The fall flood of music memoirs continues unabated this week with the release of Pete Townshend’s Who I Am (Harper Collins). If Townshend, now 67-years-old, were just the guitarist and driving creative force behind the Who, the prospect of his retelling of his life story would be enough to leave classic rock fans salivating in anticipation. But in addition to being one of music’s most influential and talented performers, Townshend is also one of its most incisive and thoughtful thinkers. The weighty Who I Am doesn’t disappoint on the intellectual count — ah, who I am kidding? Lets get to the juicy parts!
Don’t Look Away
In addition to their early run of wham-bam singles, the Who gained notoriety for smashing their instruments on stage. As Townshend recounts it, this trademark piece of showmanship was the result of a careless mistake that first occurred at a Who gig in June 1964 at London’s Railway Hotel: “I violently thrust my guitar into the air,” writes Townshend. “I look up to see my guitar’s broken head as I pull it away from the hole I’ve punched in the low ceiling . . . in a mad frenzy I thrust the damaged guitar up into the ceiling over and over again.”
Do You Think It’s Alright?
In a darkly ironic foreshadowing of an infamous misunderstanding that would dog his later years, Townshend reveals his own childhood sexual humiliation. The sordid events occurred during an extended stay with his erratic grandmother Denny as a six-year-old. “We’d march to various pre-arranged assignations, usually with American Air Force officers. There were brief exchanges, Denny passing over a sandwich or a tin, but what she received in return I don’t know.” He has his suspicions. “The whole affair left me angry and resentful. I’ve spent years of psychotherapy trying to understand it.”
A Man Is a Man
Townshend is candid about his own, at times fluid, sexuality. Writing about a meeting with Mick Jagger, he shares, “Mick is the only man I’ve ever seriously wanted to fuck. He was wearing loose pyjama-style pants without underwear; as he leaned back I couldn’t help noticing the lines of his cock laying against the inside of his leg, long and plump. Mick was very clearly well-endowed.” Later, Townshend writes of a groggy encounter with his friend, rock’n’roll impresario Danny Fields: “I was deeply tired but couldn’t sleep, so Danny gave me a pill, probably a Mandrax, a sedative-hypnotic drug. I woke in the night, still in a trance, with Danny’s hands all over my body, but I didn’t fight him off. I enjoyed what he did, though I didn’t let him actually fuck me.”
The book’s greatest strength lies in Townshend’s ability to clearly retrace the steps that led to his best musical ideas. He points to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as signposts to the future in their de-emphasis on the single as the standard pop format. He explains that his studies of Indian mystic Meher Baba dovetailed with the Hippy era’s quest for spiritual significance. “I had become adept at connecting pop songs together in strings. Still, the Who needed a larger collection of such songs if we were to rise in the music business at a time when the audience was expanding its collective consciousness, and the album was taking over from the pop single,” explains Townshend. He continues: “I also knew that pop audiences would begin spiritual searching, as I had. I could write stories and clearly see theatrical dramas in my imagination.” This series of epiphanies lead to Tommy, the band’s groundbreaking 1968 rock opera.
Who Came First
A well-known influence on English punk, Townshend is also quick to claim credit for a number of rock’s other seismic shifts. After David Bowie sees the post-Tommy Who perform, Townshend recalls him saying “‘I am going to do this.’ David meant he could create conceptual albums based on imaginary characters.” Cue Ziggy Stardust. A few years later, Townshend delivers a lecture at Winchester Art College about “the use of tape machines by non-musicians. In the audience was Brian Eno, the experimental musician, who cites the lectures as the moment he realized he could make music even though he wasn’t a musician.” Townshend also writes that the Who’s thunderous live performances were inventing “a new form of rock . . . Led Zeppelin later used a similar formula; I don’t know if they were as freestyle as we were, but the effect was similar.”
Moon the Loon
Townshend doesn’t stint on descriptions of his infamously wild drummer bandmate Keith Moon’s self-destructive behavior — nor his conflicting feelings about pushing the Who to soldier on after Moon’s death from OD in 1978. “Throughout my life I haven’t been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies,” reveals Townshend. “In the case of Keith, my reaction was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane. Instead of letting the Who gently fade . . . I confounded everyone.”
How Many Friends
Any career as long and successful as Townshend’s is going to feature some curious celebrity run-ins. There’s a surreal encounter with Marvin Gaye: “One night, while I sat with Marvin as he negotiated to buy a rock of raw cocaine as big as a tennis ball, I decided to tell him what his music meant to me.” And a more hopeful one with Eddie Vedder. “After a show in San Francisco, I talked to Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam. He was having problems adjusting to fame and was thinking about going back to being a surfer. I gave him my philosophy: we don’t make the choice, the public does. We are elected by them, even if we never stood for office. Accept it.”
The Who has called it quits and then reformed multiple times during the course of its 48-year career. The motivation for re-upping hasn’t always been musical. In the late ’90s, Townshend receives a letter from the band’s manager Bill Curbishley regarding bassist John Entwistle. “His situation is pretty dire. The bank have been bouncing cheques on him, he’s already topped up his mortgage to the absolute maximum and his credit cards have been blocked.” Townshend agrees to reunite the band for a tour to help his old friend stave off financial ruin.
A Legal Matter
Townshend came under fire in 2003 when it was revealed that he was under investigation by British police for having used a credit card to access online child pornography. He explains that the misunderstanding stemmed from an incident that happened a few years prior, when he had had a moving encounter with a Russian orphan. He writes: “I opened up my Toshiba laptop . . . and typed a few simple words: russian orphanages boys donations.” That search returned a flood of pages dedicated to child pornography. Horrified, Townshend plans to write an expose incriminating companies for profiting from the sexual abuse of children. To prove a point, “I used my Barclaycard once on a site with a button that (rather ridiculously) said ‘Click here for child-porn.’ The charge was $7, which I immediately cancelled, not wanting even this small charge to benefit banks and credit-card companies that allowed the transaction in the first place.” His legal troubles began shortly after.
Long Live Rock
Despite all that his music career has taken from Townshend — friends, no small amount of his own money, health, and sanity — Who I Am radiates with his belief in the power of the music to which he devoted his life. In the book, he quotes from an interview he gave in 1970. “I believe rock can do anything, it’s 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. It’s the absolute ultimate vehicle for self-destruction, which is the most incredible thing, because there’s nothing as effective as that, not in terms of art, anyway, or what we call art.”