about 12 - you've thought about it even in your 20s. Then you thought about it for about 12 years going on. Let's go back to your early childhood. There's a beautiful section of this book called letter my eight-year-old self, which you actually composed. You found that you're born on May 19th, 1945, two weeks after VE Day, four months before the end of World War II in Acton, a London suburb. And it was a difficult period in your life, living with your grandmother Denny. What was confusing about that time?
TOWNSHEND: You know, the confusion for me was really that before I went to live with my grandmother, I had the most wonderful time. I - with my earliest memories, between maybe 13, 15 months old, I can remember being on a beach with my parents riding horses. I made it the theme of my short story book for Faber, "Horse's Neck," and that memory.
And then I have memories of being on the band bus with my mom and dad. You know, she was singing in the band sometimes. My dad was playing saxophone. And we've been on this cranky old bus, and I can remember driving up English country lanes and then arriving at a wonderful dance hall.
And I'm a little kid, you know, a tiny kid, and I really don't - I don't have any difficulty at all with life in those times. I was happy. I knew I was on the right side of the blanket. I was, you know, I was on the right side of the curtain. The audience was out there. I knew who they were, and I knew who I was. And I knew then, I think, even at four-and-a-half years old, who I was going to be.
But when I was four-and-a-half years old, my mother found a lover, a rich lover. She was fed up with my dad touring, always being away. He spent a lot of time - he was in an Air Force band, so he played a lot in Germany. And she sent me to live with my grandmother, who was very, very ill mentally, deranged, spoiled, strange, Victorian disciplinarian, and certainly not loving. And so the contrast was so awful, and I blacked it out.
And - but when I was about six and a half, just before I turn six, in fact, the month before I turn seven, my parents got back together again and took me back. And so then life was wonderful again. I was back with the band, back with the colorful parents, glamorous parents. So my life has always been about these extremes. And I found those extremes, too, when I started to work with a band.
LYDEN: Well, let's get our callers in here, because we've got so many people who are eager to talk to you. Bill is calling from Oklahoma City.
Welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION, Bill - who I do think we have lost. Let's go to Jeff, who's calling from Peoria, Illinois.
JEFF: Hi, Mr. Townshend, or Pete. I'm not sure what to call you, but...
TOWNSHEND: Call me Pete.
JEFF: OK, Pete. You know, I just wanted to say thanks for all that you've given the audience. I mean, you've been the rock star that's really focused on the audience. And in particular, one thing, "Naked Eye" is my favorite song of The Who, anyway, from The Who, that you've written. And it just really helped me in - 26 years ago, when I was freshman in college, to realize that, you know, maybe everyone is just as screwed up as I am.
JEFF: You know? And I don't know. You know, from garage bands that tried to imitate you, thank you for all the figure notes(ph) you gave your audience in one (unintelligible). And just thanks for everything you've been, and I fully appreciated reading the book.
TOWNSHEND: Well, you're welcome. I hope you enjoy the book. You know, that's the thing about being screwed up, you know, that - it's - I just come from this press conference that Roger has put up about trying to persuade people to do better treatment for teenagers recovering from cancer. And we've been talking about teens, teens, teens, teens, teens all the time. And the - it will be an unusual teenager, it'll be an unusual, late teenager that didn't have problems of some sort. So it's been easy to write songs for screwed up people, because I think we all get a bit screwed up when we're teens. So, anyway...
LYDEN: Thank you. Thanks for that call, Jeff. We're getting a number of emails, too. This is from Ross Mitchell. He said: I was 16-years old, driving my 1968 Camaro. Elizabeth loved listening to "Behind Blue Eyes." Nobody knows what it's like to be the sad man, obviously. And it hit exactly the right cord, and I immediately felt understood. And I still love that song today. Thanks, Pete. And that's from Berkeley, California.
And another one here, Paul Peters: I'm the world's biggest Pete Townshend fan. To prove it, I named my oldest son Townshend.
LYDEN: Yes, Pete, this is real. "Quadrophenia" and you're writing changed my life, helped make me the man I am today. Coming home from a weak - no. Coming from a home with a weak and absent father figure, this music made me feel OK with the changes of growing up an inner city kid from Chicago. I should send you a Father's Day card every day.
LYDEN: And so I'm going to see The Who in Boston this week. You know, you write - that early on in your life, you wanted, with The Who, to make the kind of music that would become - I'm saying here now - anthemic. Your words are a part of people's lives, even more than the way we dress. Our music would give voice to what we all needed to express as a group, as a gang, as a fellowship, as a secret society, as subversives. I saw pop artists as near of the audience, developing ways to reflect and speak truth without fear. You know, and I was thinking, who did you think you were at the time? I mean, you were a young man writing that. But that's a big assignment.
TOWNSHEND: Well, I'm writing it - also in - with - in retrospect. I'm 19(ph), looking back. I - who did I think I was? I definitely, in the early days of The Who, knew that I wanted, more than anything, more than being a performer, more than being a songwriter, more than providing any service for the audience, I wanted to be an artist. And I was teased about that. I was teased about that because it seemed pretentious to claim to be an artist when you're playing guitar in a silly rock band who smashed their guitars and wore jackets made of flags. So...
