On the corner of Nightingale Lane and Richmond Hill in Surrey, gazing out over the Thames, stands a grand old Georgian mansion called The Wick. An elegant pile of plum- coloured brick, it once belonged to Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, who sold it to Pete Townshend who is there right now, casting his mind back to 1968, when The Who washed up in Wellington for their first New Zealand tour.
The band had just been chucked out of Australia, having received a tersely worded communique from the Australian prime minister, chiding them for their drunken misbehaviour and requesting they never return - and when they arrived in Wellington, the hotel manager issued a warning that he wouldn't tolerate any nonsense. The band was barred from the in-house restaurant and denied room service. The hotel wouldn't even give Townshend a bowl in case he smashed it, so he bought cornflakes and milk from a nearby store and ate it out of the sink.
Steve Marriott of The Small Faces was also on tour and it was his birthday. After some enthusiastic drinking, Marriott decided to "do a Keith Moon" and chucked a telly from the hotel balcony. It smashed on the street below just as a police car turned up.
"I was prepared to kill Marriott" says Townshend. "I was shouting, 'What's wrong with you? It's landed right next to a f---ing police car!' I thought we were all on our way to jail, but then there's a knock on the door and these policemen come into the room carrying a case of beer. They didn't even mention the TV set! They said 'We wanted to show we were more hospitable than those miserable Aussie bastards, so here's a crate of beer. Welcome to New Zealand, and have a great show'.'
Now 67, Townshend chortles away amiably and it's hard to believe this affable elderly gentleman was once an amphetamine-chomping wildman, a human wrecking ball, a punk before punk existed, channelling his anger into thrilling little pop-chart grenades built from howling feedback and clanking power chords, and ending shows by smashing his guitar to splinters against the speaker stacks.
Sharp-suited and skinny as a whip, Townshend was the original Modfather, the leader of an unlikely band of brothers that also contained stoic bassist John Entwistle, lunatic drummer Keith Moon and brooding pretty-boy singer Roger Daltrey. Their shows were reknowned for their explosive intensity, and their off- stage antics were equally legendary. Driving cars into swimming pools, blowing up dunnies with dynamite, trashing hotel rooms, ordering their groupies by the dozen, The Who wrote the book on rock star excess, and, now, Townshend has written a book on himself.
"It's been a useful process," he says. "Writing it really helped me understand some aspects of my character, and though some things have remained private, I tried to be as honest as possible along the way."
You have to wonder what bits Townshend kept to himself, because Who I Am is an unusually frank autobiography, in which the guitarist readily admits to being selfish, damaged, unfaithful, and, well, "a bit of an arsehole".
He recounts in detail his acid trips, cocaine and heroin benders, brandy binges and psychotic episodes. He beds groupies, chases his friends' wives, crashes cars while drunk and nearly throws himself out of a window while depressed.
Amid many other "see me, feel me, touch me, heal me" moments, he describes a drugged- up sexual encounter with a male friend, though he admits the only man he'd ever seriously wanted to shag was good mate, Mick Jagger, after spying Jagger's "long and plump" penis one day, lolling about in a baggy pair of pyjama pants. Blimey.
Oh, and there's some stuff about music, too: the rock operas, the gestation of killer singles such as I Can't Explain, My Generation and Substitute, the famous performance that left all those muddy hippies shell-shocked at Woodstook. And that famously destructive stage show? Turns out Townshend smashed his first guitar by accident in 1967, playing in a pub with a very low roof. People loved it, so he kept on doing it, although he'd occasionally decide not to wreck his guitar, in a fit of passive- aggressive pique.
"Yes, I discovered I could inflict a lot of pain by being subdued on stage. I remember this guy, Ted Rasker, standing in the front row at Madison Square Garden, shouting 'Come on, Pete! Jump! Jump!'. Ted had written me a letter a few months earlier about our Who By Numbers album, saying one song was a piece of shit and I should be embarrassed to have written it. So this night he's in the crowd shouting at me, and I absolutely refused to jump for Ted. I should have been playing to the other 36,000 people in Madison Square Garden, not f---ing Ted Rasker."
In person and on the page, Townshend is frequently very funny. In an early chapter, he describes visiting Daltrey's house for an audition, only to discover that "one of the criminals Roger hung around with was hiding from the police under the bed where I sat down to play". When it's decided Daltrey's band, The Detours, needs a new name, someone suggests The Who, but Townshend's adamant they should be called The Hair. Fortunately, he is outvoted.
