Even lip-syncing, the Who could be lethal. In their first national TV appearance, on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Show in 1967, the band dutifully “performed” to a tape of its youth anthem “My Generation.” Then the fun began. Keith Moon blew up his drum kit – blinding the cameras for a few seconds, gashing his own arm with cymbal shrapnel and frying Pete Townshend‘s scalp. A dazed Townshend wrestled an acoustic guitar away from host Tommy Smothers and splintered it at the comedian’s feet. Bette Davis, one of the show’s guests watching from backstage, fainted into the arms of Mickey Rooney. The Who had arrived in America.
This was anarchy special-delivered from the U.K., a decade before the Sex Pistols. And it’s what makes the Who’s mod-to-riches tale such a juicy one, for here was a band that not only embodied the energy, depravity and recklessness of rock & roll but also expanded it as an art form. The four louts described by the New Zealand press as “unwashed, foul-smelling, booze-swilling no-hopers” not only wrote rock operas but created a powerful illusion both on record and onstage: They appeared to attack Townshend’s meticulously arranged songs not as a unified ensemble but as a pack of wild dogs, straining to outdo one another with a mixture of flash, muscle and madness. They were at once rock’s most cerebral band and its most chaotic.
One biography that understands the contradiction is Dave Marsh’s Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, which remains the best Who book for its blend of reportage, musical analysis and cultural perspective, and stands as the most controversial. Marsh’s enthusiasm for his subject is addictive; after reading his passages describing the sonic innovations on “I Can See for Miles” or “My Generation,” for example, even casual fans will be itching to play the records. But even though the author regards the Who as rock’s greatest band, he questions their decision to carry on after Moon’s death, in 1978, from a drug overdose. They became in many ways just another aloof superstar juggernaut disconnected from fans, Marsh argues, and that attitude helped foster the conditions that led to the 1979 Cincinnati concert stampede, which left eleven fans dead.
Unfortunately, Marsh’s book concludes with the Who’s inaugural farewell tour, in 1982. Bringing the group’s story up to date is Richard Barnes’ The Who: Maximum R&B, a picture book and band history peppered with anecdotes gleaned from Barnes’ thirty-five-plus years as a Townshend associate. What it lacks in critical perspective it makes up for in dazzling images, from the ribald outtake for the Who’s Next album cover to a vintage poster from the band’s days as the High Numbers, billing the single “I’m the Face” as “the first authentic Mod record.”
In Barnes’ book, bassist John Entwistle recalls how at Moon’s first gig with the band, the teenage hellion brought in twenty yards of rope to lash down his kit, like a medieval henchman preparing a victim for torture. It’s the type of anecdote that makes almost any biography of the drummer an entertaining read, but Tony Fletcher takes on a more daunting assignment in Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend. In humanizing a larger-than-life persona, Fletcher spends a good chunk of the book debunking myths – notably the one about the drummer’s notorious twenty-first birthday party, which certified Moon as the ultimate rock & roll loon. Fletcher reports that, contrary to legend, the drummer didn’t actually drive a Lincoln Continental into a hotel pool, spray a parking lot full of cars with a fire extinguisher or spend the night in jail. Moon did participate in a food fight and break a tooth, bringing his night to an ignominious and painful end.
Nonetheless, the author finds no shortage of verifiable drama in the drummer’s short car crash of a life. Though Townshend was the band’s auteur, the Who sounded like the Who because of Moon, who didn’t adhere to a drummer’s traditional timekeeping role so much as destroy it. Townshend adjusted the group’s sound to exploit Moon’s idiosyncratic talents, turning the drums into a lead instrument on two-minute A-bombs such as “I Can’t Explain.”
Yet Fletcher points out that this imp who was the greatest drummer of his g-g-generation, this grand showman who refused to play on a riser even as he often upstaged his band mates, was also a deeply damaged human being. According to Fletcher, Moon regularly shattered his young wife’s nose in alcohol-fueled rages, and – anticlimactic twenty-first-birthday stories aside – was capable of huge outbursts of rock-star destructiveness. At one point, Fletcher offers three plausible stories of how Moon once broke his collarbone, suggesting that the real story is too deeply buried in myth ever to emerge. And so it was with Moon’s life, a black comedy turned tragedy, with one too many accidents and too few clear-cut answers. Were Moon alive today, Fletcher writes, “there is nothing to suggest he would have been happier for it.”
Townshend fans can’t be happy with the way his life has been portrayed in print so far. Larry David Smith’s Pete Townshend: The Minstrel’s Dilemma isn’t so much a biography as a dissection of Townshend’s lyrics: a fascinating exercise when it comes to works such as Tommy, less so when dealing with tracks from It’s Hard.
In contrast, Geoffrey Giuliano’s Behind Blue Eyes: The Life of Pete Townshend skims over the art to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis of the guitarist’s personal roller-coaster ride, from the trivial (young Pete’s embarrassment over the size of his nose) to the life-threatening or psychologically shattering (middle-aged Pete’s battles with addiction, financial insolvency and infidelity). More troubling is Giuliano’s relationship to his subject, which casts doubt on many of his assertions about Townshend’s character. The writer came into Townshend’s confidence during the Seventies because of their mutual interest in the Sufi guru Meher Baba. But Giuliano was caught stealing from the guitarist’s stash of demo tapes and was banished from Townshend’s home, which may explain why Behind Blue Eyes sometimes reads like the author’s story as much as Townshend’s.
For the definitive version of that, readers will have to wait until Townshend himself commits his longawaited autobiography to print.
This story is from the September 14th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.