TOWNSHEND: ...nonetheless, you know, I wanted to operate as an artist. And as an artist, my brief was that I wanted to serve my audience, and my audience were the people in front of me. So that was the job. And so I thought I was doing that job. I thought I was actually doing - and it's interesting that being in a pop band in the '60s, for me, my role was not just entertaining. It was also slightly journalistic. You know, I would talk to people. I would find out what's going on in their heads. I would observe them very, very closely. I will try to find things about them that would enrich not only my craft, but that would touch them.
And "Quadrophenia" grew out of the fact that, you know, for a lot of the time, I didn't have that kind of access to the audience. I had to just look at the four guys in the band. I had to see - I had to measure our audience through looking at them. And there were four very - including myself - four very eccentric characters. So my - I still like to think of myself as, above everything else, as an artist with a stroke of journalism.
LYDEN: Well, you're very welcome into the sorority and fraternity. Let's take another call here from Elizabeth. She's calling from Boise, Idaho.
And, Elizabeth, let me just say before we come to you, that you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And welcome, Elizabeth.
TOWNSHEND: Hey. Hey, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH: Hi. Hi, Pete. Nice to talk to you. My first concert ever was in 1980 at your first farewell tour at the coliseum, and I was 12. And it was such a great concert. I can still remember it. And my older brother introduced me to your music, and you're one of my favorite bands of all time.
TOWNSHEND: Well, that's lovely. Thank you.
ELIZABETH: It was a great concert, and The Clash was there, and it was fun. It was very L.A.
TOWNSHEND: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, isn't it, that we managed to bring The Clash to the USA. When we played two nights at Shea Stadium, The Clash got to play two nights at Shea Stadium and prove that they were not just a great band for the, you know, the punk clubs of London, but that they could play a big stadium. They were a very, very, very good band at playing big places. It's not easy to do.
ELIZABETH: It was a great concert.
LYDEN: Thank you for that call, Elizabeth. Let's take another one. Todd is calling from Evansville, Indiana.
Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Todd.
TODD: Hello, Pete.
TODD: Hi, Pete.
TOWNSHEND: Hi, Todd.
TODD: You know, my Who moment, Pete, was I'd written you a letter back in 1999, and you were getting ready to tour "Lifehouse Chronicles," and you were going to tour with The Who and play a lot of stuff from "Who's Next" and all. And I had offered you a guitar, which is going to be Lifehouse guitar. And the - I had - at the time, I was in the Army, and you had Nicola Joss track me down and to - where to send my letter that you're going to reply to. And you tracked me all the way down in Bosnia. And...
TODD: In Bosnia. I was deployed to Bosnia.
TODD: And it was not just a great morale boost to me, but everybody in my unit.
TODD: And it was like, you know, I knew all the charity work that you'd done and are doing and, you know, the great progress that you're making with that. But that it's also that you all take time to do the little things and write us back. And, you know, it's - it does great things.
TOWNSHEND: Well, Nicola's here with me today. So she'll be pleased to hear that, because she's really good at this stuff, and she's really good at detail, but, you know, has a very, very good insight into - in how this works, you know. It's just - we've been in the entertainment industry for years, and worked for me for a long time. But, yeah. It's great to know that sometimes when you take the trouble, it works. It's an interesting story, Todd. Thanks for that.
LYDEN: Thank you, Todd.
TODD: Oh, thank you. And thanks, Pete.
TOWNSHEND: God bless.
LYDEN: You know, one of the things that really comes through in this memoir is you do have this dialogue with yourself, and you do have resolution. And I was thinking: How do you bring the audience with you? This is how. It continues to be a dialogue with them, also with you. And you've written that, do you - maybe you could have just been a composer. But I think you need the audience. You need people to talk to.
TOWNSHEND: I do, but I - perhaps not in the healthiest way. It's interesting, because, you know, I talk about my childhood, albeit at feet of my father. I write honestly about the fact that I've never really made what you would call a proper human social connection with people that I regard as the ticket buyers.
TOWNSHEND: I don't see them as customers. I don't see them as, you know, a different kind of people. I don't see them as plebs. I don't see them as people that I can use in any way, but I certainly see them as being different. Now, that's very interesting, because if I go and sit in an audience, I am one of them. But it's something - the part of the process of writing the book, which did echo the way that I write it's that the dialogue that I had with myself, where I would look back and I would often ask questions like: Why I didn't I just stop? Or why didn't I just give myself a break here?
I don't really know what the answers were. But to some extent, you know, I know that it's quite certain that if I had asked that question of two or three people in the audience, they would have been able to answer it for me.
LYDEN: We're still glad you didn't stop. Thank you so much for coming by, Pete Townshend. His new memoir is "Who I Am." And tomorrow, we'll talk about who's hunting(ph) now. And thank you, Pete Townshend for (unintelligible).
TOWNSHEND: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WON'T GET FOOLED AGAIN)
LYDEN: And this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.