Roger Daltrey Talks Meningitis Battle, Teen Cancer Crusade, and the Who’s Farewell


Photo: Reuters

There have been various starts and stops, near-countless triumphs, and more than a few show-stopping traumas during the Who’s nearly 50-year career. But in mid-2015, almost halfway through the band’s well-publicized, last-ever world tour, they seemed to be in top form every night: cranking out hits, thrilling audiences, and, apparently, gliding toward an ecstatic finish line.

“I was singing better than I’ve sung in years and having such a good time,” vocalist Roger Daltrey tells Yahoo Music in an exclusive interview. “The shows were great, we were playing great, and when I was onstage I felt like I was 10 feet off the floor every night, which doesn’t happen that often.”

Offstage, however, Daltrey was tired and stiff, and he suffered frequent headaches. At first, he chalked it up to the aches and pains of aging. But the pain worsened. By early summer, he was in near-constant distress and could barely stand without feeling dizzy, so he checked himself into a hospital.

“I kept getting these strange twinges and headaches, and they got worse and worse and worse,” Daltrey reveals. “In the end, I was basically on my hands and knees. I was in hospital for a week and they couldn’t find out what was wrong with me. They did bone marrow scans and I had about four spinal taps. I’m actually the most Spinal Tapped rock singer in the world [laughs]. Actually, they were very unpleasant. I can’t say it was fun.”

Doctors couldn’t tell what was wrong, and after they conducted one test too many, the singer discharged himself from the hospital. “I was so fed up with it all,” he says. “And I was determined to go on tour [in mid-September last year], so I went home, ready to go on a plane to Los Angeles to do the tour. But that weekend, I was back on the ground in agony. There were a couple of days there when I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

Daltrey underwent more medical procedures, and in early September doctors finally diagnosed him with viral meningitis, a swelling of the tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. Common symptoms include fever, severe headaches, lethargy, a stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting, all of which affected the legendary singer.

“I was shocked when they told me what it was,” Daltrey says. “They immediately sent the anti-virals going and God knows how many antibiotics and how much cortisone. It’s big guns – not pleasant at all. The whole time I was in there, pretty much all I could do was lay there and groan. It’s a weird one and there’s an awful long recovery process, too.”

The Who immediately postponed all remaining dates on “The Who Hits 50!” U.S. tour, and Daltrey began treatment. Three weeks later, he had recovered from the illness and was released from the hospital. However, he still suffered from after-effects of the condition, including fatigue, dizziness, and headaches. Nonetheless, three weeks after he was discharged from the hospital, he entered the studio to record vocals for a new version of “Let My Love Open the Door,” which originally appeared on the Who guitarist Pete Townshend’s 1980 solo album Empty Glass. The song will be used as the soundbed for an advertisement for Teen Cancer America and will be available Thursday at midnight. (Hear Daltrey’s full remake and get more information on the campaign at

“It was a little tough to get back in the studio and work, but there was a timeframe that had to be made, so you just knuckle down and do these things,” Daltrey shrugs. “Performing is very therapeutic, anyway. When I sing, everything else disappears.”

Daltrey and Townshend launched Teen Cancer America to mirror the activities of the Teen Cancer Trust charity they started in the U.K. in 1990, which funds special wards for teenagers battling cancer. The U.S. organization’s main sponsor, First Citizen’s Bank, chose “Let My Love Open the Door” as the music for their emotional advertisement because they felt the song’s lyrics served as a metaphor for teens who need the “love” of Teen Cancer America to “open” the door to an appropriate style of care.

“It’s extremely important for hospitals to have a separate section where teenagers with cancer can be treated,” Daltrey says. “They’re too old to be considered children and they’re too young to be adults. And they haven’t had any kind of space that’s comfortable for them. That’s incredibly painful for someone going through that trauma. Obviously we can’t save all of the teenagers who get cancer, but what we can do is make the months, and sometimes years, of treatment they have to go through less traumatic. Even if they don’t make it, they will have had a better experience and their life would have not been so damaged.”

The Teen Cancer America ad will launch Friday, Feb. 26 and the Daltrey-fronted version of “Let My Love Open the Door” will be available on iTunes. “iTunes very generously chipped in the percentage they usually take off a record’s sale to benefit Teen Cancer America,” Daltrey says. “So around 93 percent of the money goes directly to the charity, which is fantastic. Hopefully that will set a precedent for other charity records. We’re happy. Ninety-three percent is pretty damn good.”

The final stretch of “The Who Turns 50!” tour launches Feb. 27 in Detroit. The last announced show is May 29 in Las Vegas. As Daltrey gets back into the swing of things, he settles in with Yahoo Music for a fascinating, career-spanning chat and opens the door, so to speak, on his life.

