Pete Townshend’s been known to shoot himself in the foot when it comes to dealing with the press. So now, after ten years in the making, The Who guitarist sets the record straight in the autobiography Who Am I (Harper, 544 pp.)
Divided into three “acts,” Townshend walks us through his childhood and teen years in and around postwar Chiswick, London. The obligatory introduction establishes the mood—and a number of themes—with Pete’s recollection of the first Who concert at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, in June 1964. There, Townshend channeled his primal Rickenbacker guitar feedback into music before thrusting his instrument through the ceiling panels. He turned the accident into part of the show, making history from the word go (and starting the long trail of broken instruments in his wake).
Pete dishes on his upbringing in a peculiar—if not dysfunctional—home wherein his musician parents (Horace “Horry” and Dorothy “Dot”) foisted him upon his aunt and goofy grandmother, Denny, so they could keep gigging in their Piccadilly / jazz group, The Squadronaires. Mum eventually left the group to reclaim Pete, but was constantly distracted by other suitors. Meanwhile, Grandma Denny’s nocturnal activities resulted in psychic scars that took Townshend years of therapy to address. Maltreatment at the hands of so-called caretakers at Silverdale Nursery and Beacon House School only exacerbated the problem. Toss in some shower voyeurism by a pair of Sea Scout supervisors, and you’ve got all the makings of a rock ‘n’ roll basket case.
Fortunately, despite these issues and concomitant substance abuse (that would ultimately necessitate an adrenaline shot to the chest), Townshend positioned himself not only as one of rock’s most exciting guitarists but also as an intellectual and preeminent spokesman on music-making as a craft.
Inspired by his sax-playing pops—along with Chuck Berry and Bill Haley (and by Saturday matinee stars like Roy Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Charlie Chaplin)—young Townshend (now at Berrymeade Junior School) was immediately drawn to sound and started early on his quest to capture or recreate the “music of the spheres” he perceived emanating in and around bodies of water. When not playing with pal Jimpy or his train-dodging cocker spaniel, Bruce, he dabbled on piano at his Aunt Trilby’s and noodled on a cheap Czech guitar his grandmother bought off a restaurant wall. When his parents reconciled and opened a secondhand shop, Miscellanea, Pete was able to experiment on mandolin and banjo, too.
Townshend forged a lifelong friendship with bassist John Entwistle while taking classes at Ealing Art College. The chums had a marching band before teaming with sheet metal worker Roger Daltry (who’d been expelled from school for smoking) in a more conventional rock outfit called The Detours. Entwistle encouraged Pete’s guitar hysterics and left-field songwriting while playing stoic rhythm man onstage at places like Alexis Korner’s Ealing Club—where they crossed paths with The Rolling Stones and other future rock dignitaries. Townshend says the first song he mastered was Booker T & The M.G.s’s “Green Onions,” which featured nimble guitar work courtesy Steve Cropper. He also mentions buying equipment from guitar sensation John McLaughlin at Selmer’s Music Shop and helping develop amplification systems with Jim Marshall—who would soon invent the “Marshall stack” head / cabinet arrangement so ubiquitous in hard rock today.
With the prospect of nuclear annihilation (Cuban missile crisis) in mind, and with the clash between fashion-conscious, dance-happy Mods and machismo Rockers looming in the background, The Detours became The Who (still using Pete’s arrow-through-the-O logo)—a sort of thinking man’s rock ensemble. Helmut Gordon settled in as manager, with Andrew Oldham protégée Peter Meaden acting as publicist. Singer Colin Dawson moved on, allowing Daltry to step up, and drummer Doug Sandom was jettisoned (rather unfairly, Townshend admits) in favor of a stickman with larger stage presence. After a round of auditions (that included a tryout by Mitch Mitchell) Keith Moon was selected as the fourth Who member. Aspiring filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp soon stepped in, nudging Gordon aside, to assume control of Who destiny.
Townshend spares no details on the band’s early struggles in a Merseybeat scene dominated by The Beatles and The Kinks. Residencies at The Marquee and The Goldhawk won the band a loyal following that wouldn’t be satisfied until The Who appeared on programs like Top of the Pops along with the other musical mop-heads of the day. Pete lived in an apartment in Chelsea near the Thames, where he cultivates a love of boating. He talked amps with Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, and cohabitated with girlfriend (and future wife) Karen Astley. He nearly signed away control of the band to Machiavellian New York accountant-turned-promoter Allen Klein, whose mismanagement bungled The Beatles’ and Stones’ fortunes. The Who’s first trip to the United States landed the quartet near the bottom of a day-long festival hosted by radio personality Murray the K, but the jaunt allowed them to meet more of their blues idols.
Pete acquired new guitars all the time—Ricks, Danelectros, and Harmonies—only to ruin most of them during the “auto-destruct” portions of his loud, aggressive shows (he cites artist Gustav Metzger as his mentor in this regard). Behind the scenes, roadie Mike Shaw is paralyzed in a van crash and Townshend begins self-medicating fordepression and anxiety with pills and drink. At the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, a coin toss determines whether The Who goes on before on or after Jimi Hendrix. Townshend has an acid-inspired out-of-body experience on an airplane and hears the voice of God in a hotel in Illinois. Moon began engaging in the bad-boy behavior that saw TV sets thrown into parking lots and cars driven into swimming pools (his explosive drumming on The Smothers Brothers Show triggered Pete’s hearing loss). Entwistle becomes Moon’s partner in crime, leaving Pete to his love / hate partnership with the sometimes off-putting Daltry.
