PETE Townshend often feels sleepy before a show. At 63 the Who’s chief songwriter and guitar craftsman could be forgiven 40 winks before turning his attention to entertaining a crowd, but the affliction is nothing new. He has been calm to the point of dozing in the dressing room since the 1960s.
‘‘ Maybe that’s just my peculiar variety of nerves,’’ he says. ‘‘ I am very calm before a show. I don’t psyche myself up. Quite the contrary.’’
This preparatory inner peace could explain why Townshend has become, in a career spanning 45 years, synonymous with an explosive, dynamic and often extremely loud stage presence. The energy has to come out somewhere. As the foil to singer Roger Daltrey in what, at its peak, was known as the greatest rock ’ n’ roll band in the world, Townshend’s signature windmills and piercing riffs are the stuff of rock legend.
Australia got to see that Townshend energy, that craftsmanship, when the Who made their first visit here in 36 years in 2004. As the two surviving original members, Daltrey and Townshend were the focal points on that trip, despite the experienced players around them that included Ringo Starr’s son Zac Starkey on drums. But it was Townshend who dazzled most.
Now, after a more acceptable gap, they’re coming back, this time for a handful of shows that includes an appearance at the Australian Grand Prix.
Townshend is excited about the visit: he has friends here as well as fans. He acknowledges that the extraordinary absence of the group from these shores for most of its career, after they were thrown out of the country for what was a minor misdemeanour on an aeroplane in 1968, was a mistake on their part. Two visits in the past five years, however, are not just about making amends for all the years we — and they — missed out on.
‘‘ Of course I have regrets,’’ Townshend says. ‘‘ But it’s a big world, and I didn’t feel we had enough time to consistently tour all the places we should have visited. Japan was another country we just skipped. I had a family and I wanted to be a proper father, and I think I managed that. In the end, America and Britain tried to swallow us up.’’
Given the Londoner’s dislike of the rock ’ n’ roll lifestyle, for which he was a poster boy in the Who’s early career, perhaps we should be grateful that Townshend is coming to Australia at all.
‘‘ I resist touring and have done all my life,’’ he goes on. ‘‘ I am never willing to do as much road work as my band-mates would like. I think we are playing Australia now out of a real desire to make a connection, to enjoy the people and the country, and not to make amends, sell records or make money. I have so many really good friends there, or from there. We are coming because Australia is a part of our world, and our lives as artists. It really means something to us.’’
Townshend and Daltrey stand in 2009 as two of rock’s great survivors, not least in their own band, which lost drummer Keith Moon in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002, both to drugrelated causes. More than that, however, the two remaining members have emerged, five decades into their careers, as friends and with the Who’s credibility and pulling power intact.
In December last year Daltrey and Town- shend were honoured at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, for their achievements in the Who. The band is the first rock ensemble to receive what is one of the US’s most prestigious cultural awards.
To see the two musos with their arms around each other and singing each other’s praises, as they did after that ceremony, is not something that would have come so readily to either man during the Who’s heyday. Bust-ups were not uncommon, and that’s before we get to the antics of volatile drummer Moon.
They cultivated that hostile image on stage by smashing up their equipment on a regular basis, but there was real animosity bubbling underneath, particularly between the singer and guitarist. It was this friction, to a degree, that gave the Who an edge over other rock bands at the time. Now, however, there’s a mutual respect — what Daltrey calls fraternal — as well as an acknowledgment that they should enjoy life and music and what they have created as they get old. As Daltrey pointed out on their last visit, he can still get away with singing My Generation in the noughties, because there are plenty of fans from his generation coming to see them play it.
In the beginning, when Townshend and Entwistle formed an unlikely banjo and French