Steve Braunias reviews the new autobiography by Roger Daltrey, singer with one of the best and worst groups of all times, The Who.
The Who! Godawful mostly, although not always. All those unlistenable rock operas and what-not. Tommy. Jesus. But even that fruity melodrama about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure did well considering his special needs had moments of the sublime. The Who, live at Woodstock, onstage at 4am: “See me. Feel me. Touch me,” begs Roger Daltrey, his voice actually cracking, a soft drum beating somewhere in the dark, the band holding its nerve to achieve 75 seconds of fragile beauty in front of a howling mob of stoned, low-IQ Americans. Amazing, and good cinema, too, with the spotlight on Daltrey in an otherworldly fringe jacket, over 1,930,000 views on YouTube – and then it all goes to shit when the music strikes up, and the tale of Tommy is told one more turgid time.
Such a strange band. They started out as a Kinks knock-off that got better than the Kinks. Older, indulged, cut loose, they turned into a dynamic, musically complex supergroup that rocked like motherfuckers. Some of the words were good, too. “Substitute” – a song so potent that the Sex Pistols, who always displayed consummate taste, covered it when they invented punk – was a lyrical masterpiece. “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” And: “I look all white/ but my dad was black.” Also: “Substitute you for my mum/ At least I’ll get my washing done.” They made great songs for nearly 10 years. All of “Substitute”, all of “My Generation”, most of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the first 75 seconds of “See Me, Feel Me”, 30 seconds or so of “Who Are You”, the chintzy, sub-Kraut Rock synthesiser opening of “Baba O’Reilly”, the psychedelic fade-out of “I Can See for Miles” – all of it sublime, their best moments clocking in at maybe 15 minutes. The best of The Who was among the best quarter of an hour in 20th century music.
They were their own genre. Pete Townshend was an art school fuckwit who became so convinced of his genius that he became a genius. Keith Moon and John Entwistle were determined idiots, but formed probably the most inventive rhythm section in rock. As for Daltrey – he was a kind of rock Everyman, which is to say a nobody, with no distinguishing vocal characteristics, no personal style or individual tone, he couldn’t dance, he couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag (Ken Russell cast him as Tommy, and Franz Liszt in Lisztomania, a movie so bad that it will never be good), he had bad hair and bad teeth, and the band even kicked him out for a while on account of the fact he was a drag. But they were useless without him, and begged him to come back. What saved him from being a complete waste of space was that he got Townshend. He had some intimate or even psychic understanding of how to interpret his songs, turn them into art.
Daltrey is now 74, and deaf as a coot. His autobiography Thank You Mr Kibblewhite is the portrait of the artist as no one special. Townshend, Moon and Entwistle took drugs, went mad; Daltrey went home, and took up carpentry. He lives in Surrey with his wife Heather. They were married in 1971, and have three kids. He built his daughters a doll’s house. He dug a lake and put fish in it. He stripped the black Victorian paint off the banisters, and admired the honey coloured timber underneath…Daltrey was paid 1.2 mllion quid for his book. The publisher got fleeced. There’s little gossip, not a lot of drama, and sex is something that happens now and then but it all turns out for the best: On his 50th birthday, his wife opened a letter from a 27-year-old woman who revealed that she was Daltrey’s daughter. “I don’t remember meeting her mother. I remember the mother of my Scottish daughter, my Swedish son, and my daughter who lives in Yorkshire. But this one, I never had a clue…Each of my children has, at one time or another, thanked me for giving them life.”
Towards the end of his short list of the book’s acknowledgements, he throws his ghostwriter a bone: “And, of course, a huge thank you to Matt Rudd.” Rudd probably wrote that line, too. Rudd fashions Daltrey as a likeable sort of rooster, working class, English as rain, a bit of a bore: “I gave up booze and I gave up wheat.” A man’s man, handy with his fists, old school: “The weather was hotter than a witch’s tit.” He grew up in Shepherd’s Bush. Life was a pint and a knees-up. “We knew how to have a good time with nothing. It’s the opposite today. We’ve got so much and everything is instant. I find it very difficult to know where it’s all heading…” Grandpa! Go back to bed.
But it’s an enjoyable journey down classic rock lane. The book will make a very fine Xmas gift for the Mojo reader in your life; there’s nothing upsetting, nothing too deep. Even Daltrey’s constant moaning is quite entertaining. Woodstock? Woodstock, he moans, was a drag. Live at Leeds, The Who’s monster 1969 live album, still widely revered as maybe the greatest hard-rock document of all times? Live at Leeds was a drag, too.
The wretched story of Keith Moon is told sensitively and sadly. “But we weren’t close,” writes Daltrey via Rudd. He doesn’t seem to have done close. “We rose up performing with the Beatles and the Stones. But I was never really friends with any of them.”
There’s good material and interesting insights in the chapters devoted to The Who when they were in their pomp. On their manic energy onstage: “Let’s drive, we used to say before a gig. Drive. Drive. Drive.” On the things that made The Who The Who: “Madness. Ambition. Ego. Paranoia.” On Townshend: “He can come across very mean but that’s not what he’s like deep down.”
What Townshend is like deep down, Daltrey doesn’t say, or presume to guess; the way he describes him is as though he’s someone he bumped into on the street now and then over the years, and thought a bit odd. Although he does offer this: “I think Pete’s got the most fantastic head.” He’d like to sculpt it if he could. In his workshop, at his nice big house in Surrey, where he collects gypsy caravans, supports Brexit, and catches fish in his lake. Daltrey, old; Daltrey, deaf (“Hear me”!); Daltrey, at rest. Fair call. He’s done his bit for rock. The scream on “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the latent, implied violence in his pauses on “My Generation”…Throughout, as Thank You Mr Kibblewhite wishes to make clear, Daltrey remained down to earth, practical, ordinary. “The fringe waistcoat I wore at Woodstock,” Rudd and Daltrey write, “came from a shop in Ealing.”
Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite by Roger Daltrey (Allen & Unwin, $40) is available at Unity Books.
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