Roger Daltrey on Woodstock, ‘Tommy’: Career-Spanning Interview

by
Share This:

After a year of working on individual projects, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey announced that The Who will be touring North America in 2019 with local orchestras. (They also played London’s Wembley Stadium.)

“The Guv’nor” turned 75 on March 1, 2019.

Daltrey’s 2018 calendar was filled, with the release of a solo album, As Long as I Have You, a tour with local orchestras performing Tommy and other Who classics, and the publication of his long-awaited memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite.

While on a book tour to promote the autobiography, Daltrey spoke to radio legend, Dennis Elsas, in a career-spanning discussion in which the singer shared his perspective on many previously unknown Who topics.

Elsas is, as many Best Classic Bands readers know, one of the most respected album rock air personalities in the nation. From a quarter-century-plus stint as a DJ and music director at WNEW-FM to his endeavors today as afternoon drive host at the esteemed WFUV and as co-host of the weekly Beatles talk and “call-in” show, “Fab Fourum,” heard exclusively on the Beatles Sirius/XM Channel (18) plus weekend shifts on Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl Channel (26), he has earned the regard of listeners and artists alike. Dennis occasionally presents his Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets live multimedia show, a real treat that greater New York metro area rock fans should not miss.

Best Classic Bands is pleased to be publishing excerpts of many of his interviews with classic rock legends as a regular feature: The Dennis Elsas Conversation, including ones with Robert PlantJohn FogertyGregg Allman and Bill Wyman.

Roger Daltrey at Bethel Woods, June 2018 (Photo: © Dennis Elsas); Daltrey and Elsas, 2018 (Photo via Dennis Elsas Archives) Used with permission

Dennis Elsas: The last time we spoke—it was a long time ago—you said, “Rock and roll saved my life.” And then as I’m reading the book, it’s ringing in my head and I’m thinking, okay, rock and roll saved my life. And how about Mr. Kibblewhite? Is he part of the story?

Roger Daltrey: He’s a very big part of the story. He was the headmaster of the grammar school that I went to and he expelled me. As he opened the door to let me out after giving me six strokes of the cane on my bare behind, as I left he said “You’ll never make anything of your life, Daltrey.” And, of course… “Thanks a lot, Mr. Kibblewhite, I’ll show you,” as a thought that went through my head with arrogance and anger. But I say it now as a real thank you because if he hadn’t done that, my life could have gone in so many directions.

DE: Any Who fan—and any rock and roll fan—is going to love the book, because it’s Roger’s version, not an “as-told-to.” And it’s not some author writing what he knows or guesses about Roger’s life and the Who and how they did this and how they did that. So you also get a tremendous amount of Who and Roger stories, some of which I never knew before.

And one of the first things I learned was that I think the very first time I saw you was the very same week you met your wife.

RD: 1967.

DE:I was at that Murray the K Holiday Show and it was the [U.S.] debut of The Who and Cream. We knew very little at that point because you hadn’t gotten that much airplay. We had no idea that Pete was going to smash his instrument.

RD: It was the craziest three weeks of our life. I think Murray the K was hoping to do five shows a day. We ended up doing four, I think, and the first one was at 11 o’clock in the morning. And because he had so many people on the show… he had Cream, the Young Rascals, Wilson Pickett, and then the other guests coming in and out every day, Smokey Robinson one day, Simon & Garfunkel, all these people coming through… these shows used to go on all day and we used to be stuck in this little dressing room. But we used to only do two songs, “Can’t Explain” and “My Generation.”

Related: Keith Moon – Rock’s greatest drummer

And then destroy instruments every night. It was insane and then spending the next two hours, gluing guitars back together because even us—with the nonchalant attitude to money that we had in those days—couldn’t afford a guitar three times a day. That was the first time I met my to-be wife, even though I wasn’t going out with her then.

DE: You are very direct in saying in the book, “I realize I am a portal for Pete’s songs.” Has the recording process been all these years that Pete comes up with demos that he’s created and now it’s time for Roger to make them Daltrey songs?

RD: I’ve always been a huge admirer of his talent. It was very obvious to me very early on, not only in his guitar playing but [also] in his songwriting that he was going to be a composer of incredible magnitude. In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest songwriters of the late 20th century.

DE: You say that you found your voice in Tommy.

RD: I mimicked the blues players. I mimicked James Brown. I could mimic Johnny Cash. And I could sing those songs with feeling. And then when Pete started writing those first songs, they were easy. “Can’t Explain,” “Substitute.” “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.” And then he presents me with “Happy Jack.” The lyrics are nonsense. I struggled like mad to get any sense of anything out of that record. It was a hit; I don’t know why.

