There are a lot of rock and roll autobiographies around lately. If you are in the mood for memoirs of the musical greats of the sixties and seventies, you are in luck. It started with Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One (2004), the eccentric and evasive account of not very much of Dylan’s life. Then there was Just Kids (2010), by Patti Smith, her heavily mythologized recollection of life with Robert Mapplethorpe. And Keith Richards’s Life (2010), of course, which let us in on the secret about the size of Mick Jagger’s endowments. And as of last month, we also now have Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young, which triumphs in the matter of inadvisable titles.
The major themes of the work before us today, Pete Townshend’s memoir Who I Am, will not be unfamiliar to anyone who is acquainted with this bounty of memoirs. Early band camaraderie, likewise feelings of isolation, heavy drinking, drugs, deaths, taxes, squabbles, womanizing, divorce, the alleged serenity of later middle age.
Fans of the Who, Townshend’s justifiably legendary band, will definitely know many of the stories included in these pages – drummer Keith Moon’s talent for destroying hotel rooms, the crashing and burning of Lifehouse (Townshend’s post-Tommy conceptual opera), the decline of the Who after Keith Moon, the depravity of the early eighties, bassist John Entwistle’s death from a cocaine overdose in Las Vegas, Townshend’s bogus arrest, in 2003, for accessing child pornography online (charges later dropped) and so on. I will go as far as to say that no self-respecting Who fan – I am one myself, having listened to them with particular avidity since my early teens, a period of almost four decades now – will find anything new in these pages, although I did learn a lot about Pete’s time working at Faber & Faber (the British publishing house) and his passion for yachting. Neither of these things contributes to my large pool of Who-related arcana.
Furthermore, what is explicitly missing here, a great deal of the time, is exactly what Townshend is good at: rock and roll. Want to know why that riff from Slip Kid on Who By Numbers is so good? Want to know why there are so many synthesizers on Who are You? Want to know why John Entwistle didn’t sing much after Who’s Next? Want to know why Kenny Jones was let go as drummer? Want to know how Baba O’Riley came about, and why it has that line about teenage wasteland in it? This book answers none of these questions. This book is, in the end, not terribly concerned with the nuts and bolts of Townshend’s music, not his style of guitar playing, with its feedback and reliance on strumming, not how the Who came to perform in the startling, unique way they performed, not how the songs got written.
Here’s a representative passage (and I’m leaving out the paragraph about who did which drugs, which precedes it):
“Bit by bit, chunks of Tommy had sneaked their way back into our set list, which was usually put together by Roger a few minutes before each show. By the end of the tour we were playing a kind of Tommy medley along with the heavy rockers we’d made famous with Live at Leeds. New songs from Who’s Next were slow to become familiar and established, but it was some consolation that we arrived home in time to see Who’s Next go to No. 1 in the U.K.”
So the set list is decided casually by singer Roger Daltrey, and the Tommy medley eventually became tiresome, and Who’s Next was not immediately the classic we now know it to be. Or so the inductively energetic reader may infer (though there is not an excess of directness here, as elsewhere). In fact, of Who’s Next, arguably the band’s most celebrated album, Townshend’s noteworthy comment is that the title is “pathetic” and the jacket is worse.
So what do we get here instead? We get a lot about management, and a lot about marital infidelity.
Now, it is true that this manuscript was once twice as long as the finished product, and it is true that it was begun 17 years ago, and abandoned occasionally along the way. Also: Who I Am was apparently composed without the aid of a ghostwriter (and the ghost is probably what made Keith Richards’s book so readable). All of these facts suggest compositional difficulty. Townshend, apparently, is not a natural memoirist. He is not someone with palpable exhibitionism who cannot wait to tell you salacious details about groupies. (Which is not to say that there are no groupies in this book. There are. They are handled with a certain anguish.)
Why did he do it then? Why did he commit these pages to print? He could have returned the advance. There are reasons, it seems to me. First, Townshend is nothing (any lifelong fan will tell you as much) if not adept at enumerating the spots where he believes he has failed. He is his own cheering section and his most venal critic, and the latter tendency is amply corroborated in Who I Am.
It turns out, according to Townshend, that he has failed many more times than we might think he has. (The Who Sell Out is a masterpiece, Pete! And so is Magic Bus! Who Came First is a remarkable album and you don’t even mention it here. Not once!)
And a second plausible reason he published the book is, perhaps, that no matter what he says, and he has said some truly awful things over the years; he has made observations about the Who that are noteworthy for their bitterness and disengagement (see, for example, Townshend’s comments in the Maximum R&B boxed set), he cares about his audience.
“The Who Cares!,” in fact, was ubiquitous graffiti in rock and roll circles of the late seventies. And the Who did seem demonstrably to care, despite the turmoil they subjected themselves to, much of it sad, and much of it contained in these pages. Maybe that sensitivity to the fans was part of what has made it so costly to be Pete Townshend. Or maybe the burden of being Pete Townshend, so buffeted in early life by circumstance and fate, especially in the abusive cauldron of his grandmother’s house, made it natural to care later on, despite the obligation of a certain rock and roll machismo.
We may never know why Pete Townshend thinks what he thinks, however, because we certainly don’t know at the end of this book. Like its author, Who I Am is melancholy, complex, sensitive, odd and often opaque. Which will probably not stop the legions of aging rock and roll readers, who snapped up copies of Chronicles, Volume I and Life, from rushing out to purchase it.
Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of a collection of essays, On Celestial Music. He plays music in the Wingdale Community Singers.