Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pete Townshend - Who I Am [book review]

Released in October

Pete Townshend took 15 years to write Who I Am, a somewhat uneven memoir that recounts his difficult life and colourful career as the guitarist and creative force behind The Who. The book's early sections document Townshend's years growing up in the suburbs of London as the son of a bandleader who had a minor hit in 1956, dealing with the infidelity and alcoholism of his parents, and his feelings of abandonment after being sent to live for a period with his abusive grandmother as a young boy. Townshend refers a number of times throughout Who I Am to further sexual abuse inflicted by some of his grandmother's romantic companions - those details, however, are rather vague. Obviously, I'm sympathetic to how difficult it must be to dredge up such painful memories, but this alleged additional abuse informs an important latter section of the book and the murky intimations leading up to those parts undermine some of its narrative. It's especially puzzling when you consider how bluntly honest Townshend is throughout the rest of Who I Am, even when that candour frequently leaves the musician looking utterly foolish (like his cringe-inducing account of a show on his 1993 Psycho Derelict solo tour where he broke 11 years of sobriety by downing half a bottle of vodka to calm an anxiety attack before going on stage, was literally fall-down drunk while performing, ranted into the microphone at times, and caused many fans to ask for their money back). The hardships of Townshend's youth drive him to music as an escape, with an interest in the visual arts leading him to enroll in art school before abandoning education for a life as a working musician. That's a well-worn path also taken by a number of former art school students who went on to become central figures in the British Invasion movement, including John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Jimmy Page, and Keith Richards.  

The early Who years are marked by rapid commercial success and tours supporting The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, where Townshend recalls a bizarre detail that I was amazed I'd never heard before about the venues smelling strongly of urine after the concerts, due to the female hysteria incited by the acts (also bizarre is that within a week of reading this in Who I Am, I heard the exact same detail mentioned in the recent Rolling Stones Crossfire Hurricane documentary). Some other notable recollections from The Who's early years:

  • There's the story of how Townshend got the idea for his windmill stage move by watching Richards limber up with a similar motion before a mid 60s Stones show. Townshend incorporated it into his own performances when he saw that Richards didn't use the move during Stones gigs. Later in Who I Am, Townshend remembers the time on The Who's 1989 reunion tour where the guitar's tremolo (or "whammy") bar actually impaled his hand after an overexuberant windmill, causing his wife to ask him "Now will you stop all this stupid shit?"
  • A recount of the band's infamous 1976 stay in Flint, Michigan, where they were banned from Holiday Inns for life after drummer Keith Moon, in high spirits while celebrating his 20th birthday, started a huge food fight with his birthday cake, drove a Lincoln Continental into the hotel pool, threw a lamp at an autograph-seeking fan that hit them squarely in the head, and ended up having emergency dental work after knocking out some of his own teeth. Townshend interestingly neglects to include the additional detail usually told with this story about Moon also allegedly blowing up his hotel room toilet.
  • Also in 1967, Townshend recalls The Who's legendary appearance on The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, where Moon loaded up one of his bass drums with gunpowder to add some extra showmanship to the end of the band's performance of "My Generation" and caused a huge explosion that singed Townshend's hair and seems to be ground zero for the guitarist's long history of hearing problems. 
  • Townshend's unkind words for 1971's Who's Next album title ("pathetic") and the cover (which I always loved) that showed the band zipping up after relieving themselves on a slab of concrete ("...a joke in bad taste...I was utterly confounded when so many fans and friends I respected loved the title and the sleeve design.")
  • Townshend writing about his attraction to Mick Jagger, with a somewhat unsettling description of Jagger's manhood underneath "loose pajama-style pants without underwear".
Townshend's 70s and the 80s with The Who are marked by hugely ambitious creative ideas (his proposed Lifehouse rock opera proves to be too unwieldy to organize, with some of the material from the project eventually finding its way onto future Who albums), many further occurrences of standard rock 'n roll excess (furniture being thrown out of hotel windows, copious amounts of alcohol and drug consumption, including one story about a three yard line of coke being snorted, too many mentions of Townshend's infidelity to keep track of, etc.), the guitarist becoming an early adopter of new recording and computer technology (The Who were also the first act to use lasers in rock shows), tragedies (including Moon's 1978 death from a drug overdose and 11 fans being crushed to death at a 1979 Cincinnati Who concert), and Townshend's growing unhappiness within the band. He quits in 1983, reluctantly returning in 1989 purely for the lucrative payday that will fund his solo musical projects and the expenses for a planned baby with his wife. Details on The Who's musical output throughout the book are surprisingly and disappointingly lacking in detail, especially coming from the man responsible for being the primary force behind most of it. Townshend does offer revelatory details about his perpetual uneasiness with his place in the band; his depressive personality and severe issues with self-esteem fascinatingly result in the guitarist always feeling like the odd man out within The Who, which clashed with the outside perception of him as their leader. 