Then we got into “I Can See For Miles,” which started to become a bit easier for me. And then “The Seeker” and Tommy. And it all took off. Tommy was a platform in the studio because we were recording for so long. And each piece of music was so different, I had to juggle it around and when it came to the “See Me Feel Me” bits, I had to make the audience really feel that, so I internalized it and it came out like it is on the record.

It was only when we got it on stage that it really started to come to life.

DE: You also write about the Tommy movie experience and that you never expected the idea of becoming a movie star and that when [director] Ken Russell came after you, you were a little less than…

RD: I was a guy who couldn’t get into the school play. There was this director who we all—I’ve got to tell you, in Britain, we absolutely idolized Ken Russell. He was the enfant terrible of the film industry… so inventive! A genius director. And for Ken Russell to say he was going to make a film of Tommy, that was an honor. But for him to come to me and say “I want you to be Tommy,” it was kind of an honor but also incredibly terrifying. I said: “Ken, you think I can do it? I’ve never acted before in my life. Well, I’ll give it a go.”

DE: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is one of the most powerful songs. You also relate [in the book] what it was like to perform that with the concert for 9/11, which—I hate to say this to everybody else—but you stole the show…

RD: It’s never been a competition and it’s not been about stealing shows. It’s about turning up and moving a crowd. That crowd moved us that night. I hope we moved them. I hope we helped them heal.

DE: Keith [Moon], of course, plays a very important part of the book. Some of the stories we are familiar with, some of the stories take on a slightly different bent. You do raise an interesting question whether the hotel rooms which you admit got trashed, got trashed to the extent that the owners of the hotels… you say that they were almost using it as an opportunity.

RD: We used to stay at a hotel called the Navarro on Central Park South… I don’t think it’s there anymore… but at the time I’m pretty certain that every time they wanted a suite redecorated, they put Keith Moon into it. And, of course, with his extravagant behavior, remodeling of furniture and fixtures and fittings, he’d leave and pay for the redecoration. I think, over time, Keith Moon probably redecorated at least forty percent of that hotel.

DE: There’s a quote in the book, where you described depression: “When you have depression, you go outside, and it can be a mid-summer’s day with the bluest sky, but you can’t find the dimmer switch to turn up the light.” When did you feel like that?

RD: I felt it in 2003, 2004, after John [Entwistle’s] death and we went through a lot of trouble in the band. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks. And I tried all the usual ways that people deal with it. I saw a shrink and I suddenly realized I was doing more analyzing of him than he was of me! Then he asked me about his mother, so I asked him about his, and I left. (laughs) So that didn’t do me any good. Then I tried the anti-depressants for three days and turned into a zombie so I thought: “This is the worst drug I’ve had in my life.”

I got lucky: someone recommended a hypnotist to me—who’s become a good friend, and someone, who I definitely believe, in some ways helped save my life. Because when you have depression, it’s so easy to see how some people take that one step too far, over the edge of a cliff.

DE: I’m reading the book—and of course I knew that you and the band were at Woodstock. But I didn’t know that you got there in a Volkswagen from your in-laws, from Connecticut?

RD: Yeah, just drove there. There was all this news on the TV, as you can remember. The Governor of New York had declared it a disaster area and closed all the freeways, so it was impossible to get in. But we’re sitting there in Connecticut, watching this on a Friday night and I’m thinking, “Well, how am I going to get there?” Because apparently you’re going to need a helicopter. And her father said: “We’ll drive there in the car.” The car being a Volkswagen Beetle.

So Herbie went to Woodstock. Anytime we hit any obstruction in traffic, we just drove around it. We just got there, completely normally, on time. We drove into the site… the band met at a Holiday Inn and then, later, we left for the site in the obligatory Hertz station wagon and we drove into the site at 7 o’clock, ready to go onto the stage at 9 o’clock… and ended up on stage at 5 o’clock in the morning. All that other stuff is legendary.

DE: I would be totally remiss if we didn’t discuss your very, very, very long and interesting—and at times—complicated history with Pete Townshend.

RD: How long have you got?

To hear the entire interview, including Daltrey’s update about the film about Keith Moon’s life, click here.

Tickets for The Who’s North American tour are available at Ticketmaster and here.

