From the Jamming! Magazine Archives: Pete Townshend, 1985 (Part 2)
Read an introduction to, and the first part of this interview, here. Questions are by Tony Fletcher.
-Going back to [the subject of] heroin… was there any connection between what made you addicted and what would make a young kid on a council estate addicted? Because people could say you had everything – you had no need to dabble.
Well, that wasn’t actually true at the time because when I dabbled I had nothing. I had less than nothing.
-Was this the point at which you were almost bankrupt?
Yeah. I was living away from my family and I’d lost all sense of worth. I felt very undignified. I felt that I was too old to be doing all the things that I was doing. I only seemed to be attracting… I think “gold-digger” is an unfair word, but I was attracting young girls who were hanging around at the time. And that was nice sexually – but it was a bit dodgy in other ways, because I was 35 and occasionally I wanted to talk about something that happened in 1960, and I realised that at that time they were like… three?
-How long were you really addicted?
I’d started using it with cocaine – freebasing – in the early part of ‘81 and I was using it right up to the end. In November ‘81 I went for a recording session with Elton John. I hadn’t been playing – I’d abandoned my solo album, I’d forgotten really what it was like. I went into the studio and started playing this song ‘Ball and Chain’ and while we were doing it I was drinking the usual Rémy Martin brandies, about half a bottle or something, and we stopped and I was absolutely flying. I looked at the bottle and thought “Well, it can’t be the booze, I haven’t taken any drugs, I slept right the night before” – it was the music. ‘Ball and Chain’ is not the greatest piece of music in history, but it was the playing that had done it.
-It would seem from what you’re saying that there’s some similarity between the kids who are getting hooked on drugs – unemployed kids who have got nothing to do with their time – and you, the big rock star with no tours coming up, no Who album. It was only when you found that you didn’t actually need drugs to enjoy yourself…
It wasn’t just enjoying myself, it was also burying myself. I think the unique thing about heroin in relation to other drugs, and why I think it’s such a… nasty drug, is that a lot of other drugs are quite nice to pass the time. Pot’s quite nice to pass the time. Taking a few toots of speed – you babble away in the pub, drink 15 pints and then fall down flat. Glue you can see some nice things on, and then if you’re lucky enough to get a toot of decent coke you might get a five-minute rush out of that. Then you think “Oh, I’ll try heroin” – and BANG! It’s completely different. It’s not a time-passer – it’s a life sentence, like it said on the T-shirt. It’s “Ahh, this is where I wanted to be all the time.” It’s “Forget life. Forget that I haven’t got a job. Forget the fact that I’ve broken up with my girlfriend. Forget the fact that I’ve got a drink problem. They’re nothing. Now I realise what I was searching for all the time. It was this. It was the womb – going back to where I came from.” So that’s what happens – heroin comes along and offers you something you never ever thought you were looking for. It’s a terrible cheat and that’s why the person who gives heroin to another potential user is guilty of the worst injustice to somebody else, because there’s a certain degree of malicious pleasure in it – “Try this.” And the reply might be “Okay, I will. I’m feeling a bit down, I’m sure it’ll pick me up.” And the other person is going “It’ll pick you up all right” – and then suddenly you find yourself on the other side of the room with a different head, a different body, a different heart, in a different time on a different planet. Everything is different and it will never ever be the same again. The worst thing about it is that, apart from the initial novelty of finding yourself in a different place, practically immediately it becomes very boring. And even more boring than the boredom you were experiencing before. Because it’s so ritualised. And I think that’s the terrible thing about a lot of endemic smack use you see in depressed communities – being obsessed with getting your next fix is so much more boring than standing around doing nothing.
-Can you see any solution for the smack epidemic?
I can’t see any rapid solution, but I can see a solution. I can see ways of helping people that have gotten involved, and that is to get them out. And anybody that happens to slip through the net and does get involved in smack, all I can say is that you can get out. You just have to be ready to get out – that’s the first thing. But when you want to get out, you should be helped. At the moment there aren’t enough differing methods of treatment available. So where I’m concentrating my efforts now is on actually helping to persuade the government – the one in power; they happen to be the fuckin’ Tories, I’m afraid to say – to provide more beds, to help fund existing rehabilitation programmes and to encourage people to do more. I think there’s a lot of hope. Ten days it took me to detoxify with Meg Patterson; twenty days to get myself sorted out. At the end of that period I was back with my wife and family, doing a regular six days a week at work. Rebuilt my finances in six weeks; was back on the road with The Who within eight weeks for the most lucrative – if the most nasty and exploitative – tour we’ve ever done in our career; made meself a millionaire and back to where I’d been in the first place. Meg Patterson’s treatment is absolutely unique, and uniquely effective. It’s so on the verges of quackery and Chinese medicine that it’s difficult for the Establishment to accept, but we’re breaking that down slowly. I’m publishing her book later this year with Faber, so hopefully that will be another step.
-You’re recording now your first solo album since The Who split. Are you still recording songs that could easily have been The Who if they were still going?
