Who I Am
By Pete Townshend
538 pages, $32.50
By Jeff Miers
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Pete Townshend rose to fame with the Who based on the strength of a handful of proto-punk, garage-rock anthems, among them “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute.” The Who would deserve to be forever regaled and celebrated simply for these late-’60s whittled down mini-masterpieces, and for the overpowering, muscular and incredibly visceral manner in which the band delivered them in the concert setting.
Townshend, however, didn’t reveal his true genius until later, when he brought high-art standards to bear on rock ’n’ roll, all but invented the “concept album” with the Who’s “Tommy,” and spent the ’70s constructing a canon of songs that, taken together, form a thesis on the quest for spiritual significance within the framework of rock.
In this field, he stands wholly alone. While many rockers have sought, and written about, spiritual enlightenment, Townshend was the only one doing so at record-breaking decibels alongside a band of brilliant and brawny men who often had no idea what the hell he was going on and on about in his lyrics. Townshend is perhaps the only man who ever considered a hockey arena or small town civic center to be a suitable venue for a religious experience.
It makes sense, then, that when it finally came time to write his autobiography, Townshend would deliver a book as complex as the man himself, and that man’s finest music.
“Who I Am” is not a standard rock “tell-all,” though there are stories of excess relayed through its pages. (If your drummer is Keith Moon, how could these possibly be avoided?) It’s instead a challenging examination of the themes Townshend has wrestled with his entire adult life – how to reconcile the sublunar and the sublime, the gritty reality of the rock life with the lofty aims of the Romantic Idealist.
The book also deals in an unflinchingly honest matter with the issue of sexual abuse, and how early-life experiences can foster a sense of sexual shame in later life.
So it’s not all throwing television sets out of windows, waking up in hotel rooms with strange girls on either arm, and drinking the town dry night after night. There’s also the guilt engendered in a sensitive and self-aware soul by such activity.
Townshend was born in West London as World War II ended, to a big band saxophonist father and a former big band singer mother, whom he recalls as “glamorous.” He was inexplicably shuffled around quite a bit as a kid, eventually ending up with a grandmother who may or may not have been mentally ill, but who most definitely exposed the young boy to the activities of a succession of her lovers, many of them sinister, drunken types.
Townshend would spend decades trying to work through exactly what happened to him while under his grandmother’s care, and many of his most striking songs reveal the sexual confusion and fear these experiences engendered in him. His mother taking a new lover while still married to his father, and making no attempt to hide it from the boy, added to the mess of emotions tugging at young Townshend.
The seeds of the Who were planted while Townshend was attending Ealing Art College, where he became enthralled with the concept of “Auto Destructive Art,” and pop art in general. Through mutual friend John Entwistle, Townshend met Roger Daltrey, and was accepted into a band then known as the Detours. Within a short time, the Detours had added drummer Keith Moon and become the Who. The explosive combination of Townshend’s pop-art fascinations and intellectual curiosity with the raw power and “yobbishness” of the Who and the tough Mod gang the band played to was there from the get-go, and provided Townshend with much of the thematic material he’d explore for decades.
But it was “Tommy” that changed everything, for Townshend and for the Who.
“Historically, the Who’s stage act had revolved around a kind of childish look-at-me competitiveness that had worked well from 1964 to 1968, as the four of us, boys still, tried to get the attention of the audience in our own eccentric way,” he writes.
“But when we performed 'Tommy’ in 1969 this competitiveness began to fade; we worked much more as a unit, supporting each other in making the journey of performing and listening to ‘Tommy’ effective. We might begin our shows with a lot of noisy hard rock, and maybe end that way too, with amplifiers toppling over and drumkits falling into a heap, but while we played ‘Tommy’ we became real musicians. This made being on stage with the Who a better place to be.”
“Tommy” made the Who a major international concern, but it didn’t necessarily make Townshend a happy man. He adopted a guru in the form of Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, and attempted to reconcile his life as a rock musician with the tenets of Baba’s mysticism. Time and again, Townshend describes his inner conflict – a married man with young children by the early ’70s, he sought to be at once a provider for his family, a prolific songwriter, a serious musician, a disciple of Baba’s teachings, and the main compositional thrust behind the Who.
At home, he desired and worked to maintain stability, but when the Who came calling, he’d take to the road, often drinking prodigiously and consistently, and inevitably, falling into cycles of infidelity.
The constant push and pull informed Townshend’s greatest work “the ‘Lifehouse’ project,” in which Townshend sought to reconcile spiritual yearning and the concept of communal healing with the bombast and grandeur of rock. “Lifehouse” was eventually abandoned when its plotline baffled the rest of the Who, its songs ultimately finding a home on the revered “Who’s Next” album, or ending up scattered to the wind, though Townshend – much like Beach Boy Brian Wilson with his “Smile” project – continually returned to these themes to grapple with them throughout the ensuing decades.
“Who I Am” offers plenty of immaculate detail on the life of the Who, particularly the period prior to drummer Moon’s death in 1978. Townshend, a gifted and forthright writer, doesn’t attempt to rewrite history to favor his own actions, nor does he go easy on himself. In fact, the very opposite is the case – Townshend is harder on himself than on anyone else, and his writing eloquently and movingly describes his deepest feelings for loved ones, many of them now lost.
As a historical memoir for the Who fan, “Who I Am” is valuable. But more significantly, the book examines the meaning, power and potential to effect change in not just the Who’s music, but rock in general.
“I dedicate this book to the artists in all of us,” Townshend writes in the book’s “Coda.”
“This is as much a note to myself as a note to you. Play to the gods!... For the artist, 'the gods’ are the universe, the big, abstract picture, the unknown, the open sky and sea. Focusing on the infinite universe might seem rather grandiose, or utterly aimless. In fact it’s as small or as large as we want it to be. Some of us believe there is nothing out there. Some of us believe we are surrounded by attentive angels. Whatever.”
“Play to the gods…. It’s all the same thing. If in doubt, just play.”
Jeff Miers is The News’ pop music critic.