Jammin' With...Roger Daltrey
The members of his nine-piece band have taken a break to go shopping for snow boots, and Daltrey, dressed in a denim shirt and five-year-old jeans, settles down to talk. As the roguish lead singer for The Who, he once sang proudly about hoping to die before he got old. But now that he's turning 50 on March 1, Daltrey, the Dorian Gray of rock with his flowing blond locks, his fresh tan and the raw energy of a singer half his age, is approaching his second half-century defiantly. "Fifty's a big number," he says in his thick cockney accent. "I'm sick of this society that runs away from its age. These guys that get plastic surgery, I mean, when you look in the mirror, those lines should reflect where you've been in your life. You've earned those lines, and to remove them is like denying you've gone anywhere. Why be bloody frightened of age?"
At the moment, Daltrey has enough to be worried about. Today marks the third day of rehearsal before doing two nights of Who songs at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 23 and 24 to celebrate his birthday—and in honor of his former bandmate Pete Townshend, who'll be performing along with Who bassist John Entwistle. (A pay-per-view telecast airs Feb. 26.) Things are running smoothly save for the fact that Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a scheduled guest, hasn't confirmed that he's coming. "Putting this show together was like mounting a relief operation in Bosnia," says Daltrey, picking at a cold pizza. "Sure I'm nervous, but I've never been one to play it safe. Sometimes I've ended up with incredible egg on my face. But that's what faces are for."
In fact, Daltrey's turbo voice, the one that made Townshend's poetic-lyrics come alive on 10 Who studio albums, has kept Daltrey's poster-boy face relatively egg-free through the years. In 1983, though, Daltrey's voice as The Who's frontman was temporarily silenced when Townshend broke up the band. "I never felt The Who lived up to its full potential mainly because egos got in the way, and that's a terrible tragedy," says Daltrey. Part of the reason for the split, he says, was the increasing pressure Townshend felt as The Who's principal songwriter. "But," explains Daltrey, "he refused to write with John or me." Whether the three surviving group members (drummer Keith Moon overdosed on a prescription drug in 1978) will ever cut another album is uncertain. "It's up to Pete," says Daltrey, with a shrug.
The band returns. Heather, a soft-spoken woman of 46 with long, straight brown hair who has spent most of the rehearsal huddled on a black vinyl couch reading British newspapers, jumps up and takes a shot of Daltrey and his producer, Bob Ezrin, with a disposable camera. She and Roger have been married since 1971, a near-record for the music business. Roger, who has talked openly about his sexual peccadillos on the road, calls Heather "God's gift of a wife for putting up with all the s—t. Rock marriages only work if you work hard at it, but by god someone has to be incredibly forgiving. I'm not a saint." The Daltreys live with their three children, daughters Rosie, 21, and Willow, 19, and son Jamie, 13, on a farm in Sussex, England, where Roger raises trout as a sideline. (He has two other sons: Simon, 30, from an earlier marriage, and Mathias, 27, from a previous relationship.) Heather, who calls herself the Barbara Bush of rock and roll because of Roger's youthful appearance, is up front about the trials—and rewards—of being married to an icon. "Yes, rock and roll is totally destructive to a marriage," she says. "I don't know how it can work except that you have to make your decision to put up with the pros and cons. I got what I wanted, so that's how I justified the other things in the end."
By now, Daltrey is nearing the end of the second set without a letup. Heather, a model turned housewife, says she can't remember the last time she has seen him smile this much. "He's a different person up there," she says. "I always used to think that I married the guy onstage but I went home with someone different. At home, he has grumpy days. Onstage, he's always happy."
In 1975, Daltrey starred in the film version of Townshend's rock opera Tommy, now a Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, and has dabbled in movie and television roles ever since. His dream project is to produce a film about the turbulent life of Keith Moon. "Keith lived nine lives in [his 31] years," recalls Daltrey. "He looked much older than his age, but what does it matter? It's life that's important. What's the amount of years if all you're doing is walking around like a heart-and-lung machine?" Like Keith, Roger tangled with demons of his own during The Who's heyday in the '70s. "I was lucky I never got near hard drugs," he says, "but I used to drink a hell of a lot and smoke a lot of dope. When I think of the amount of miles I must have flown, I'm surprised I'm still here."
Clearly, Daltrey's biggest buzz these days comes from singing Who tunes. "I think Townshend's voice as a writer would never have been heard without Roger's interpretation," says Chris Stamp, The Who's founding manager. "I don't think Pete has that sensibility of carrying off those characters he creates. I think Pete understands that because in his solo stuff he never gets to that 'self that is so clear when he's writing for Roger. It only jells when he knows that voice is coming out of Roger's mouth."
Thirty songs and six new inches of snow later, the rehearsal comes to an end. Daltrey has sung everything from memory. "If you have to read lyrics, that ain't singing," he says. "Pete Townshend may be the brains, but without this," he adds, pounding his heart, "you don't have a song. Because singing has nothing to do with your head, and everything to do with your heart."