Roger Daltrey…old but still rocking

Roger Daltrey may be 67 and a grandfather ‘many, many’ times over, but he’s more excitable and fidgety than a toddler. He’s backwards and forwards in his chair, his hands pounding a handkerchief, his legs bouncing up and down as if they are pulsing with energy.  

The angry man of rock is as angry as ever, and he doesn’t like being called old. The Who lead singer famously sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, and says he still believes that.

‘We tend to think of age only in time, but I don’t think it has much to do with time at all; there’s a whole load of other things,’ he says. ‘I’ve met 16-year-olds who are old and 90-year-olds who are young.

‘Every day, I visit a mate of mine who is 8…he’s old in years but has the brain of a teenager. Wonderful. Old puts a slant on things. Yes, I’m a grandfather, but in some ways I feel the same as when I was younger.’

Physically, Roger is in incredible shape with a full head of hair and a physique you wouldn’t mess with. ‘You have to keep fit being a singer…that’s part of the job,’ he says. ‘You can’t do it unless you have incredible stamina.’

He has just finished decorating his house, which is why he is exercising his fingers with a tightly rolled up handkerchief. ‘Building work and guitar playing don’t mix’ he laughs.

Time has, however, taken its toll. Last year Roger had emergency surgery after doctors found a pre-cancerous growth behind his vocal chords.

‘That was a bit of a scare because I didn’t know what it was,’ he recalls. ‘I was finding it difficult to sing, the notes were becoming more difficult and taking up more energy.

‘I got lucky…I found probably the best throat guy in the world and he got me back to a voice that is probably better now that it has been for years.’

His throat still has to be checked twice a year and it could ‘go pop’ at any time. But instead of leading the singer gently into retirement…and with a fortune estimated to be $50 million he hardly needs the money…he’s working harder than ever.

‘I have deliberately kept singing because I have to at my age,’ he says. ‘If I stopped for even a year my voice would slowly deteriorate until it’s not there at all. That’s a fact about getting to my age. Rock musicians have never been this age before and so we are in the land of the unknown really. I could never stop. I just love to play. I enjoy singing; being in touch with something that is inside of me.’

But as he tours the country with his Tommy Reborn show, 40 years after he first sang its lyrics, and then moves on to America where The Who have an even bigger following, he is his band’s sole emissary. It’s the first time he has done the show without main songwriter and other surviving bandmate Pete Townshend. And he admits he does not know when they will perform together again.

 ‘Pete is almost stone deaf,’ he says sadly. ‘He deafened himself in the recording studio, and when we last performed he had to stand right next to the speakers to hear anything. I don’t know what Pete will do. I don’t want to do a tour and have him end up completely deaf.’

The pair have been together for 50 years since meeting at Acton County Grammar School in West London. They are as infamous for their rows as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Roger says they still fight like ‘cat and dog…it’s creative differences’.

We talk about how the two Rolling Stones have fallen out over Richards’ book…in particular the claims that Mick is not well endowed. ‘If I was Mick I would just say, “Yeah, I’ve got a small cock, who cares? I’ve done all right with it!”’ cackles Roger.

‘I love Pete to bits,’ he says. ‘He’s incredibly comple…bordering on madness. But when he is creative, some of the music he makes is incredible and we’ve been together for 50 years; we’re like brothers.’

He has lost his two other bandmates, Keith Moon and John Entwistle to drugs. He was the only one in the band not to touch the heavy stuff. ‘I wasn’t a goody-goody…I dabbled in the natural,’ says Roger. But I was in a band with three alcoholics and someone had to be straight. They were three lunatics.

‘I also got warned off chemicals very early on by the man who made Purple Haze (LSD). His name was Owsley Stanley, The Bear. He told me to never touch chemicals and I believed him because he was the man.’

He was famously thrown out of the band for a week for physically attacking Moon, who was providing drugs for the others. He says he only became angry with his bandmates when it started to affect their performances.

‘I don’t think anyone who hasn’t done this job can understand how hard it is…particularly with nerves,’ he says. ‘You are completely naked up there and you will be judged. It’s very tough psychologically.

‘So it’s easy to see why musicians would go for a bit of Dutch courage here, a bit of something else there. Keith used to throw up before every gig. The quality of the playing went down because of the drugs and we were better than that. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I thought the best way was to get rid of the drugs.’

He says he still remembers his bandmates whenever he plays. ‘Keith and John made their stamp on that music and when we play it, it’s like they are back alive; they still echo in the music and they always will.’

