The Real Me(s)
The Real Me(s)
A Q&A with David MacDonald
Of Who’s Next
By Geoff Gehman
David MacDonald got a bargain, one of the best he ever had, when he met Roger Daltrey, the swaggering, strutting, microphone-lassoing, vocal mountain climbing front man he plays in Who’s Next, which plays songs minted by Daltrey and his fellow Who founders.
The meeting took place in 2013 in a Rhode Island arena before the Who performed all of “Quadrophenia,” their second rock opera. Sitting in Daltrey’s dressing room, MacDonald received hearty thanks for a Who’s Next fundraiser for Daltrey’s favorite charity, Teen Cancer America. He also received advice for keeping body and soul in shape for singing “Baba O’Riley,” “The Real Me” and other warring, wounding anthems. He left with suggestions for throat spray (Entertainer’s Secret), antacid (Tums) and salad dressing (balsamic vinegar, a menace to mucous).
That night Daltrey made MacDonald feel like a friendly protégé. That badge of honor highlights MacDonald’s 17 years as Daltrey in Who’s Next, which on April 21 will blast the plaster of the Mauch Chunk Opera House for the fourth time. The lone Rhode Island native among Long Islanders, MacDonald has Daltrey’s curly hair, fitness-center-fit physique, lusty lungs and cheeky charm, especially when he’s wearing an open suede jacket with Woodstockian fringes. His authenticity is matched by founding guitarist Bill Canell, who nails Pete Townshend’s windmilling power chords and pogo-sticking hops; bassist Mike Conte. who plays the late John Entwistle’s dive-bombing, thundering runs with a stone-faced, Cliffs of Dover persona, and drummer Rick Savarese, who simulates the late Keith Moon’s explosive, implosive fills and loony mooning.
Below, in a conversation from his home in Attleboro, Mass., MacDonald, 53, discusses how he got into Who’s Next, under Daltrey’s skin, and into the good graces of three Who members, one of whom mistook him for Daltrey for a millisecond..
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that rocked your socks off?
A: “Baba O’Riley.” I was close to 10 years of age when I first heard it coming from across the street [in Cranston, R.I.]. My neighbors were older guys who had long hair, smoked marijuana, and played the tunes that fed my soul. At the time I had long hair parted on the side and I wore tough-skin flare pants, the kind worn by Bobby Brady or a guy in the Partridge Family—not the good-looking Keith but maybe Danny [laughs]. I sang in the church choir, but I really looked up to the hippie generation; that utopian communal lifestyle really intrigued me. My sister had the album “Who’s Next” [which opens with “Baba O’Riley”] and I loved to stare at the cover [with a photo of Who members walking from a spooky wasteland monolith on which they apparently just pissed] and I wanted to be like that—independent and free. I loved Pete [Townshend]’s voice and the songs–“Getting in Tune,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”–he wrote for the “Lifehouse” chronicles [a discarded project salvaged as “Who’s Next”]. As a matter of fact, one of those hippies looked like Pete. He had Pete’s nose and blue eyes but he didn’t sing or play an instrument.
Q: What was the second Who tune that put you in the band’s orbit?
A: “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I loved the synthesizer opening and the power chords and the words and what they stood for and Keith’s drum solo and Roger’s scream. That’s another one that hooked, lined and sunk me.
Q: How did you hook up with Who’s Next and what was your audition song?
A: It was 2000 [two years after Bill Canell founded the band] and I was doing business on Long Island; I was an account manager for a company that provided cash access at casinos and racetracks like Belmont and Aqueduct. I was at a restaurant on the Jericho Turnpike in New Hyde Park, having my pizza and fine Italian wine, when I saw “Who’s Next: A Who Tribute Band” on the marquee of the NIC Club, which is no longer around. I thought: Wow, I’ve never seen a Who tribute band; I should check it out. I was already a huge Who fan and people had been telling me for years that I looked like Roger. It started when I entered college in 1983, when I started losing my baby fat and began looking like a young, mature adult. Roger and I are the same height and we have blue eyes and curly hair. He has a longer nose but we both have square, muscular faces.
I walked into the club and Bill [Canell]’s brother Jim noticed my resemblance to Roger. He went to tell Bill and Bill came over and shook my hand and said: “Oh my god, you look like Roger. Do you sing?” I told him I sang a little bit in the church choir and some charity bands but nothing on a steady basis. I had a strong voice and I was a closet karaoke guy; I would go out for fun with my friends and drink beers and sing and share our music history.
