[6 November 2008]
Pete Townshend is indubitably one of the most epic figures in rock ‘n’ roll. So it seems fair that his biography makes The Odyssey look shrimpy and War and Peace seem like just a modest overachievement. Clocking in at 600 pages, Mark Wilkerson’s newly updated Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend promises to embody the magnitude of its protagonist. Unfortunately, it falls a bit short.
A lot of familiar ground is retread without any new developments. This is to be expected, as it is a revised version of the biography, Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend. Unfortunately, the added sections induce a lack a cohesion that detracts from the book’s impact. Still, the premise of the book is that it offers something extra, and it delivers. There are enough original little moments and quotations to enhance one’s understanding of his work. In that respect, it’s worth plowing through the whole thing, as long you haven’t already read the first edition.
Although the book is subtitled “The Life of Pete Townshend” it’s less about his personal life and more a collection of various quotations by Townshend from already published interviews ranging from the Who’s genesis until the present. Many of the interviews are quite informative, with some interesting insights into Townshend’s music. Given that so much of his music is very complex and difficult to understand, some of the collected comments helped clarify some of the origins and ideas in Townshend’s work. There is also a healthy amount of his philosophies on rock and roll, spirituality, and life in general.
At the same time, the book told surprisingly little about Townshend’s personal life. For example, Townshend had already joined the first incarnation of the Who by page 13. The mere 12 pages afforded Townshend’s formative years are indicative of the lack of depth about his personal life throughout the whole book. Townshend’s various addictions and recoveries along with his devotion to his spiritual guide Meher Baba are the only parts of his personal life that are gone into with any detail or at any length. The problems with his marriage are mentioned intermittently but never with much depth. The marriage’s end happens in a half-page.
There is also a significant amount of information about the Who, but it doesn’t tell an obsessive fan anything she doesn’t already know. Famous incidents with the band (like the wrecking of hotel rooms, fights among band members, legal battles over certain recordings, concerts that had something notable happen, etc.) are recounted in the standard detail that they always are, and in a biography that is intended to be authoritative and unique, it felt frustrating to read the same content with no new perspective or more insightful retelling. Who fanatics probably know these stories inside and out, and while they are certainly an integral part of Townshend’s life, re-reading them is not ultimately satisfying.
One serious flaw with the book is its inclusion of copious comprehensive lists of songs that are played at particular concerts as well as quotations from Townshend onstage. There is some novelty to these, and if used sparingly they would have added welcome shadings to the story. But in fact, they are overused, breaking up the flow of the book and at times feeling as they compose the bulk of the book’s substance.
Due to these interruptions and others, the book has a very odd rhythm. Certain anecdotes only last a paragraph, and without a line break transition into the next anecdote. For example, midway through the book, Townshend is quoted about a show at Jones Beach, NY. Then in the next paragraph, Wilkerson very quickly (and without much detail) accounts for the end of his marriage (again with little detail as to the particulars of how the marriage ended).
It is moments like those that highlight the lack of intimate, revealing information about Townshend. The most interesting parts of the book are about the interpersonal relationships between Townshend and his closest friends and family, but Wilkerson often leaves the reader craving more. Because so much of the book is about the Who, his relationships with Who vocalist Roger Daltrey and producer Kit Lamber are the ones that are explored the most. But even these explorations are broken up by a barrage of lists and quotations. Furthermore, Townshend’s incessant negativity about the Who gets to be a little repetitive by end of the book. While his opinions are clearly represented, Wilkerson’s treatment elucidates an intense and at times unappealing bitterness.
That dark and narrow perspective is balanced out by some interviews with Townshend’s associates and despite the choppiness, the variety of voices does add depth to the text. It is the primary source material that compensates for some of the book’s repetitive nature. But to truly make this version better than the original, the content could have been better integrated. Otherwise, we could have simply done with an added pamphlet instead of a whole new book.