For the past few weeks, the morning drive to my office has been accompanied by the sonorous voice of the now 67-year-old Pete Townshend, legendary rock composer, innovative guitarist and driving creative force behind The Who.
It’s not Townshend’s music that fills my ears. I’m listening to his newly released autobiography “Who I Am I: A Memoir” as read by the subject himself in audio book format–which is a wonderful way to make the most of your commute if you’ve never tried it.
Listening to Townshend tell his story in his own voice feels less like being read to and more like engaging him in conversation … and he has my undivided attention as he recounts his life from his birth on May 19, 1945 to today.
As a guitarist and pianist myself, I will tell anyone who will listen that I think Townshend is as close to a modern Mozart or Beethoven as can be found in the post-war musical environments, and his creative fecundity never ceases to astound me. He is my muse. I admit it. But I harbor no hero worship, and it would make him uncomfortable to be confronted with such. I’ve covered Townshend’s music in a past article on Big Hollywood, and anyone seeking his discography which spans almost a half century from “I Can’t Explain” to “O Parvardigar” can find it on any web search. (Taking the time to wade through his prolific collection is another matter entirely!)
But this book is about more than just music. It is written by a flesh and blood man, who is as open and honest about his many faults and failings as he is genuinely modest about his success. “Who I Am” contains material about Townshend’s inner machinery only available to the reader who is given a front row seat in the recounting of the life of one of the world’s premier rock and roll artists.
We are presented with the creative forces that drove him to compose some of the most memorable, respected, and socially important works of music of his time … and the demons of drugs, alcohol, psychological torment, child sexual abuse and mistreatment and the constant carnal temptations assailing him as he struggled to remain a faithful husband and dutiful parent–he did not always succeed as he freely confesses.
Townshend tells all here.
From his birth (“Chapter 1: It’s A Boy”) through his childhood that laid the foundations of his dichotomous identity from which his most celebrated works would spring forth. His parents were both musicians whose marriage fluctuated wildly between domestic bliss and bitter estrangement and infidelity. When he was just six he was sent to live for two years with his clinically insane grandmother whose boyfriends he believes sexually molested him while he slept.
Of course we are privy to behind-the-scenes anecdotes from his raucous days with the world’s loudest super-group. He takes us through an amazing journey (couldn’t resist): the hard-driving days as a young mod crew and the tensions of four strong personalities that molded The Who; his creation of “Tommy” out of a desire to save the band from retreating to obscurity; the elevation of his music to what he offers as his pinnacle achievement, “Quadrophenia” and into his solo career with such masterpieces as “Empty Glass” (which his frustrated bandmates thought robbed The Who of some stellar material); his sometimes combative but always treasured relationship with The Who’s iconic vocalist Roger Daltrey; the terrible sense of loss he felt at the drug-related deaths first of madcap but beloved drummer Keith Moon, and later his dear friend, and universally acclaimed uber-bassist, John Entwistle.
All the while, as his creativity grew upwards and outwards to include articles, book publishing, spiritual ascendancy through his love for his deceased mystic Meher Baba, we see that Townshend’s personal life was unraveling. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll is not just a Spinal Tap cliché. It was the undoing of his marriage to Karen Astley (long before their final divorce in 2009) and his detachment on some level from his children, daughters Emma and Aminta and his much younger son Joseph.
Although he does offer that his true drug of choice was always “overwork” and that was the real wedge between him and his family. He even felt alienation at one point from his fan base whom he did not quite understand any more as he stumbled into his riotous early middle age.
For rock aficionados, “Who I Am” is a veritable “Who’s Who” of that great Delta blues-inspired British rock scene of the mid-1960s through early 1980s. Any turn of a page (or scan of the iPod in my case) will bring the reader to visiting Eric Clapton at his home to help him kick his heroin addiction, to partying it up with Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Keith Richards, to rubbing elbows with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimmie Page, David Bowie, Bono, Freddie Mercury, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Sting, etc.
From Monterey to Woodstock to Live Aid to the 9/11 Concert For New York and beyond, he has seen it all, met all, done all … a truly extraordinary life.
What we see at the end of the story is a man quite conscious of his struggles and his emergence from the fog of failed romances, hopelessness, despair and spiritual and personal isolation as a survivor who has taken what he’s learned and channeled it not only, unsurprisingly, into his artistic endeavors, but towards growing into his senior years with grace and dignity.
He is an affable fellow who enjoys a good laugh and who today at last seems comfortable in his own skin. As his introspection winds down, Pete takes great pains to lay out in forensic detail the events that led to his accepting a “caution” for a sex offense after it was discovered that one time several years before he used a one-off credit card (immediately destroyed) to access a child pornography website. His intent was to help expose how banks, who reserve the right to deny charges for other distasteful internet purchases, willingly support the exploitative pornography that so poisons the net. He had, in fact, already written about the subject which, as the revelations of his own disturbing childhood victimization reveals, is a social subject quite close and personal to him.
Professing what he called “white knight’s syndrome” he claims he never considered the unintended negative consequences of his $7.00 purchase which is the antithesis of who he is–as his legions of supporters from his own family to Daltrey and many others who know him best will attest.
In my opinion he was the victim of a high profile witch hunt but I will let the reader decide for his/herself. That Townshend had to devote any time at all in his memoirs to addressing the allegations is a shame for it means there is less room for the more substantive aspects of his life that answer the burning question pondered by any Townshend fan: What makes this guy tick? How does one disappear into a cramped home studio alone with his keyboards, guitar, a microphone and reel-to-reel and emerge with demos for such classics as “Baba O’Reilly” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” “The Real Me” “5:15” “Pinball Wizard” “The Acid Queen” “Rough Boys,” “Slip Kid” “Behind Blue Eyes” “Squeeze Box” “Eminence Front” “Who Are You” “Magic Bus” and so on?
The clues start with his upbringing as a child of post-war England whose gifted parents passed on the musical gene to him, but also unfortunately for him (yet dare I say fortunately for us?) messed with his young mind enough to create the epitome of the tortured genius.
Townshend’s self-examination presents us with plenty of material with which to love him or hate him. He does great things, he does stupid things, he does thoughtful things, he does hurtful things, he does generous things, he does selfish things. But as the poet said, though he has fought under many guises, many names, yet always him. After his many therapy sessions he would present his waiting driver a self-deprecating diagnosis: “Still loony.”
You’re not loony, Pete. It’s just that no one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes. But thanks to “Who I Am,” now we know at least a little.