Anything that I can do, I suppose The Who can do. I’d like to think that anything I can do, anyone can do. I’ve enjoyed making both my solo albums, despite the different conditions. I’m immensely proud of them both. This record for me is unique because it’s the first one I’m making on my own. Sometimes it does feel very lonely. I’m on my own in that I haven’t got The Who to fall back on if it’s a flop.
-Are you enjoying that challenge?
Yeah, I am. I’m working on a kind of concept and I hope to get maybe a half-hour film out of it as well. I’ve got Tony and Mark from Big Country who I’ve worked with before – but they’re strides ahead of what they were then because of that two years of roadwork they’ve had. I use Simon Phillips on a couple of tracks – and Rabbit I use on everything. Chris Thomas is producing again. The album’s going to be called White City. It’s all about that area of London.
-That’s more or less where you set Quadrophenia, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s actually a continuation. It’s like looking at the hero as a 25-26 year old, living in that area now, and what’s happened to him. What I really liked about Quadrophenia was it was the first time I ever sat down and wrote songs about someone else, and I think that’s so healthy. Where I sometimes feel a bit strange is where I feel I’ve been writing these personal things that can so easily come across as whines if you’re not careful. What I think has been great about the last couple of years is that I’ve risen above a lot of my personal problems that I’ve carried along for the last twenty years like a great big blubbering adolescent. I’m forty years old in May. I’ve started to write again about other people and looking at society from a slight distance.
-How do you want to be seen now? As a solo performer like Bruce Springsteen, or as someone who’s just getting on with the job of making music?
I could never be a Bruce Springsteen. He’s what The Who once were. He’s a one-man rock machine. I can’t do that. I haven’t got his commitment. I don’t think I could sing onstage for four hours at a stretch. I don’t know whether in fact I want to perform at all. It’s the only thing I’m undecided about. I still want to grow, I still want to improve, I still want to get more recognition, to make more money, to give more money away. I still want to do all the things I’ve been doing all my life. I’ve still got that hunger – it’s just that it’s been modified in that I don’t feel the need to do it all in public now. A lot of my life now is spent in meetings and I think “Maybe that was just a lunch with a couple of people in pinstripe suits, but perhaps it’s been an effective use of a couple of hours.” There are specific jobs to be done; some people have to do specific jobs. It must be like running a magazine. The day that you decide to edit a magazine is the day that you forfeit the right to write.
[You don’t quite forfeit it, as my presence at this interview proved, but you certainly give up the right to be a full-time writer… TF, 2006.]
-Looking back on the last years of The Who, I don’t mind saying that I found the last album – and Face Dances to some extent – embarrassing. (Pete laughs) I thought that It’s Hard was not the same group that produced all those other albums in the first 15 years of their career. Do you think I’m being really harsh?
I dunno… I find it very difficult to be as objective as you obviously are. It’s strange, isn’t it? What’s the difference between a record that really works and a record that really doesn’t? It’s such a fine line. At the moment I’m doing guide vocals. I’ll sing, come back in and listen to it and go “No, that isn’t it,” go out, sing again – maybe spend a whole day on it, then come in the next day and go “No, it’s not happening.” Then what I do is sing through the mike and through the tape and decide who it is I’m actually singing to, and though I know I’m not physically reaching that person, what you hear is the need to communicate – and I think that’s the difference between a good record and a bad record. Face Dances and It’s Hard were made by a band who were very unsure about whether or not they wanted to be making a record, and I think that’s a terrible doubt.
-You could tell by listening to them that there was no bursting desire to make a record. Also the live album that just came out [Who’s Last]… I know you were playing to the biggest audiences of your life, but it sounded like a rock band that had been together for 20 years and had lost the enthusiasm.
I think the enthusiasm wasn’t completely lost, but a lot of it had gone.Who’s Last – it’s not that it’s so bad it’s embarrassing; it’s embarrassing because it’s competent. As a rule we would have said “Stick it in the bin,” but this time we put it out because it was all we had. And that’s what starts to be a bit embarrassing, is that the last years of The Who were so desperate. It was the desperation of people who were lost. I was looking forward too far and Roger was looking back too far.
-Then you were trapped by what was expected of The Who – but now you’ve freed yourself of that, you don’t need to think about a direction so much, because that’s what you were trying to get back to: just doing what you want.
I think the really funny thing was the success of Scoop in America, which sold 400,000 records there which, considering it was a double album… A lot of it is collector’s item stuff – odd little bits of music that I made because I liked making them. It’s no bigger or smaller than that. It doesn’t carry any great banners or messages but at the same time it’s satisfying. I do want what I write to inspire people. I don’t feel like a leader or like a spokesman – and I don’t think I ever have – but I recognise the fact that some of the things I’ve done have affected what people have come to expect from other bands, and from songwriting in general. And that’s an amazing feeling. Once you’ve tasted it you want to taste it again. I would have loved it to happen to The Who, but Roger and I will probably make another record together again.
-You sound like you’re closer friends now.
Oh yeah. I think the value of the years we spent together… it’s probably a bit like two old gentlemen in the club talking about the war.
-Am I right that there was a bit of acrimony when you left The Who? You’d just signed a new contract, but only delivered one or two albums and you’d been paid all these advances. I remember Roger saying in interviews “I don’t see why I have to pay them back because I’m prepared to carry on as The Who.”
