Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Who He Is: A Memoir by Pete Townshend

By Levi Asher on Monday, November 19, 2012 11:02 pm

Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.

The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.

We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.

Like many memoirs, Who I Am is especially strong in the childhood scenes. A highly intellectual, artistic and cheeky London kid, born at the very close of World War II to jazz musician parents who tended to drift into thorny situations and sexual affairs, young Pete Townshend felt keenly dislocated when his parents abandoned him to a creepy grandmother, leaving him with feelings of anxiety that inspired his first narrative song-cycle. A Quick One (While He's Away), which he wrote just before Tommy. The chapters describing these years are the most evocative in the book, but the intellectual journey into pop art, rock stardom and religious enlightenment that follows (Townshend is a lifelong follower of Meher Baba) keeps up a high pitch of excitement, especially during the near-insane period in which Townshend tried to follow the masterpiece Tommy with an even more ambitious rock opera called Lifehouse.

The planned epiphany he staged for Lifehouse would fall utterly to pieces, leaving the band managers and engineers scrambling to fulfill a contract for an album while Pete Townshend nursed his cracked-up spiritual wounds. In one of the greatest moments of accidental genius in the history of classic rock, the scattered scraps of Lifehouse would magically fall into place to form the Who's most classic album of all, Who's Next, which would include the band's two biggest anthems of all, "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again".

Who I Am revels in the details of musical creativity, and provides fresh angles on a monumental career. Townshend writes not only about his music but also about the music he listened to during these years, though surprisingly he shows very little regard for peers such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young or Led Zeppelin, instead showering all his praise on the Rolling Stones (he admired their brazen sexuality), Pink Floyd (he lusted for their ability to create a fully controlled and immersive concert experience), the Kinks (he recognized in Ray Davies a fellow wit) and the Small Faces (he seems to have often wished to have been one of the fun Small Faces instead of a member of the difficult Who).

It was probably Townshend's desire to emulate Pink Floyd's epochal recordings of the early 70s that led to the beautiful semi-failure of his third attempted full-length rock opera Quadrophenia, which had a great story and a few great songs, but collapsed under the weight of its windiness, and suffered from the Who's inability to maintain its peak of instrumental genius. It's surprising to read in Who I Am that Townshend considers Quadrophenia the equal of Tommy. Not musically it wasn't.

There were a few more golden moments in the mid 1970s -- the Dostoyevskeyan album Who by Numbers, the awesome Ken Russell movie of Tommy -- but the Who had already started to suck by the time Keith Moon died a couple of years later (those who weren't there in the late 1970s may say that Keith Moon's death ruined the Who, but actually it happened the other way around, as a quick listen to the album Who Are You proves).

By the mid-1980s, Townshend gave up on the hard rock grind and morphed himself into a literary book editor at London's esteemed Faber & Faber before beginning the Who's series of reunion tours. Towards the final chapters Who I Am slips away, as so many rock star memoirs eventually do, into summary format, and the details of each recording session begin to seem to matter less. Townshend's long and hopeful marriage eventually breaks up (Townshend reveals himself to be constantly lovesick in this book; I'm not sure what psychological need this signifies), and he eventually enacts his last Tommy-like fall from celebrity grace when, several years ago, he gets caught by the British police in a sting after buying child porn online. Townshend strains himself here, trying to explain that he was doing research for another rock opera he would eventually write about a child abuse victim, but I wish he hadn't felt it necessary to work so hard to explain the offense away. This was a bad period in his life -- worse, even, than the It's Hard album. But he provided his own epitath in his earliest mini-opera, the one about the abandonment of his parents. "You are forgiven!"

Pete, you truly are forgiven. Who I Am is a book worthy of your great career, and that's some pretty tall praise.

15 Responses to "Who He Is: A Memoir by Pete Townshend"

I haven't been drawn too much to any of the rock star biographies released over the past 12 months. I don't see the draw. We know they slept with hundreds (thousands?) of women, did drugs until they couldn't see straight, drank like fish and rocked around the world.

