Released last September, Mark Wilkerson's "Who Are You: The Life Of Pete Townshend" is, as Mojo magazine described it, " ... extraordinarily detailed ... the best Townshend research tool ever."
Don't be quick to dismiss that as the hyperbole of an over-zealous critic. At 680 pages, with a forward by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Wilkerson leaves no stone unturned in chronicling the life and times of a man whose restless creativity, rebellious energy and powerful guitar playing has propelled The Who to its status as rock deity.
The June 19 issue of Goldmine features a good portion of our interview with Wilkerson. The rest of the talk is included below, along with a clip of The Who playing live at the Isle Of Wight festival in the U.K. in 1970 that's included on an Eagle Rock DVD of the event titled "The Who — Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970":
Pete seemed to encapsulate the feelings of The Who in the aftermath of Keith Moon's death [in the statement he issued]. How did Pete handle the tragedy?
Mark Wilkerson: Since he was the band’s leader and chief spokesman, it’s not surprising that it was Pete’s words that comprised The Who’s statement which was released to the media soon after Moon’s death. But Pete — who had to call Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and even Moon’s mother to break the bad news — was understandably devastated.
Moon’s death in September 1978 was the first of three major traumas in Pete’s life during this period, the other two being the deaths of 11 fans at a concert in Cincinnati in 1979, and the third being the death of Pete’s mentor Kit Lambert in early 1981. These three events combined wrought a devastating toll on Pete. By 1981, numbing the pain by abusing drugs and alcohol, he too came close to losing his life.
The whole Lifehouse project has been the subject of what debate. I think it was really interesting the quote he had in the Richmond Review, where he said, "I felt like a jungle explorer who had stumbled upon an Inca temple of solid gold and become impeded by roots and vines in a knot of undergrowth, only yards from civilization." Do you think that Lifehouse is, perhaps, his greatest regret?
MW: It’s possible. Pete certainly regretted that his enormously ambitious early-'70s Lifehouse multimedia venture failed, but he has repeatedly mined the project for ideas. Lifehouse has fueled a great deal of Pete’s post-Who’s Next work, including a sizeable chunk of the Who Are You album, his solo album Psychoderelict, his novella "The Boy Who Heard Music" and The Who’s most recent studio effort, Endless Wire. “I will never tire of exploring the notions behind Lifehouse, of audience congregation synthesizing magic from music, and how much more powerful that might be one day if we can ‘congregate’ using the web,” Pete told me in an interview for the book.
As for the project itself, there were a couple of attempts to revive it in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. Pete did finally wrap up the fictional side of Lifehouse in a 1999 BBC radio play and further pushed the envelope on the project’s reality with his Lifehouse Method web-project in 2007. Whether or not we’ll see Pete realize his long-held dream of a live Method event remains to be seen.
You go back to his comments about how he said that punk freed him, and yet, in the next breath, he talks about "steering The Who in the direction of doing grandiose projects of some sort." Has he always been conflicted in this regard in that he's always striving to do these huge conceptual pieces and yet there's a part of him that's drawn toward keeping things simple and not muting the emotional impact of the music?
MW: I think that while Pete’s concepts have historically been complicated, the music that these stories have helped generate is quite simple.
Pete has often said that he needs a ‘brief’ in order to write songs. He needs a story to facilitate the songwriting process, but as the songs develop, the story loses its importance, having served its purpose. The plots of Tommy, Quadrophenia and Lifehouse are not simple and leave many observers confused. “ … I use concepts mainly to keep myself interested or inspired,” Pete said in 2006, while explaining the complex and blurry plot of his Wire & Glass mini-opera. “ … Wire & Glass has a plot of sorts, but it is not what is most important. What the music and the idea touch on is what matters: the proposition that something metaphysical happens when thousands of people gather to hear great music.”
But I think that one of the strengths of Pete’s music is its simplicity. I can’t think of a Townshend composition that Pete couldn’t do justice to simply sitting with either a piano or an acoustic guitar on his own.
What are his feelings now about his solo work?
MW: I’m not sure. I know that Psychoderelict’s poor sales proved discouraging. I’d be surprised to see another solo album. I hope I’m wrong. I’d love to see a new Townshend solo album, or some kind of joint effort with another artist. What about a collaboration with his brother Simon, or with Eddie Vedder? Pete’s a notoriously difficult collaborator, so I’m not holding my breath.
As far as collections, such as an addition to his Scoop series, I asked Pete about this. His reply: “Scoops I could knock out by the dozen, but I have no desire to trawl through all those thousands of tapes again — at least for a while longer.”
There's always been that concern about his hearing. How has he dealt with that over the years? It seems he's so addicted to playing live that he just can't keep himself away from it.
MW: Pete’s hearing became a major concern in the late '70s and was a major reason he stayed off the road for a protracted period. When the band toured from ’79 to ’81 he numbed the pain by drinking and abusing drugs. In ’82, for the "Farewell Tour," he tolerated it with the knowledge that this was the band’s last go-around.
Pete’s hearing remained a concern when The Who regrouped for the 1989 "Kids Are Alright" tour — he played a great deal of acoustic guitar and went to the trouble of having a Plexiglas "booth" installed onstage to try to cut down the noise level. Finally, in the late ‘90s he was able to find an acceptable stage set-up that kept the onstage volume at a low enough level to protect his ears.
What is it do you think that he's most proud of regarding his work with The Who?
MW: I asked Pete this same question during an interview for the book. His answer: “Quadrophenia. This drew together all my skills, long before I had the affirmation of my creative roles in either the movie or the Broadway shows of Tommy. I am still pleased with its spiritual common sense. A boy has a bad day, goes off to the beach, takes drugs, his day gets worse, he rows out to a rock, it rains.”
To learn more about the book, visit www.townshendbio.com