Kennedy Center Honors: Pete Townshend Riffs! (And Riffs. [And Riffs.])

Pete Townshend picks up his guitar and plays, just like yesterday.

David Segal drew the assignment to interview the Who's Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey for the big Kennedy Center Honors package running in this Sunday's Style & Arts.

Lucky him! As it turns out, he could have filled the entire section by writing exclusively about Townshend, who sat down with David for an extensive interview last month in New York.

It was a pretty exceptional Q&A, but most of Townshend's thoughts wound up on the cutting-room floor, given that David was writing a feature, not a book.

I've just returned from said cutting room, where I scooped some of the great scraps off the floor. They're posted below - and after the jump, where you'll also find some bonus Roger Daltrey quotes.

Be sure to look for David's piece this weekend, along with profiles of the rest of the Kennedy Center Honors recipients: Morgan Freeman, Twyla Tharp, George Jones and Barbra Streisand. (The Babs story by Peter Marks is phenomenal.)

On to the Townshend transcript....

On the Who's hiatus in the 80s:
Even when the Who weren't working there was a huge amount of interest in what we had done. The Stones continued to roll, like a machine. It was just absurd that the Stones tried to compete with an artist like Bruce Springsteen, because Bruce was new, unbelievable energy and there's Mick prancing about on stage, Keith green with heroin, Ronnie Wood playing at like 10 percent of his power. I thought, this is about spectacle, it's not about music, and thank God I don't have to do that any more.

On Roger Daltrey and Keith Moon:
Never felt very close to Roger, never felt very close to Keith. Liked them both very much, on and off, as one does with people you work with.

On one reason he still performs with the Who:
It's a little empire. At the bottom are the obsessive fans. Then the road crew, who love to come with the Who, who've grown up with us. After my ritual shower, when they're loading my gear into the van on my way to the limo, they all stop. It's just a good feeling and it's a reminder of who I am. I'm the president. The buck stops with me.

Roger can only say to me "I want this to go on for as long as this can go on," which he does quite unabashedly. "I just want to go on until I die." And I say, "Well, I don't want to be on stage with you when you die. I've been through it with Keith [Moon, the band's original drummer], I've been through it with John [Entwistle, the original bass player], I've been through it with dozens of friends.

(Much, much more after the jump.)

On his mood before a show:
I try to stay very solitary, so when I go to the stage I'm unutterably bored and therefore pleased to be going on stage. Because I find performing to be unutterably boring, so I have to make it as exciting as possible.

Often people as they intercept me [on way to the stage] will say something like "have fun," or "go out there and knock 'em dead," and I'm always very ratty to them. "What do you mean have fun? What are you talking about, fun? This is fun is it? It's supposed to be fun."

I try to avoid shopping, walking, I try to keep it to a minimum. So when I get on stage, it's kind of all I've got for the day, it's the only color, it's the only life, and I just allow the adrenaline to take over.

The best thing is the hot shower [after the show], the American hot shower. Come off stage, take a shower, sometimes cry with joy. Over the fact that the show is over, if I've played well I'm obviously very artistically fulfilled. I feel as though I've just put a roof on a building or something, you know, a bit blue collar, but a very, very good feeling.

On booze:
I drank for one of the last 26 years and it was 1993. It was a New York experiment [during work on the Broadway version of "Tommy"]. I used to drink a lot. That was the medicine. And it led to some of my worst behavior with respect to my moral compass. I'd hang out til four or five in the morning, [screwing] up the following day, or having an affair. It became a ritual for me, being the last guy at the party.

On his role as rock star:
My job is to be a kind of receptacle. Look at Kurt Cobain. He's a receptacle of teenage angst. He is unimportant, we don't really care about Kurt Cobain. When we do look closely at him there's nothing there. That's why he's so fabulous, because there's nothing there, because he poured so much--he kind of sacrificed himself in this daft, crazy, nihilistic but heroic way so that we could go have a good teenage moment and that's what rock and roll is about.

For years, I never quite understood why the Who worked so well. Now I know why it works and now I know how it works -- I try not to get in the way. When I sing "Teenage Wasteland" there are people in their 50s and 60s who feel teenage at that moment. That's their thing. It's not my thing. They do it. It's almost we're Amtrak. You make the journey.

When we were young we used to say "Its about the kids," you know "The kids are alright," now we say it's about "them" because they're not kids any more.

It's certainly not about me. I'm sure of that. But if that's true than aren't I [expletive] clever. Do you know what I mean? Because what I've actually done is this: I've gone to art school, been trained to look at a brief, got the brief, right at the right moment, run with it for a time and at the peak of my work, written these songs that have become quintessentially anthemic and almost universal, almost unconsciously. But I didn't realize how smart I was being or how unconscious I was. I was just writing because I needed to write, doing an album because I needed to do an album.

