Thursday 22 November 2012

Book Review: "Who I Am" by Pete Townshend

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I first became aware of Pete Townshend’s prowess as a writer when I read a witty record review he had written about The Who’s greatest hits collection, Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy way back in 1971 for Rolling Stone magazine. It was evident then that this was an intelligent and articulate man. He had begun writing record reviews in 1969 – for the British weekly music paper Melody Maker; and then its editor, Ray Coleman, invited him to contribute regular articles. He also submitted letters intermittently to the London newspapers about topical issues that caught his attention. And then in 1983 he was asked by Robert McCrum to join the editorial staff of the prestigious publishing house of Faber and Faber – working for its popular arts division. In 1985 they released a collection of Townshend’s short stories called Horse’s Neck.
Who I Am is Townshend’s recently-released autobiography. It has been about 15 years in the making (commissioned back in 1995). After two years of fitful work on the book, Townshend had asked the publisher – Little, Brown – to release him from his contract because he “found it too hard”. Eventually, however, he got back into the project and worked at it steadily for a decade. Why so hard? Primarily, I would imagine, he has struggled to find the correct tone – to balance, on the one hand, the public voice of a well-known former rock ‘n’ roll raver – the creative force behind the great English rock band The Who – with  the private doubts of an often introverted recluse, driven by creative ambitions, but often beset by a deep sense of unease and, even, self-loathing. “Can you see the real me, can you?” he wrote back in 1973 in Quadrophenia. As you read through this often searingly honest autobiography, you do wonder exactly who this Pete Townshend really is. He calls the book Who I Am – a neat reference, of course, to the title-song from the Who Are You LP. It sounds definite, doesn’t it – seeming to promise conclusive thoughts about the man and his music. Three-quarters of the way through the book, however, he mentions a record-company executive in the mid-eighties telling him that his fans don’t know who he is any more. “Had they ever known?” he wonders. “Even now I’m still trying to find out who I am.” Even after five years of analysis – with therapy twice a week. The dominant tone throughout the book is interrogative, not assertive. A more appropriate title for the book would have been Who Am I?

Another reason for the long time it took Townshend to complete this book is that he wrote it himself – no ghost writer, no heavy editing. Editorial advice, no doubt, but it was Townshend himself who wrestled the text into shape. Big deal, you might think; Neil Young wrote his own book. Well, yes – but chalk and cheese. Young’s book is a structural mess. And he takes the easy way out – despite some self-criticism, some acknowledgement of past failures, he takes the high road. Townshend chooses a much more revealing path – there’s a lot more self-flagellation here, a lot more self-recrimination. Neil Young’s book is sunny and upbeat – his focus on the world around him is extroverted and optimistic. Townshend’s creative projects are also goal-orientated and ambitious, but they are invariably solitary enterprises that he pursues often in a rather tortured and inconclusive way.
The most interesting part of any artist’s biography, or autobiography, is usually the early section, dealing with their childhood – how they were brought up by their parents, and how they were educated. The child is father to the man. Pete Townshend was born in Chiswick, London on 19 May, 1945. His father, Clifford, was a professional musician who played clarinet and saxophone. His mother, Betty, was a gifted singer. Clifford played with the RAF Dance Orchestra during the war. He did a long post-war stint with The Squadronaires, a British swing band. Pete often accompanied his father on the band’s tour bus and watched them play gigs around the country: “I grew up with a feel for what entertains people.” And through his parents, Pete was exposed to an eclectic mix of music, which later fuelled his creative ambitions and underpinned his pursuit of musical experimentation.

There were two crucial incidents in his childhood that marked Townshend for life – one was psychological; the other was musical. In 1951, when Pete was six years old, he was sent to live with his grandmother Denny. She was living alone; he was sent, apparently, to keep her company. Pete couldn’t really understand why his parents had seemed to abandon him. He was angry and resentful. Even worse for him, his grandmother was mentally unstable, and she would often treat him cruelly. She also brought men into the home for one-night stands, or sometimes even longer liaisons. On one occasion, Pete believes, he was sexually molested by one of her male visitors. He has no clear memory of the incident, but he mentions the situation several times – considering it, I suppose, as a trauma that he had long suppressed. And when he was about ten, on a holiday in the Isle of Man, he was playing the harmonica and got deeply lost in the sounds he was making. “Suddenly I was hearing music within the music – rich, complex harmonic beauty.” The next day, again, the murmuring sounds of a river “opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of a trance.” Sometime later he had a similar experience on the River Thames, near Isleworth. “I began to hear the most extraordinary music … it was a sublime experience. I have never heard such music since, and my personal musical ambition has always been to rediscover that sound and relive its effect on me.” Townshend subsequently experienced other strange, visionary, dream-like, and hallucinatory, experiences.

