It’s just a fact: Not all rock stars live colorful lives. That’s not a bad thing, because the more colorful lives usually end up snuffed out by misadventure. The less colorful lives are perhaps less decadent but marred by missed creative opportunities wrought by unrestrained hedonism and resultant bad luck.
Roger Daltrey – the Who’s singer who stuttered through the defiant sentiment, “Hope I die before I get old” before he was 21 – skipped most of the rock star excesses, which makes for a pretty tame tell-all autobiography. This isn’t such a bad thing for a guy who watched bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle self-destruct, and helped coax Pete Townshend back from the abysses of alcoholism and heroin addiction. Truth be told, Daltrey never became old because he behaved older than his musical brethren from the start. At least, that’s my takeaway from his autobiography, Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite: My Story.
Born in London during the Blitz of 1944, Daltrey grew up accustomed to government rationing and austerity measures. Before the headmaster mentioned in the title eventually expels him from school, telling him he’ll never amount to anything, Daltrey already had established himself as an entrepreneur. He not only tailored his school uniforms on his mother’s sewing machine, but turned a profit performing alterations for his classmates as well. This skill was applied later to some of his stage outfits – as well, Daltrey claims, as similar stage dress for Miles Davis.
Subsequent to Kibblewhite showing him the door, Daltrey began as an electrician’s apprentice and wound up as a tea boy at a sheet-metal factory. In the mornings he would take food and drink orders from the welders. He soon discovered that he could turn an additional profit if he purchased the components for the welders’ lunch requests and made the sandwiches himself. In the afternoons, he’d file down the welds while singing along with his workmates.
Forming the Who
Radios were not allowed in the shop, but music became an all-consuming passion for Daltrey in a pre-swinging London. Taking skills (and pilfering parts) from his electrician and welding gigs, he built his own guitars, and formed his first band, the Detours.
Hard work, incessant practicing, and good fortune brought the band signings for gigs, but it was the eventual recruitment of former schoolmates Entwistle and Townshend that led to the evolution of the Who, which later became the High Numbers, a name referring to shoe sizes that supposedly corresponded to other parts of male anatomy. After replacing second drummer Doug Sandom with Keith Moon and jettisoning original manager Peter Meaden for Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, the band name reverted back to the Who.
Through the ensuing years, Daltrey approached his job as a component of what eventually became one of the biggest – and arguably, best – rock music acts with a working-class ethic. Protecting his voice, he abjured the amphetamines so prevalent at the time because they dried out his throat. In the meantime, the remaining trio’s abuse of various substances as well as Moon’s destructive antics with sporadic assistance from Townshend and Entwistle spiraled out of control.
In the midst of all this, Daltrey attempted quality control, claiming speed caused the group’s musicians to play too fast and too loud, thus requiring him to over-sing to compensate. This all came to a head when Daltrey found Moon’s stash of amphetamines and flushed them down the loo. The ensuing row resulted in Daltrey’s temporary eviction from his own band.
Daltrey also complains about tempo and volume issues during the famous Leeds concerts that yielded the “Live at Leeds” concert album, claiming he again was forced to over-sing, but – like every other music critic of the past 40-some years – I can find nothing on it that knocks it off its perch as “Best Live Album Ever” (especially the expanded reissue).
Upon his return to the fold, Daltrey writes, Entwistle and Moon persistently goaded him, and it seems that Daltrey was the odd man out for the remainder of the original lineup’s tenure, which ended when Moon died from an overdose of prescription medication in 1978. He writes that Moon’s replacement, former Faces drummer Kenney Jones, was a good, even great drummer, just not a good fit for the Who. In retrospect, who could disagree? Daltrey laments that Townshend and Entwistle failed to support his assessment, which played a part in Daltrey’s decision to announce the breakup of the Who tent after 1982’s “It’s Hard” album and tour.