That night I watched the [Who’s Next] show and afterwards I met everyone affiliated with the band, as well as some of their followers. I remember two ladies who were rabid fans, who had actually babysat Roger’s kids, who had gone over to Surrey [England], where he has a mansion with a trout farm. Bill and I exchanged numbers and he ended up giving me a call and asked me if I wanted to audition a couple weeks later. I did a few songs and he was blown away, especially by “The Real Me”; that was probably the song that got me hired.
I was asked to sing for the band’s performance during a Whoapalooza that fall. Pete Townshend’s personal assistant, Nicola Joss, was there and Keith Moon’s roadie and personal assistant, Dougal Butler [author of several Moon books], made an appearance; they were in town because the Who played a couple of shows at Madison Square Garden. The original Roger singer did one set and I did another and I pulled it off. I joined the band after the original Roger dropped out. He was not really into it; he more or less did it as a favor to Bill, who was his childhood friend. He was a really good looking guy with long blonde hair; he looked a bit like Fabio.
Q: What did you have to do to get under Daltrey’s skin? Did you hire a voice coach to get those gutsy, guttural vocal chops?
A: I listened carefully to videos of Roger singing live. Bill likes to work off live Who performances as opposed to studio performances; that separates us from other tribute bands. I learned to nail Roger’s phrasing and his inflections. With a lot of repetition I was able to get in the sweet spot. I also learned to be smart and not oversing.
Q: What’s the toughest Roger vocal for you to tackle?
A: “Bargain” used to give me trouble but I learned the technique to handle it; now I sing most of the chorus without trouble. In the beginning I was intimidated by the very high notes in “Love Reign O’er Me.” I came to grips with it by listening to Roger’s vocals during an ’89 version. He’s a smart singer; he knows when to pick the spots when he needs to get those guttural screams. He could never do that in the studio; what you hear on the record is dubbed and edited, with a filter on his voice and maybe the screams doubled. I know when to use my head voice, so it’s not really difficult.
The songs that give me trouble are very wordy. “Doctor Jimmy” is a bit of a struggle. “The Punk and the Godfather” is more of a struggle because there’s very little room for breathing. It takes the wind out of me; I have to have time to recuperate.
Q: Did you hire a coach to help you nail Daltrey’s microphone twirling and whirling?
A: I studied a lot of film to get his mannerisms. The younger Roger, during the “Tommy” days, didn’t whip his microphone as fast as the older Roger. Back then he was the quiet one. Pete Townshend pretty much did all the talking; Roger did a lot of circling around the stage, what we call “sharking.” In the late ’70s to early ’80s, when Roger cut his hair, his microphone twirling was a little more aggressive, with quicker whips; he was spinning it like a helicopter. I’m trying to get the perfect momentum, so I picked something in between the ’60s and ’80s. It seems to work for me. I try not to overdo it. You just step it up in certain songs, when you get caught up in the charisma.
Q: Has your microphone helicopter ever crashed into you or one, two or three of your band mates?
A: I’ve been very good at not hitting myself. I have hit the cymbal behind me, which really upset the drummer. I also hit the neck of the bass, but I didn’t do any damage and the microphone came back to my hand. One time I threw it into the air and I was blinded by this big white spotlight and I could not see where it was coming down. Luckily, I caught it in stride, juggled it a bit, and went on with the verse without losing momentum. Now I wear Roger’s little blue glasses, which really cut down on the stage glare. They make you feel relaxed; they’re not just for fashion.
You know, I remember looking at an old VHS tape of the Who when Roger had short hair. It was in ’79, during the “McVicar” era [Daltrey starred as a real-life high-profile armed robber in the 1980 movie “McVicar,” released by The Who Films Ltd.]. At one point the microphone fell out of his hand and he picked it up without missing a beat with a smile. And I went: Oh my gosh, he’s making fun of himself.
Q: Did you spend extra hours in the gym to get Daltrey’s lean, hungry physique?
A: I was a lot heavier when I joined the band, so I had to trim down to play Roger. I had been seriously into weight training; at one point I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film “Pumping Iron.” Growing up in an Italian community, the girls loved the guys with the big muscles and the gold chains and the sports cars; they had to have all of that to capture their hearts. I was only 5-foot-6 and I always hung around with really tall friends. I figured since I wouldn’t grow taller, I gotta grow wide [laughs]. So I got muscles to attract the girls.
