The Who’s Pete Townshend opens up on women he wronged and suffering childhood flashbacks

That might be news to fans of Townshend and The Who, widely considered one of the most influential rock groups of the 20th century and soon to be setting off on another mammoth global tour. But in part it explains the songwriter and guitarist’s decision to channel his creative juices into other artistic areas over the years, among them book reviews, essays and scripts. It’s hardly typical rock star territory, and now, at the grand old age of 72, he’s taken a foray into even more unexpected quarters with his first novel, The Age Of Anxiety.

That said, it contains plenty of sex, drugs and rock’n’ roll, along with some memorable characters, including a chap called Crow who has, Townshend admits, “more than a little bit of Keith Richards in him”.

But these days, such wild debauchery is not for Townshend who lives in a beautiful Georgian house overlooking the Thames in Richmond, west London, with his second wife Rachel Fuller.

“I’ve never wanted to live in LA or New York or central London. I’ve always wanted to live in the suburbs,” he admits. “I like it there. It’s where I grew up.”

Life is certainly less frenetic. When he’s not in the studio, he walks the dogs with Rachel and catches up with his old friends. He remains close to many of his superstar musical contemporaries still left, especially Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton.

“I see quite a lot of Mick – I think the person I feel closest to being able to tell the absolute truth with is Mick Jagger,” he says.

“Eric Clapton and I, who’ve been through a lot together, are very good friends, although we don’t see each other much.”

He’s also hugely fond of Elton John.

“My wife Rachel and I went to see him in Milan. He’s working on so much stuff and he’s still so funny and so alert and so bitchy. He feels to me like an extraordinary survivor because I think he could have killed himself with the amount of coke he used to take.”

For his own part, Townshend insists he was never the most indulgent of his contemporaries.While his life was “wild enough”, drugs were never really his thing although by his own admission he was “a big drinker”.

It’s now 35 years since he’s touched the former and 26 years the latter.

“I think I went to war with booze and drugs in the sense that it was a motivation, it was medicine, it helped me cope with the fact that I was doing something I wasn’t crazy about doing,” he reflects.

As for womanising – he pleads not guilty on that front too. There’s one ex-wife, Karen Astley, with whom he has three grown-up children, but no notch-riddled bedpost. “I haven’t got old girlfriends in the thousands – there’s maybe three or four or five and they’re very important to me,” he says.

“In fact, one of the things that I realised when I was writing my biography was wondering why couldn’t I stay with the wife I had? She was perfect in every way. It was the same with every girlfriend I had, I could have married and stayed with them, they were perfect. I was the one that was ****ed up.”

After Townshend’s well-received 2012 autobiography, Who I Am, you might be forgiven for thinking his debut novel – with its cast of young and old rockers, painters, groupies and grimy bars – is a follow-up.

Not a bit of it, he insists. “This is actually a great rock novel,” he explains. “Yes it has been written by me and I come from that world but what actually happened when I wrote it was that I didn’t want to touch on the obvious.

“When I wrote my autobiography, I was as honest as I possibly could be. I’ve told my story and I’ve made my apologies if I need to make them.”

It’s impossible to meet Townshend, of course, without recalling one of those apologies in particular – something he describes as the “elephant in the room”.

In 2003 he accepted a caution for allegedly paying to access a website offering images of child pornography.

No images were ever downloaded – and he insists he was carrying out research to prove that big banks were complicit in supplying porn to paedophiles. Nonetheless, although he is open and chatty when we meet, he acknowledges the stigma will always linger. And it will be at the back of the reader’s mind, especially when you learn a central character finds himself accused of a sex crime.

In part, his book stems from the sense that however bucolic your environment on the surface, modern life is full of menace.

“It’s about, for example, that thing that we have when we’re at a certain point in our life, when we think I’ll just get a little cottage by the sea and I’ll go and live a simple life, walk the dog on the beach and meet mates in the pub in the evening,” reflects Townshend.

“Then you watch Chernobyl on the TV and you realise it can come from the sky – and it did come from the sky, and you can’t insulate yourself from it.”

Still, in a world littered with dead 1960s rock stars – among them two of his former bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle – he’s done well hasn’t he? He looks in good shape – trim and bright-eyed – and notwithstanding the removal of a cancerous polyp in his colon in the aftermath of his arrest 16 years ago, he’s in good health. “Well, I’m still here,” he laughs. “I feel lucky, but also a bit scarred, a bit cut up. I mean losing John and Keith, losing David Bowie, losing Brian Jones, it all leaves its mark.”

Born in west London, Townshend came from a musical family but, aged four, he was sent by his parents to live with his mentally unstable grandmother Dorothy. In his autobiography, he drew a bleak portrait of her cruelty and mental instability, and intimated he was molested by one of the many random men she would allow into her home. Exactly what happened is something over which he drew a veil.

Today, however, he reveals for the first time how two years ago, a picture of the flat where he used to live with his grandmother – after being, in his words “dumped by my parents” – sent to him by a friend, brought back much of what he had pushed to the far recesses of his mind.

“He sent me a photo and said, ‘This is the flat that you lived in, in Westgate, with your grandmother.’ And it’s a perfect picture of exactly the period, 1955, with the bus outside the station. And there was the bedroom window, my bedroom, and I had this huge ****ing flashback – crash. I’d never remembered very much about what happened there.”

He does not expand on it, but the legacy of that experience was enough for him to decide to take a year’s sabbatical between October 2017 to October 2018 and see a counsellor.

“And I started just to read, to walk, to try to nurture my soul,” he confides. “I read philosophy, studied computer coding, I got a pedal steel guitar and started to learn that and a black harp and I decided to build myself a new electronic studio.”

It says much about his creative energy that he didn’t make it to the end of the sabbatical. Halfway through he got restless, and started to write a new series of songs with The Who singer Roger Daltrey in mind.

“So, at the very end of my sabbatical I had 15 songs and everybody I played them to said it was my best songwriting for years.”

They went on to become the new Who album – and the reason why this self-confessed unwilling performer is touring once more next year.

There is plenty more afoot too. Perhaps not entirely unexpectedly for the creator of rock operas Quadrophenia and Tommy, The Age OfAnxiety is also to be accompanied by an opera for which Townshend has already written the libretto (the movie rights have been sold) and a major stage production is planned.

It’s another reminder that in some ways he remains the ultimate reluctant rock star. Is that a fair description? “There have been moments when I’ve enjoyed it, I think,” he says.

“I used to like getting drunk and pretending to be a rock star because let’s face it, it’s a good thing to pretend to be.”

He laughs: “I just never carried it off very well.”

The Age Of Anxiety by Pete Townshend (Coronet Books, £20) is out on Tuesday. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: Age Of Anxiety Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit

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