Roger Daltrey talks Teen Cancer America, ‘Tommy’ anniversary, and the ‘terrible loneliness’ of his teen years

Eufemia Didonato

For 30 years, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of the Who have supported the charity Teenage Cancer Trust, and in the past decade they’ve brought their campaign to this side of the pond as co-founders of Teen Cancer America. Now, in response to how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the entire planet, TCA has partnered with five other non-profit Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) cancer advocacy organizations — Stupid Cancer, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Cancer and Careers, Lacuna Loft, and CureSearch — to launch CovidAYACancer.org, an online COVID-19 resource for teen cancer patients, patient advocates, and medical specialists.

“What our organization does is one of the only age-specific things in the whole of that the hospital system for adolescents and young adults,” Daltrey tells Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom from his home in England. “That’s where we started 30 years ago in the U.K., recognizing that perhaps a 16-year-old boy in a children’s hospital with 2-year-olds wasn’t a very good idea, especially when they have cancer. They tend to retreat into themselves and go into isolation, which is the worst thing. … They tend to get very, very rare cancers and also suffer most of all of from late diagnosis. They get incredibly aggressive cancers because of the age they’re at, because their hormones are changing. So it’s an all-round whammy, at a time of their lives when they’re just about to fly the nest and have a good time.”

Teenage isolation is a subject Daltrey knows all too well. Before forming the Detours (the band that would later become the Who) when he was 15 years old, he was an incredibly lonely child, tormented by his classmates because of his height. It was an experience he later tapped into when he took on the titular role in Ken Russell’s adaptation of the Who’s groundbreaking rock opera Tommy, a spectacular performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination in 1975.

“I had a terrible time at school. I was bullied. And then I learned to fight back, kind of hanging on by a thread in a lot of ways. But it was a tough time, and I’ll never forget that. I call those my ‘Tommy years,’” Daltrey reveals. “I think back to my teenage years, that is my Tommy period. I felt as though I wasn’t heard, I felt I wasn’t seen, I felt completely isolated. I had no voice. So it’s just a metaphor — deaf, dumb, and blind was a metaphor for that. My teenage years had been very, very, very traumatic in a lot of ways. I was very lonely. I had the band, which was all I ever wanted to do… but all the rest of the time, I had a terrible loneliness.”

The Tommy movie just celebrated its 45th anniversary, but its themes — bullying, child abuse, cults of personality, general cruelty to outsiders, the interplay between the self and illusory self — resonate more than ever in the dystopian year 2020. “I think the style of the film was way ahead of its time, like being kind of just as relevant today — but we are always doing that, building false idols and destroying them. Aren’t we very good at that at the moment?” Daltrey remarks.

Tommy was Daltrey’s first movie role, and he says he was so shy back then (“The only time in my life I ever feel totally complete, that I am at peace with myself, is when I’m singing,” he confesses even now) that he was often too intimidated to process what was going on around him on the set. This was especially true when he worked with the formidable Tina Turner, who played the Acid Queen in one the film’s most explosive and iconic scenes.

“I was so scared because I was such a fan. This is the first acting job I’d ever done. And so, I was completely method,” Daltrey recalls of his screentime with Turner. “I don’t think I spoke to her! Remember the scene where is she standing over me and her legs are quivering? For the life of me, I don’t remember it at all. … I used to have to keep my eyes open all the time [when playing Tommy], and I didn’t see anything. I don’t remember anything — totally strange. I was so into the character. And I now regret it, because I love her, I adore her. But we hardly spoke. … I did lack a lot of confidence. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow.”

Looking back on other members of the stellar Tommy cast, Daltrey jokes that it “was very difficult to keep it in perspective that [the sexy Ann-Margret] was my mother,” and he describes Oliver Reed, who played the creepy Uncle Frank, as “another madman. But I was kind of used to dealing with people like Oli, because we had [bad-boy drummer] Keith Moon in the band. Oli was really another Keith Moon — only Keith could drink more!”

As for how Daltrey didn’t end up like falling prey to the temptations of booze and drugs like Moon, Townshend, and bassist John Entwistle, he quips, “I was in a band with three other addicts. We didn’t need one more. Someone had to keep them in all day!” And he elaborates hat a certain famous acid king, so to speak, kept him from going off the deep end. “I got lucky in San Francisco in 1967, when the drug thing had stopped being just a bit of pot and it was just starting to get into the chemicals. I had become very good friends with a guy called Owsley who was producing all the Purple Haze [LSD] at the time. He’s dead now. And he said to me, ‘Whatever you do, Roger, I’ve watched you, I know your personality — just never take chemicals. You’ll destroy you.’ And I listened. I don’t know why I listened, but this statement stayed with me. The others went out and did the chemicals like no tomorrow.”

Fifty-plus years later, Moon and Entwistle are sadly gone, but Daltrey and Townshend still work together in the Who (their 12th studio album, simply titled WHO, came out in December last year) and with Teen Cancer America. It seems a Tommy anniversary tour to benefit TCA, once coronavirus concerns lessen and concerts resume, would be a great idea, since it so perfectly captures the Zeitgeist. Daltrey actually staged a Tommy Orchestral show in 2018, so he won’t rule it out — but only if it’s done right, because he puts Teen Cancer America first.

“It is a phenomenal show,” Daltrey says of Tommy Orchestral, which was captured for a live album released in 2019. “If I can get the funding… you see, the trouble is we put it on live show, I need to find someone to back it, to put up the expense. That’s the deal, and then we make the money on whatever we make. I’m not going to try and put on any show just for my ego and lose the money of the charities.”

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