Fans of The Who will want to read about Townshend’s formative rock ‘n’ roll experiences and the early history of The Who. And Pete doesn’t disappoint. Here are some choice factoids from the book. We learn that Pete’s first live performance was playing banjo (!) for The Confederates on 6 December, 1958. His first decent guitar was made in Czechoslovakia and cost him £3. In 1961 Pete was exposed to a tape recorder for the first time. He realised what an “extraordinary creative tool” it was – the beginning of his life-long passion for home-studio recording. In 1961 he entered Ealing Art College and met Roger Daltrey, who invited Pete to join his band, The Detours. His first gig with The Detours was at Chiswick in 1962. His guitar then was a Harmony solid-body Stratocruiser. He began to worry about the division between his rock band life and his art school life. But by March 1963, they were playing 18 shows per month, and taking home £30 per week.

" ... no one knows what it's like to be the sad man, behind blue eyes ..."

His musical development continued apace. He bought his first impressive guitar amp from Selmer’s Music Shop in Charing Cross Road; it was a Fender Pro Amp with a 15” speaker. The salesman was John McLaughlin! In the summer of 1963, The Detours opened for Johnny Kid and the Pirates, who used a drums, bass, lead guitar format. They decided to follow suit – which left Daltrey free to concentrate on his singing. The Who had morphed into a “power trio” and Pete was now required to play a mix of rhythm and lead (what came to be called later “power chords”). When he first heard the Rolling Stones live, he says, he was blown away. He noticed during their warm-up that Keith Richards did this windmill thing with his right hand. But just the once; he didn’t do it again. Townshend liked the move, and he adopted it as a trademark of his own guitar-playing. Eventually, The Detours discovered that there was another group with their name. They had to change. They did – on Valentine’s Day, 1964, they became The Who. Townshend admits that as a live performer he was “anarchic and narcissistic” – more of a showman than a committed guitarist. He was inspired to try new ways of playing by Malcolm Cecil. And then he became familiar with the work of Gustav Metzger, a pioneer of “auto-destructive art”. Townshend secretly planned to destroy his guitar on stage if, and when, the moment seemed right. It happened in June, 1964. At a show in the Railway Hotel in Harrow (west London), he accidentally jabbed the head of his guitar into the very low ceiling above the stage. When some of the audience began to snigger, he got angry and thrust the neck into the ceiling again and again. And then threw it down on the stage. The Who as champions of the auto-destruct was born.

The Who (l-to-r): Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle

There is plenty of stuff in Who I Am about the band. Pete acknowledges Roger Daltrey as the leader of the group. It was usually Roger, the lead singer, who dragged the others back into live performing, after they had been on sabbatical for too long. Roger was the most level-headed. He didn’t over-indulge himself with alcohol and drugs – at least not as much as the others did. He tried to stay fit and healthy. Bass player John Entwhistle was the quiet one on stage – similar to the Stones’ Bill Wyman. But he was a brilliant player – and his fluid, loud playing was a trademark of the band’s sound. The power trio format encouraged loudness – and Entwhistle and Townshend began to buy ever-louder and more powerful amps and speakers – usually from Jim Marshall’s shop in west Ealing (Jim was the creator of the “Marshall stack”). As Pete puts it, he and John got into a “musical arms race”. Townshend says that he was the first guitarist to use two amplifiers simultaneously – and he would get incredible distortion effects from the interaction between them, as they began to feedback reciprocally. Entwhistle, whilst often an enabler of Keith Moon’s wild and self-destructive behaviour – John participated in a lot of it – had a quiet and secretive side to his personality. Townshend reports, for example, that after John’s death in June, 2002, he found out – much to his astonishment – that Entwhistle was a freemason. Keith Moon, the group’s drummer, was a notorious wild-man. He was the last to join the band. As Pete says, Moon was a flashy show-off, as a drummer. He struck eccentric poses, in order to draw attention to himself. And he loved to employ constant cascading rolls over the toms. Interestingly, Townshend points out that, unlike most drummers, Moon did not serve as the foundation of the rhythm section, by maintaining a simple, steady beat (like Ringo Starr, or Charlie Watts); Keith preferred to listen to what John and Pete were doing, and follow them.