YAHOO MUSIC: You have called your tour “the beginning of a long goodbye.” Do you get more excited the closer you get to the end?

ROGER DALTREY: I just look forward to what we’re doing. For the first time ever, I was actually really enjoying myself onstage before we had to stop. Usually it’s hard and it’s like a warzone up there. But last year, I don’t know, I was having an incredibly good time. I was having a ball up there. It was hassle-free and just great. And that’s why it was so hard to get hit with that illness. It stopped us right in the middle of a job.

Maybe there’s a euphoria that hits right at the end of an era. You know this won’t go on forever, so you don’t take any of it for granted.

That’s all we can do. There’s an energy and a fire in the belly. And that has to be there. As long as that’s there and we can do the notes and remember the lyrics, it will all be all right.

What will you miss most about not touring?

I don’t think about it. I don’t think there will ever be a time when we won’t. It won’t be the same. But we’ll always be playing in some way doing something, even if it’s in a bar. So I don’t think that way. It doesn’t bother me.

Might you make more music with Pete?

I don’t know. Again, we don’t think about it. We’ve got a tour to do and we’ll do that and then we’ll see what happens. There’s no point in making new music. There’s no record business. What’s the point? No one wants to hear it. You play a gig and all they want to hear are the hits. That’s what people want. They seem to want the nostalgia. There are other things we can do that we’ve been thinking about. But if you’re playing arenas, that’s the kind of music people want.

Were you frustrated in 2006 when you did Endless Wire, your first album of new material in 24 years, and people still wanted to hear old songs? Is that when you realized people don’t want new Who music?

I wasn’t frustrated, because I liked it. Maybe the audiences were frustrated because they didn’t get the hits, whether they wanted them or not. We got a good reaction, but ultimately they would have preferred the hits. There will always be 5,000 diehards that would like a show of some of the obscure stuff, but when you’ve got 15,000 to 18,000 seats to fill you can’t do that. It drives me crazy. The whole thing does.

You wrote most of your hits when you were in your twenties and early thirties, so it must be irritating that fans don’t want music that spans your entire career.

Listen, they’re classic songs. And they won’t be around forever. And one day the Who aren’t going to be out there for you to hear them. It’s just like Bowie. Wouldn’t you like to hear a Bowie concert now?

Are you a big Bowie fan?

He was pure theater. And I admired him greatly, but I’m not really a fan of anyone, to be honest. I thought his body of work was remarkable.

When an artist embarks on a farewell tour, there’s a renewed interest in reviewing some of the band’s highlights. What was your first great memory of being in the Who?

There were so many that happened on different levels. We did our first TV show way back in 1964. We did our first festival, which was the Jazz Festival in Richmond, England, in 1965. Then we played other festivals, like Monterey, Woodstock, the Isle of Wight. We seemed to be at all of them. Live Aid. We seem to be everywhere. No wonder I’m bloody tired. But the fact that Pete and I are still here, we’re still together, we’re still making great music – that’s the achievement.

Can you talk about your appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, when you packed the drums with explosives, and at the end of “My Generation” you nearly blew up the entire set?

That was deafening. It was unexpected, to say the least. We were incredibly lucky not to have all been killed. If there was any more gunpowder in that tin when it went off I certainly think Pete might have been seriously injured, because he was closer to it than I was. You can watch the video of it on YouTube. He was trying to put his hair out because it was alight. And [drummer] Keith [Moon] had shrapnel in his arm as it was, so you can just imagine what would have happened to him if it had been a larger explosion.

Who packed the gunpowder?

I’m not saying. I’ll take that one to my grave.

Do you think people put too much emphasis on the guitars and drums you destroyed, the drinking and debauchery that took place backstage, and the lunatic antics of Keith Moon – and they forget the more important contributions you made to rock music?

As long as they remember you, it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. But there is some quite reasonable music under all that.

What have been the lowest points in your career?

When we lost Keith [in 1978] and when we lost [bassist] John [Entwistle in 2002]. Those were hard to get through for different reasons. When Keith died that was particularly hard, mainly because we were expecting him to die at any moment. He had already lived his nine lives and loads of others. And all of a sudden the thing that knitted our rhythm together was gone. We were like four solo instrumentalists and Keith was the guy with the knitting needles that knitted the three other balls of wool together. Losing him was incredibly hard.

Former Small Faces drummer Kenny Jones played on the 1981 album Face Dances. Why didn’t he work out in the band?

Kenny Jones is a great drummer, but we soon realized that Keith wasn’t just a normal drummer. Keith couldn’t play four-to-the-floor. He went anywhere but there. And just as Kenny was wrong in the Who; Keith would have been totally wrong in the Small Faces. So it proved to be incredibly difficult to fill that spot once Keith was gone. But we got lucky and got [Ringo Starr’s son] Zak Starkey, who actually got his first drum lessons from Keith.

