Saturday, October 20, 2012

Frustrating & Fascinating: Pete Townshend’s Who Am I

It all started when I was about 14 or 15. My grandmother would travel to the USA for a couple of days to a bowling tournament, and upon her return would bring me a souvenir. This time, she arrived with an LP. It was called Happy Jack and it advertised on the back, “If you like this record you’re sure to enjoy these other Decca artists,” with pictures of Len Barry and Rick Nelson. Now, I mean no disrespect to the singers of “1, 2, 3” and “Traveling Man,” but they were no match for “A Quick One While He’s Away.” I became a fan of the Who immediately. They sang about stuff that mattered to me. They weren’t the walrus, they had “Pictures of Lily” under their bed. Me too! He spoke for my generation. I bought everything The Who released: singles, albums, rock operas, movie soundtracks, and books. I read Pete Townshend’s book of short stories, Horse’s Neck, and the interviews he gave to Rolling Stone (when it was the only place to find interviews with musicians). Now, years later, I awaited the arrival of Townshend’s autobiography with fierce anticipation. He had announced that he was writing it nearly twenty years ago. Could it possibly have taken that long? “It will have all the answers,” I thought. It doesn’t. But it sure asks a lot of questions.

I thought going in that this book would be 1000 pages of genius, but it turns out to be half that. Who I Am (HarperCollins) is 500 pages by someone who thinks he’s a genius. And in some sense it’s hard to argue with him. Townshend created a series of brilliant pop singles. If he didn’t invent it, he certainly fine-tuned the rock opera. He also influenced art, fashion, sound design, and even the Broadway musical. He never lets an idea drop. He rebuilds old works into new ones, and takes a germ of a concept on an amazing journey through time and space. Some might say ‘til he beats them to death. (‘Okay, there’s this note right … and it was pure and easy … and it affected us all in so many ways!’)

Who I Am is a frustrating, fascinating, annoying, un-put-downable chunk of writing. As frustrated as it made me from time to time, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I couldn't stop reading it, but every chapter made me want to throw up my hands and say, "Pete! For cryin' out loud…wake up and smell the coffee!" But he wasn’t interested in coffee. He wanted to be like Mick Jagger and pull all the birds, or for a while at least, he wanted to pull Mick himself! If it wasn’t the birds, it was drugs, or booze, or even reuniting The Who for yet another tour. That too was an addiction.

Townshend at The Fillmore West in 1969 (Photo by Robert Altman)
Something happened to Pete when he was a boy, but you never discover what that thing was. He’s not even sure it really happened at all, but he doesn’t want to take his therapy any further in case the truth conflicts with his muse. “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my Ma won’t admit it, I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but if I say I am I get it!” Whatever happened (or didn’t happen) it influenced Townshend to do some research into child pornography. His computers were all seized by the police and thoroughly inspected, and no sign of guilt was discovered. It was too late though, his name and reputation had been dragged through the mud. He accepted a caution and a fine rather than go to trial to prove his innocence. He was simply hoping for a quick end to the affair. Even though Townshend was totally exonerated, the nature of the complaint continues to haunt him. Someone I spoke with about this book said, “I want to see what he says about child pornography!” Well, he says quite a bit, but it’s clear from a number of witnesses that he was innocent of the charges. That’s not enough for the world though. We like to believe the worst about people. Even at The Who’s appearance at the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami, local child advocates protested his presence.

I can't say I didn't like the book, but I'm just not sure I like Pete that much. Sometimes we get too much information about our heroes. Maybe rock stars shouldn’t be our heroes in the first place. Pete’s life, at times, seems like a soap opera. It's like watching Eastenders (which I gave up doing a few years ago), where you know that if Gupta simply told Sanjay what she thought everything would go a lot smoother for both of them but just at that moment … Mark walks by and asks Sanjay for a loan or a sandwich or something.

Well … Pete simply over-thinks EVERY @#$%IN' THING!

He’s been a Mod, and a rocker par excellence. He’s crafted some of the most perfect pop singles ever released, and some of the most pretentious long-form musical pieces of all time. He nearly died at least three times, maybe more. His memory is sharp, but selective (he doesn’t even mention his excellent first album Who Came First). He is partially deaf in one ear; he has written fiction; he’s been a literary editor for Faber; he skewered his hand on his twangbar on stage doing the famous windmill move. He heard the voice of God. He is by his own admission “a seeker…a very desperate man.” He even sees angels and demons popping up at the end of his bed...regularly. (ACTUAL ANGELS!) And he tells you all about this in Who I Am.

Maybe you’re not a fan, like I was, am … maybe the book will drive you even crazier than it drove me. But it’s like Remy Martin Cognac, Pete’s one-time tipple of choice … I just couldn’t get enough.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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