Amongst their many virtues, The Who were disgustingly honest. Jagger only told you what he wanted to tell you, Led Zep were taciturn, Floyd aloof and Bowie lied. The Who, on the other hand, were models of indiscretion, so it comes as no surprise that Roger Daltrey’s autobiography lays bare the hopeless disarray, financial under-handedness and personal angst that lingered beneath the surface while outwardly he, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon put on rock shows the likes of which haven’t been seen since Moon died and which we probably won’t ever see again.
With no aspirations whatsoever towards being judged as an author of literary merit, Roger Daltrey tells his story, via ghost writer Matt Rudd, in an unpretentious, breezy and colloquial style. It reads a bit like a one-sided conversation, chatty, a bit confrontational, with justification for his actions seemingly an underlying motive for putting pen to paper. Not for Daltrey the navel-gazing contemplation, spiritual philosophy or rock theorising that is the hallmark of his Who partner Townshend. In keeping with his reputation for blunt assessment followed by immediate action without regard to the consequences, a trait he shared with Moon, albeit less recklessly, Daltrey wades in like a bull in a china shop, laying it on the line in a remarkably candid though at times wayward, selective and occasionally imprecise (“our 1970 single ‘Substitute’,” [page 40] indeed!) assessment of his life and career.
First off though, it’s very short. The extent is 346 pages, but the spacing between the lines is excessive, there’s eight pages of back matter and each of the 20 chapters is separated by two or three blank pages, so the actual number of text pages is more like 280, and at a generous 300 words a page that’s only around 85,000 words, probably less, hence the padding. It took me about six hours start to finish. Implausibly, the text on the jacket flap states that the book was ‘four years in the making’, so that means Daltrey and/or his ghost writer managed only about 21,000 words a year, a snail-like pace to say the least, especially as the writing style suggests it was slapped down without much reflection apropos literacy. In contrast, the current edition of Dear Boy, Tony Fletcher’s biography of Moon, is around 297,000 words, ie 3.5 times longer – and Moon only lived to be 32.
Then again, unlike Daltrey’s book Dear Boy wasn’t displayed in Sainsburys next to Michael Caine’s most recent book, Blowing The Bloody Doors Off, the latest in a long line of titles by the revered actor whose rags to riches story and laconic persona is not a million miles distant from Daltrey himself. So we can assume that the publisher’s target market is not the rock fan who relishes the extraordinary detail that Mark Lewisohn brings to his Beatles books, nor even rock bibliophiles who savour the literate prose of, say, Dylan’s Chronicles or Elvis Costello’s Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink. No, what we have here is a brash play for the mass-market, with all the promotional appearances on TV chat shows and lurid extracts in tabloid papers about illegitimate kids, health scares and – still – Moon The Loon’s destructive tendencies that this entails.
The Mr Kibblewhite of the title is the headmaster of Acton County Grammar School at the time of Roger’s 15th birthday in 1959 who, on expelling him over a misunderstanding involving an air gun, delivers the crushing judgement: “You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey.” Mr Kibblewhite had no doubt passed on by the time his errant pupil knelt before the Queen to receive his CBE in 2005, but the choice of title surely reflects the relish that the newly ennobled singer must have felt that day. Revenge must have been sweet, but it nevertheless makes for a rather clumsy title. I’d have plumped for See Me Feel Me.
After a dramatic opening about the health scare that caused a 2007 concert to be cancelled, we begin at the beginning, in Shepherds Bush, where the Daltrey family eke out a living in circumstances not far removed from Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen. Daltrey ladles it on a bit thick, laundering his only shirt so he won’t have to wear his only sweater, which scratches. Being small, he becomes handy with his fists, a bit of a tearaway, but he’s rescued by Elvis and Lonnie Donegan so builds his own guitar and forms a group which in four years’ time, when the right four have found one another, becomes The Who.
Much of what follows more or less tallies with the Who biographies and reference books that line my shelves, many of which are among the best ever written about a rock band. Daltrey, the eldest of the four, confirms that in many ways he was the odd one out, the least sociable, the one who stayed sober to drive the others home, and the one most likely to decline when the pills and joints were passed around. “Pete used to say that, as individuals, we were three geniuses and ‘just the singer’,” writes Daltrey, in the first of many asides that draw attention to their combative relationship, conceding that, “We were different from all the other bands. We were different from each other.” That’s certainly true.
