I’ve never been a big fan of Pete Townshend or The Who although I do appreciate most of their hits and of course, Tommy, but I thought that Townshend’s memoirs would be pretty interesting. However, although he’s a brilliant artist, Townshend is not an easy man to like. He comes off as a manic-depressive, self-absorbed, adulterous prick most of the time, but once in a while he can actually make you feel sorry for him as he is brutally honest, even about his own short-comings. This is a man who loves the sound of his own voice.
Surprisingly, Who I Am is a sober, humourless, 500+ page confessional of Pete Townshend’s experiences. It focuses more on his songwriting than guitar playing, even though he’s been given the honour of being No. 10 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Not one of the greatest vocalists or collaborators of all time, Townshend is an emotionally stultified loner. He couldn’t manage co-writing because it’s out of his emotional range. At the height of The Who’s popularity in 1970, he couldn’t really enjoy himself, and instead “felt ashamed about being an adulterer, and oddly guilty about my professional success.” So let’s find out why.
Born May 19, 1945 in West London, neither Pete’s maternal grandparents nor his parents were positive role models. His father Clifford played in a swing band and his mum performed with him as a vocalist for a while. Pete’s early years were happily spent in the company of his best buddy “Jimpy” but in 1951, Pete was sent to live with his mentally disturbed maternal grandmother, Denny, for a year. Denny, who left her husband of 11 years for a wealthy man who kept her as his mistress, possessed “Victorian domestic notions”, and was often cruel and neglected Pete when she busy with her own affairs. Pete suffered both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother, while his mother Betty was off having an affair on his father. She had 5 self-induced abortions before ending her affair and reuniting with Cliff and also battled the bottle for many years. Pete says this was the darkest part of his life and it will likely take him the rest of it to try to find closure on the abuse he suffered as a six and seven year old boy. For that, I truly feel sorry for him.
Pete’s parents did eventually reunite which resulted in the birth of Pete’s brothers Paul and Simon who were born over 15 years after him and whom he barely mentions.
He does go over all the facts about The Who’s career but we don’t end up knowing much about his true relationship with the guys, other than he revealed that John and Keith were very close and as long as he let Roger have his way when it came to The Who, everything was fine.
Pete started his musical career by playing harmonica and then took up banjo and guitar. He went to school with John Entwistle and his first band with him was called The Confederates. Roger Daltrey also knew John and asked him and Pete to join his party band, The Detours, in early 1962. The Detours supported The Rolling Stones a couple of times in late ’63/early ’64, as well as The Kinks. When Entwistle found out that another band had the same name, the band became The Who on Valentine’s Day 1964. Pete was only 18 when the original line-up was formed: Townshend, Daltry, Entwistle and Doug Sandom on drums, soon to be replaced by Keith Moon.
After four years of attending Ealing Art College and playing lots of shows at the same time, an exhausted Townshend dropped out of school.
For those of you who don’t know, The Who’s style and image was influenced by Pete’s art school studies and The Mod movement, which was “based on trendsetting fashion statements and dance moves.” Pete, who was friends with Jim Marshall, the inventor of the Marshall stack, was possibly the first person to create the Marshall wall of sound (feedback) which became The Who’s trademark. They also claim to be “the first stage act in the world to employ high-powered lasers for dramatic lighting effects.”
Tommy (1969) was The Who’s masterpiece although Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia were almost as impressive. A rock opera about a deaf, dumb & blind pinball wizard who exists in a world of vibrations, has been reincarnated as a movie and various successful stage productions over the years, and along with the band’s constant touring has kept Townshend in luxurious houses, studios and boats.
Looking for a spiritual connection, Pete became interested in the teachings of Meher Baba whom he followed for many years, but it isn’t apparent that he actually learned anything meaningful from him.
Townshend recounts The Who’s illustrious sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll history but says little about the deaths of Moon and Entwistle except to state that they occurred. He had no way of processing or dealing with his grief and comes off as a man with a significant personality disorder. By the time The Who Sell Out was released, Pete was already going deaf, was in a perpetually foul mood, and Roger was unhappy on stage too. Pete felt that as a performance artist he was undervalued and that his performances were being misread: “I wanted to be serious about what I did, and wanted my work – including smashing guitars in concert – to be regarded as part of a passionate commitment to an evolving stagecraft.”
Though fairly pretentious about his craft, Pete was shy and awkward with girls and didn’t have sex until he was in college. He addresses his bisexuality and states that he “suffered from a deep sexual shame” over his dealings with Denny, although he’d “managed to push the details out of memory’s reach.” Townshend coped with his shame over the years with drugs and alcohol, although booze proved to be the heavier monkey on his back.
He married his long time girlfriend Karen Astley on May 20, 1968 and together they had three children, Emma, Minta and many years later, after several separations, Joseph. While Pete mentions his children, he doesn’t devote any time to describing his relationship with his daughters and it was obvious that Karen did most of the parenting as he was a workaholic who could rarely relax. “I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devlish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn’t give a toss for fatherhood – he needed freedom.” Pete and Karen finally ended their 25+ year marriage in the mid-nineties (they didn’t divorce until 2009) and Townshend has been with Rachel Fuller ever since.
While not touring with The Who, Townshend has worked as a solo artist, producer, writer, editor at Faber & Faber, and a philanthropist, and he introduces us to those who were the most influential in his life (including friend Richard “Barney” Barnes, managers Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp, and various paramours including Louise Reay & Lisa Marsh) while name dropping many of his famous friends and acquaintances, none of whom he appears to have a very close friendship with. He discusses his Lifehouse, Psychoderelict & Iron Man (a.k.a. Iron Giant) projects at length – which sections were frankly, pretty boring – and also comes clean about his conviction as a sex offender and the events that led up to it because he naively clicked on a child pornography site while doing research for ways to help young boys in Russian orphanages.
Pete Townshend is a truly complex figure who has made a significant impact on rock ‘n’ roll history, and while I admire his candidness in Who I Am, I’m still not a fan of the man.