In any event, much of the band’s creative spark had fizzled after 15 years of auspicious creative fervor that included film and stage adaptations of “Tommy”; a documentary, “The Kids Are Alright”; and Frank Roddam’s cinematic adaptation of “Quadrophenia.” Not to mention Daltrey’s favorite Who album, “By Numbers,” and burgeoning solo career (much of which is highly recommended, particularly “Daltrey,” “Ride a Rock Horse,” “One of the Boys” and the “McVicar soundtrack).
Townshend, meanwhile, shifted his focus to a solo career that yielded many successes from the folk-rock collaboration with former Faces bass player, songwriter, and singer Ronnie Lane, “Rough Mix,” to “Empty Glass,” “All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” and “White City: A Novel.” With the Who in hibernation, Daltrey began to focus on home projects and his acting career.
Print the Legend
When the Who reformed for a tour at the end of the decade, Simon Phillips had replaced Jones. When the remaining trio reunited for a limited tour of “Quadrophenia” in 1996, Zak Starkey – son of Ringo Starr and Moon’s godson – had assumed the drummer’s chair.
Although Daltrey wasn’t happy with the production of that tour, I saw both Detroit-area performances that year. The first performance was admirable (although, I must confess, “Quadrophenia” is among my all-time favorite albums, and the Who my all-time favorite rock band, so an objective analysis is impossible). The second concert at the tail end of the tour, however, saw Townshend stepping out from behind his Plexiglas booth to windmill to my heart’s content, Daltrey in fine vocal form, and Entwistle at the top of his considerable game.
After once again hanging up their spurs, the Who reunited for a tour after appearing at a Madison Square Garden benefit for 9/11 first responders and their families. It truly was a magnificent performance, and prompted the announcement of a full tour afterwards. Shortly before the first concert, however, Entwistle was dead of a heart attack suffered in a Las Vegas hotel room in a scenario lifted right out of the bass player’s song, “Trick of the Light,” from 1978’s “Who Are You.”
Who fans reading Daltrey’s autobiography more than likely won’t find much that is new or revelatory. Daltrey didn’t hobnob much with the rock aristocracy of which he was a member. His focus always seemed to be on his career and the welfare of his family (although he established several franchises with out-of-town women while on tour). He does go out of his way to puncture some of Townshend’s artistic pretensions and notes that Entwistle could be a disagreeable individual.
It’s also obvious he was beyond annoyed by Moon’s behavior, although he also suspects those in charge of the band’s finances might’ve inflated hotel damages to siphon money from the Who’s coffers. He also suspects some hotels used the Who drummer’s destructive reputation to bilk insurance companies for renovations they would have made anyway.
In any event, Daltrey wasn’t present the night of Moon’s 21st birthday when he allegedly drove a limousine into a Flint, Mich., Holiday Inn swimming pool. He still doubts it ever happened. To quote from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Preserving a Legacy
What’s noticeably absent from Daltrey’s memoirs are details about individual songs and albums. It’s interesting to note that the photo shoot of Daltrey in a tub of beans for “The Who Sell Out” resulted in pneumonia. We read about the partnership of Leo Sayer and David Courtney, and how the songwriting duo provided many great songs to Daltrey’s solo efforts. We also learn that “Behind Blue Eyes” is his favorite Townshend-penned song. But that’s about it.
Some albums get short shrift, while others, such as the woefully underrated “Face Dances,” receive no mention. We get a brief overview of what inspired the greatest scream in rock history on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but nothing about the overt spiritual themes of the rest of Townshend’s body of work. This is surprising, given that Daltrey has delivered the definitive versions of much of Townshend’s best work, and could presumably do so only if he got inside the thematic skin of each and every song. Likewise, nothing is said about Daltrey’s late-career masterpiece, the collaboration with Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson, “Going Back Home.”
Minor kvetching aside, Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite is a fun read about one of classic rock’s founding members and the band he strived mightily with varying degrees of success to keep on track. While it wasn’t up to him to save Moon, Entwistle, and Townshend entirely, he has certainly done much to preserve the group’s legacy while using it to promote admirable charity work in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Thanks a lot, Mr. Daltrey.