I've been a big of The Who and Pete Townshend for decades so I may go ahead and borrow this one from the library

by Bill_Ectric on

I would say Quadrophenia is as good as Tommy, only because Tommy doesn't really have that many good songs, either. To me, the best songs on Tommy are We're Not Gonna Take It and the See me, Feel me/Listening to you overture, or whatever it's called. "Pinball Wizard" was alright, but I like the song "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia better. I also like "Sea and Sand" and "Cut My Hair" from Quadrophenia.

I just saw on TV that Townshend and Daltrey have launch a Teen Cancer charity organization, the idea being that there are already cancer centers especially for children, and adults, but none geared for teens.

by Kevin on

I concur with your conclusion. I wrote about this for The Peorian and did a segment on it as well. Two things:
1) I'll let the "semi-failure" comment slide on Quadrophenia. That's my #2 Who album even though Tommy was the first to really hook me, with Who's Next as #1. Quadrophenia to me is an Entwistle album, which (in my book) is awesome.
2) I like your comment about Who by Numbers. I've always felt that album gets undeservedly slagged off. Great range/variety of songs and I really like "Slip Kid" as a first track.

by Dan Green on

Quadrophenia is musically way beyond Tommy.

by Levi Asher on

Hmm, I see there's a lot of love out there for "Quadrophenia". Well, okay ... let me justify my words.

You can't fault Pete Townshend as a writer. In terms of concept, story, lyrics, even album artwork, "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" are both very powerful works. But there's a world of difference in the presentation of the music.

"Tommy" is an unusually harmonious and musically unified work. The same chord sequences reverberate through the rock opera -- the grand chords that kick off the "Overture", the churning riffs of "Go To The Mirror" and "I'm Free" and "We're Not Gonna Take It", the ringing, haunting sustained chords of "Pinball Wizard" and "Sparks", the sickly plaintive major-7ths of "See Me Feel Me", the final lift of "Listening To You". The chords weave together to form a structure of almost organic unity -- I can think of no other album that sounds so much like a heart beating, or a chest breathing, or a pulse throbbing. Given that this is the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy -- the ultimate in sensory introspection, after all -- the organic quality of the music really supports and complements the story in a rare and special way. The album also has a very distinctive and understated sound -- the fact that even the anarchic Keith Moon and John Entwistle provided controlled and supportive performances throughout the record is a testament to how much these musicians were feeling the vibe in the studio (Townshend's memoir also describes the special feeling of excitement they all had while playing "Tommy", and how much they enjoyed playing it live).

"Quadrophenia" was a good enough story to deserve the same rare moment of musical chemistry, but it clearly didn't come together in the studio. There are a few great tracks like "Sea and Sand" and "Love Reign O'er Me", but most of the songs manage to sound both half-baked and overwrought at the same time. John Entwistle's bass playing drifts aimlessly, while Keith Moon fails to find his groove on should-be-great rockers like "5:15" and "The Punk Meets The Godfather". Roger Daltrey's voice is rough, and is badly mixed. Conceptually, Townshend tries for the same unity of melody and meaning -- the ambitious idea that each of the four members of the Who have a repeating musical theme -- that he achieved with "Tommy", but he just doesn't come up with the goods. In what way does the gaudy theme to "Is It Me" represent John Entwistle? In what way does the flat, wooden theme to "Helpless Dancer" represent Roger Daltrey? Townshend saves the best theme -- "Love Reign O'er Me" -- for himself ... and then he smothers the whole thing in schmaltzy symphonic arrangements using horns, synthesizers, string instruments (why on earth does a Who album need symphonic strings?). Even the Pink Floyd-esque sound effects recorded on the beach fail to compel in any interesting way.

Townshend admits as much in the memoir -- pointing out that, unlike "Tommy", the recording process for "Quadrophenia" was dominated by strife and disagreement, and that in the tour that followed they found themselves unable to make "Quadrophenia" work on stage. It's easy to see why -- it's an exhaustingly heavy and over-ambitious work, whereas "Tommy" has a casual, light touch, and conveys a fresh feeling of musical simplicity.

