Rock and Roll Book Club: Roger Daltrey's memoir 'Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite'

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Roger Daltrey's 'Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite.'
Roger Daltrey's 'Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

One reason it's interesting to read musicians' memoirs is because you're torn between conflicting expectations. On the one hand, you want the artists to explain exactly how they made magic. On other...well, it's magic. Maybe it's more satisfying if you can't explain everything.

In his new book Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, Roger Daltrey doesn't even try all that hard to explain everything. Although he's been the face of the Who for over half a century, he's not the songwriter. He doesn't need to tell you how he gets his ideas. In one of the book's most piquant passages, he described the thought process he went through in 1965, when he realized he wouldn't be the band's creative force.

A lot of bands split up because of imbalance. Or, worse, they end up in front of a judge arguing who wrote what when. It didn't make a huge difference to me. [...] I made the conscious decision that if my job was going to be the singer of Pete's songs, and if Pete's songs were genius, which they were, then I would be happy with my lot, thank you very much.

He takes a similarly laissez-faire approach to other aspects of the band's history.

Why did the Who become mods? "I was trying to be a mod but really I was whatever the f--k you wanted me to be that didn't involve sheet-metal work."

Where did their band name come from? "I think someone made a suggestion that [our friend] Barney didn't hear. He said, 'The who?' Someone else said, 'That's good. The Who.'"

How did the Who start smashing their instruments? "The first time a guitar died it was an accident."

Why did Daltrey start swinging his mic? "I didn't know what to do with my hands during the solos."

What's it like hanging out with all those rock stars? "We rose up performing with the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks. But I was never really friends with any of them. We passed like ships in the night."

Any liabilities of that licentious lifestyle? "With all my surprise children, it's worked out. We're very good friends."

All right then! So Daltrey isn't out to settle any scores, or set any stories straight. Fortunately, he does have plenty to tell. As evidence, the book begins with Daltrey trying to figure out how he broke his back, as diagnosed in 2007. It could have been during a stunt while filming Tommy, or it could have been when his van crashed en route to a gig in 2000, but he reckons it was most likely when he was at band camp in childhood. Some fellow campers were flinging him up with a sheet held among them, then they thought it would be funny to just drop the sheet.

He does know where his crooked jaw came from. He was playing in a building site as a young child; such sites were plentiful in Britain, which was rebuilding after the World War II bombings. He tripped on a bricklayer's wire and landed on his jaw.

Without much adieu, Daltrey takes us through his school years, abbreviated because he was expelled when one classmate shot another's eye out (yes, literally) with a BB gun Daltrey brought to school. That incident inspired his memoir's title: kicking him out of Acton County Grammar, the headmaster informed him, "You'll never make anything of your life, Daltrey."

Inspired by Elvis, Daltrey picked up a guitar and hit the skiffle scene. He recruited first bassist John Entwistle and then guitarist Pete Townshend for his group the Detours, where Daltrey ultimately traded his ax for a microphone as lead vocalist. Eventually a random guy walked up to the band at a show and said his mate could play drums better than the guy they had behind the kid. Thus entered Keith Moon.

Daltrey does have the satisfaction of knowing the Who couldn't make it without him: he was fired after he flushed Moon's stash of pills down a toilet, then quickly rehired after the band played a few shows to booing crowds. Daltrey's impatience with drugs and alcohol is a recurring theme of the book; while he's consumed probably plenty more of both than you or I have, he always drew the line at getting drunk onstage or stoned before a gig. While he's full of praise for Moon's drumming, he makes perfectly clear that he didn't relish having a drummer pass out on his snare drum and force the rest of the band to recruit a replacement from the audience.

As rock-star memoirs go, Mr. Kibblewhite is on the concise end at 257 pages. Daltrey isn't out to exhaustively document every tour, every album, every fight. Blessedly little space is given to the business side of the band's life; Daltrey pretty much just gives you the good stuff.

That includes a description of how Daltrey was challenged to achieve the vulnerability Townshend's evolving songs demanded. It also includes the insight that one reason Who's Next turned out so well was that unlike in most cases, Townshend brought his songs to the band weeks ahead of time and they tried the numbers out on the road, so when they hit record, their attack was good and tight.

As for memorable stories, there's an unforgettable description of the photo shoot for The Who Sell Out cover, with Daltrey bathing in a bathtub of baked beans.

The beans had just come out of the fridge and they were freezing. They were still runny but only just. After ten minutes, I started shivering so they got a two-bar electric fire and stuck it right round the back of the bath. After five minutes, it started to get really hot. I should have moved the hot beans at the back round to the front, like you do in a normal bath, but I didn't think of it at the time.

I was in there for about forty-five minutes, and I swear the ones round my arse were cooked by the end of it. I went home and bosh, pneumonia. I couldn't stop shivering but I had a burnt arse.

Daltrey is also funny. His description of learning to hang-glide for Tommy includes a landing in "a very large gorse bush." The instructor called it "excellent" and sent Daltrey up to the top of the hill. Daltrey says he got so into the role of the "deaf, dumb, and blind" title character that he doesn't even remember if he met Tina Turner, despite the fact that he spent a whole day lying between her legs "while she wiggled and shook her stuff. [...] I can't even remember if I spoke to her. Tina Turner. A whole day."

The best way to enjoy Daltrey's book is to keep your wits about you and hang on for the ride, like he's done for much of his long and distinguished career. Just let the magic happen, like the Who did when they recorded "My Generation," trying to add a punch. "We were all in the mood for a bit of aggression. We were in the mood to tell everyone to f-f-f-fade away. So the stutter stayed, we crashed through the rest of the album, and we went home."

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