A beggar. A hypocrite. Love Reign O’er Me.
Pete Townshend – Who I Am (Harper Collins)
“My Generation,” The Who’s defining hit, is powerful for its visceral tenacity, the way it uses feedback, rattling bass and cascading drums to perfectly reflect a growing disconnect between regimental, war-tested parents and their children who would invent free love and drop acid. The song’s famous line about hoping to die before getting old has come to haunt Pete Townshend, who is now 67 and about to embark on his seventh tour with his band since their 1982 “farewell” outing.
Who I Am, his long in-the-works autobiography recounts the life of a man who got old anyways, and through a lifetime of rock star excess, spiritual longing and worldly pitfalls has come to find the inner peace he’d been seeking for decades. It only cost him his marriage, his hearing and the loss of his two dearest friends who couldn’t overcome the same ills he did.
While Townshend is often deemed pretentious, a side effect of being rock’s great lecturer, his writing is concise and unapologetic. Whether recounting abuse he suffered as a young child at the hands of his grandmother, his battle with liquor, the arduous task of babysitting Keith Moon or the infamous scandal involving child porn (he was never charged), his self portrait is unflinching, and plainly stated.
Die hard Who fans will be hard pressed to find anything new to add to the band’s lore (aside from a few paragraphs on Townshend’s supposed bisexuality, something he denies), but this is the best perspective they’ve been given since Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old (Plexus, 1983), the better read if you’re looking for an in depth account of the band’s music on an album-by-album basis. Townshend recounts much of the band’s early years through his various singles, while the era from Tommy onward tends to focus on the making of cohesive, ambitious albums – albeit briefly.
But for all the lofty ideals he is prone to preach about when it comes to rock’s higher calling and unifying power, Townshend’s greatest concern has always been his audience, and saw it his duty to reflect what they feel and experience. He recalls this realization after one of the Who’s early gigs, when a gang of pilled up boys stuttered their approval of the band’s first single, “I Can’t Explain.”
“So you want me to write more songs about how I can’t explain that you can’t explain and that none of us can explain?” he asked.
“Yes!” they said.
But wrestling artistic control of the band from founding member, and vocalist, Roger Daltrey would be Townshend’s central conflict at the outset of The Who. A sheet metal worker and high school drop out who used his iron clad fists to settle disputes, Daltrey would cling to the group’s R&B roots while Townshend was preaching the power of auto-destructive art, a term he learned at art school from Gustav Metzger.
While Daltrey relinquished part of his control as Townshend delivered the hits, and the money that followed, the central dilemma comes from the author’s conflicting spiritual beliefs and his full time gig as a member of rock aristocracy. His adherence to the teachings of Meher Baba kept him away from the hippie vice of LSD (he only tried it once, on purpose anyway), but the pressures of being in a band constantly on the verge of disintegrating from ego and drugs, as well as being held responsible for its successes and failings, drove Townshend to the bottle, a battle he would fight for two decades.
Townshend’s deceptively simple writing makes this book a brisk 500 page read. And while the final 100 have the liability of covering some of the least productive years of his career, perhaps no news is good news, especially for a man who for so long fought to balance his conflicting desires. He may have wanted to die before he got old, but he never would have known what it felt like to reach the happiness he’s been searching for all these years.