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Who's Last: Roger Daltrey On New Music, Final Tours, And 50 Years Of The Who

Roger Daltrey is definitely busier than you. Despite having just turned 70, the legendary frontman of The Who is still ambitious, still rebellious, and still the King of the Rock 'n' Roll Scream. This April marks 50 years since Keith Moon (Patent British Exploding Drummer) joined forces with the band, completing the lineup that made them unstoppable. Even though the tragic deaths of Moon and thundering bassist John Entwistle have reduced the original four to two, Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend are still out on the road, defending their title of Rock's Best (and loudest) Live Act -until now.

The surviving members of The Who have confirmed that their upcoming 2015 tour will be their last, but that doesn't mean Roger has swung his last microphone. A brand new album with British blues great Wilko Johnson is due out April 8th on Chess Records. The aptly titled Going Back Home harkens back to the James Brown shrieks and Muddy Watters growls of Daltrey's early days on the Mod club scene. Clearly the man holds his roots near to his heart.

And he never forgot the people who helped bring him rock superstardom. Half a century since snarling through "My Generation," Daltrey continues to be a spokesman for the youth. After years of representing the Teenage Cancer Trust in the U.K., Daltrey is taking the charity stateside by launching Teen Cancer America, which seeks to provide a comfortable and supportive place in hospitals for adolescents afflicted with the terrible disease. He's currently offering support to Hernan Sebastian Barangan, a teen cancer survivor traveling across the country to film the stories of fellow young sufferers.

With so much going on, Mr. Daltrey still found time to speak with us about his past, his present, and what's on the horizon.

VH1: There’s lots to congratulate you on these days. You had a birthday not too long ago, an album with Wilko Johnson is on the way, and we’re in the midst of celebrating 50 incredible years of The Who. What are your thoughts when you look back on it all? Are there any moments that really stand out?

ROGER DALTREY: There are none in particular. The whole thing just seems like a dream. It almost feels like someone else lived it. When I look back on those early days, it’s amazing that any of us survived it in some ways. It’s very weird. I mean there’s obviously thousands of memorable moments, but I’m just so relieved that some of us made it. Because we lost so many on the way, mostly through ignorance. It’s like some other energy is guiding it all. It’s weird. No four people can have that much luck in some ways, when you think about it. It’s ridiculous. We got very, very lucky in so many ways.

I’ve always been fascinated by how you were able to give such passionate performances of lyrics that you didn’t personally write. What is your process for interpreting Pete Townshend's words?

Well, I kind of understand where Pete comes from a lot of time. I also understand that some of his ideas are very wacky, but I also have got a deep, deep belief in his courage and the fact that he writes from a very deep, personal place. It’s always been my aim to kind of be a portal for that in the song. So basically, I treat it like it’s an acting job.

There are some songs of his I haven’t sung, and indeed there’s a couple that I wouldn’t sing. I don’t think they would be right for me. I don’t think I could live them with the same intensity that he had to live to write those particular songs. But the ones I do sing, I try to get inside it. And by getting inside those lyrics, you take them inside of you and every time you sing them they do come out as yours.

It’s a strange process, and I always have attempted on literally every show, I don’t think there’s ever been a show that I’ve ever done where I’ve gone through the motions of singing those lyrics. When I sing those words and the meaning of that line or that particular song, I mean it and I sing it as if I’m singing it for the first time.

How do you keep the intensity up for each of those shows? You were actually my first concert when I was 14, and I remember, even at that young age, thinking how exhausting that must be.

Well, what year was that?

2002 in Mansfield, Massachusetts.

Oh, when we were old chaps. [laughs] You should have seen us when we were young!  The Who was something else to watch. I mean really, really…The musicality of the group was extraordinary. There was no one to touch us in that period. I don’t care what anyone says. I mean, you can have varying taste in music. You know, a lot of Led Zeppelin music is much more commercial than most of The Who songs, and The Who songs were always lousy to dance to. So they were party killers in a way. They demand you to listen.

But when you saw The Who live on stage, I don’t care who you were, they’re wasn’t a band that could go on stage after The Who and not be a letdown. And not because of anything other than there was some kind of energy that flowed between us. The songs are classically structured and use voicings that create other sounds. So there’s an enormity to the music that doesn’t exist in most rock 'n' roll. It just doesn’t exist, you know? So there’s a size and a scale to The Who that was impossible to follow.

Even Mick Jagger said after the 9/11 [tribute show at Madison Square Garden], “I broke my golden rule. I went on stage after The Who.” That’s what he said. And he’s very honest about it. And I’m not saying we’re better than the Stones—fantastic, the Stones, I love the Stones—but it’s just to do with the scale of the music. Its enormity and its power, it’s just f--king impossible to follow it. You can’t top it. It’s as high as it goes in energy and power level. And it’s not just four to the floor rock power, there’s just something else going in it. Just like great classical music. That’s the same thing.

The passion and intensity you give can't be easy. I know it's not easy because I still have a scar on my hand from when I tried to windmill like Pete Townshend. I tried it myself after I saw you live.

