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Monday, Jan. 28, 2013

Who is Pete Townshend?

A rock star’s funny, profound, profane autobiography

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If one person epitomizes the many dualities of rock music—brutality and tenderness, bombast and subtlety, artifice and spirituality, self-reinvention and deception, exhilaration and despair, heroism and hubris, intelligence and lunacy—that person would be bandleader/singer/guitarist/songwriter/author/activist/spokesman for his “g-g-g-generation” Pete Townshend.

This musician somehow accommodates and manipulates all the grey areas in between such extremes—redeeming souls while wallowing in corruption, healing hearts while destroying eardrums and energizing the body while dealing heartily in its destruction. A life such as Townshend’s can be written only in blood.

Sixteen years in fermentation, here it is: Pete Townshend’s Who I Am (HarperCollins). Open it up and find young Pete beaten and brutalized by teachers to the point of soiling himself. His deranged guardian, Grandmother Denny, was wont to confuse bathing and waterboarding. He started fires and threw stones at ducks. And there’s worse. Much worse. Some experiences so bad he still can’t remember them. Verily, this god bleeds all over this book, worse than in that Annie Leibovitz photo. Read about his first kiss. The poor sod is totally humiliated, and you’re in stitches.

Who I Am
is chronologically arranged, but the author cashes in on his art-school semiotics training amply, revisiting and rethinking moments, friends, family and projects. Miraculously, his reflection never reaches the point of what the great anthropologist Bernard James called emotional scab picking. Yes, there is silliness here, there is self-indulgence, there is cruelty to flight attendants, there is astrology, there is an adrenalin syringe in the chest; and there are typographical errors and a dangling reference or two. But there is an unparalleled, indestructible joy about this book that, 40 Post-its and 19 index cards later, still astounds.

Though Townshend’s artistic triumphs are already well chronicled, the author goes to immensely enjoyable lengths to draw you back to the inspiration, the inception, the writing, the rehearsals, the editing, the performances and sometimes the shit-canning. He aims more toward crediting all involved and demystifying the creative process than toward further exulting his own Olympian status.

As for Townshend’s life, from the cosmic to the mundane, the real hero is obvious: Karen Townshend, long-suffering ex-wife and mother of his three children, of whom he writes with detail and adoration. A brief anecdote of racing remote-control toy cars with his son is as moving as any of Townshend’s piercing lyrics.

The recipient of about a thousand letters a month since 1966 or so, Townshend is the best kind of pop star, a fan himself. For him, Tommy became a valid work of art only when Roland Kirk told him, “You don’t know what it’s like, man, but you gave us blind folk our own opera thing at last!” Upon seeing The Clash, whom he pronounces “spectacular,” he “stopped idiot dancing and danced like Mick Jones and Paul Simonon.” The highest praise, touchingly, is reserved for Roger Daltrey.

There are disappointments here. The rehearsal and recording of Quadrophenia are unmentioned, as are the existence of the author’s first solo album and the death of his dear friend and collaborator Ronnie Lane. And there is still some self-deception. Page 113: “I had certainly invented the power chord.” Do you remember, Pete, that you’ve been telling us for years that Dave Davies invented it? Link Wray beat both of you to it, anyway.

For serious scrutiny, real inspiration or just plain fun, there is a mountain of beautiful writing here, with footnotes linked to more on various websites. Fans may look for penance here, and they will get it, laughing uproariously as Townshend kicks wildly at the pedestal underneath him. “As far as girls my own age went,” he writes of his early schooldays, “I relied entirely on my peers for guidance. They knew less than I did.” By 1978, he recalls, “I was writing songs about music, songs about songs and songs about touring.” He claims “a peculiar crime had been perpetrated” to end The Who. “I had been a bore.”

No such crime will you find in Who I Am.