Townshend's work outside of The Who finds him channelling his creative energies into further solo projects, publishing some of his short stories, working as an editor at a British publishing house, giving time to a number of charitable causes, and developing The Who's Tommy for the theatre. Despite the quantity and variety of these endeavours, Townshend's recollections of them fail to stir many moments of great interest, however. With reservations, Townshend rejoins The Who numerous times after first leaving, participating in their 2002 tour only because singer Roger Daltrey and bassist John Entwistle had financial problems. On the eve of the tour's first show, Entwistle dies in his hotel room from a cocaine-induced heart attack. Townshend's reflections on the bassist's life and their friendship turns out to be one of the few moments in Who I Am where Entwistle gets much of an in-depth reference. Even by the usual rock bio standards that inevitably seem to frame the bass player as a very peripheral character, Entwistle is mostly absent in Townshend's memoir, although it is worth noting that along with "The Ox" and "Thunderfingers", one of the bassist's other nicknames was "The Quiet One".

Some of the most compelling reading in Who I Am revolves around Townshend's dissection of his legal problems in 2003 after being arrested for paying £7 with a credit card to a website advertising child pornography in 1999. He maintains that the transaction was meant for research purposes (tying back to those childhood sexual abuse claims, which led him to get involved in charities combatting child sexual abuse and speaking out many times on the issue), that he instantly regretted his decision, and never browsed the website after paying for access. The colossally bad decision catches up to him with his eventual arrest, the seizure of 11 of his computers, and the inevitable media circus. After a torturously slow four-and-a-half month-long investigation that found no further incriminating evidence on Townshend's computers, he accepts a "caution" plea deal from British police that sees him placed on a sex offenders registry for five years. As interesting as this chapter of Townshend's life is, I must admit that I was hoping for a little more more insight into why Townshend curiously accepted a deal instead of fighting harder to clear his name (he says he wasn't up to the media scrutiny of a trial, but his reputation has never recovered) and also why he waited so long to give his full side of the story that is finally provided in this autobiography (Townshend writes that he had a hard time making sense of his "insane" behavior and thought briefly of suicide).

Pete Townshend's fully-lived life and his many contradictions should make for a slightly more grabbing read than Who I Am delivers. Along with the musical-genius-plagued-by-massive-insecurities factor is Townshend's ongoing clash between his self-destructive behaviour and notoriously prickly personality, and an almost lifelong quest for spiritual enlightenment and salvation through the teachings of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. I also have to lay criticism for the book only providing a passing reference to one of the better rock stories out there, involving a Who show from 1973. Moon passed out on stage after overindulging in some drugs and alcohol and Townshend asked the San Francisco audience "Can anyone play the drums?". A fan named Scot Halpin stepped forward and played with The Who for the rest of the show (you can watch some of it here) and apparently stayed in contact with Townshend until passing away in 2008. Surely, a story that good is worthy of more than the brief mention it gets here. Although it doesn't match the more cohesive flow of say, Keith Richards' Life memoir, Who I Am is still well worth a read, though. Better yet, seek out the audiobook, read by the author himself. Shortly after beginning a tablet version of Who I Am, I switched to the audiobook and was glad I did, as hearing Townshend's words firsthand significantly strengthens your connection to the material and adds extra insight just from his intonation in certain parts, such as the emphasized disdain he adds to his voice when reciting the Who's Next album title.

Rating: B- 

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