Daltrey was also the first to marry – and divorce – and his decision to abandon first wife Jackie and son Simon triggered a row with his father that ended in blows. When able, however, Daltrey nobly takes care of the family he deserted, just as he does the three other children that have resulted from his libidinous habits. At heart, he’s a home-loving (and home-improving) family man, the dad to an additional son and two daughters with his wife Heather, whom he married almost 50 years ago and to whom he is clearly devoted. Heather was raised in America but they discovered quite recently that her grandparents lived in Shepherds Bush two doors along from Daltrey’s father and his six sisters. “Two doors,” he writes, dumbfounded by the coincidence. “What are the chances?” Throughout the book there are many touching references to Heather, the implication being that without her Daltrey’s life would have been immeasurably poorer.
But back to The Who. Aside from the perpetual chaos, much of it initiated by Moon, a running theme is the group’s finances, with Daltrey at pains to emphasise that he (and Entwistle and Moon but not songwriter Townshend) were nowhere near as rich as the world imagined them to be. This is partly due to Moon’s behaviour on the road, where Daltrey limits himself to one hamburger a day in the vain hope that at the end of a tour he’ll be able to bring home some money for Heather, but mainly due to the profligacy of Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. While acknowledging their debt to the partnership in the group’s early days, Daltrey spares no sentiment when it comes to castigating them for subsequently helping themselves to vast sums that by rights ought to have been banked by the members of the band: “If it had been up to me, we would have got rid of Kit and Chris sooner,” he writes. “We would have got rid of them the moment I knew for a fact they were ripping us off. I knew they were shifty for years…” Later on he lays into the movie Lambert & Stamp for glossing over their dishonesty, and into Stamp for never admitting the duplicity even after they became friends in later years.
So Daltrey appointed a new manager, Bill Curbishley, to look after his affairs, and eventually the other three see the sense of this and so Curbishley, who’d done time after being framed for a bank van robbery he didn’t commit – all details offered here for the first time in a Who book – becomes the manager of The Who as well and they start to make proper money at last. For me, these passages are the meat of the book – the period between Who’s Next and Moon’s death – when we really do get Daltrey’s take on what was going on behind the scenes in Who central, how he and Townshend fell out over innumerable issues, how Moon screwed up and how Entwistle simply turned up and played, sometimes too loudly but always with immense skill.
Much of this is fairly well known to Who observers but it hasn’t been laid out quite so frankly before. Some of the Moon stuff reads to me as if Dear Boy was a research tool and when Daltrey is genuinely mystified by Townshend’s behaviour he suggests we read ‘his book’, ie Who I Am, for clarification. Daltrey paints a portrait of his three bandmates as Jekyll & Hyde characters, all capable of spitefulness one moment and compassion the next. But like a grown-up, decent son who can’t escape the clutches of his errant family, Daltrey is pulled back into the fold time and again even when he knows the course being taken might end in tears. And the reason is not just financial – he knows that on a good night nothing he’d ever known could beat what he calls the ‘drive’ of The Who. “Let’s drive, we used to say before a gig. Drive. Drive. Drive. I used to feel like we were trying to drive our music through an audience to the back wall.” I know precisely what he means.
The second half of the book is an even breezier read than the first. Moon dies on page 265 and 72 pages later – 40 years – we’ve cruised past The Who Hits 50 Tour in 2014/15 and reached the chequered flag. So an awful lot – Kenney Jones in and out (his dismissal due in no small part to Daltrey), retirements and comebacks, plenty of acting roles, a brush with Ronnie Kray, Entwistle’s death, Townshend’s arrest and release without charge over that silly child pornography business, a surprising number of health issues, appearances at the Superbowl and London Olympics, and Daltrey’s role in the Teenage Cancer Trust – are skimmed through very hastily. There’s an interesting diversion when Daltrey unwisely elects a new manager to promote a solo tour of the US, only to come a cropper and be rescued by the faithful Curbishley, and a plausible explanation as to why he and Townshend felt obliged to continue after Entwistle checked out.
Mr Kibblewhite now becomes the 53rd Who or Who-related book to sit on my shelves. It’s slightly ironic that this and Who I Am – the only other one actually written by a member of the group – don’t really rival the better ones – Marsh, Barnes, Fletcher, Neill & Kent, Unterberger, Blake – by these professional writers, and I can reveal that a full-length Entwistle biography by a seasoned author is now in preparation. Still, in his own in-yer-face way, Roger Daltrey has added meaningfully to my Who library, not so much in quantity, nor even quality, but in offering his distinctive point of view and shining an even brighter light on The Who’s troubled internal affairs. If the best that can said of his book is that it is disgustingly honest, then that’s not really a bad thing.