Pete Townshend Talks Justin Bieber, Keith Moon, and Four Decades of ‘Quadrophenia’

Pete Townshend performs “Classic Quadrophenia” in 2015. (Photo: Matt Kent)

Pete Townshend is about to embark on a short U.S. run of orchestral “Classic Quadrophenia” dates with guest stars Billy Idol, tenor Alfie Boe, and, for one special show in Chicago, Eddie Vedder. However, as he reflects on the Who’s seminal 1973 rock opera, he speaks of a singer from a different generation, Justin Bieber — finding a surprising link between the embattled pop star and the central character of  Quadrophenia, disaffected antihero Jimmy.

“I’m very, very much older than [Bieber], but I really have a very strong connection with him and who he is, and what he’s going through, and how he’s plowing through his life and his work as an artist,” says the legendary Who guitarist and songwriter. He elaborates: “I think that good pop music — aimed at, let’s say, people under 25, principally — needs to have plenty of space in it. It needs to be something you can inhabit. You need to be able to get inside it. And so I think the thing that I managed to pull off in Quadrophenia was making Jimmy a character that people could inhabit.

“And from this, I started to think the most successful, the most effective artists in the pop industry — are they people that we can inhabit? Was Michael Jackson like an empty puppet of some sort? The more Michael lived, the more he did, the more he became hard to find. And the way that we found him was by listening to his music and making that connection in a very direct and simple way. And it feels to me as though that could apply to a whole number of really, really successful figurehead artists in the pop industry, even today — people like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber is a really good example, because he is not always present. It’s very interesting. He’s not a huge personality; he’s somebody that we feel is like a painting, like an icon.”

And while Townshend readily admits that he “wouldn’t be crazy about being a millennial right now,” he adds with a chuckle, “Isn’t it weird? I’m 72 years old, and I feel I can kind of get inside Justin Bieber and identify with what it is that he’s doing.”

While Bieber may be considered a bad boy of the millennial set, Townshend and the rest of the Who were youthquake icons of their generation (no pun intended) — and the band’s resident bad boy was always notorious drummer Keith Moon, who died five years after Quadrophenia’s release, at age 32, from an overdose of the alcohol-withdrawal drug Heminevrin. When asked for his fondest memory of the making of Quadrophenia, Townshend says it’s “a bit of a weird story,” but it’s one that not only reveals Moon’s lesser-known softer side but also goes back to the Who’s earliest involvement with charitable causes. (This year’s “Classic Quadrophenia” concerts in Chicago and L.A. will benefit Teen Cancer America.)

“About halfway through the session for Quadrophenia, we got a phone call from an actress who is the woman who plays a role [Patsy] in Absolutely Fabulous, a woman called Joanna Lumley, asking one of us to come to meet her somewhere in London,” Townshend recalls. “And I was very, very busy, and I said, ‘No, I can’t come, but I’ll see if any of the other guys would come.’ And Keith Moon offered to go — very much hoping that it would lead to something sexual, I think. Anyway, he met Joanna Lumley, and it turned out that what she’d done is invited him to the very, very first women’s refuge in the world [the domestic violence shelter Chiswick’s Women’s Aid, founded in 1971]. And Joanna got him cleaning toilets. In fact, she confirmed this story to me the other day. I saw her at a party, and I said, ‘Is my story about Keith right?’ And she said, ‘Yes. I got him cleaning toilets.’

“He came back in tears. And he said, ‘Pete, we’ve got to do something for these women!’ And I didn’t realize until I read books about Keith much, much later that he was … I wouldn’t say he was a wife beater, but he had real violent outbursts against his wife, Kim, because he was convinced that she was cheating on him — whereas of course, in fact, it was the other way around. So we started to do shows for the woman [Erin Pizzey] who started [the refuge]. And that’s how charity work began for me and for the band. And we’ve gone on from there. Anyway, that was a great moment. And it was one of the nicest stories about Keith, I think: that something had touched his heart, because usually he would turn everything into a gag.”

