Rock star Pete Townshend is many things, among them songwriter, singer, painter and journalist – and, now, a novelist. In a revealing interview at Central Hall Westminster, conducted by Mariella Frostrup, I heard Townshend talk about his family, childhood, career with The Who and love of the arts – and also, poignantly, about the abuse he suffered, as a child, at the hands of a close family member – and the lifelong impact that had upon him.
Townshend’s novel is called ‘The Age of Anxiety’: a great title, suggested by his wife Rachel – but one which Townshend was, initially, reluctant to use as it’s also the title of a W.H. Auden poem: “Except then I found out that no-one else had heard of that poem!” The title was firmly in place – and Townshend agreed with Mariella Frostrup that it perfectly sums up this moment in time.
He agreed, likewise, with Frostrup’s suggestion that the novel is heavily autobiographical, at its heart a rock star who disappears and reinvents himself: “The book’s settings and events had to be things I’d experienced.” Even the storyline in which Walter makes a movie and finds the process extremely hard is based upon Townshend’s experience of ‘Tommy’: “After we finished making that film, I told Ken Russell I’d never work in movies again. It was such hard work – and I didn’t even like the end result!”
Townshend was determined that his female characters needed to be “strong and real”, so based them upon women whom he has known. Writing the novel’s dialogue, however, he found “difficult”, despite his editor’s encouragement.
To understand the themes informing ‘The Age of Anxiety’ you need to understand the environment in which Townshend grew up. His parents were both musicians and his memories of going on the road with Cliff helped him flesh out Walter’s father’s character. Cliff and Betty’s marriage was volatile – both were heavy drinkers – and, aged four, his mother wanting to pursue a career as a singer, Pete went to live with his grandmother. A “very dark individual”, she abused Pete frequently and continued to do so until a family friend told Cliff what was happening.
Cliff’s career took off and, between the ages of seven and ten, Pete saw little of his father: “He worked every night, came home at 4am and got up at 11am.” There were perks, though: Townshend got to see a 17-year-old Shirley Bassey give one of her first performances.
You wonder how much of the above influenced Townshend when he joined The Who – one of the most successful – and notorious – rock bands of all time. He admits using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate when memories of childhood abuse reared their head and, after Keith Moon died, upped his drinking, “supplementing it with the odd line of coke. It meant I didn’t have to deal with my past.”
Eventually, the booze stopped working and Townshend embarked upon three years of therapy, followed by copious charity work and “helping other people with drink problems”. Mulling over what he had just told us, Townshend concluded: “The abuse is no longer a dark cloud I carry around – but the past is always with me.”
As for The Who – about to release a new album, WHO, which has already been lauded by critics – somewhat surprisingly, Townshend describes the band as a “brand name”, which he and Roger Daltrey play music for: “The two most vital members of the band survived – but the synergy is different. Yet the fans don’t see it that way.” That said, he’s immensely proud of WHO (“Roger thinks it’s our best since Quadrophenia) and of the relationship that he and Daltrey continue to have. Can you believe that it’s nearly 60 years since they founded The Who? I can’t wait to listen to this new album, which Townshend says “…eschews romance and nostalgia: we’re old men!”
Townshend came to terms long ago with fame and “being public property”, controversially stating that, during the phone-hacking scandal, he was on the side of the journalists: “You can’t expect them to plug your new book or album one week and then the next week refuse to have anything to do with them.” He was equally frank about Brexit, telling us “I voted Remain…but I’m not sure I’d do so again. In fact, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever vote again.” Whether or not you agree with his views, isn’t it refreshing, in this day and age, to hear a celebrity (apologies, Pete – you probably hate that word) being so honest?
Septuagenarian he may be, but Townshend is showing no signs of slowing down. There’s the new album, supported by a tour in 2020, his novel – to which he’s already sold the film rights – to promote; oh, and he’s just written a libretto in iambic pentameter (as you do). Nor has his appetite for learning diminished: Townshend has just taught himself to play the pedal steel guitar: “I thought: if Ronnie Wood can do it, so can I.”
An intriguing and complex character, I could have happily listened to Pete Townshend talk all night. Where can I sign up for tour tickets?