Book Review: Pete Townshend's 'Who I Am' Could Be the Most Conflicted Rock Memoir of All Time

Townshend is vulnerable and candid in a quest to explore his defects and contradictions

September 28, 2012 1:55 PM ET
Pete Townshend’s memoir, 'Who I Am.' book
Pete Townshend’s memoir, 'Who I Am.'
HarperCollins Publishers

Pete Townshend
Who I Am
HarperCollins Publishers
Four and a half Stars

After all his years of musical confessions, Pete Townshend still has secrets to get off his chest. And in Who I Am, he finally lets loose. His long-awaited memoir is intensely intimate, candid to the point of self-lacerating. It's a rock god opening up his most human frailties. Throughout the book, Townshend makes himself uncomfortably vulnerable, especially in his deeply saddening memories of childhood sexual abuse. He sees those early years as emblematic of his postwar English generation, left parentless, at the mercy of predators. He turned this trauma into the 1969 breakthrough Tommy. Those feelings of rage, shame and inadequacy never left him, even after he fought his way to the top of the music world.

Townshend provides plenty of stories about the Who's hotel-trashing days and the insanity of Keith Moon. He dishes about sex ("Mick is the only man I've ever seriously wanted to fuck") as well as drugs – there are quite a few empty glasses and smashed mirrors. But he's not concerned about preserving his rock-star myth. Instead, it almost seems he wants to undercut it, exploring his defects and contradictions: the "Angry Yobbo" guitar hooligan he plays onstage versus the introspective composer, the spiritual seeker versus the hedonistic drug addict. He becomes a devotee of Meher Baba, yet loses years to cocaine and alcohol. As he says, "My spiritual longings were constantly under siege by all-too-worldly ambitions, undermined by scepticism and ambivalence, and challenged by my sexual yearnings....I could also behave, frankly, like a complete arsehole."

He reminisces about his longtime mates, evoking Roger Daltrey as "the unquestionable leader," and John Entwistle as his link to the old days: "When we talked, the two of us would always summon the two 13-year-old boys from Acton with their cheap guitars...eating their fish and chip suppers, fantasizing about being as successful as the Shadows." He takes pride in the Who's live reputation, like when Bill Graham puts on Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera House and the crowd refuses to let the band leave. Backstage, Townshend boasts, "It's easy to bring us on, Bill. It's much harder to get us off."

But he's not interested in ticking off his achievements. (His classic solo LP, 1972's Who Came First, doesn't even rate a mention.) Instead, he wants to understand his failings and plumb his insecurities. In the early 1980s, Townshend felt he'd lost it, after the band's awkward attempt to carry on without Keith Moon. As he says, "I began seeing myself as a party man, an honorary senior punk-playboy- cum-elder-statesman . . . I took to wearing baggy suits and brothel creepers, piling my thinning hair on top of my head like a rocker. Always a pretty good dancer, I stopped idiot-dancing and danced like Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from the Clash. At 34 I was still just about young enough to pull it off."

It's strange to think of Pete Townshend feeling as self-conscious as any of his gawkiest teenage fans. He also has profound doubts about himself as an artist, a lover, a father. (He prints a sad note his daughter sent in the early 1980s, saying she missed him after hearing "You Better You Bet" on the radio.) His tone is less lofty than anyone would have expected, just as this book is more honest than any fan would have hoped. Maybe nobody knows what it's like to be the bad man, to be the sad man, behind blue eyes – but Who I Am is as close as we are likely to get.

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