On how he feels these days:
I wake up in the morning, I have a cup of tea and I feel like a 14 stone guy who could walk through a truck.

On being wealthy:
It's only from looking at the spreadsheets for my divorce settlement [that I realized how much money I have]. It crept up on me. The Who broke up before sponsorship for tours happened. "Tommy" was good for the band, because of the movie, which financed the band in the final years. But in 1981, [right before breaking up the band for the first time], I nearly went bankrupt. I was drinking, very unhappy, hated being in the Who, and I was trying to do other things. I had recording studios all over the place. I ended up with this mini empire. It was ridiculous. And I nearly went broke. The way I stopped myself from going broke was I left the Who.

On the ambiguities of "Tommy":
If it had a [expletive] ending it wouldn't work. This isn't [expletive] Don Giovanni. This is rock, this is about creating something that will last 1,000 years. This is poetry, this is high [expletive] art.
"Oh, you're an artist now, are you? An artist, pretentious [anatomical reference]."

The Mona Lisa isn't a great painting at all. It's just iconic. When we see the Mona Lisa, that's a picture you know, everybody knows. Why? Why do you think it is? Because we don't know what the [heck] it's about. We don't know who she is. We want to? We don't want to? Is it us? What is it about her? It's just a [expletive] face for [expletive's] sake. You know, most of us can't even get close enough to it to see the [expletive] brush work. It mustn't have a raison d'etre. Or its raison d'etre can't be something that can be defined on the spur of the moment.

On why there were few girls at early Who shows:
When I was young, I watched my father's audience and the coquettishness of female fans, and I didn't trust them. I remember watching my father [a saxophone player in a Royal Air Force band], he used to do these Sunday concerts. There was singer named Frankie Vaughan. He had these Vegas type songs. Sultry guy, Jewish, really fab and so sweet to me, always very kind to me. His song went "Give me the moonlight and the girl" and when he got to "and leave the rest to me," he'd do this kick, and when he did this little kick the girls went nuts. I'd go sit in the audience at my dad's shows, I'd be sitting in my school uniform. [In the high pitch of an overwrought woman] "Oh little boy, little boy."

I'd say, "My dad's in the band." Perfume and boobs and petticoats and pheromones and alcohol and cigarettes and hair and lipstick. Just a delight. And I'd be sitting there with my vanilla milkshake, looking from one cleavage to the other, and listening to them, just having a go. [High pitched voice again] "Which one do you want? Who do you fancy?"

One day, we're in the playhouse and I got my friend Graham to come around. I said, "You've got to see this. Sometimes they their knickers at him." Frankie Vaughan comes and we sit there and he does his thing.

Complete silence. It was just soul destroying. And it was because there was a young guy on the bill named Mark Winter, who was a kind of Bobby Darin copyist and they were saving it for him. It was shocking to see. It was one week later! This wimpy guy comes out and they're screaming. Graham said "You said it was the Frankie Vaughan guy. Who's this guy?"
I just thought, I'm never going there.

My audience, our audience, were predominantly Mod boys. The girls in the Mod audience looked like boys, they were almost invisible. They all looked like boys, and the Mod audience was 75 percent male. Luckily, it's never translated into my personal relationships with women. I trust them implicitly.

On music and the Internet:
We do a short tour like this, you have the feeling you're reaching a lot of people because of the passion of the event. In actual fact, you get to the end, we've played to maybe 300,000. If somebody said their web site had 300,000 hits in a day, they'd say, [in an apologetically tone] "We'll we're building."

On his future:
I've been trying to figure out what I want, because I'm pretty sure that I know that I can have pretty much whatever I want. But I don't really know what that is at the moment. And I certainly don't know what I need as an artist. I don't know if I can do it again, as a composer. I don't know if I can get out of the way enough, I don't know if I can be as innocent as I was to write about members of the audience, just do it without caring about them very much. Because now I care about the audience deeply, and I'm immeasurably grateful to them.

On why never gives the same answer in any interview:
One of the reasons I don't like interviews so much is that I do find myself in a creative mode. Not creative. Workshop. I'm workshopping, I'm brainstorming, in a sense I'm throwing what I believe at the moment and seeing whether it floats with you. Because I so passionately believe this is where I stand at the moment, and then I'll read the article and if you say something like "Seems to me like he's full of [nonsense], then I'll need to kind of go back and look at that.


And now, a few words from Roger Daltrey...

On the Who:
Good band, in'nit? Pound for pound.

On Townshend's songwriting:
"Substitute." One line of that song, "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth." That was so profound, because it described in one line where we came from. I was on holiday recently in Majorca, and out for a walk every morning, sweating in the mid-day sun. Couple Spanish builders unloading materials from a truck. They're sweating and mopping their brows. One builder looked at me and said, "I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth." That song was written in 1965.