Sex is an ongoing preoccupation. One night, his father drunkenly explains how babies are made, stating "The man does a kind of pee into the woman". Townshend deadpans: "I remember passing on the facts, as I understood them, to a young friend of mine, and his astonishment that we should all have been synthesised from urine."
When the teenage Townshend finally gets up the gumption to have sex with a girl, it's in an empty flat her uncle is redecorating, but the act of love is cut short when he quite literally gets cold feet, sliding off the bed and plonking his brand new suede Mod boots into a bucket of wallpaper paste.
But between all the funny anecdotes and rock'n'roll war stories, sections of the book are also unutterably sad. Born in 1945 into a musical family (father a professional saxophonist; mother a singer), Townshend is packed off to live with his mentally ill grandmother, Denny, when he's 5-years-old.
Denny denies him food, threatens him with gypsy curses, half-drowns him in the bath. There are no toys, so he plays with the knobs on a chest of drawers, pretending it's the control panel of a submarine. It was, he writes, "the darkest part of my life", especially when Denny begins dating strange men.
Years later, undergoing psychotherapy, Townshend starts to shake uncontrollably as he half- remembers being abused by one of these shadowy "uncles". He also describes a Sea Scouts training camp where he's forced to take a cold shower while two scout masters masturbate. These experiences left him with an ongoing sense of anger, estrangement and "sexual shame", which became enduring thematic concerns in his songs.
"Some of my childhood was extremely dark and scary, and I have to accept that's where some of the rage I carry comes from. In those post-war years, parents were so intent on rebuilding their marriages, their jobs, the country, that kids were just left to get on with it. I used to run around Acton in a big gang of 4-year-old boys. Then you'd go to school and be subjected to the most unbelievable savagery by sick f---- who should've been in jail! But once we got through those difficult years and became young men, we had this new style of music to help see us through, and I felt like one of the lucky ones, with my pen and my guitar, writing songs that went with that change. If I hadn't been able to express my anger through music, who knows what I would have become? A bank robber, perhaps, or maybe a soldier."
Townshend once wrote "I hope I die before I get old", but it was his band-mates who checked out early. Keith Moon died of an accidental overdose in 1978, aged just 32, and Entwhistle's heart gave out in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2002 after a cocaine- fuelled bender with a hooker. He was 57.
Townshend, however, is now pushing 70, a rock'n'roll survivor with three grown-up kids, a happy second marriage, and a back catalogue of intermittently brilliant music. He and Daltrey still perform as The Who, most recently at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, and he says he feels "happier and more comfortable" than ever these days, and proud of his artistic achievements.
But one thing clearly still rankles, and that is his damaged reputation. In 2003, Townshend was among 3744 "persons of interest" interviewed by British police after accessing a child pornography website. Townshend issued a statement admitting he had paid to enter the site one time only, and maintained he was not a paedophile but a victim of childhood sexual abuse himself, and had visited the site "purely to see what was there", partly as research for this very book.
After forensic analysis of his computers, it was confirmed that Townshend had not downloaded any pornographic images and charges were dropped, though he was given a caution by police, who stated it was "not a defence to access such images for research or out of curiosity". Townshend discusses the case in detail in his book, but just before our interview, a publicist phones to warn me that questions regarding the charges are "off limits" as they will "make Pete angry".
But Townshend seems eminently calm, so I ask him about it anyway. He says he has nothing to hide; he's just wary of interviewers using this book release as an opportunity to ambush him with deliberately provocative questions.
"I don't want to have my rage triggered by people making light of a serious situation, trying to get a story out of something that happened to me as a child that was deeply hurtful. You know, I got a letter from the officer in charge of that initial investigation, and he said that I'd never been regarded as a paedophile by his team, never considered a danger to children and that he believed my account then and still did. Of course, I've known from the beginning what I did and why I did it and I don't wanna get angry at the way the press manipulated the situation and used it to pump up a story in order to sell newspapers.
"Part of the reason I wrote this book was to give my side of the story . . . so people can read it and make of it what they will."
Pete Townshend, Who I Am, $44.99, HarperCollins.
- Sunday Star Times