He's got scars on his hands, too.

I feel a little better then.

Especially the time when his whammy arm went right through it and the guitar was hanging on his hand. That was nasty looking.

Ouch.

Have you seen other shows since?

No, but I know I need to when you come through next year.

Yeah. Well, there won't be many more chances!

So I've heard.

We're doing the never-ending last tour before the last one...after the last one. [laughs]

Bob Dylan style, a 20 year-long farewell tour?

Yeah, that's what we're going to do. The never-ending last tour before the last one. [laughs]

How do you feel about this being your last tour coming up? What's going through your mind right now when you think about it?

Nothing. I love to play music. I play music for free. I get paid for the schlepping around, for the traveling. That's what I get paid for. The music is just a joy to be able to do. It's a joy to be with my friends on the road. The hotels could be a bummer and all that, but when I think back on what my life could have been, eight until six in a factory five or six days a week, how much worse could it have been? We're absolutely privileged.

So I just look forward to it. I mean, I don't know what it'll be. If I don't think we can do it well, we won't do it. It'll be as simple as that. But we're still going. We're still making music now. Our last tour of Quadrophenia was so well received and so well reviewed and we've got a DVD coming out of that show. And, you know, we might be older and we might be wrinkled and we might be, physically, totally different. But what's coming out of it and the heart that's in it and the sound of it is as good as it ever was. So why stop?

For those of us who never got to meet him, could you tell me a little bit about Keith Moon? What it was like to be in a room -let alone share a stage- with him?

Well, most of the time it was incredibly fun. I mean, he was the funniest man I have ever met in my life. When he got on a roll raconteuring, he was an amazing orator and he had a vocabulary way, way, way beyond his education. And he could just rattle off from the mouth like an old stubborn creature over any subject whatsoever.

But he would do it like real-life Monty Python. He was a huge fan of Monty Python, so that's where he kind of based his humor. But he could do it so well. He could out-Monty-Python Monty Python! So it was really like living in Monty Python a lot of the time. And some of the situations, you literally did have to leave the room because sometimes the laughter became painful. You had no more left to cry out of you. But then other times, he could be the absolute utmost and dreadful pain in the ass and very spiteful and very mean. In every way he was extreme, to every side of the personality.

What an amazing man. Just listening to the sketches he recorded for BBC radio, I'm in tears. I can only imagine being in a room with him. That must have been an incredible experience.

Well, it was. You know, it depends which Keith Moon you had. If you had the sober Keith Moon, he was totally different. The sober Keith Moon was very, very well-read, but unfortunately the sober Keith Moon was incredibly boring -which he wasn't by the way, but he just thought that. So then he would turn into the drunk Keith Moon, which would be very funny for the first three or four hours. And then slowly descend into becoming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It became quite nasty. So it was a roller coaster to say the least.

How about Mr. John Entwistle? What was he like to share a meal with or just spend time with him as a man?

John had one of the driest senses of humor of anyone I've ever known. Strange character, John. I think John always felt kind of overshadowed by the other three in the band -by Pete, myself- because we were the flamboyant ones out in the front. So he used to kind of make up for that in other ways. He really did live the archetypal "rock star lifestyle." He would have a limo that was twice as big as everybody else's. You know, everything he had was flash and gaudy.

He was a very, very quirky man indeed. But a genius bass player. There's a bass solo on Quadrophenia -the show coming out- that he plays, and it's truly astounding what he's doing. When you think of what bass playing was before the solo in "My Generation," bass was an instrument that you just plopped on with the drums. It just went "doomp-doomp-doomp" and only played a few notes. When Entwistle got a hold of it, it suddenly became not only that, but a lead instrument as well. All of a sudden all of this other stuff happened and other bass players started picking up on it. You know, he was one of the first ones to play electric slap bass and that kind of slap picking thing that he used to do. He was extraordinary. And like I said, people forget he invented most of that. It all came from Entwistle, and then people saw it and said, "Oh, that's great, I'll try this." And then people got their thing out of something they'd seen him do in the first place.

The Who have always had a special relationship with the youth, starting in the '60s with anthems like "My Generation.” Regardless of time period, it always felt like you and your music were champions of the young, and recently you’ve taken that role even further. You've been a patron of the Teenage Cancer Trust in the U.K. for a long time, and now you're bringing the organization to the United States with Teen Cancer America. Can you tell me about your involvement?

Yeah, I've been a patron in Britain, but I suppose in some ways I'm the founder of Teen Cancer America. I've found that your country is greatly lacking in how we care for this age group when they have cancer. I traveled around to a lot of your hospitals. I saw fantastic medical facilities and all that stuff, it's all fantastic.

But I saw virtually no space in any of the hospitals I saw -where hundreds of millions of pounds had been spent- where there was a place where a teen could feel at home and comfortable. Like, "This space in this place is for us." There were spaces where children could feel like this was for them. There were spaces where adults could feel this was for them, but for a teen and a young adolescent, there was not one-square-foot. It seriously annoyed me.

