“Toronto's been a fantastically important city for me in my life,” rock legend Pete Townshend told a crowd of dozens of fans earlier tonight at the Indigo bookstore at Bay and Bloor. “For the Who, it's always been an incredibly important venue.”
The iconic songwriter, guitarist and singer is in the Canadian city (along with surviving bandmate Roger Daltrey) as part of the Who's Quadrophenia And More tour, which hits the Air Canada Centre tomorrow. Townshend stopped by Indigo for an exclusive public appearance, which included a live interview with broadcaster and music writer Alan Cross, followed by a signing for Townshend's recently published memoir, Who I Am.
The band is playing its famed 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia in its entirety, plus an encore of classic tunes like “Won't Get Fooled Again”, “Baba O'Riley” and “Pinball Wizard”.
“We play in ice-hockey rinks most of the time when we come to play in this neck of the woods,” Townshend said, “and ice hockey is a place where young men tend to go RAAAAAAAAH! RAAAAAAAAH! That's a sound that I'm quite used to.
“But what's funny is that that's not what the Who's music is about,” he added, referring to the sort of jock machismo typically found in hockey. “The Who's music is about vulnerability – about trying to find ways to be a man in a time when it's quite difficult to be a man.”
Townshend, 67, seemed to be enjoying the event, if not quite as much as the audience. Unlike his temperamental, guitar-smashing, rock-star image, he was constantly animated, chipper and funny as he talked with Cross about his career, his take on digital media and iTunes, his passion for sailing and how his book came together.
“I wanted to write a book to help people to understand why rock 'n' roll happened, why it has lasted. And pop music as we have it today will last, until there's another major war,” Townshend explained. “I certainly had the idea that I could write an interesting book about the fact that in the '60s, the function of music changed... when I was fourteen or fifteen, it became much more serious. That's why I've always been so serious about what I do.”
Cross mentioned the impressive detail in Who I Am, which Townshend credited to documentation and memory. “Because I write lyrics, I've always kept notebooks. Those notebooks, you can imagine, tell you more than just lyrics. For example, I wrote a few sketches for 'Behind Blue Eyes', and at the bottom, there's a little note that says, 'Call bank manager. You have an overdraft.' And below that is a question: 'What are piles?' I was too young to know.
“The other thing is that my memory is incredibly good. I haven't touched alcohol in a serious way since 1982. I've never used hard drugs, except to try to stop drinking, and of course, that didn't work out very well. My mind is pretty sharp, and my memory's good.”
Townshend also addressed the book's highly self-critical content, jokingly noting that “the whole book is a castigation!” He quoted somebody who'd described Who I Am to him as “'the first autobiography that's a hatchet job'”.
“One of the things I don't buy about modern living is that we have to pretend,” he said. “It's that ethic: you don't talk about your failures, you talk only about your successes. We're all a mix of self-certainty. What's the point of writing the book if it's not the truth? I don't castigate myself – I tell the truth.
“I did an interview with a German guy from Der Spiegel the other day, and he said: [mock German accent] 'I have just read Rod Stewart's book. This is a good book. He is happy. He is handsome. He still has his hair. He is married to a very beautiful blonde. He has had sex with many many many blondes... And then there was your book. [disappointed face] Why?'”
At another point, Townshend discussed why he tries not to pontificate too much on political issues. About the Iraq war, he admitted: “I said things I regret. I didn't have the full picture. Who ever has the full picture?”
On “Won't Get Fooled Again”: “That song was written against the idea that rock was an art to be used as part of a revolution... I don't mind if my music is used for political reasons, but not that song.”
One might have hoped that Townshend would close the interview by smashing a copy of Who I Am to bits, but everybody seemed satisfied without it.