Related: Roger Daltrey Talks Meningitis Battle, Teen Cancer Crusade, and the Who’s Farewell

Forty-four years later, Quadrophenia still holds up. Fans of all ages can relate to frustrated, working-class mod Jimmy’s struggles — “Jimmy and his hero, Jimmy and his drugs, Jimmy and his job, Jimmy and his parents. … It’s not that they all failed him in any way, but they don’t really owe him anything. It’s just that the futility of looking for answers where often we look in the wrong place,” explains Townshend. Musing about the rock opera’s deliberately vague but vaguely hopeful finale, he says, “[At the end], Jimmy is on the rock, he’s on his own. It’s raining, he’s disenchanted, he’s seriously depressed. He’s possibly suicidal. He’s on a comedown from amphetamines. He’s in great danger. And what he decides to do is to kind of look to the sky and maybe welcome the rain and welcome getting wet — and maybe even pray.”

As for what might have become of poor Jimmy after Quadrophenia — if there had been a sequel, or even just one more song or one more scene — Townshend simply chuckles: “If I had done that, of course it would just ruin everything, so I leave that to others. Let others ruin it!” (Side note: An unofficial Quadrophenia movie sequel is reportedly in the works; both actor Phil Daniels, who played Jimmy in the Who’s 1979 film adaptation, and Who frontman Roger Daltrey have disavowed the project.)

Quadrophenia doesn’t really require a sequel, because its original storyline (about a rebellious, pill-popping mod facing his bleak, dead-end future) still resonates so strongly — particularly in an uncertain era of Brexit and Trump. Townshend is wary of drawing too many parallels between the double album and the current political climate, but he does say, “We’re on the verge, the edge, of some kind of eclipse thing about to happen, or is happening at the moment. … I probably shouldn’t comment too much about it, really, but where we are today is such a muddle. And the only thing that worries me is the fact that we seem so polarized. In the U.S.A., there are two sides that are struggling to kind of find common ground, and the same in the U.K. … If Quadrophenia helps people in any way at all, that will be cool. I think that it’s interesting that so many people over the years have said to me that they found it to be a redemptive album that got them through hard times.”

Quadrophenia — the only Who album entirely composed by Townshend (“‘Love Reign O’er Me’ is one of the best songs I’ve written,” he asserts) — will always be near and dear to Townshend’s heart, not because it made a grand sociopolitical statement but because it was the album that helped the Who through their own hard times. “I think it is [my favorite Who album], but I think there are a lot of reasons for that. I think it’s because it did save the Who. … It wasn’t really intended to open up any channels in the audience for any kind of therapy or redemption; it was meant to help the band, to reconnect with their [’60s mod] audience. And so as a composer, what I had to do was to remind myself and everybody else in the band where it was we’d come from, and where some of the people who had been fans of the band had been in their journey with us. It was 1973, so it was literally 10 full years since we started, and we had kind of lost connection with them. And so in a sense, I wanted any fans that were interested in doing this to find themselves in us. But mainly, I wanted us to find ourselves in the character of Jimmy.”

Quadrophenia was an undeniably ambitious project — an ambition that obviously remains unabated with Townshend’s latest orchestral undertaking — and while some modern bands have successfully followed that tradition (Green Day with 2004’s American Idiot and accompanying 2009 Broadway musical; My Chemical Romance with 2006’s The Black Parade), it seems unfathomable that any current act could make an impact with a rock opera the way the Who did in ’73 with Quadrophenia (or in 1969 with the equally grandiose and ground-breaking Tommy).

“Oh, I think anybody could do it. But I’m not sure anybody wants to do it these days, with downloading, and also with the sheer futility of trying to imagine that anybody’s ever going to sell 150 million records again in their career,” Townshend laughs.

Townshend wraps up his conversation with Yahoo Music by once again ruminating about millennial pop singers, although this time he doesn’t mention names. “You know, these days when you go online, if you see a new artist, it’s funny, because it often seems to be more about the vulnerable, young, beautiful female singer-songwriter who has come from Finland or f***ing Iceland or Greenland or something. And she arrives with a hit album, and we all kind of go, ‘Wow, she’s only 17! She’s stunningly beautiful, but, oh, she’s broken,’” he groans. “But I’m being sarcastic, because what we’re interested in is the story behind the songs.

“There’s always a story in the background of everything that everybody does. There’s always a thing. There’s always a big story, and there are always small stories. So what you really have to do is take any artist, gather up all their songs, find out what the story is — and there you have a rock opera.”

“Classic Quadrophenia” will take place in September in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Click here for tour dates and tickets.

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