That was his stance to begin with and I did actually bear the brunt of the payback to Warners, but Kenny, Roger and John contributed as much as they could afford. We did have to buy our way out of the contract, and all I can say is thank God we did. Because I don’t believe we would have made another record worth releasing.
-You were on one hell of a downward spiral in England.
Yeah, but in America we got number one albums with both Face Dances and It’s Hard. We had a whole new generation of fans. I get 2-300 letters a week from 14-year-old girls in America. If I get a letter from a 14-year-old girl in England, I’ll invite her down for the weekend!
-Are you happy living here in England where, I think you’ll admit, you’re no longer the star you were? Because, by the sound of things, if you went out onto the streets of America now, you’d be mobbed.
No, I’ve never been mobbed in America either, but it’s certainly a different reaction. That’s one good reason for staying in England, yes, but the other good reason is that it’s a place I feel comfortable in, and I understand, and it’s where I belong. I think the other thing is the American appreciation of success is permanent, it’s almost religious. In Britain, just being famous, being successful and having money can go against you. It doesn’t mean that you automatically have doors opened for you. In America, once you’ve been successful, you’re always successful.
-But I quite like that about the English people – they make their heroes work harder.
I do, too. I think the great thing is you don’t fester the way you can in America. It’s very interesting how, for example, someone like Don Henley – out of the enormous success of The Eagles – when the cocaine runs out, he makes another record. But until it does, he won’t bother.
-Do you have to work again?
I would have to sell off a lot of things and unfortunately I would have to sell jobs with it, because what I’ve bought is things that create jobs – studios, dubbing theatres, publishing companies. But no, I don’t think I have to work again. All I’d have to do is buy a much smaller house, just make do with one television and video instead of eight, or whatever it is I’ve got. We don’t live with works of art, we don’t spend enormous amounts of money. My wife’s got a silly fur coat that my daughters both hate. I’ve got an old Merc that cost quite a bit of money… I think if you’re comfortable in Britain you’ve got to be comfortable without too much ostentation. I don’t know how Elton manages it. Maybe it’s just because he’s so fucking daft – maybe people like it when he turns up at Watford in a car that cost £160,000. I can’t work it out. But then, these days, you can buy an Audi that cost £67,000. The world’s gone mad, hasn’t it? If I didn’t work I’d have to change my lifestyle, but I’d be happy. I’m happy doing my work at Faber, for which I get a small salary.
-Is that salary in relation to what other people at Faber get?
Yeah. It makes me feel I’m there because they want me, not because they want my name. In America, what they’d do is buy you first and then afterwards you’d learn the real terms and conditions. That’s what Warner Brothers did with The Who – they bought us and then we learnt that they expected us to produce albums that would sell five million copies. And this is at a time in our career when we were a fucking dinosaur, we were beset with problems, and I was not in the mood to write hits.
-How much time can you put in at Faber?
I go in two days a week and then I suppose I read two to three hours a day. I’m only doing between eight and ten titles a year, which means I need to commission 30 to 40, as three-quarters tend to fall by the wayside.
-So what have you got coming out?
The first book that I edited was three plays by Steven Berkoff. The second is a book called ‘Bikers’ written by Maz Harris, a Hell’s Angel who got a sociology degree at Warwick [University]. The book by Meg Patterson. My own book, ‘Horse’s Neck’, was commissioned by another editor. That’s sort of autobiographical fiction. Stories that are drawn from my life, but not about my life.
-All these companies that The Who owned – do they still exist?
The trucking company still exists. We’ve sold off our sector of Shepperton Studios at a thumping great loss. And Who Films is just a dormant company now.
-Everyone knows that films cost an absolute fortune. Did they do all right at the box-office?
‘McVicar’ did okay, ‘Quadrophenia’ did okay – ‘The Kids Are Alright’ was very expensive and was not okay.
-But there was no great loss or anything?
No, no. You have to remember that when Tommy the film came out, The Who as a company probably earned about six million pounds, which was where the Who empire began. We had two choices – to take that money as individuals, split it up and buy Rolls-Royces each and give the Inland Revenue the rest, or to invest it. We bought a load of trucks, a load of PA gear, a chunk of Shepperton Studios and we started to invest in films. It was great while it lasted – until Keith died. His shares were wrapped up because he was an American resident. We couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. It was a shame, because Keith was having such a great time. Entertaining Cubby Broccoli, he’d invite him to Shepperton for lunch in this bloody great boardroom, and 14 blonde tarts would get up and take off all their clothes and suck Cubby Broccoli’s cock – and then in the middle of it, in would come the photographer from The Sun and the next week it would be front page news. Keith loved getting in the papers. This is 1976, ‘77 and it looked like we were all set to become film moguls – and then he went and dropped dead. Most inconvenient. His timing was a bit off at the end.
More Pete Townshend at EelPie.com, PeteTownshend.co.uk, TheWhotour.com
Mark Wilkerson’s biography of Pete Townshend available here
The iJamming! Keith Moon pages start here
The iJamming! Jamming Magazine Archive pages start here.