.

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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

prev
Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.

X

We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

More Song Stories entries »
 
www.expandtheroom.com