Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend by Mark Wilkerson

Rachel Balik

There is a significant amount of information about the Who, but it doesn’t tell an obsessive fan anything she doesn’t already know.

Who Are You

Publisher: Omnibus
Subtitle: The Life of Pete Townshend
Author: Mark Wilkerson
Length: 642
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 1847722431
US publication date: 2008-10

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.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.