Pete Townshend’s long-awaited memoir, Who I Am does not disappoint. This isn’t a memoir about the peak years of The Who nor is it an effort to explain away or “normalize” the rocker’s more inexplicable––and questionable––behavior. Rather, it’s Townshend laid, more or less, bare; offering us tales from the cradle to the hearing aid, and reflections on a life that our hero seems to feel doesn’t add up to what it should. Townshend has always been tough on himself––the autobiographical elements that have leaked out in his songs already tell us this––but this volume confirms that, for all the accolades heaped upon him, for all the boats and houses and guitars bought, and all the records sold, The Artist himself still doesn’t quite know what to make of it.
There’s the early life as the son of occasionally estranged parents who ship him off to live with a somewhat deranged relative––shades of Cousin Kevin in Tommy. During that time he suffered tremendous mistreatment––including, as he outlines throughout the book, sexual abuse. Then he was returned to his family home where, despite a parental reconciliation and further children born into the family––his considerably younger brothers Paul and Simon––the family was never particularly functional, nor a particularly comfortable place for the young guitarist.
We don’t dwell too long in the house of the Townshend family, however, as before long––about 50 pages or so into the text––we’re thrust into the rock ‘n’ roll life that includes his introduction to the life of a rock ‘n’ roll musician and the formation of the maximum R&B outfit that he has never quite been able to shake free from, no matter how hard he’s tried. There are parts of this story that have been told innumerable times before––including the writing of “My Generation” and knock off of the Kinks via “I Can’t Explain”. Stalwarts may begin to feel as though they’re heard it all before but Townshend’s prose and pacing help save the day––it’s familiar territory but not, at least as far as this book is concerned, entirely played out.
The guitarist has mentioned many times that he and the other members of The Who had little in common, and on that he does not waver much as he relates stories of Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle. Moon, he writes, could be “a twat”, while he and Daltrey spared like brothers who loved each other deeply but were perhaps too similar to recognize and reconcile the full scope of their differences. Entwistle, of course, is largely responsible for Townshend’s decision to dedicate himself to music and the love and affection our author has for the man is unwavering, despite obvious differences in their character, actions, and interests.
Jimi Hendrix appears and we learn of Townshend’s longstanding friendship with Joe Walsh (albeit mostly in outline) and the outline of Mick Jagger’s penis, which Townshend claims is––despite the claims of Keith Richards in his own memoir––rather large and that Jagger is one man Townshend would gladly have sex with. Mostly, though, the sex remains largely in the realm of the heterosexual kind, as Townshend finds himself unable to full commit to his wife Karen. The expected dalliances on the road are present as are the complicated extramarital relationships that lead to nothing more than heartache––or in the case of an extreme crush on actress Theresa Russell, an enduring song (“Athena”).
As a member of the first generation of white English rock stars, it should come as little surprise that even as late as the 1’0s––maybe even the ’80s––there was some concern about whether Townshend would ever find a suitably adult job. He takes a gig with publisher Faber & Faber––the house that handled such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Harold Pinter, Günter Grass, and Czeslaw Milosz––publishes a short story collection, and busies himself by trying to write serious pieces for the theatre.
He is, of course, one of the few rockers who has never tried to hide or apologize for the pretensions evident in his work––in fact, one could say that The Who has thrived on pretension while harnessing angst and rage and spitting it back toward an audience filled with both but also decidedly short on pretension. So, there’s no hiding the more misguided elements of Townshend’s late solo career, nor is there any sense that he himself doesn’t recognize that his best rock work was probably already behind him come 1975.
The shame of this book is that the latter works––including albums such as White City: A Novel and The Iron Man don’t quite get the play that works such as Tommy and Quadrophenia do. But, no matter––we get the point and the point is that by the ’90s the author had busied himself with things greater than rock ‘n’ roll. Sort of.
There are elements to the story that don’t quite work: The abandoned Lifehouse project becomes a kind of smokescreen for virtually everything the artist wishes he would have said in his career or for those things about him that no one seems to understand. (“I covered that in Lifehouse”, he seems to say about all manners of things.) He admirably tackles the 2003 child pornography scandal, although some of the more shadowy elements of the whole affair take too much energy out of the larger arc of the book and, after a while, more than a mere mention of the ordeal feels almost unnecessary and perhaps more of blemish on Townshend’s good name by his attempt to explain it away than the initial incident. (For what’s it worth––this writer has always believed that Townshend’s activities were well-intentioned and not the actions of a child abuser or pedophile.)
While anonymity is a core element of recovery for both addicts and alcoholics, Townshend’s own recovery is somewhat hard to track––he doesn’t fully come clean about getting clean, other than to say that he believes in helping fellow addicts and to demonstrate that through his actions. Perhaps that’s one area, after all, that is really none of our business.
Who I Am reveals that Townshend is a man who, despite his successes, remains filled with self-doubt and a quiet self-loathing that nothing, other than an ability to forgive himself for his shortcomings, will ever cure. Then again, we probably wouldn’t want him any other way and, despite his occasional self-flogging, he’s also a funny, and perhaps even warm man, who has given us one of the better rock autobiographies of the year.
Who is he? Not the man you’d expect and yet exactly that, as well.