Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townshend

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is one of my musical heroes, but a complicated person: spiritual but self-destructive, innovative but prone to nostalgia. So I was predisposed to like this book, yet knowing full well that parts of it would annoy the hell out of me. And I wasn't far wrong. I came away both admiring him more than I had before, but feeling sad for him and being angry at him in equal measure, as well.

His childhood traumas, hinted at in earlier portraits of him I've read, are spelled out in a bit more detail here, though some things - especially what was most likely molestation at the hands of one of his grandmother's boyfriends - are discussed only nebulously. Which is absolutely within his right: no one needs to know specific details like that, perhaps most especially the young boy who experienced their horrors in the first place. The trauma has haunted him personally, artistically, and, sadly, publicly ever since.

We learn a lot of the thinking behind not just his songs, but behind his career moves: his struggles in developing the band The Who's looks and sounds, his solo albums, his editing career with Faber and Faber, his many charity works, his spiritual quests. What we don't learn as much of as I would have expected is about his Who bandmates Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon. It's not that we learn nothing about them, or of Pete's opinions of them; we do, but somehow I expected them to play larger roles here. This is probably my own failing, however, of still thinking of Pete as "a member of The Who" instead of as his own person. Of course we get some crazy Keith stories, and tales of fistfights with Roger, and concerns over John's financial difficulties; but mostly, what comes through is his obvious love for these men, his absolute admiration of them as friends and musicians. Roger in fact comes across as a rock for Pete more often than I would have guessed.

He's generally very forthright about his goals and choices, and he isn't afraid to admit mistakes (which are many). For a man who had it in his mind that he wanted to be a good husband and father, he had a remarkable ability to fall in love with other women at the drop of a hat. Was he confused and conflicted? Yes. Did he reign himself in? Occasionally. Did I want to slap him for his inconsiderate stupidity? Repeatedly.

The same could be said for his use of drink and drugs, which varied over time from abstinence to depravity. Yes, it's "the life of a rock star" - but why, damnit? He gives some reasons, but they're usually excuses. His multiple, non-ironic references to alcohol as "medicinal" in small doses seem myopic for someone who's had a much therapy and treatment as he's had. I'm far from a teetotaler myself, but if someone has an admitted, serious alcohol problem, comments like these seem disingenuous, at least. But again, what he's given us is a portrait not of a perfect or perfected person, but of one who is at least acutely aware of and at peace with himself.

Of course, a career like his is full of great stories, and even having been a fairly obsessive fan, there was a lot here that was new and unfamiliar to me. Phil Collins called to offer his services as drummer after Moon died? Pete was and is a fan of Bruce Springsteen? I knew of Pete's longstanding and fruitful obsession with recording technology, but not with boating. And he does sort of claim to have invented the idea of the Internet, though that one is less of a surprise.

Townshend is a good writer (this is not news), and I've seen enough interviews with him that I could easily hear his voice, his cadence in my head as I read the book; if there was any ghost-writing involved here, I'd be astonished. He does have a tendency to skip back and forth at times chronologically, but that might simply be a symptom of a life pulled in several directions at once. In the Acknowledgments, he admits that he had to cut the book down from 1,000 pages to 500 pages, and you definitely can feel the gaps at times at times; I would love to be able to read the longer version.

Who I Am: A Memoir
by Pete Townshend
Harper, 2012
ISBN-10: 0062127241
ISBN-13: 978-0062127242
544 pages, $32.50