Zak was close to Keith Moon growing up, right?

That’s right. Zak knew how Keith thought and knew how he played. Keith was kind of like his babysitter, which is a bloody terrifying thought, isn’t it [ laughs]? When Zak’s mom and dad were getting divorced Keith was there. He lived down the road and he taught Zak the rudiments on the drums. You can kind of hear in his playing that he’s been taught by Keith.

Did John Entwistle’s death affect you in a different kind of way?

Well, that happened much later. We were in a very tight hole at the time. We sat there and stared at each other and went, “Oh, s—.” This is the day before we were due to start a tour. We could have canceled and stopped, or we could go forward. So we decided to take it on the nose and go forward. And it worked out all right. Within four days we had [bassist] Pino [Palladino] over and we rehearsed the songs and did our first show. Not that we didn’t care. We lost our brother. But there was nothing we could do to bring him back. And we knew we couldn’t have replaced John. He was the king. He was such a dexterous player. So we didn’t try and it didn’t seem to be quite so important. There was no way we could recreate what we were.

Pino does a good job holding down the basslines.

He’s fantastic. He’s melodic enough and he has respect for the songs, and that’s the most important thing.

You said you couldn’t remake the same band as the one you had when Keith and John were playing. Is it still the Who, or is it the closest you can get to the real thing given the circumstances?

Any time Pete and I are together, that’s the Who. When one of us goes, that will be the end of it. But that’s the fact of life. That’s where we are. But one thing that I think is important is when you play the music, you bring Keith and John alive again. They do live within the music. I know Keith isn’t there behind me and I know John isn’t there to the right of me, but there’s something about playing those songs that makes it almost seem as though they are.

How do you want to be remembered after you’re gone?

Just as a band that tried to move things on a bit.

You’ve certainly done that. With every step, the Who exceeded the boundaries of what had been done and what was possible to do with music.

More than that, we were always quite socially minded too, right from the very early days. From the ‘70s on, we were involved in quite big social programs in England on the charity front. We co-founded the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy, which has proven to be effective on kids with autism. We also supported an organization to provide support and treatment for battered wives. It’s a domestic abuse charity that’s really big in England and does really good work. When we started all these things they were little tiny seeds, and now they’ve grown into really important, supportive organizations, like Teenage Cancer Trust, for instance.

Do you think successful musicians have an obligation to give back once they’ve established themselves?

Well, let’s put it this way. When it comes to Teen Cancer America, I’d like to get help from all of the bands who basically owe their privileged lives to the support of teenagers. As for us, we felt the need to contribute to charities. We were brought up in a social system in England, so we’ve believed in it. We’ve also seen the downside to it. It’s not all good news. But if you’re involved in trying to improve things then things will improve.

How are the Who contributing financially to Teen Cancer America?

We’re giving one dollar out of our money on every ticket sold. And I sell my microphones every night from the show. They’re working microphones and I’ve gotten $5,000 each for those. All of that goes to funding Teen Cancer America. Up until now, most of the funding has come through the Who and their friends, people like Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder. But hopefully American bands will start to realize that without teenagers, the music business doesn’t exist. So this is one [cause] to get behind, where you do give something back and it actually does come back to you.

Why did you decide to record vocals for “Let My Love Open the Door,” as opposed to any other song?

I didn’t choose it; I was asked by the bank. They said, “We’re going to do this commercial for Teen Cancer America and we would like you to sing this on the commercial.” Anything that’s going to help Teen Cancer America, I’m there for. I’ve seen the advert that they’ve done and the song is perfect.

When did you first hear “Let My Love Open the Door?” and what did you think of it? Did you ever wish it had been a Who song?

I thought that whole [Empty Glass] album would have made a great Who album. The song has a great lyric. It’s a bit on the poppy side for what the Who usually do. And the new version is basically acoustic, so it’s much different than the way Pete did it on his album. I can’t imagine how the Who would have done it. Maybe he would have sung it and it would have been similar to the way he did it on his solo album. You’ve gotta remember, Pete sings on Who albums, too.

The Who is such great working-class, cathartic music. Is there room for the Who in the world of academia?

Professors are starting to teach a whole course on the Who at universities in Britain. I don’t know whether they are in America, but it feels a bit weird, to be honest. “The Who and Their Music – now go write a thesis paper.” [laughs] I think that idea mostly stems from Pete’s writing. If you look at the way he writes, he composes in a classic form. It sounds like simple, three-chord stuff, but when you see how many chords there are it will shock you.

