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Fifty-five years after co-founding the rock band The Who, Pete Townshend is still at it. The lead lyricist and guitarist says he actually doesn’t enjoy performing but views it as an “easy” job necessary to finance his lifestyle and support his family and staff. Economics correspondent Paul Solman sits down with Townshend to discuss aging, surviving child abuse and art’s ability to inspire hope.
Our economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to an older worker of some note tonight about his music, his life traumas, his career as a rock star, and why he still feels the need to record a new album and hit the road at the age of 74.
It's part of our Making Sense series Unfinished Business.
Roger Daltrey (singing):
People try to put us down.
Band members (singing):
Talking about my generation.
Maybe the generational anthem of the '60s, with a line for the ages, and ageists.
Roger Daltrey (singing):
Hope I die before I get old.
But Pete Townshend, who wrote those lyrics, doesn't live by them; 55 years after co-founding the rock band The Who, Townshend is still at it.
You're famous for the line "I hope I die before I get old."
So, you didn't.
It was a song I wrote when I was 18 years old. I was living in London and getting pushed around by rich women in fur coats. I hated them all. They hated me. Let's just shut down the conversation.
I know your show is about old people. Well, I'm happy to be here as an old person.
I have actually come to realize that this time of life is probably the best.
When you hit 70, when you hit 75, as I will next birthday, you realize that — you know, that you're definitely on a shorter leash. And you tend to kind of settle with the present.
And, in a sense, for people of my generation, who went through the LSD era of trying, in a sense, to find out who is God, you know, who am I, all of that stuff, you know, you suddenly realize, well, here it is.
I'm me. It's now. I have a life. I have minutes, I have hours, I have weeks, months, years, maybe, and I should live in the present. So it's a very beautiful thing.
How much of what you're feeling in terms of gratification is because you are continuing to work?
I'm really — if I'm absolutely honest, I'm really only working as hard as I am at the moment for money.
Now, unlike so many his age, Townshend can continue to work. And, as a high-living rock star, money to him means yacht racing, one of his boats a classic from 1906.
The average for running a boat is 15 percent of the rebuild cost.
Let's say you tried to build it today. It would cost about a million dollars, maybe a million-and-a-half dollars to build. So, it's $200,000 a year to run a tiny little boat I go racing in twice a year.
Townshend and the other surviving member of the original Who, lead singer Roger Daltrey, have hit the road again touring.
For Townshend, there's another economic incentive to keep going, his sizable retinue of dependents.
My daughter Aminta, for example, has got a full spectrum autistic boy.
And when we worked out how much it would cost to get him through education, it came to a million pounds. And I employ people and the band employs people. And it's great to be the person who kind of decides whether that happens or not. It's a moment of power.
Well, isn't it a moment of power to go on tour, to have all those people sticking with you for all these years, your fan base?
That isn't me. I don't feel excited. I feel I'm there to do a job.
I have no — there's no thrill. Indeed, I would say that I don't like it much. As I said to my wife, now, Rachel, I said, I must be a really brilliant actor…
… if I look like I'm enjoying it, because I really don't enjoy it. I do it as a job. And I find it incredibly easy, so easy.
I don't even have to think about it.
Over the years, Townshend brought energy a plenty to the stage.
The Who's lyricist and lead guitarist became known for his windmilling and mutilating his instruments.
Do you still jump?
You know, I try. I don't get very high, but I still try.
You know, I don't know why I'm in good shape. I certainly — I don't exercise. I don't eat well.
Well, do exercise, because you exercise when you tour, right?
I wore my Apple watch for one gig, and it turned out that I'd walked, so it said, eight miles.
Townshend and Roger Daltrey have been performing together since the 1960s.
He loves doing it. And I think he will do it until he drops.
I don't think that's my story. You know, one of us really, really, really wants to go on. And then there's me, who really actually — I know, I would prefer to just go sailing and read a book.
And write one, too. He calls his new novel, "The Age of Anxiety" — quote — "an extended meditation on manic genius and the dark art of creativity."
He plans to turn it into an opera, like previous works "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia."
The Who also have a new album out called "Who" about, among other things, aging.
I wrote the songs for Roger. So, I was dealing with his perception of what aging is and hoping — funny enough, he didn't connect with — I sent him about 15 songs. He didn't connect with any of them.
And he didn't respond for five months. Nothing. I heard nothing. And then, when he did respond, he said, these are songs for you, Pete. And I said, no, Roger, these are songs for you.
Because he doesn't want to face the aging the way you do?
Maybe, maybe, maybe. I don't know.
One song Townshend penned for the new album, "I Don't Wanna Get Wise."
I aligned the idea of the wisdom of aging, the wisdom of experience, the wisdom of suffering, the wisdom of passing through life, being something which is a mark of aging. And, therefore, you know, in a sense, the song "I Don't Wanna Get Wise" is another of, I don't want to get old.
In 2003, Townshend was arrested on child porn charges. But he's always said it was part of his own sting operation.
We were just trying to demonstrate that banks needed to stop taking money for this. It's not like buying "Playboy" magazine. It has consequences.
Townshend himself says he survived childhood abuse.
I had been damaged.
I always used to say, you know, I'm like a diamond with a flaw, and the flaw is that period of abuse. It was brief in my case. I was only with my grandmother for two years. That was pretty terrifying.
And, you know, at 74 years old, oh, you know, it's still here. It's not something that's ever going to go away. And I should use the word sexual abuse. I shouldn't shy away from that, that some of the abuse that I suffered was sexual. And…
From your grandmother?
Yes, the grand — friends of my grandmother.
My grandmother was off her trolley, unfortunately.
"Tommy," the film and hit Broadway rock opera about a boy struck deaf, dumb and blind by trauma, turns out to have been an allegory of that experience.
I completely unconsciously use this idea as a vehicle for exploring my own really quite tragic story.
Roger Daltrey wanted to do a tour of the complete "Tommy." And we did a test of it. And on the first night, I had a nervous breakdown on the stage.
And so I took him aside and I said, Roger, I can't do this. This is too much, in a sense, a celebration of my difficulties, a celebration of my childhood suffering.
In the end, though, Townshend believes in art and its ability to reinforce not suffering, but hope.
And my method, as a musician, is to try to create events, to try to create musical moments where people gather, where they unify, and where they realize that just standing together and understanding that we all understand is very, very important.
So, are you in part working at your age because you feel that you are a source, as indeed you are, of people coming together?
As an artist, I feel very, very lucky to have, what do they call it, a patron. And the patron is my audience. What I do has worked for them and continues to work for them. And I want to keep doing it, if I can.
So Pete Townshend is still on the road rocking for a living.
For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Paul Solman in New York.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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