Pete Townshend has always been rock ’n’ roll’s reluctant warrior.
The driving force behind the legendary band the Who, Townshend revolutionized rock with his guitar and pen. He wrote numerous anthems, including My Generation, See Me, Feel Me, Baba O’ Reilly and Won’t Get Fooled Again, and, when he wasn’t smashing guitars, embraced his role as the thinking man’s rock star.
At the same time, Townshend spent much of his life offstage trying to avoid all that came with his fame and fortune. While his bandmates — particularly the late Keith Moon and John Entwistle — enjoyed (and ultimately died from) sex, drugs and other excesses, Townshend sought out a spiritual path, only to fall short time and time again.
In Who I Am, Townshend’s long-awaited, deeply introspective memoir, he lays out his struggles with success, fidelity and fame. He pulls few punches in this exhaustingly detailed read, even though it doesn’t always paint him in the most flattering light. Like many alcoholics, he’s an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. “Artistic grandiosity” coupled with “desperately low self-regard” is how he prefers to describe it.
It’s those character traits, of course, that drove him to create groundbreaking music and take rock far beyond two-minute songs about cars, girls and surfing. It’s also what led him to constantly question his skills, success and place in the world.
Townshend traces his insecurities back to his childhood. Raised in post-World War II London by two hard-drinking musicians with marital issues, Townshend was sent to live with his deranged grandmother at age 6, and the scars are still visible.
“She was a perfect wicked witch, even occasionally threatening me with gypsy curses,” Townshend writes. He details being beaten and tormented by her and hints at even darker abuse.
Although he eventually returned to his parents, the damage was done. Townshend recalls that as a child he was most secure “in a gang of boys, protected by a dominant male.”
Perhaps he was foreshadowing his own role in the Who. He wrote the hits, but on stage it was tough-guy lead singer Roger Daltrey who brought the words to life. When the Who started to hit it big, Townshend’s self-doubt about his work and desire to do something groundbreaking grew. “I often felt that as a performing artist I was undervalued. … I wanted to be serious about what I did, and wanted my work — including smashing guitars in concert — to be regarded as part of a passionate commitment to an evolving stagecraft.”
He got all that with Tommy, the band’s acclaimed rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball champ who becomes a spiritual leader. Tommy, which was inspired in large part by Townshend’s painful youth, not only made the Who rich, it gave him the confidence to push the boundaries of music further with the band’s next two albums, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia.
Instead of enjoying his hard-earned success, Townshend often felt artistically trapped by the demands of feeding the machine that was the Who. He had long railed against hard drugs and tried to play the part of good family man. But in the end he turned to drink, drugs and women to escape his self-imposed hell, which shattered his marriage and nearly cost him his life.
To his credit and the reader’s benefit, Townshend doesn’t gloss over any of the inconsistencies in his life. He also spells out how he ended up getting arrested for suspicion of downloading child pornography (Townshend was cleared of possession but did receive a caution for visiting such a site, which he has said he did as part of research having to do with credit card companies and banks turning a blind eye to child porn).
Ultimately, Who I Am may be a disappointment to hard core Who fans, since Townshend doesn’t spend a lot of time on glory stories from the Who’s heyday, and his stint as an editor at publisher Faber & Faber is not likely to serve as much of a substitute. Nor does he probe as deeply as one might hope into his love-hate relationship with Daltrey or his friendship with Moon and Entwistle.
Who I Am often reads like a somewhat unorganized (albeit colorful) diary dump. For example, on the very same page that he details a sordid story of being set up by Moon and Entwistle with a groupie who had gonorrhea, he matter-of-factly tells of marrying his long-suffering now-ex-wife Karen.
There is also an excessive amount of name-dropping. Any memoir from a famous rock star will have its fair share of big names, but mentioning that George Clooney waved to him at the Sunset Marquis seems superfluous.
In Who Are You, the band’s last great song, Townshend wrote: “I spit out like a sewer hole yet still receive your kiss. How can I measure up to anyone now after such a love as this?” After 500 pages, readers may be wondering the same thing.
Joe Flint reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.