Q: Did it work?
A: Somewhat. I won a lot of respect from other guys, especially bullies. They were saying: My god, that Dave Mac, he’s got big muscles; we’re not going to mess with him anymore.
Roger has more of a European build. His legs are thinner; his waist might be a little higher. He’s built like an elf. I’m built more like a gnome [laughs].
Q: You and your band mates put yourselves in the Who’s good graces with two fund-raising concerts for Daltrey’s No. 1 charity, Teen Cancer America, Take us behind the scenes of both benefits.
A: The first show was in 2013 and we raised $7,000, which we sent to Nicola Joss, Pete’s personal assistant. Afterwards, I met Roger in his dressing room at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., where he was warming up before the Who played “Quadrophenia.” He greeted me like he was a mentor, like an old friend. He asked me if I was having fun [playing him]. He was very grateful for the money we raised. He’s so passionate about helping kids with cancer; that’s part of his heart and soul motivation.
And then he told me what he does during his warmups. He uses a certain spray, Entertainer’s Secret, that coats his throat. I use it, too. It’s got aloe vera gel, apple seed extract and licorice root; it really keeps the voice fluid. Roger sprays it up his nose, too. I don’t: I use a saline solution instead. I also drink a ton of water.
Roger also gave me tips about what to eat and when to eat before shows, so you can have good digestion and sustain your energy. He eats salad and strictly poultry, usually three hours before he performs. He’ll take a Tums a good 30 minutes before he hits the stage; he said that will clear any type of acid reflux. I’ve tried it but it doesn’t seem to affect me either way; I could take it or leave it.
I keep trim and fit with a low-carb diet. I eat more carbs early in the day and then fade them out as the day draws to a close. At dinner time I eat strictly veggies and poultry or seafood. I might have a protein drink or a protein bar before bedtime. On a show day I like to have a salad two and a half to three hours before we hit the stage. I use balsamic vinegar because the vinegar clears away the mucous. An hour before performance time I have a cup of camomile tea, usually with a tablespoon of honey to coat the throat.
Our second fundraiser was in 2015 at this famous bar/club in Long Island City that had been heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The Who wanted to help out the club’s owners for their loss, and we wanted to give back to the Who. We raffled signed memorabilia: Roger autographed a microphone and I think there was a guitar autographed by Pete. We ended up raising $5,000 for Teen Cancer America.
Later that year the Who played Forest Hills Stadium, where they had played in 1971, and thanked us before the show on a big screen. It’s the same screen that tells people to refrain from smoking because Roger is allergic; pot smoke really dries out his throat. Before the concert we played a show with the set list and costumes from the Who’s ’71 gig at Forest Hills. I wore a gauze hippie/boho shirt with patches. I had started to grow out my hair, so I didn’t need to wear a wig to get closer to Roger’s big Woodstock-era curls—his lion’s mane. It was not quite as long as the younger Roger’s hair but it was close enough to fill out the fringes on the jacket.
Q: Ah, that brings us to your Daltrey-esque fringed jacket. Where and how did you get it?
A: In 2001 I bought the suede and found the beads. I went to a seamstress and she did the sewing. Now I need to get suede fringes for Roger’s pants. Next year is the 50th anniversary of “Tommy” and we’re planning to play it on tour. So I gotta get those fringed pants ready.
Q: Another one of your calling cards is performing two times with John Entwistle, the Who’s late bassist. Both times were memorable for different reasons.
A: In 1999, the year before I met Bill and the other members of Who’s Next, I was at the Last Call Saloon in Providence for a show by the John Entwistle Band. Godfrey Townshend, John’s guitarist and no relation to Pete, spotted me during sound check, told me to come on stage, and asked me “Do you sing at all? Can you do a song?” I said yes and we got ready to perform “The Real Me.” John wasn’t paying attention; he was fiddling with his amplifier. When he turned around and saw me, he shook his head in astonishment and went, whoa, like he had seen a ghost. Then he whispered something to Godfrey and we were good to go. I sang with my hands in my pockets and didn’t even hold the mike because I was uncomfortable, a little awkward and starstruck. John made me feel better when he signed an autograph “To Roger” and crossed it out and put “To Dave.”
