Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band’s first single “I Can’t Explain”. His new book Who He Is amounts to his most comprehensive autobiography but hardly his first.
Townshend’s rock opera “Tommy” was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star … transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend’s electric guitar, of course, was Tommy’s pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story — the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans — over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend’s fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend’s book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace succeeds as an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn’t seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
Like many memoirs, Who I Am is especially strong in the childhood scenes. A highly intellectual, artistic and cheeky London kid, born at the very close of World War II to jazz musician parents who tended to drift into thorny situations and sexual affairs, young Pete Townshend felt keenly dislocated when his parents abandoned him to a creepy grandmother, leaving him with feelings of anxiety that inspired his first narrative song-cycle. A Quick One (While He’s Away), which he wrote just before Tommy. The chapters describing these years are the most evocative in the book, but the intellectual journey into pop art, rock stardom and religious enlightenment that follows (Townshend is a lifelong follower of Meher Baba) keeps up a high pitch of excitement, especially during the near-insane period in which Townshend tried to follow the masterpiece Tommy with an even more ambitious rock opera called Lifehouse.
The planned epiphany he staged for Lifehouse would fall utterly to pieces, leaving the band managers and engineers scrambling to fulfill a contract for an album while Pete Townshend nursed his cracked-up spiritual wounds. In one of the greatest moments of accidental genius in the history of classic rock, the scattered scraps of Lifehouse would magically fall into place to form the Who’s most classic album of all, Who’s Next, which would yield the band’s two biggest anthems, “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.
Who I Am revels in the details of musical creativity, and provides fresh angles on a monumental career. Townshend writes not only about his music but also about the music he listened to during these years. Surprisingly, he shows very little regard for peers such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young or Led Zeppelin, instead showering all his praise on the Rolling Stones (he admired their brazen sexuality), Pink Floyd (he lusted for their ability to create a fully immersive concert experience), the Kinks (he recognized in Ray Davies a fellow wit) and the Small Faces (he seems to have often wished to have been one of the fun Small Faces instead of a member of the difficult Who).
It was probably Townshend’s desire to emulate Pink Floyd’s epochal recordings of the early 70s that led to the beautiful semi-failure of his third attempted full-length rock opera Quadrophenia, which had a great story and a few great songs, but collapsed under the weight of its windiness, and suffered from the Who’s inability to maintain its peak of instrumental genius. It’s surprising to read in Who I Am that Townshend considers Quadrophenia the equal of Tommy. Not musically it isn’t.
There were a few more golden moments in the mid 1970s — the Dostoyevskeyan album Who by Numbers, the awesome Ken Russell movie of Tommy — but the Who had already started to suck by the time Keith Moon died a couple of years later (those who weren’t there in the late 1970s may say that Keith Moon’s death ruined the Who, but actually it happened the other way around, as a quick listen to the album Who Are You proves).
By the mid-1980s, Townshend gave up on the hard rock grind and morphed himself into a literary book editor at London’s esteemed Faber & Faber before beginning the Who’s series of reunion tours. Towards the final chapters Who I Am slips away, as so many rock star memoirs eventually do, into summary format, and the details of each recording session begin to seem to matter less. Townshend’s long and hopeful marriage eventually breaks up (Townshend reveals himself to be constantly lovesick in this book; I’m not sure what psychological need this signifies), and he eventually enacts his last Tommy-like fall from celebrity grace when, several years ago, he gets caught by the British police in a sting after buying child porn online. Townshend strains himself here, trying to explain that he was doing research for another rock opera he would eventually write about a child abuse victim, but I wish he hadn’t felt it necessary to work so hard to explain the offense away. This was a bad period in his life — worse, even, than the It’s Hard album. But he provided his own epitath in his earliest mini-opera, the one about the abandonment of his parents. “You are forgiven!”
Pete, you truly are forgiven. Who I Am is a book worthy of your great career, and that’s some pretty tall praise.