THIS is an earnest, tortured, searching book – by turns eloquent and long-winded, revealing and oddly elliptical. In it Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter for The Who, gives an account of his life as intimate and as painful as a therapy session, while chronicling the history of the band as it took shape in the Mod scene in 1960s London and became the very embodiment of adolescent rebellion and loud, anarchic rock ‘n’ roll.
Who I Am by Pete Townshend
HarperCollins, 544pp, £20
Townshend’s self-portrait is raw and unsparing. He tells us about being abused as a child and lasting feelings of shame, anger and anxiety. He tells us about his drug use and struggles with alcohol. And he tells us about being arrested on suspicion of possessing images taken from a child-pornography website (he was cautioned but cleared of possession).
His many internal conflicts are exhaustively mapped. He describes being torn between spiritual yearnings and “the reptilian life” of a rock star, between intellectual pretensions and “desperately low self-regard,” between his commitments to his family and the demands of “the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me” who “didn’t give a toss for fatherhood”.
His accounts of the anguish he suffered as a child are harrowing: When he was six, he says, he was inexplicably sent by his parents to stay with his cruel and mentally unstable grandmother, who “took in men from the bus garage and the railway station opposite her flat all the time”; one of those men, he suggests, molested him (his descriptions are vague because he has “managed to put the details out of memory’s reach”.)
What this book does not provide is a particularly vivid or visceral sense of what it was like to be on the road in a notorious rock band, or what the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s was like from the inside, when rock ‘n’ roll was changing the world.
Townshend also declines to give us portraits of Roger Daltrey (whom he somewhat questionably calls the band’s “unquestionable leader”), Keith Moon or John Entwistle that shed much new light on their personalities, their musicianship or their combustible interactions.
Jimi Hendrix is one of the few other musicians who really comes alive in these pages: He is described as “a shaman”, who looked as if he had “glittering coloured light” emanating “from the ends of his long, elegant fingers as he played”. In some ways, Townshend writes, Hendrix’s “performances did borrow from mine – the feedback, the distortion, the guitar theatrics,” but his “artistic genius lay in how he created a sound all his own: Psychedelic Soul, or what I’ll call ‘Blues Impressionism”’.
Although he dutifully describes The Who’s best-known excesses, they feel rote; there is something truncated and vaguely perfunctory about them. In fact, the editing of the entire volume sometimes feels odd: while the reader gets far too much about Townshend’s marital infidelity and drinking, other sections are filled with jump cuts that chop the narrative into herky-jerky pieces.
What Townshend does with insight, verve and sometimes grandiosity is describe how The Who evolved: how the group “set out to articulate the joy and rage” of the generation that came of age in the “teenage wasteland” that was post-Second World War Britain, under the shadow of the atom bomb and deeply alienated from the class system. This is why The Who’s early sound – the feedback and distortion, the wrecked guitars and Moon’s frenetic drumming – was so explosive.
He proves equally engaging as a sort of rock historian, describing the musical landscape in Britain in the early 1960s. The band was finally undermined by the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s. Though Who songs like My Generation and Won’t Get Fooled Again became “anthems for a particular time,” Townshend writes, by 1981 “a gulf had opened up between The Who and the new younger generation”.
Many readers, however, would argue that punk actually owed a huge debt to The Who’s defiant attitude and brash, propulsive sound.
In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, Townshend grandiloquently declared that rock was “the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating.” He makes a powerful case for that argument – and The Who’s contribution to the cause – in the pages of this deeply felt but often ungainly book.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West