Pete Townshend Q&A: “I look at my passport and think: will I outlast you?”

The musician talks Blackadder, David Astor, the Observer editor and a founder of Amnesty International, and being hypnotised by his father’s best friend. 

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Pete Townshend was born in London in 1945. He is a co-founder of the Who and considered one of rock’s best guitarists. The first concert he attended, aged 11, was Bill Haley & His Comets.

What’s your earliest memory?

On a beach near a Butlin’s holiday camp when I was 13 or 14 months old. I remember my mother and father riding up to me on horses, and thinking, “Oh Mummy, Daddy, you’ve come to take me away with you!” And they came up, looking glamorous, and rode away again.

Who are your heroes?

Bruce Welch, the guitarist in the Shadows. I was 15 when I first heard “Apache” and I was so struck by it. Bruce and I had an interview together for a TV show about the Shadows and he couldn’t accept that he was my hero.  I couldn’t emphasise it enough.

What book last changed your thinking?

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It’s just stunning. I spend so much time in hotels, feeling like a prisoner, and this book enabled me to realise that probably there is no better life than living in a hotel.

Which political figure do you look up to?

David Astor, the Observer editor and a founder of Amnesty International. He was a fantastic example of a great newspaper man of the old order, but also a political activist, a philanthropist and a liberal.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Synthesisers. I was one of the first people to use them back in the very late Sixties and early Seventies, and I’ve followed new developments ever since then.

What TV show could you not live without?

Blackadder. I love the brutality of it, the master-slave relationship and the absurdity of trying to please an evil queen. It seems very much like real life.

Who would paint your portrait?

Frank Auerbach. That man’s a genius.

What’s your theme tune?

“Girl From the North Country”. I had an argument with Bob Dylan about it. He said “a folk singer is just a man with a good memory”, but I have to give him the credit for having reminded me of that song.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My father’s best friend, Hal Phillips, experimented with hypnosis. While I was under, he said, “Every time you walk on stage, you will say to yourself: ‘I will do my absolute best.’” I still use that today.

What’s currently bugging you?

That society is polarised, made of people who can’t even have a conversation without ending up screaming at each other.

What single thing would make your life better?

I want my own plane. I’d cause more pollution, but I’d get more done.

When were you happiest?

I’m happiest now. I’m 74. I just got a new passport and it’s valid until I’m 87 or something! I’m looking at this little brown thing, thinking, “Will I outlast you?”

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Funnily enough, I would have been a musician, but working on installation art, more like Stockhausen. I’m interested in how music and art can be woven together.

Are we all doomed?

We’ve always been doomed, that’s what I grew up with. I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember going to school in October 1962 thinking I wouldn’t come home. I was a bit pissed off when I did. l

“The Age of Anxiety: A Novel” by Pete Townshend is published by Coronet

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want