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Simon Townshend on his new album and life with The Who

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In Pete Townshend's recently published autobiography 'Who I Am,' the rock legend recounts an incident that took place on July 5, 1969. The Who were flying high with their rock opera about a deaf, mute and blind boy named Tommy, and were set to perform it that evening at London's venerable Royal Albert Hall.

That day, Townshend was in charge of Simon, his 8-year-old brother. Instead of subjecting Simon to the potential dangers of a Who show, Pete elected to leave him in the care of a trusted friend - a wise move, as it turned out. The Who found themselves banned from playing future shows at the Albert Hall due to the group's unruly audience.

Simon's babysitter on that blistering hot English Saturday was David Bowie then a relatively unknown singer-songwriter. Pete writes that when he arrived to retrieve Simon after the Who show, 'They both said the same thing. I am going to do this.' David meant he would create conceptual albums based on imaginary characters. Simon meant he was going to be a rock musician.''

Simon Townshend has music in his DNA. Father Cliff Townshend was a saxophone and clarinet player in The Squadronaires, the Royal Air Force jazz and swing band, in demand during and after World War II. Mother Betty was a popular vocalist who sang with several bands on the same circuit including Cliff's.

For as long as Simon can remember, his oldest brother Pete has been famous as The Who's leader, principal songwriter, guitar innovator (and occasional smasher) and eloquent statesman. Simon stepped in and out of the band's story several times during their prime before launching his own career in the early 80s with an impressive debut produced by Pete called 'Sweet Sound.'

In 1996, Simon was invited to join The Who on tour as second guitarist a spot that he retains to this day.

On Nov. 6, Townshend released his seventh album, 'Looking Out Looking In' (Eagle Rock), a work of warm, smartly-written melodic rock delivered with slashing power chords, sharp acoustic rhythm and introspective lyrics. Townshend's son, Ben, proves himself a solid drummer throughout. 'I think it's my best album to date,' Townshend told me.

Last week, The Who launched their first tour in four years, a 37-date trek called 'Quadrophenia and More' that will bring the band to Boston's TD Garden to perform their landmark 1973 double album in its entirety on Friday, Nov. 16. Simon will stay in Boston for a solo club show at 'Church' set for 6 p.m. on the following evening.

I caught up with Simon in mid-October just before he hopped a plane to begin rehearsals with Pete, Roger Daltrey and the rest of the band.

Dow: The first time Who fans heard your voice, we didn't know it was you. You can be heard on the 'Tommy' album what do you remember about that experience?

Townshend: When I was a little boy, my brother Paul and I were playing in the lifts (elevators) at the studio, and I think Pete and the boys couldn't reach the high notes. I just remember being called in and being asked to put some headphones on and sing, 'Rise, rise, rise, rise' (sings part of 'Smash The Mirror'). You'll hear that, as it hits the high notes, the band's voices are pulled down and my brother Paul and I are pushed up. And then, I went on to do 'Extra Extra' parts in the film version of 'Tommy,' which was a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing that the 'Miracle Cure.'

Dow: I've just started reading Pete's book 'Who I Am' - have you read it?

Townshend: I got straight into it when it arrived, but I've been so busy. I'm looking forward to getting on the plane this weekend to start rehearsals for the Quadrophenia tour. I'm going to read it more thoroughly then, but I have read the first four or five chapters and I really enjoyed it.

Dow: The new Who tour is billed as 'Quadrophenia and More.' Could you drop a clue as to what the 'and more' will entail?

Townshend: We're going to be playing the Quadrophenia album to a T. Zak Starkey (son of Ringo Starr) is on drums, Pino Palladino is on bass and myself on second guitar. We kind of take a slightly different slant we don't want to emulate the original but we want to stay true to the record. As far as the 'and more' part of the show, we're going to play it by ear and keep it varied. Sometimes, it's nice to just mix it up a bit and give yourself something different every night.

Dow: I've been listening to your new album 'Looking Out Looking in' since it arrived. The strong songwriting reminds me of your first album 'Sweet Sound' - I have fond memories of playing that record on college radio nearly 30 years ago. How do you see the new record compared with your earlier albums?

Townshend: Well, I think it's my best album to date, personally. I'm always writing and it's interesting how you always come back to the new material as your favorite. Actually, I have another album in the can already so I'm always moving forward. If you write naturally, it just comes to you you just keep flowing and it keeps coming. That's the way things have been for me for the last two years.

Dow: These days it seems like songwriting is almost a lost art. Do you know when you've hit written a good one?

Townshend: Absolutely. It's all about songs. When I was a kid, my dad was a trad-jazz player and as good as he was always saying to me, 'Keep writing. Keep writing music. Make that your priority,' and that's what I've always done. It's just a natural thing. The ability to write music came to me at a very young age. For me, I see myself as an artist rather than a musician. I think in terms of songs. I think of the structure of lyrics. That's just how my brain works.

Dow: You've played a number of shows in the United States and you keep a fairly regular gig schedule in England. How do American audiences differ from English audiences?

Townshend: I think American audiences are a little bit more giving especially compared with London (laughs). I mean New York is sometimes a hard crowd but then I have a great following there. In London, they're kind of more reserved and more judgmental. In the states, I think people are more open and more excited about people coming over and playing. They give you a good response and good feedback.

Dow: A lot of has been written about Keith Moon. Some believe him to be the greatest rock drummer who ever lived, and others see him as just an outrageous character that lived life to the limits. Tell me about the Keith you knew when you were growing up.

Townshend: He was such an eccentric when he was drunk and partying, but when he was sober, he was kind of the opposite. He was very quiet and kind of meek and kind and generous and loving. You had this sort of crazy guy almost a schizophrenic once he was partying. He was a great drummer without a doubt. I think a lot of talented people have that you see it in a lot of showmen. They burst out of themselves onstage or once they press the release button and are kind of the opposite when they're just living their normal life. Keith was a really nice guy, I'll tell you that. He was a really generous guy.

Dow: Over the last 15 years or so, it seems like Pete and Roger have come to terms with their friendship and the fact that they need each other. There also seems to be a genuine brotherly love there. It's a much different relationship than what goes on between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. How do you see Pete and Roger these days?

Townshend: Pete and Roger have always gotten along. You know, these guys have been stars since they were very young and that has an effect on your life and how you perceive yourself and others. I really believe that in the bottom of their hearts, they love each other dearly, but when you've put up with someone for so long, sometimes, after a tour is over, the last person you want to see is the guy you've been working with. But they do have a good relationship, and I think the last decade has been incredible for them.

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on 104.3 FM WABK. Beginning Dec. 31, his show will also air on Big 104 104.7 and 107.7 The Biggest Hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

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