I had another significant encounter with John in 2001. The Who were in New York to play the 9/11 benefit concert at Madison Square Garden and John’s band had a gig at B.B. King’s. Godfrey and Steve Luongo, John’s drummer, very kindly handed over their equipment to Bill and our original drummer. The three of us became John’s band for “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute.” We really got into a groove and John wanted us to do one more song; he said something to Bill about “Pinball Wizard.” Bill decided to stop and leave the crowd—and John–hanging. He didn’t want to overdo it. We were grateful to Godfrey and Steve for letting us play with John, and honored to play with John.
Q: Do you think that Bill and your current drummer, Rick Savarese, would ever consider destroying their instruments onstage, imitating those old bad boys Townshend and Keith Moon, to raise money for charity?
A: I believe they would. I know Bill in particular is overdue to smash one of his guitars [laughs]. We had a little bit of an issue at a venue on the boardwalk in Atlantic City when Bill smashed a guitar. Nobody in the crowd got hit but a large chunk is missing from the stage. We just have to worry about ricocheting parts hitting the audience.
Q: Daltrey has had a famously fractious friendship with Townshend, with both of them falling out of favor with each other like brothers. Today they’re extremely close blood brothers, bound by carrying on the legacy of Entwistle and Moon, a legion of fans, their own illnesses and dilemmas, and the fact that no one sings Townshend’s songs better than Daltrey. Have you had major frictions with your band mates?
A: We’re a pretty harmonious group of guys. Sometimes there are misunderstandings; sometimes we’re pissed off. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt, in any band, in any family. What helps us is our great connection; we can read each other really well. If anyone struggles, the others can pick up the slack. If I’m not feeling too well, certain songs may be cut out. On at least two occasions I had a throat infection and we had to call up a substitute Roger. I was absolutely incapacitated; even my speaking voice was a struggle.
We have the luxury of being out of the spotlight and doing our own thing, so we really look forward to getting together. When we play it’s like a vacation.
Q: Roger and Pete are still performing in their 70s; this summer Roger will tour “Tommy” with orchestras. How long can you and Bill play Roger and Pete with vigor and vinegar?
A: That’s a really good question. Within the last year Bill and I sat down after a rehearsal and had a few drinks and asked ourselves: Do we ever hang this up? We’re in really tiptop shape. Bill just turned 50 and he’s been taking better care of his body, so he should be doing his Pete jumps for some time. I just turned 53 and I’m a fitness fanatic; Roger was 53 when he did the “Quadrophenia” tour and performed in Hyde Park with Gary Glitter. We’ll see what happens if we can make it to 60–without looking foolish. Roger and Pete are still forces to be reckoned with in their 70s; they’re not going down easily.
David MacDonald: The Scoop
He has a full-time job as an illustrator for medical companies and the Boston Museum of Science.
His other Who favorites include “The Music Must Change,” “Athena” and “Dreaming from the Waist,” a track from the 1996 reissue of 1975 album “The Who by Numbers.”
He wants to discover why so many Roger Daltrey fans are older Jewish women. He believes the attraction probably began in the early 1960s, when Daltrey sang in pre-Who bands at bar mitzvahs.
His Bucket List is topped by wanting to scuba dive and visit South American countries. “I’ve done wind surfing and hang gliding, which was really fun. And I’d really like to go to Costa Rica, Brazil and Columbia and explore the islands, the foods and the people. I’ve had friends who dated women from South American countries and they say they really have a lot of love and community spirit.”
His Fuck It List is topped by a wish for greater universal harmony. “There are too many conflicts, too many wars. We need to see each other as human beings instead of judging each other by the cover. Live and let live, basically.”
Millennial fans of comic-book films mistake him for veteran actor Willem Dafoe, whose gallery of villains includes the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man.” “They’re too young to know Roger: he’s 74 and out of the spotlight. Sometimes I’m told I look like a Kennedy, even though the Kennedys are Irish and I have more of an English look. And I was told I looked like Mel Gibson when both of us had darker hair.”
Geoff Gehman reviewed two Who shows as an arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He hopes that Who’s Next plays “A Quick One While He’s Away,” one of his Who favorites, at the Mauch Chunk Opera House on April 21, eight days before his 60th birthday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.