The Who made their name in the mid-60s as a singles band. Their first three albums were not as interesting, or as successful, as those of their rivals. But Townshend had grander visions for his music – after all, here was a guy who was listening to music as diverse as Miles Davis, Richard Wagner, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Everly Brothers. In 1968, Townshend – influenced  by S. F. Sorrow, a concept album by The Pretty Things which featured a suite of interrelated songs – began working on Tommy, his own concept album, which he began to refer to as a “rock opera”. It was released in May, 1969. This was followed by an even-more ambitious project – a science-fiction rock opera to be called Lifehouse. After Townshend put in intense, non-stop work for a year (from August 1970 to the following summer), the whole thing finally collapsed around him. Out of the remnants emerged The Who’s finest work, the LP Who’s Next, which contained eight of the songs that he had written for Lifehouse. Pete was shattered – he thought the title of the new LP was pathetic, and the cover photo struck him as a sick joke. Despite the failure of this second concept album, Townshend went on to produce another, Quadrophenia (October, 1973). In fact, everything after Tommy seemed to emerge as sets of songs with “an idea, a story, or a concept”.
Who I Am goes into great detail about these, and other, ambitious projects. Most of this work was done alone, in Pete’s home recording studio. He would get lost in there for hours and hours, days and days – neglecting his wife, pursuing his creative muse. Many of these projects were conceived as stage productions, and they often foundered because Pete was unable to convince key people that they were of enough interest, or sufficiently stageable. Over the years, it has only been Tommy that has succeeded over and over – in various forms and in several reincarnations on stage.

Who's left? The survivors - Roger and Pete.

Most readers of this autobiography will be Who fans, or fans of Townshend’s solo work – or both. There’s enough in here to keep them interested, although, as usual, I was hoping to read a lot more about some of his best work – so the detail about some of the failed projects does become tiresome at times. You also want to find out about Townshend as a person. And, in this, the book is a resounding success. The author is very honest. He is not afraid to revisit times and incidents in his life that present him badly. And he delves into some very difficult territory – particularly his psycho-sexual life. The childhood trauma he recalls from his days with grandmother Denny haunted him for many years: “I suffered a deep sexual shame over my dealings with Denny,” he writes. He would come back to deal with it obliquely again and again in his music. The nine-minute ‘mini-opera’ “A Quick One, While He’s Away” (from the 1966 LP A Quick One) was his first musical stab at the problem. Listen to the leering introduction that is given to it in its later incarnation on the expanded edition of Live At Leeds (1970). Townshend also explored his problematic sexual-identity in the songs “I’m a Boy”, “Substitute”, and “Pictures of Lily”. In Who I Am, Pete says that fans in the early days often said he looked effeminate; and some thought he might be gay. He writes about homoerotic feelings and a couple of bisexual incidents. And then there is the infamous incident when he was arrested by London police, suspected of subscribing to child-pornography sites on the internet. Townshend explains the situation – it’s complicated, but convinces the reader that he is innocent of the charges against him.
For most of his run as the creative force behind The Who, Pete Townshend was an unhappy man. He writes that he was “a desperate man running away from the present”. He coped by being a workaholic - and an alcoholic and heavy drug-user, especially in the 70s and 80s. His angry, aggressive pose on stage was a fabrication. He was often actually a shrinking, introverted recluse. A thoughtful man, but one, he admits, who oscillated between the “polarities of my ego – the artistic grandiosity and the desperately low self-regard.” He acknowledges that his actions were often deranged and absurd – his compulsions complicated further by constant mood swings. For 20 years he led a life that was “desperate, chaotic, and increasingly fragmentary.” In some ways, if one compares him to his contemporaries, he is lucky to have survived. This is a fascinating book. Granted, it’s often not too pretty. Townshend comes across sometimes as a rather unlikable character – but ultimately he redeems himself by giving us a book that is honest, instructive and immensely readable.


  1. I am definitely a WHO fan. I am listening to the opening piece to Quadrophenia as I write. A rushing of waves hitting the shingle on Brighton Beach. I'm waiting in anticipation for the sudden intro, Keith Moon bashing his drums and the strong electric guitar chords from Townsend.

    I'll buy this autobiography with the potatoes, cabbage, carrots and pork chops at TESCOS tomorrow. All the best, Tony

  2. Thanks, Tony.

    I hope you enjoy the book as much as the meat and two-veg!