Who I Am
HarperCollins, 544pp, £20
Few rock and rollers can touch Pete Townshend when it comes to sounding off as a sort of contradiction incarnate. Articulate, loquacious, self-deprecating, and self-aggrandising, one never really knows what will emerge from the Who’s longstanding songwriter, whether in terms of the latest sonic offering, a quotable line from an interview, or this long-coming autobiography.
Cynics - and Townshend doubtlessly engenders some cynicism - will grumble that the undertaking is principally an attempt to excuse the child pornography charges that dogged Townshend a few years back; charges that he explained away as research. And while Townshend does come around to mounting a defense in the later portions of this oft-understated reckoning - and a believable one at that - that’s not really why we’re here, is it?
With certain rock autobiographies, excess is the indisputable star. The punters want tales straight out of Spinal Tap, only writ larger, more grotesque, with epic anthems being composed from out of the pre-dawn slop of last night’s after-party. And while Townshend sounds the occasional chord of bacchanalia - his remarks regarding what he wished to do to Mick Jagger is instant website headline material - this is more the bardic, ruminative approach to discussing a life, more Samuel Pepys than Ozzy Osbourne.
In his interviews, Townshend was never a “brevity is the soul of wit” kind of guy, but, weirdly, he’s downright pithy at times here, in keeping with the concision of his finest songs. The Who are perhaps best known today for all things Tommy - with their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, faring better than ever in recent years - but true devotees know that the singles that predate Tommy is where it was at all along. And what singles they are: pocket short stories with relatable characters, a narrative for your ears in generally less than three minutes. And should you wish to know exactly the thinking behind that ethos, Who I Am is the ultimate manual. When Roger Daltrey complains that debut single “I Can’t Explain” is too fey, Townshend- whose up-and-down friendship with Daltrey really is quite touching, an exemplar of hard-won coexistence - accedes. “He wanted our studio work to reflect the power of our R&B set list,” Townshend writes. Although I felt a little aggrieved by Roger’s vehemence, I agreed with him. Our stage act was getting tougher and tougher, and that’s what we needed to get down on vinyl.”
And get it down they did - thanks, in large part, to Townshend’s full understanding of his own strengths and liabilities as a musician. For everyone who has ever wondered just what marks a Who record - no matter the style it is cast in - as recognisably a Who record in about five seconds, Townshend provides what could well be the answer: “I felt I had two great strengths as a studio musician. I was a good acoustic guitar player and electric rhythm guitar player.” He’s underselling himself, somewhat, but, yes, that is the crux of it. Even when Keith Moon is flailing all around his drum kit, in his inimitable style it’s Townshend’s guitar that says, in essence, that we have entered Who-dom.
The Meher Baba spiritual talk can take on the qualities of a drone, and there is plenty of childhood pain - some of it stemming from sexual abuse - to unpack. In these sections, it feels as though Townshend is writing more for himself than for his readers, which is ironic, given that no rock and roll composer was more interested in the union between artist and audience than the leader of the Who. There are plenty of accounts of early, awkward sex, but the focus is less on carnality and more on a young man trying to gain firm footing - not so much with the world around him, as with himself. But Townshend grappling with Townshend can make for fascinating insights in terms of the creative process. Tommy, for instance, arises from a miasma of self-doubt regards its merits. Is the story too flimsy? Does it hold together? Is this too outlandish? There’s a desperation factor as well that ratchets up the drama: essentially, it was boom or bust for the Who come ’68, and Tommy was either going to save or finish off the enterprise. Still, if it’s Tommy that assured the band’s future, it was 1970’s Live at Leeds that thrilled Townshend, with the experiences of in-concert music-making filtering back into the compositional process. “The Who were a unit, a machine, a force of nature,” he writes. “As a composer I was just beginning to understand how to harness the power of our stage sound, and balance it with light and shade when making an album.”
The true test, though, of a book like this is whether its appeal extends to readers who could care less about the Who and Townshend’s place in rock history (and his own sense of that place). On that score, there’s an inclusivity to Who I Am that starts with its very title, a statement that will sound almost as a query in the reader’s own mind as he makes his way through these pages. When the locus of a work is a probing search to discern one’s identity, as though from out of a haze, we can’t help but do our own readerly version of that process while going along. Of course, it’s manna for a Who fan to see Townshend speaking so highly of the band’s set at Woodstock. They had only slagged the thing off for a few decades.