Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pete Townshend's "Who I Am"

Even before the recent vogue for rockstar memoirs, Who I Am -- in the works since 1996, but first contemplated 30 years earlier -- was inevitable.

All the exhibitionism, violence, and noise of the Who aside, what earned Pete Townshend's fortune was his ability to write songs that made listeners feel as though he was speaking for them. (I am one of them. When Quadrophenia arrived at a particularly low ebb in my misguided yoof, I saw myself in it and clung to it like a lifeboat.) Back in the day, the Beatles (coolest guys in the room) and Stones (baddest guys in the room) didn't have that quality; neither did Ray Davies (the oddball aesthete scribbling in the corner). Townshend understands this, and even alluded to it in his recent Jon Stewart interview, cracking a joke about now having to write songs for people in their 70s who are "still messed up."

Beyond that, he's always been the most loquacious and articulate of rockers, going back as far as the '68 Rolling Stone interview in which he outlined the concept of Tommy for the first time, while out of his head on acid. His review of his band's own album Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy for the same rag (who else got to do that?) was an exemplary piece of scrawl, but perhaps the finest example of his prose to date was the short story that served as liner note copy for Quadrophenia.

His '85 collection of stories and poems, Horse's Neck (now Amazon-available for a penny), was more self-consciously literary and less successful in the same way much of his solo music has been, although a couple of the pieces ("Fish Shop" and "Champagne On the Terraces") still resonate years after reading them. Thankfully, in this long anticipated, well edited memoir, the author employs a lean, economical prose style that allows him to hit all the high and low points in his life and career in just 500 pages (trimmed down from twice that length).

The Who's story has been told many times, and Townshend has written and spoken widely on their career trajectory and the creative process that spawned their masterpieces. So why read about it again? Here, his recall of childhood incidents that shaped his work adds perspective: hearing heavenly music in a boat's motor on the Thames (later echoed in Quadrophenia) as an aspiring Sea Scout, or shadowy memories of abuse he believes he suffered while under his eccentric grandmother's care, which he drew upon when composing "A Quick One While He's Away" and Tommy.

He writes movingly of the bond he felt with the Who's original Mod fans (his first "patrons" after leaving art school) and the band's loyal New York claque, many of whom spent all day at the 58th Street RKO to see if the Who would run out of equipment to wreck when the band made their American debut at Murray the K's 1967 Easter Show. The book's most affecting passages come near the end, however: an excerpt from a letter the 50something Townshend wrote to his eight-year-old self, and an appendix where he reads a fan letter unopened since 1967 and concludes, "My life would have been very different if I had been able to recognize genuine, loving adoration and concern when it was demonstrated."

The tensions between opposing forces in the author's life provide the narrative's dramatic action. As an art student, absorbing the experimental ethos of the early '60s, Townshend was already earning more money than his tutors, playing pubs and weddings with the low-level circuit band that would evolve into the Who. As he fought to subvert the band's direction to one more palatable to his art school mates, they achieved their first successes. The hothouse atmosphere of the times spurred him to try for ever bigger achievements, but that creative drive was always undercut by the need to tour and earn money to finance the band's ballooning expenses. Similarly, his desire for a stable family life and his spiritual concerns were continually undermined by a raft of compulsions: addictions to drink, drugs, overwork, and serial womanizing. (By the later chapters, it's hard to keep track of all the houses he's buying and all the women he's chasing.)

Townshend writes with candor about his insecurities and personal humiliations, including his 2003 arrest in a child pornography sting (he was subsequently exonerated by investigative journalist Duncan Campbell). More sobering for fans is the realization that Townshend now regards himself as a theatrical composer a la Kander and Ebb, and the Who as a part of his past. More power to him. Earlier this year, he sold the publishing rights to the Who's catalog for an amount estimated at $100 million, saying that he intended to use the money to allow him to finance new works without touring. Whie his new opera in progress Floss sounds as esoteric as, say, The Iron Man or Psychoderelict, perhaps this is what he'll be remembered for in 100 years. Who knows?


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