Who is he? Who who, who who?

October 14, 2012

Next up on the monkey’s nightstand. Gene Lyons should review this.

Who Am I
By Pete Townshend
Illustrated. 538 pages. Harper. $32.50.

Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani for the New York Times

“No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man,” Pete Townshend wrote in a famous Who song, “To be the sad man behind blue eyes/No one knows what it’s like/To be hated, to be fated to telling only lies.”

Well, in his new memoir, Townshend tells us exactly what it’s like to be both “the sad man” and the musician in another song who smiles and grins “at the change all around” him. He answers the question the band famously asked: “Who are you?” And possibly in more detail than fans ever wanted to know.

Who I Am is an earnest, tortured, searching book — by turns eloquent and long-winded, revealing and oddly elliptical. In it Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter for the Who, gives an account of his life as intimate and as painful as a therapy session, while chronicling the history of the band as it took shape in the Mod scene in 1960s London and became the very embodiment of adolescent rebellion and loud, anarchic rock ’n’ roll.

Townshend’s self-portrait is raw and unsparing. He tells us about being abused as a child and lasting feelings of shame, anger and anxiety. He tells us about his drug use and struggles with alcohol. And he tells us about being arrested on suspicion of possessing images taken from a child-pornography website.

(He says he was trying to come to terms with being abused as a child himself, and was helping to “set up a research program for a new support system for survivors of childhood abuse.” And while he was given a formal police caution, he was cleared of the possession charge.)

Townshend’s many internal conflicts are exhaustively mapped. He describes being torn between spiritual yearnings and “the reptilian life” of a rock star, between intellectual pretensions and “desperately low self-regard,” between his commitments to his family and the demands of “the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me” who “didn’t give a toss for fatherhood.”

His accounts of the mental anguish he suffered as a child are harrowing: When he was 6, he says, he was inexplicably sent by his parents to stay with his cruel and mentally unstable grandmother, who “took in men from the bus garage and the railway station opposite her flat all the time”; one of those men, he suggests, molested him. (Townshend’s descriptions are vague because, he says, he had “managed to put the details out of memory’s reach.”)

These passages not only provide some perspective on the slashing anger and violence that animated Townshend’s stage performances, but they also underscore the autobiographical themes in his band’s rock opera, Tommy, which recounts the story of a traumatized and abused boy who goes on to become a kind of pop messiah.

Perhaps because the author takes such an inward-looking approach, “Who I Am” does not provide a particularly vivid or visceral sense — as Keith Richards’ enthralling 2010 memoir, “Life, did — of what it was like to be on the road in a notorious rock band, or what the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s was like from the inside, when rock ’n’ roll was changing the world.

Out of a respect for the privacy of his band mates or a desire to focus on his own life story, Townshend also declines to give us portraits of Roger Daltrey (whom he somewhat questionably calls the band’s “unquestionable leader”), Keith Moon or John Entwistle that shed much new light on their personalities, their musicianship or their combustible interactions with one another.

Jimi Hendrix is one of the few other musicians who really comes alive in these pages: He is described as “a shaman,” who looked as if he had “glittering colored light” emanating “from the ends of his long, elegant fingers as he played.” In some ways, Townshend writes, Hendrix’s “performances did borrow from mine — the feedback, the distortion, the guitar theatrics,” but his “artistic genius lay in how he created a sound all his own: Psychedelic Soul, or what I’ll call ‘Blues Impressionism.”’

Of Mick Jagger, Townshend has this bizarrely personal statement to make: He “is the only man I’ve ever seriously wanted” to have sex with, and appeared to be “clearly very well endowed.”

As for Richards, Townshend says he remembers seeing him warm up backstage in 1963 and swinging his arms like a windmill; when he noticed that Richards did not use that motion at the next show they played together, he “decided to adopt it” — of course, it has since become one of Townshend’s trademark stage moves, as expected by Who fans as his smashing of guitars.

In the course of Who I Am, Townshend dutifully describes the Who’s best-known exploits: their squabble with Hendrix over who would go on first at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival; the author’s face-off with Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock; and the band’s famous trashing of hotel rooms — including a particularly raucous Keith Moon birthday celebration that ended up with a Lincoln Continental half-submerged in a swimming pool, and the Who banned for life from Holiday Inns.

Unfortunately, such descriptions tend to feel like rote recitations of stories Townshend has had to recount hundreds of times before; there is something truncated and vaguely perfunctory about them. In fact, the editing of this entire volume sometimes feels odd: While the reader gets far too much information about Townshend’s struggles with marital infidelity and drinking, other sections are filled with jump cuts that chop the narrative into herky-jerky pieces and slow the book’s momentum.

What Townshend does manage to do here with insight, verve and sometimes grandiosity is describe how the Who and its music evolved: how the group “set out to articulate the joy and rage” of the generation that came of age in the “teenage wasteland” that was post-World War II Britain, under the shadow of the atomic bomb and deeply alienated from the established class system. This is why the Who’s early sound — with all the screaming feedback and distortion, the wrecked guitars and Moon’s frenetic drumming — was so aggressive and explosive.

“I wasn’t trying to play beautiful music,” Townshend explains. “I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sound of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence — one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time. The Cuban Crisis less than two years before had proved that.”

This is Townshend in his rock theorist mode — familiar to fans, who have read his music essays and reviews, or listened to his ruminative interviews. He speaks candidly in these pages about the influence that artists like the Kinks and Bob Dylan had on him, recalling that when he first sat down to try to write songs for the Who, he isolated himself in the kitchen of his Ealing flat, and listened to a few records over and over again: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; Charles Mingus’ “Better Git It in Your Soul<,” from Mingus Ah Um” John Lee Hooker’s “Devil’s Jump”; and “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the MGs.

He proves equally engaging as a sort of rock historian, describing the musical landscape in Britain in the early 1960s, when rock exploded on the scene. He describes how it upended the old order represented by the swing music that his father, a clarinetist and saxophonist, played in a band called the Squadronaires. And he charts how the Who came to push the boundaries of rock, creating one of the most acclaimed early concept albums (“The Who Sell Out,” 1967) and pioneering the form of the rock opera with Tommy in 1969.

As Townshend sees it, the Who’s ascendance would eventually be undermined by the rise of punk rock in the late ’70s. Though Who songs like “My Generation” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” became “anthems for a particular time,” Townshend writes, by 1981 “a gulf had opened up between the Who and the new younger generation.

“I had to accept that we had reached our peak of popularity at Woodstock, and however famous and successful we still were as a band, our ability to reinvent ourselves was declining as we continued a long slow descent from that moment when Roger sang ‘See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,’ the sun rose up behind us, and my guitar screamed to 500,000 sleep-tousled people.”

Many readers, however, would argue that the punk movement actually owed a huge debt to the Who’s defiant attitude and brash, propulsive sound.

In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Townshend grandiloquently declared that rock was “the ultimate vehicle for everything. It’s the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating.” He makes a powerful case for that argument — and the Who’s contribution to the cause — in the pages of this deeply felt but often ungainly book.


  • Comment by duggles — Oct 15,2012 at 8:16 am

    I might not buy the book, but just the interviews and the review are quite interesting and informative…. thanks Philip!

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Oct 15,2012 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks, dugg. Townshend is an intertesting guy. On any number of levels.

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