On the domestic front, Roger was also always the most settled, and recently celebrated his ruby wedding…although that is not to say there weren’t plenty of groupies. He had a four-year marriage to model Jackie Rickman, which produced his first son Simon. They were divorced in 1968 shortly after another son, Mathias, was born as a result of an affair with model Elisabeth Aronsson.

When he married American model Heather Taylor in 1971…she was the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady…it was with the proviso that he was allowed to stray, although he insists he behaves himself now their three children have become parents themselves.

‘It’s not an open marriage, but in the early days of our relationship she never put restrictions on me,’ says Roger. ‘I was in one of the biggest rock bands in the world, going out for four months at a time. At that age do you expect me to come back and say, “Oh yes darling, I was a good boy?”

‘Over years we have developed something a lot deeper than that…she is the most extraordinary woman I know.’

Today Roger, who grew up in a poor West London household and had to make his own guitar, is as well known for his charitable work as his music. His work for the Teenage Cancer Trust has helped create 20 units for teenagers suffering from cancer.

His annual week-long series of gigs at the Albert Hall has made more than $20 million for the charity while he has spearheaded its spread to America and Australia.

We get on to the issue of U2, who recently faced a demonstration at Glastonbury after moving their multimillion-pound company out of Ireland, depriving their suffering country of their tax revenue.

‘I find it very interesting that people who spout socialism don’t want to pay for a socialist state. Weird,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t quite add up.’

When it comes to British politics he has a lot to say. A lifelong Labour voter, he’s disgusted by the last Government. ‘I was appalled at what Labour did to the working class…mass immigration, where people were allowed to come here and undercut our working class,’ says Roger.

‘It’s fine to say everybody can come into your country, but everybody should work towards a standard of living expected by people who live here. Not come here, live 20 to a room, pay no tax, send money home and undercut every builder in London. They slaughtered the working class in this country. I hate them for it because it is always the little man who is hurt badly. It’s terrible. It frustrates me.

‘We have got to stop pandering to people because we won’t be able to afford to keep this going. At the very least, it should be a pre-requisite that people have to learn English.

‘What really made me angry about that period is not that people shouldn’t come here…that’s fine…but you have to make allowances for the strain that is going to put on your social services and they made none.

‘Talk about sticking their head up their arse. The arrogance, the audacity. They don’t realise how hard the average man has to work to get that and to pay those taxes.’

The Tories should not expect Roger to turn to them, however. ‘I’ve become very cynical,’ he says. ‘I don’t see anybody with a pair of balls out of the whole bunch. They are so spineless.’

He is passionate about everything. There is the National Health Service, which he has seen at first hand, ‘When you look at how it is run you see there is nobody in charge. Everybody’s been digging trenches for 50, 60 years and now those trenches are so deep its going to be really hard to get any sort of movement.’

And at the other end of the spectrum, there is his adoration of the Queen, who presented him with a CBE six years ago. ‘She’s amazing,’ he gushes. ‘She talks with her eyes. She has a twinkle in them…wow…she’s so special. I think she’s so wonderful and we, as a country should be so proud of her. It’s a dreadful position to be in…she can never be free. But her dedication to duty has been amazing.’

He has also been outspoken about his dislike of reality shows…although he reveals he has been in talks for The Voice, the new BBC talent show, which will choose a new singing star.

‘The problem with these shows is I don’t like the people they choose. It’s partly because the public doesn’t understand what great voices are…they tend to choose mediocrity,’ he says.

‘With a singer like Adele you know within 20 seconds it’s her; and she has a quality that they don’t seem to be able to find in these shows. They end up with singers who are technically brilliant but have insignificant voices…they are great backing singers.

‘My agent wheeled me in to see the American Idol people but I didn’t want to do it. I have been talking to The Voice. I quite liked the idea but I will be on tour when they start filming. 

‘I’m not sure I would have been any good. I could have listened to 100 voices and said I don’t like any of them. And I would hate to really destroy someone…that’s what I don’t like about those shows. There are people in them who would never win a karaoke competition and it’s public humiliation.

‘With The Voice, I liked the idea you have to choose the voice before seeing the person, but a great voice is one in 5,000…otherwise it’s a mass of mediocrity. Ooops!’ he guffaws. ‘That will get me unemployed for the rest of my life in television.’

Grey, yes, but definitely not old. His energy is certainly undiminished.
‘People ask how I feel about singing the same songs I’ve been singing for 40-odd years but they don’t understand that when I’m singing it that night, it is like I will be singing it for the first time.’

by Wallace McTavish


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