Related: Our 2016 review of The Who

  • Sign up for the Best Classic Bands Newsletter




Dennis Elsas

Dennis Elsas grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens with a transistor radio under his pillow, listening to the great New York AM rock ‘n’ roll stations. As FM began to emerge, so did his broadcast career with the founding of campus radio station WQMC at Queens College in the mid '60s. His first paid on-air job was at WVOX, a suburban radio station in New Rochelle, NY, where he created a free-form progressive rock show called Something Else Again. And, then – just after midnight on July 11, 1971 – he launched what would be a 25 plus-year career at WNEW- FM (102.7) in New York City.

Dennis was hired at WNEW-FM by the station’s program director, Scott Muni, one of the legendary DJs he had grown up listening to. He quickly ascended to the position of Music Director, and received the rock ‘n’ roll music industry education of a lifetime. The station was emerging as one of the premiere rock radio stations and Dennis was integral to creating its sound. He was also meeting and interviewing a stream of rock ‘n’ roll heroes, including Elton John, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

Lennon was his in-studio guest on Saturday afternoon, September 28, 1974. They had met previously at the Record Plant Recording Studio as Lennon was finishing his latest album Walls and Bridges. During the conversation, Elsas casually invited him to visit WNEW-FM. When Lennon actually showed up, Dennis was more than a little surprised. What began as a discussion of the new album quickly turned into two hours of rare Beatles memories, speculation on a reunion, and candor about his immigration fight. Lennon even took over as DJ, playing some favorite, obscure 45s he’d brought with him, reading live commercials, and giving the weather reports.

Years later, excerpts of that historic afternoon were used in the Beatles Anthology, numerous books, and various documentaries. The entire show has become part of the permanent collection of the Paley Center For Media (formally the Museum of Television and Radio). It is also a pivotal part of the recent award winning PBS American Masters film “LENNONNYC”.

The interview also inspired Elsas to produce, co-write and host the radio documentary, It Was Forty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America which won a number of prestigious awards (e.g. New York State Broadcasters Association Best Documentary, New York Festivals World Medal.) It aired on WFUV in February, 2004. Revised for the fiftieth anniversary in 2014, it is now featured in the Grammy Museum’s traveling exhibit Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!

In May 1976, Dennis took over the prime 6-10 PM slot on WNEW-FM, bringing his creative programming of the station’s vast rock ‘n’ roll record library to the nighttime audience. Rock ‘n’ roll history was being made at 102.7, and whether he was in the studio with Meatloaf, backstage with Bob Seger or onstage with John Mellencamp, Dennis was sharing the experience with his listeners. In the 1980’s he created the popular Beach Party program. The station became known as the place “Where Rock Lives” and Elsas remained there through 1998.

While still at WNEW-FM, Dennis expanded his broadcasting activities to include two years as the music correspondent for television’s PM Magazine, and to host such syndicated radio shows as Rock Today, Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets and Billboard Entertainment News.

Dennis’ voiceover career also grew with numerous projects for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Corporate and commercial clients included American Express, Time, Lancôme, Procter and Gamble, and Kraft Foods. He is now featured as the “Voice of Rock History” at the Museum at Bethel Woods – the story of the Sixties and Woodstock – and has been the announcer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcasts and VH1’s Concert of the Century at the White House. Dennis was the narrator of Discovery Magazine on the Discover Network and the “voice” of the Smithsonian Channel.

But his abiding passion is to be on the air, programming music that blends old favorites with new discoveries, interviewing artists and interacting with his listeners. Today he’s happily doing that seven days a week.

Since the summer of 2000 he’s been hosting weekday afternoons (2-6 PM) on New York’s WFUV (90.7 FM, and streaming at WFUV.org). With an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz and blues and, guests in the studio that have included Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Patti Smith, Edie Brickell and Ringo Starr, Dennis continues the tradition of progressive radio he helped to create.

In May 2004 he joined Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl (26) and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday sharing his Classic Rock knowledge and memories with a worldwide audience.

In 2010 Dennis created Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets – a live multimedia show featuring highlights from his history making interviews with John Lennon, Elton John, Jerry Garcia and more. As one of the pioneers of the progressive FM radio revolution at WNEW-FM and continuing today with new opportunities at WFUV and Sirius/XM, Dennis shares his favorite stories and unique perspective on rock and radio in person with enthusiastic audiences.
Dennis Elsas
Share This:

2 Comments so far

Jump into a conversation
  1. S
    #1 S 22 January, 2019, 08:07

    My sweet babboo

    Reply this comment
  2. Billy K.
    #2 Billy K. 24 January, 2019, 04:48

    Much respect for Dennis Elsas…..one of the very best at what he does!

    Reply this comment

Your data will be safe!Your e-mail address will not be published. Also other data will not be shared with third person.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.