Books

Who’s Grateful?

Roger Daltrey in 2008 (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
In his delightful new autobiography, Roger Daltrey proves the rare rock star guided by that quintessentially conservative trait: gratitude.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. John Lennon was born in 1940. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 1943. Jimmy Page, 1944. Eric Clapton, 1945. All of them grew up amid cratered, bombed-out post-war landscapes and the deprivations that went with British rationing, which didn’t end until 1954. In his disarming and delightful new autobiography, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, Roger Daltrey (born 1944) notes wryly that when he played Ebenezer Scrooge onstage in New York City in the 1990s, the prop Christmas bird used to signify Bob Cratchit’s dismal feast was at least twice as big as the wretched carcasses he remembers from early childhood, when the family would enjoy a roast chicken only as a special treat, twice a year. “You had to queue for a weekly ration of one powdered egg,” he recalls.

As a boy, Daltrey broke his jaw in three places when he tripped playing in one of the many building sites that were everywhere in London. He also suffered an undiagnosed broken back, he thinks, when some boys heaving him in the air on a blanket let him fall flat on the ground, which was “the sort of thing kids used to do for entertainment before iPads.”

From that atmosphere of deprivation, experimentation, and exhilaration came the guitar-smashing bedlam that was the Who. Theirs was the kind of creativity that comes from starting with a broad, open horizon. Or, as Daltrey puts it:

What happened in the sixties started in the forties. The generation born during the hostilities, right up to 1950, those were the magical years for musicians, artists, scientists, everything. That’s what happens when you start out with a fallow field. So much had been destroyed, there was only one thing that could happen. To build. We were a generation of builders. There was no choice. We had grown up with very little. . . .

Daltrey’s title is not sarcastic: Mr. Kibblewhite, the man who threw him out of Acton County Grammar School at 15 (Daltrey says he brought an air gun to school, which was used by another boy to maim a third), opened up crucial opportunities for him. Working in factories, he began to build his own guitars. The first one, made of plywood, died when it folded over. He writes that without music he might have wound up in the same trade pursued by some of his friends: bank robbery. But a chance meeting with one boy from his former school (John Entwistle, a bass player) led to an introduction to another Acton boy, an arty guitarist (Pete Townshend). The band was on break at a gig in late 1963 when a guy in the audience said his mate was better than the session drummer filling in on stage, and so began its 14-year ride with Keith Moon.

The early days meant carving out a youth culture amid the hegemony of the elders: All of rock’s anger and the energy was channeled into a “demand to be heard” when the teenager was just being invented, when the culture mostly ignored the tastes of young people and rock music still existed on the margins. Records were expensive, and before 1967 the BBC played little popular music, which was broadcast instead from unlicensed offshore “pirate radio” stations, giving it an added rebel mystique. Rock was samizdat, and it was also theater: Townshend first hit on the guitar-smashing idea when he accidentally poked the roof of his instrument through a low ceiling at an early concert. “Some girls sniggered,” Daltrey recalls. To cover up for his mistake, Townshend destroyed the guitar. The following week Moon followed up by kicking over his drum kit. “From then on,” notes Daltrey, “the audience expected us to break our instruments. It was our thing.” It wasn’t a call for revolution. It just looked cool.

As for the doomed anarchist in the band, Daltrey chastises what you might call Moonism. The drummer’s many clever-but-stupid acts included driving a Continental (or perhaps it was a Cadillac) into the pool of a Holiday Inn at age 21, earning the group a $50,000 bill and a lifetime ban from the hotel chain. Daltrey’s distaste for such antics almost cost him his spot in the band he founded; after one particularly ragged gig, disgusted with the drug culture in which the other three band members joined enthusiastically, he flushed Moon’s pills down the toilet and, when Moon started a fight about it, decked the drummer. That got him fired for two weeks, before the Who begged him to come back, promising that there would be no drugs before shows. (Moon went on to break this pledge in the 1970s, his habitual indulgence ensuring he’d be the one to die before he got old.)

Moonism wasn’t so hilarious “when you think about it soberly,” Daltrey says. “The pranks, the explosions, the general devastation, there was usually someone at the other end of it having a pretty miserable time.” After an early TV appearance, Daltrey recalls, Moon set off a smoke bomb so large that it knocked him several feet forward and ensured that Townshend’s hearing was “never 100 percent again.” That same U.S. tour, Daltrey carefully rationed his spending, limiting himself to one hamburger a day, only to be told upon return to the U.K. that there were no profits to be shared. “I’d hardly spent anything,” Daltrey says. “Yes, but do you know what Keith spent?” his agent replied. Daltrey had to borrow money for his flight home.

It’s not hard to see how rock can create a conservative. These days the singer of the No. 1 conservative rock song of all time detests Jeremy Corbyn (whom he, not without cause, calls a “communist”), supports Brexit, and says of the Labour party, “It pains me to say it, but in my life a Labour government comes in with incredible optimism and leaves the country in the sh*t.” His abiding conservative feature, however, is the gratitude that resounds through this book. He gives thanks for his wife, Heather, who has stood by him since 1971, and for his other life partner, too: “I made the conscious decision that if my job was going to be the singer of Pete’s songs, and if Pete’s songs were genius, which they were, then I would be happy with my lot, thank you very much.”

Bacterial meningitis nearly killed Daltrey in 2015, but it also gave him the ultimate reason to be grateful. “I just felt overwhelmingly lucky,” he writes. “I said to myself, ‘Would you ever imagine the things you’ve done?’”

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