Townshend dissects every Who album and most of his hits, explaining how, when and where the ideas for the music and lyrics came to him. He acknowledges, for example, that the groove for “I Can’t Explain” was heavily influenced by The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and that Daltry’s signature stutter in “My Generation” was modeled on b-b-b-bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. Later, Pete incorporates the spiritual teachings of Indian mystic Meher Baba into Who songs and album concepts (Tommy, Quadrophenia, Lifehouse). He admits shoehorning “Pinball Wizard” into Tommy after hearing about teenage pinball sensation Arfur while polishing his debut rock opera (about a boy who goes deaf, dumb and blind after a childhood trauma, becoming a sort of godhead for others).
Townshend shares good times with buddies like production manager John “Wiggy” Wolf, keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick,” and roommate Richard “Barney” Barnes—but he’s also frank about his inability to cope with domestic life with Karen and new daughter Emma at the end of the Sixties. He’s duped into leaving home for Woodstock, where he slugs Abbie Hoffman with his guitar and observes a concertgoer get electrocuted on a pole (elsewhere, he kicks a cop in the privates). Compelled by music (and by internal forces he still doesn’t quite comprehend), Pete stocks his houses (and boats) with recording equipment. Gaps between proper Who releases (Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, The Who By Numbers, Who Are You) get longer as he workshops material like “Baba O’Riley,” “Bargain,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”) in order to include the latest technology without compromising artistic intent. By the late 70’s, Townshend’s domiciles (and houseboats) would be overrun by the Fairlight synthesizer, Synclavier, and other new-fangled digital toys with which he’d lay pulsating bedrock for tracks like “Eminence Front” and “You Better You Bet.”
There’s an ugly split with Kit Lambert, arguments with Roger, requisite stints in rehab, drying out and de-toxing, and confessions regarding Pete’s quasi-bisexual lifestyle. The “Desperate Man” seeks solace in Baba, boats, and more songwriting in the mid-late Seventies—but tragedy strikes when Moony overdoses in 1978. Peter and Roger decide to soldier on with Kenney Jones on drums, merging pop, prog, and punk for Face Dances and It’s Hard. Townshend also dabbled in the book business, taking a side gig at Faber and Faber and launching Eel Pie Publishing before easing into a solo career.
The guitarist gets way deep discussing the concepts behind Tommy, Quadrophenia, and epic solo works like the dystopian Lifehouse and urban drama White City, but he’s never boring. It’s as if Pete has swapped his shrink for fan-readers, who are invited to listen in and he mulls over the random thoughts and pointed epiphanies that compelled him to funnel his stress, addictions, and memories (some repressed) into sweeping, grandiose new tunes. He enjoys minor success with Empty Glass (“Rough Boys, “Let My Love Open the Door”) and jamming in side band The Deep End (with Dave Gilmour and Simon Phillips) but is flummoxed by the inception, creation, and marketing of personal works like Psychoderelict and Iron Man, whose themes go over most listeners’ heads (Iron Man would evolve into the acclaimed Brad Bird animate feature The Iron Giant).
The rock keeps rolling even after it seems it’s all over for the arena stalwarts. Townsend has a metal plate put in his hand after impaling himself on a guitar vibrato bar, and his knees and spine take a pounding after years of strenuous stage work. He calls it quits with wife Karen but maintains close ties with her and their three children while developing a relationship with Rachel Fuller, who helps arrange his Lifehouse Chronicles project. He cofounds charities for autistic and abused children and becomes one of rock’s elder philanthropists—only to be hoodwinked by a nonexistent Russian orphanage. He’s one of the first well-known musicians to embrace the Internet as a means of communication and file-sharing and publishes both a blog and a cyber-novel (The Boy Who Heard Music).
But Pete’s zeal gets the better of him while researching the scope of child exploitation online. Townshend explains that his 2003 bust by British police as part of Operation Ore was largely a misunderstanding. He concedes using a credit card to view the homepage of an inappropriate website in order to better understand the problem—and his own past. He cancelled the charges immediately, but soon realized he’d set about doing something right in the wrong (and not very legal) way, and that the authorities would be wise.
Who I Am brings Townshend full circle, mentioning the many Who reunions (25th Anniversary, Super Bowl, Olympics, etc.), benefit shows (Concert for NYC, Live-8, etc.), and Rock Hall of Fame induction. Bassist Pino Palladino is recruited for mini-tours following Entwistle’s 2002 death and appears (along with Pete’s brother Simon) on the band’s first album in a quarter-century, Endless Wire.
It’s a solid read, and while it’s easy to become lost among Townshend’s numerous addresses (and watercraft), the author sustains interest with his passion for the music and its show biz peripherals (stage sets, lightning, graphics, publishing, etc.). Few names in rock have made as bold an impact on music—and across as many platforms—as Townshend, whose candid tell-all we may add to his other accomplishments (theater, rock opera, engineering, editing, production, etc.). One can only hope the kids of this and subsequent generations will likewise be “all right” and care as much for their art and its presentation as Pete minded his, tiptoeing precariously across that spider’s strand between creativity and marketability.
The book also features an appendix, two photo sections (8 pages each), and—rather astoundingly—the contents of an unopened Who fan letter from forty years ago.