And the reason I'm so passionate about the music business getting behind this is because the music business as we know it today owe it to the support of teenagers. Even today with those young bands like One Direction and Justin Bieber, they all owe it to the support of young teenagers and young adolescents. And it's an easy way of giving back. You're not trying to cure cancer, you're not trying to do anything like that. You're trying to say that we care about you and if you get this dreadful disease at that age, where a spot on your nose is a big deal let alone losing your hair, maybe losing a leg, maybe losing your life— we'll be there for you and make that journey as comfortable as we possibly can. I just think that our industry should stand up for the people who supported it, and in many ways paid for it to be created.

The conditions, even in high end hospitals, don't cater towards adolescents?

They’re in total isolation. And it's just wrong. It's wrong. It's fine to have their own room, but when they get out of that room, they shouldn't just be in a hospital factory. They should get out of that room into a teen-friendly environment where they can dance, sit down with other teens going through possibly the same form of cancer, different stages of the treatment, meet other parents going through the same nightmare. All of that is enormously supportive to these people. And it's been totally f--king overlooked, and I'm f--king angry.

In Britain we've done it totally on charitable donations. We’re on our way to 33 hospital wards. Well, 14 years ago, we had 4 hospital wards. We've proved our worth, we've proved that people want us. Now, all we've got to do, of course, is raise the funds. And it's not like medical funds that are a bottomless pit. Sure, these things will have to be maintained, and they'll have to be restructured and as they get older they'll have to get replaced, but you're talking probably $1.52 million per unit to put in. It's small change in medical terms, but it takes a lot of goodwill from the hospitals and the administration staff, and it takes demand from the parents and communities that have these youngsters going through this experience. It's up to all those groups to make this happen. We'll back for them, and we're not going away. We will get this done.

Among your many other efforts, you're helping to fund young cancer survivor Hernan Barangan’s trip across the country, during which he will film interviews with fellow teen cancer survivors in each of the fifty states. When he’s done, his plans is to edit them all together into a documentary  "by cancer fighters FOR cancer fighters."

Remember that this is a guy who had cancer twice as a teen and it's left him paralyzed from the waist down. And here he is wanting to go around the whole country. And there are not many Americans that have been all around your country. It's a bloody big place, I'll tell you! I mean, it's such a courageous thing that he's going on to do here. And I just think he deserves to be supported. I mean, if you could give it any help there, I'd be really, really grateful because I think there's a great story here. I think there's a great story of humanity here and courage. I just think there's a film to be made.

That would be an incredible documentary. He's such an inspiration.

He is! He really is, because he gets it. When you hear these teens speak so eloquently of how they were isolated and how there was no one to talk to, how their parents had no one to talk to and unload,  discuss and share; these are fixable things, but you've got to have an organization that's fighting to put it there so there is a place where they can be heard. And we are going to be that place. Teen Cancer America will be the gold standard. It shouldn't be a privilege, it should be a right.

If it's right for a child to have a children's hospital, it should be right for a teenager to have their own space within either a children's hospital or an adult hospital. But the trouble is, what people don't realize with teenagers is that they suffer on all fronts because of their age and they're growing bodies. Cancer is a growing cell, it's an expanding cell out of control. So that's magnified because of their age group. They're bodies are growing so fast that the cancer's magnified. They get late diagnoses because they're playing sports and moaning about an aching leg, and doctors say, "Oh, you've hurt yourself playing soccer" or "You hurt yourself playing football."And of course it's something much more serious and six weeks goes by and the leg gets worse and then maybe they get a scan and then, "Oh, God, you've got sarcoma." And they suffer from that more than children or adults.

It's great that Hernan is drawing attention to them.

I really do believe there is a film of a film here to be done. I don't know how you'd film it, because fifty states is a hell of a lot, but you'd get enough to cut that down to some very dramatic moments, I'm sure. It would be a hell of a roller coaster.

Definitely!

And it doesn't have to be all down. You'd be surprised at how much fun some of these youngsters have. I mean, if you were in Britain next week, you could come to our shows that we run at the Albert Hall in London. I run a week of shows there every year, and we have teens all over the country every night with cancer. Man, they're having a great time. And I know every year that there's going to be quite a few of them that aren't going to make the year. But they don't miss a minute of their life.

They appreciate the little things, and take nothing for granted.

That's what I mean. This record I've done with Wilko Johnson [Going Back Home]; he's dying of pancreatic cancer. He should have been dead in October.

Really!?

And we've made this record, and it's a f--king great record, I've got to tell you. I was so pleased with it. It's so simple, so fresh, so unpretentious. It's just great. We did it for fun, and my share is going to Teen Cancer America. And he's giving every minute of his life. He was asked, "What did the doctors say when you went back in November?" He said, "Well, I haven't been back!" And that's a great rock 'n'roll legend. Because they said, "Well, you've got nine months to live, you got 'til October so enjoy yourself." And that's how it should be. We're all on life's edge. We're all walking on an edge and we should realize it and then get on with it and stop trying to upset people and try to make the world a happier place.

Amen.

Join Together With The Band! Please visit the Teen Cancer America website and donate to this inspiring cause.