Okay, now that I've thoroughly trashed the record, I do want to say that I actually like "Quadrophenia" a lot. It's a nearly Salinger-esque work of classic rock literature, and a few of the songs are among the Who's best. But, "Quadrophenia" is no "Tommy". Maybe some of you "Quadrophenia" fans need to give the earlier album a fresh spin? Just listen to those chords.

by Michael.Norris on

I agree on the assessment of Tommy - a friend of mine and I listened to it night after night in college. I still throw it on from time to time. When I lived in Paris I listened to it a lot. Quadrophenia not so much. There is some great stuff in there, but it didn't gel quite like Tommy.

That being said, I want to talk about what I consider Townshend and the Who's best stuff - the albums My Generation, Happy Jack and The Who Sell Out. First of all My Generation has two stone classics on it - My Generation and The Kids are Allright. The James Brown stuff is ok, but for me the best part is how the Who were able to get such a full sound from three instruments and a lead singer. As the member of a four-piece garage band at the time, I constantly listened to this record to find ways to make 3 instruments and a lead vocal sound great.

Happy Jack has the title tune, as well as A Quick One While He's Away. Both brilliant. Then Sell Out has Armenia, another mini-opera and Mary Ann with the Shaky Hands. Mary Ann, along with Subsititute, I Can't Explain, Pictures of Lily, I Can See for Miles and Call Me Lightnin are classic Who songs before the opera period and the transcendence of the Who's Next era.

Listen to these tunes again, if you can. Townshend (along with Ray Davies) was a master of the three minute pop tune. Davies was the more urbane raconteur, but Townshend was an unparalleled wordsmith, and the musical arrangements on these songs are just brilliant. The way Townshend is able to channel the fury of Keith Moon into 3 minute tunes is unparalelled. Sure, there is some weird Entwhistle stuff on Happy Jack for example, but who cares? For my money the early Pete Townshend was the best singles man in the game. That he was able to put together something like Tommy is a true testament to his genius. It would be nice if he could do a really great late period piece...

by Kevin on

For the record (there is one?), I love them both. "Quadrophenia" really expands on the teen angst angle introduced in "I Can't Explain"...in a lot of ways Green Day's "American Idiot" is similar thematically. I think some of your criticisms of it though are based more on the inadequacy of the group as a whole at that time...Moon was well past his best days as a drummer (and Moon had trouble performing in general at that point). Would "Quadrophenia" been better if it performed by The Who in 1968? Of course. But it wasn't. So...there's that.

And "The Real Me" is a brilliant song. Aside from "Who Are You", it might be the last real rocker the original Who created. Entwistle, playing lead on the song, is at his acrobatic, creative best, with Townshend slashing away, Moon rumbling along in the background and Daltrey in top growling form.

Re: Tommy, I'd add "Christmas" to the list of great songs.

But I'm willing to amend my standings to: 1) Who's Next, 2) (tie) Tommy/Quadrophenia.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the responses. Well, as a bass guitarist, I am also an admirer of John Entwistle's solo on "The Real Me" -- but I can't help comparing it to his solo on "My Generation" (which it was obviously trying to equal) and thinking that it doesn't quite live up to its ambition. I also think "Dreaming From The Waist" is a better showcase number for Entwistle's amazing bass skills. But, again, I don't fault the Who's ambition for this song, or for "Quadrophenia" as a whole. I just think that when people gush over "Quadrophenia", they must be gushing over the album the Who tried to make rather than the album they actually made. Whereas "Tommy" is a fully realized work -- the actual listening experience seems to be as good a representation of the written material as could possibly be imagined -- maybe even better.

Michael, I also like those early albums, though the truth is I haven't even mentioned what I think is the best sounding Who album of all ... of course, "Live at Leeds"! Maybe we can all agree about that one ... (or, more likely, maybe not).

by Kevin on

Oh yeah, the live version of "Dreaming from the Waist" on the expanded "By Numbers" album is Entwistle at his best. And, as one of the dudes from Oasis said, Entwistle's bass solo from "My Generation" should be on his tombstone.

