BOOK REVIEWS: Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am”

Pete Townshend We know Who came first. We knew Who’s Next. The answer is pending on Who are you, but for guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Pete Townshend, the band’s creative core and source of creativity, the question of who he is has always been discussed. In his own words, Townshend finally covers a lot of what people have wanted to know about him in his autobiography, Who I Am (Harper).

It is an autobiography that, for Townshend at least, was 46 years in the making, for he had wanted to write a book about his thoughts and himself at the age of 21. That doesn’t compare to what he has experienced in his 67 years of living, but he has managed to put them to words in a way that at times is as rough as the actual life he went through. He covers his childhood quite extensively because much of what he did in his youth pretty much inspired and lead to The Who’s greatest musical successes. From being a British child born in the ashes of World War II with a jazz musician for a father and a singer for a mother, and a grandmother whose male friends abused him as a child, the good and bad would lead to Townshend using music as a source of inspiration, a means of escape, and of course therapy. Beginning with the harmonica, that would lead to him taking up the banjo until he heard guitarist Steve Cropper in Booker T. & The MG’s “Green Onions”. That would change his life forever.

In his public persona and in previous interviews, Townshend has sometimes come off as an over-confident achiever, but one who worked a hell of a lot to get the job done. He states that that comes from having low self-esteem but that lead him to concentrate and work harder on what he loved best. Who I Am covers his early days as a guitarist in bands before meeting up with those that would lead to the creation of The Who.

While the story of The Who has often been from a group perspective, or at least an outsider’s view of the function of the band, the book is all Townshend. While he does play with the ego, he allows himself to reveal himself in a way that shows that while the public knows what he has revealed, there’s still a private side that remains private, one of a business man who has met with success and failures, but one who is willing to share the inner stories and secrets that he had always kept to himself, including his working relationship with Roger Daltrey. While the confidence may get in the way for some, I found it to be incredibly honest and genuine, and within that he opens himself to showing someone who knows of his strengths and weaknesses, and how those weaknesses have often been kept out of the mythology of The Who, which is the whole point of Who I Am.

You do get some Who stories, but Townshend touches on friendships that are both musical and otherwise, and how all of them fit into his life. He gets into some of the drugs and drinking, and eventually overcoming them. In that period where there was no music or concerts from The Who, he talks about him dealing with himself, finding a bit of normalcy that perhaps he had missed (and maybe to a degree, avoided) in the early days of the band. He had children, he had homes, and he discovered a love of boating that would get him to simplifying his life as he got older. His relationship with his wife is explored from first glance to their divorce, and eventually meeting with the lady who has now become his life partner.

On the creative side, I had always been interested in the recording studios he has had over the years, being fascinated with making music and technology, and working beyond the limits of the equipment at the time. My favorite Townshend album is his 1983 record dedicated to early demos and rough versions called Scoop, so I found the information in Who I Am to be as interesting as the liner notes in his Scoop series of albums. He also opens up a few pages from his diary to get into how he felt early on that there would be a time when music would be digitized and everything will be accessible via phone lines, and how some of the ideas he had along similar lines seemed to be laughed at, all of which are now part of the norm.

I had come across one review which stated that Who I Am is an egotistical book that seems to be Townshend boosting his own ego more than anything, and that the topics jumped around from one to another without a sense of continuity. As the man who created Tommy, Quadrophenia, and White City: A Novel, I highly doubt continuity is an issue for him. I found the book to be very easy to navigate through, and while there may have been section where he’ll go from, let’s say, 1972 and jump into the 1980’s before going back to 1972, there’s a reason for it. As for egos, this is his autobiography after all. Sure, there are times when he does pat himself on the back, but rightfully so, and all of them are overshadowed by the bigger picture of a man who has dealt with a lot of crap throughout his life, and has primarily done so through his songs. The fact that he covers the therapy sessions he has been through allows the reader to go deeper if they want, and all of those things help to create a much better of who Townshend is. You really wanted to know? Now he tells you, without hesitation, Who the fuck he is.

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