On drugs:
I just didn't have the luxury of being able to do drugs. All those drugs dry your voice up. Do drugs, dry your voice up. So I had to be disciplined and I always wanted the band to be the best band in the world on stage.

But the reality is, they could just have fun. It got to a stage [in the 60s] where it got completely out of hand, and I just got fed up with it because the playing got [expletive]. Really was. We went from being the best band to sloppy and messy. The timing was wrong. It was derogatory to what we were doing.

One night, I just roared off the stage and went to Moon's stash and flushed it down the loo. And of course he went absolutely berserk and he came at me with a tambourine, which was a mistake because I used to love to fight in those days. So we ended up in a brawl and they kind of ganged up on me and sacked me. They did gigs without me for six or eight weeks. Then they knocked on the door and said "Will you come back?"

I knew I handled it badly. We still had problems with Keith throughout our career. But Pete, it tidied up his brain. He was never unprofessional after that. It also taught me to reign in my temper.

On getting name checked by a blues man:
I have to say one of the nicest things that's happened to me lately, I was watching a film on the BBC about the history of the guitar, and BB King came on and he said "You know, us guys were playing small clubs, getting around on buses, earning peanuts and then bands like the Who came along, the Rolling Stones and they played our music. They knew our music." It really, it made my heart jump, it really did. Because I tell you, those guys did it for me. We understood those guys. The English working class was as near as you could get to being a white black person. We were treated the same, in that period of time. [Bluesmen] used to come to England those guys, they were gods to us. We worshiped them. They got treated like stars.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  December 4, 2008; 4:11 PM ET Interviews , Kennedy Center Honors , Legends
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Roger seems to have made peace with being a rock star. Looks like Pete never did. Neat stuff. I really want to hear more from Roger at some point.

Posted by: EricS2 | December 4, 2008 7:00 PM

"Even when the Who weren't working there was a huge amount of interest in what we had done. The Stones continued to roll, like a machine."

I'm afraid Pete's memory conveniently fails him here. The Who mounted a farewell tour in 1982. The Stones toured the U.S. in '81 and Europe in '82. Both bands all but folded up as touring concerns until '89 — the Who with their "Tommy" revival and the Stones with "Steel Wheels."

The Stones continued to record, sure, but the two bands' touring itineraries were nearly identical.

Hence, I have no idea which "absurd" "machine" Townshend is talking about. Perhaps it's more accurate to say I don't know on what grounds Townshend excludes the Who from the operations of said machine.

Posted by: ScottGalupo | December 5, 2008 10:30 AM

This is such a great interview. I saw Pete and Roger when they were here in Nov., the night before the election as a matter of fact. Even though I'm 64 I had never seen them before and, while it wasn't there heyday it was still worth it. If you love to listen to Pete talk, go to Cleveland and visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. They have lots of film about different aspects of rock music and Pete always has something interesting and profound to say. His comments on the price of the fast life in rock music are priceless. Wish he would write a book.

Posted by: nbriggs | December 6, 2008 6:13 AM

Thank you Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry for making my life better with no cheese

Posted by: nocheese | December 6, 2008 2:56 PM

I just returned from the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, where I luckily got some seats to see Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend receive national recognition, along with Morgan Freeman, George Jones, Barbara Streisand and Twyla Tharp, for "significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts."

Jack Black presented for The Who. He was absolutely hilarious and profane, so it will likely get bleeped and edited before it goes on the air on December 30th, 2008. Dave Groh and some other young artists performed different Who hits quite ably. A bluesy lady---whose name I missed---performed a powerful and unique "Love reign o'er me" and both Towshend and Daltrey looked extremely touched by it.

Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20 finished with "Baba O'Reilly" and at the end a wild group from NYC---cops and fire dept guys all!--joined and it really brought the crowd to their feet. My girl, at intermission in the loo, said some elderly ladies with pearls and all, complained that the music got too loud and hurt their old ears.

Morgan Freeman got incredible introductions from Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood. Also, some extremely sharp blues artists from Mississippi (including 95-year old piano man "Pinetop"), Chicago and elsewhere played a couple blues standards that Freeman loves. then BB King showed. Freeman grinned wide --pleasantly surprised--like a cross between a Cheshire cat and a beauty queen.

President Bush seemed really entertained when George Jones songs got performed..nodding his head like a young feller just relaxing at a Texas jamboree.

I possess zero qualifications to write about Streisand and Tharp's art. That said, I saw Streisand caress Townshend's face at one point. Daltrey chatted with Tharp and Townshend here and there. Their business what they said.

Posted by: jsandri9104 | December 8, 2008 12:16 AM

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