The Who were always four musically accomplished individuals who battled to make their instruments dominate the mix. When it worked, it was wonderfully controlled chaos…

It was incredible how four completely different characters with completely different styles actually worked together. The gears looked as though they were going to crunch all the time, but they didn’t, and it’s remarkable how everything usually held together. I’ve often thought that really was gift from the universe that us four ever got together.

Are there any songs you’re glad you’re never going to have to play again?

No, not at all. Probably my least favorite, to be honest. is “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”


Yeah, I don’t know why. It’s something about the rhythm. It’s a great song, but it’s one of my least favorite to sing.

But the scream is legendary. Just check out the intro to CSI Miami.

Oh yeah, there’s that f—ing scream, isn’t it. [laughs] But I like the deeper ones. There’s some stuff on Quadrophenia I like quite a lot that we don’t get to play.

Will fans at “The Who Hits 50!” get to see you play “Let My Love Open the Door” or other songs that will surprise them?

We’re only going to play actual Who songs, so we won’t be doing that. But it’s a two-hour show. It’s song after song after song, and they’re all different. If you look at the list of hits, most of them weren’t traditional. We didn’t have many hits as such, but they turned into what they are. And there might be a few songs where you go, “Oh God, I didn’t know they did that.” I mean, you gotta remember a lot of our younger audience thinks “Behind Blue Eyes” is a Limp Bizkit song.

Don’t say that!

It’s true. They hear us play it and then they go, “Oh, did they do this one?” So I don’t think it matters. It’s how it’s delivered that’s important.

What did you think of the Limp Bizkit version of “Behind Blue Eyes?”

It was a good cover.

No, it’s horrible!

No, it’s a good cover! It’s not a copy. It’s great. Obviously a lot of people liked it because it sold in huge numbers. What can I say? They brought our music to a whole new audience, and I can only thank them for that.

You’ve been in movies and on television. Do you plan to continue acting?

I don’t know. I’d like to do other things. I don’t want to be in the spotlight anymore. I’ve had enough.

What kind of other things?

My main drive at the moment is getting this machine with Teen Cancer America going. I’d like to get that to be as successful as I got it in England. And that is a really important sea change in hospital thinking. Pre-1890, there were no children’s hospitals, even. I think this will be the beginning of teenage sections of hospitals where anyone of that age group with a disease or illness won’t be isolated or put amongst old people or screaming babies. And I think if you can start people thinking that way, then the precedence will spread. Otherwise you put the handbrake on their lives.

When did you put Teen Cancer America together?

I started banging on doors around 2000, so it took a long time to actually form the charity. And since I’m not American, I am not involved in the day-to-day running of it at all. I’m basically a co-founder and ambassador for it. But I was absolutely astonished at the response we got from America. It was quite the opposite of what I was expecting.

How so?

I thought it would be much more difficult to get the hospitals to understand what we’re trying to achieve, because we are pointing out to them that this is something that’s greatly lacking. With any kind of business, that’s not an easy thing to do and they’re all competitive. But the hospitals have come onboard by the dozen. We’ve got 50 hospitals waiting to work with us. And more than that, they work with us in partnership, which is fantastic. Whereas, in England, where we started doing this in 1990, apart from a small bit of government funding in Scotland, we had to raise all of the money for everything we did within the hospital system. In America the hospitals have been incredible generous. And now, here we are with all these hospitals lining up and I’ve got to raise a bucketload.

What are the greatest obstacles you have faced along the way?

Finding the right people that could understand the need for the charity and who had the potential of actually making it happen. I got very, very lucky. I was talking to my very good friend [high-profile wealth manager] Rebecca Rothstein. I sold her on the idea and she said, “I’m going to make this happen.” She’s my co-founder and she introduced me to a guy called David Feinberg who ran the UCLA hospital system. I sat down for him for an hour and I told him what we’re doing in Britain and what we’re finding from the early results of the success rates of the treatments from our units and what it was like before they were there. He was intrigued and he immediately sent a team over to England to see what we were doing. They came back and reported that what we were doing was the gold standard and this was what UCLA needed immediately. He made it happen straight away. We hadn’t raised the money, but we did that thanks to Rebecca and her L.A. connections. Until I found those two people I was just banging on doors, hoping.

Why do you think your efforts were more warmly received in America than in the U.K.?

Well, you’ve got to remember that America is the size of 50 Great Britains. Obviously, it will take longer, but considering we’ve been going four years and we currently have 10 facilities and the most prestigious hospitals in America, including UCLA in California and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York – there’s one going into Yale, one going into Dana Farber and Moffitt in Tampa, Florida – CHOP are putting in a very small one, but at least it’s a foot in the door. And once they receive the benefits of what we do they will hopefully enlarge it. There’s one going into Chicago. Stanford are on board. So I think we’ve proven what we needed, we just gotta generate the money and get the job done.