Lives in Music #3: Who Am I by Pete Townshend | reviews, news & interviews
Lives in Music #3: Who Am I by Pete Townshend
Lives in Music #3: Who Am I by Pete Townshend
Rock icon lacerates himself at great length
Pete Townshend was always the most literate of stars, not merely a rock icon but someone who believed in Art with a capital A – he even ran his own publishing company and had an editing job in the 1980s with Faber and Faber, where he made friends with writing giants like Ted Hughes (he adapted his Iron Man) and William Golding, who he used to go boating with. Lucky Pete - except, he never thinks so, and beats himself up for not appreciating his good fortune.
So we might have expected a proper literary autobiography from the Who guitarist and author of Tommy and Quadrophenia. Recent memoirs from Patti Smith and Bob Dylan have set the bar high, with their brilliant descriptive powers, but this book doesn’t emulate them, partly because it’s so fascinated by the states of mind of the author above anything else. It's rare that you get any real sense of the other, often fascinating, people in the book, whether people close to him, like Roger Daltrey, or minor walk-on parts like the wonderful artist and cut-up guru Brion Gysin.
If only he was a bit more “devilish” that he could actually enjoy his devilry, as his polar opposite in The Who, Keith Moon, clearly did
Townshend should at the least be commended for his self-lacerating honesty, as he says, while talking of family life, “the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn’t give a toss for fatherhood – he needed freedom.” Or: “My spiritual longings were constantly under siege by all-too-worldly ambitions, undermined by scepticism and ambivalence, and challenged by my sexual yearnings... I could also behave, frankly, like a complete arsehole." And there are plenty of examples of arseholish behaviour throughout – if only he was a bit more “devilish” that he could actually enjoy his devilry, as his polar opposite in The Who, Keith Moon, clearly did.
At times, the book reads like he’s talking to his Jungian analyst, who he went to for many years. At almost every turn, he’s not sure whether he’s in or out. He wants fame and abhors it, loves the adulation of the groupies and sometimes takes advantage then hates himself, and has a love-hate relationship with himself, music, the world and the universe.
He has money, fame, respect, can do whatever he wants, despite his massive hooter which makes him feel self-conscious, but spends the majority of the book vacillating and much of it depressed. The reader, like everyone around him, wishes to shake him out of it. It may be that he has got an actual bipolar condition, or the illness of alcoholism, brought on by being abused as a child and we shouldn’t be too hard on him. The book may be better written than most self-congratulatory celeb tomes. It just doesn’t make a great read, though.
I lost count of the number of times he commits to a music project, tour or a relationship then backs off, then it’s back on again, thereby driving everyone around him crazy. He signed a deal on this book 15 years ago, and it was cut down from 1000 pages to 500, and it’s fair to make an educated guess that he drove his editors and publishers nuts too.
Townshend feels what he was doing had global historical implications: "As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war." It is true that many people thought rock would change the world at the time, and it was the sound of a generation, but, come on Pete, it was only a song. The Who had a good run of a decade of top rock music, for sure, and those wanting to know the nitty-gritty of how Tommy and his other hits were put together will find everything they want to know here, such as how it was the writer Nik Cohn who prompted Tommy, in a real moment of inspiration, to be about a pinball wizard rather than a more generic messiah.
There is rock star excess here if you are looking for it – $40,000 blown on cocaine in one tour, $50,000 in cash which was lying around disappeared after a fling from his hotel room, a gay encounter with a journalist, the discussions of how his Synclavier keyboard and mixing desk cost “more than a house”, his buying of properties at the drop of a hat. When he was had up on child pornography charges (he makes a good case in his defence) he was mainly concerned that his diaries would leak – specifically, he was embarrassed about his endless reflections on which expensive boat he would buy next and it would destroy whatever was left of his rebel credibility. It occurred to me that this may be, if nothing else, a useful document for future sociologists and historians about what the hell was going on the 1960s and 1970s - liberation (the left-wing view) or extreme individualism and selfishness (the right wing).
The descriptions of the early years of The Who do sometimes get over what a thrilling time it was for all concerned (and a lot of their music holds up surprisingly well) even if rarely for Townshend himself. By the end, The Who is, he admits, a “business” rather than anything else, to pay for the boats. Still, he has survived when many around him didn’t, and we leave him plotting a new opera called Floss.
The feeling you are left with is that Townshend is probably not as bad as he portrays himself. Underneath it all somewhere is a generous, at times brilliant and funny man, much loved by many who know him and many who don’t. It’s just that you will only rarely find evidence for it in this book.
Watch The Who perform "I Can See For Miles"
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