Agreed: "Live at Leeds" is the definitely the best sounding Who album.

by Michael.Norris on

Live at Leeds is awesome!

by Drew on

He "bought child porn" as "research" - I guess he means research in the same way that the Japanese kill whales for "research"?
As Jimmy Saville and countless others have shown - there is one law for pedophiles and another law for famous pedophiles.

by Kevin on

Just to clarify, he didn't buy child porn: he logged into a child porn site using a major credit card (which he quickly cancelled) to show that the banks were complicit in a way.

by Gary Gillman on

Levi, with respect to Quadrophenia vs. Tommy, I fully agree with your comments, with the partial caveat mentioned below. First, the sound of Quadrophenia is muddy and subsequent re-mixes didn't really change things. It was recorded in a studio being built at the same, Ramport, and also, I understand the guitars were not miced from studio amplifier cabs but were put straight through the mixing board. Even on the rockers, the guitars sound pallid, and even the few power chord sequences were often obscured by synths or sound effects (e.g. the crowd cheers on Punk and Godfather which later mixes thankfully removed). Moon's and John's playing was exemplary but without matching heavy guitars the balance was off - and this was coming after two of the greatest guitar albums in rock history, Live At Leeds and Who's Next. Finally, as you noted, Daltrey's vocals were oddly rough, more like his live style, and often missing high notes. There is no comparison to the carefully produced vocals of Tommy and the excellent-sounding guitars both acoustic and electric.

Quad could have been a much greater album than it was and the proof is - in Pete's demos! This is the caveat. The full demos were released last year as part of a luxury box set of Quadrophenia, called The Director's Cut. The sound is pristine and the record has much more unity and thematic clarity than The Who's version, i.e. even though Pete sang all the vocals and played all the instruments (except some drums for some later overdubs). Some of the songs show a subtlety of playing or style not evident on the 1973 Quadrophenia, e.g. a couple of songs have a Latin rhythmic quality, and the guitars on Is It In My Head are Who's Next in production quality. You can hear some of these demos on youtube but there is no substitute for the CD rendition of sound. Pete mixed all of it - his hearing is still good enough for that - but he got some help from engineers to ensure the high end was covered.

Finally, the Who's current tour delivers a fine version of Quadrophenia. They are still out there I believe this season in the northeast and you need to catch the show if you haven't see it. That and the demos provided, or did for me, what Quadrophenia never delivered in '73.

As for By Numbers and Who Are You, it was a downhill slide IMO. Oddly perhaps, I like the last two albums (with Kenney Jones) much more.

Gary

by Levi Asher on

I like these points, Gary, thanks. But, along with the recording/environmental problems with 'Quadrophenia', can't we also blame the songwriter a little bit? As I wrote above, the lyrics are awesome, but it just seems to me that the melodies and chord structures are weak. Or, to put it more charitably, it seems to me that the melodies and chord structures for 'Tommy' were amazingly good. Pete Townshend can't be expected to find gold like that every time he digs.

I'm surprised that not many people seem to agree with me that 'Who By Numbers' was a good album! I think at least three songs -- "How Many Friends", "They Are All In Love" and "In A Hand Or A Face" -- are up there with the best of the Who's work.

Anyway, it's always fun to share impressions with other rabid Who fans like me ...

by Gary Gillman on

Thanks Levi and you are right about the melodies, they aren't as good as on Tommy. Still, so much depends on production and mixing. A lot of the songs are good but simply too long for example. There shouldn't have been any horns on The Real Me: they ruined the song for me even though they "made" Overture on Tommy. You can't hear Pete's Les Paul properly on that tune either and his playing could be better (it is somewhat repetitive). The Real Me as performed on the current tour is one of the standouts of the show, even sans John.

Who By Numbers is interesting but the playing sounds lax to me, e.g. I get bored when Slip Kid (apparently a tribute to Carlos Santana) breaks down at parts and one should never be bored listening to The Who. Same thing with Townshend's solo song, Slit Skirts, say. As time went on, the sure editing hand (to use a literary term) faded, perhaps because Kit Lambert was no longer on the scene.

Good posting by the way about The Small Faces (and Ian McLagan), the premature demise of Steve Marriott is one of the great losses to rock music.

Gary

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