Magazine | December 31, 2012, Issue

Behind the Music

Who I Am: A Memoir, by Pete Townshend (Harper, 544 pp., $32.50)

The inner flap of the dust jacket says it all: “Pete Townshend has some explaining to do.”

Indeed. He needs to explain, in no particular order, why he smashed hundreds of beautiful guitars during performances with his band, The Who, in the 1960s and ’70s; why he penned all those convoluted “rock operas” that no one understands; and why, in 2003, he was arrested on suspicion of having used his credit card to access a website containing child pornography.

In his newly released autobiography, the legendary guitarist acquits himself on all charges (though I fear he may still have to answer to a higher power on the guitar-smashing). The fact that he does so in nimble prose should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career, for Townshend led a triple life as rock star, acquisitions editor for London publisher Faber and Faber, and occasional author of essays and short fiction (the latter collected in the book Horse’s Neck in 1985). By virtue of style alone, Who I Am sidles up alongside Bob Dylan’s Chronicles at the very top of the rock-memoir pile.

But the book has more to recommend it than just literary finesse. There is a fascinating tension throughout as Townshend grapples with the implications of his status as one of the iconic figures in rock-music history — a status he seems to find slightly embarrassing. The son of a successful big-band musician, Pete watched as the guitar-driven style of his music rendered his father’s obsolete: a turn of events he did not entirely welcome. “I had very clear musical taste that was more balanced than that of most of those around me,” he writes. “I was impressed by the new trends in commercial music, but not overcome. Elvis was OK, but he was no Sinatra. Connie Francis had an erotic kittenishness but was nothing compared to Ella.”

This expansive palette eventually inspired him to buck the confines of his genre and, for better or worse, branch out into quasi-opera and other experimental forms. But initially, he and his bandmates crashed onto the scene with a loud, antagonistic style that many in his parents’ generation viewed as nihilistic. “I wasn’t trying to make beautiful music,” he concedes. “I was confronting my audience with the awful, visceral sounds of what we all knew was the single absolute of our frail existence — one day an aeroplane would carry the bomb that would destroy us all in a flash. It could happen at any time. The Cuban Crisis less than two years before had proved that.” Here then is the explanation, though not necessarily the justification, for the instrument-smashing.

Interestingly, aside from his harboring a fear of world powers’ annihilating one another, Townshend has remained resolutely apolitical throughout his career. He has, over the years, supported individual causes (such as Amnesty International), but his lyrics reveal a deep cynicism toward the political process, perhaps best exemplified in his oft-quoted line from the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” At the end of Who I Am, he finally “outs” himself as a socialist, but he does so with the befuddlement of someone struggling into an oversized parka: Yes, here are two sleeves and a place for the head to poke through, but it’s an imperfect fit. More pertinent to his interests is the schism that opened in the wake of 1960s rebellion: “Youth movements were dividing and polarizing into two camps — political activists and spiritual seekers,” he writes, “and I saw myself in the latter.” Spiritual — rather than worldly — concerns served as the chief catalyst for his lyrics from 1968 onward.

Here we arrive at one of the major weaknesses of Who I Am: its failure to adequately articulate Townshend’s metaphysical vision. Granted, the skirting of this topic was probably an editorial choice: It’s likely, in the whittling down of the original 1,000-page manuscript, that any religious pontification was left on the cutting-room floor, since most readers are presumably more interested in the author’s rock-’n’-roll antics than in his views on the nature of existence. But because Townshend’s beliefs are so idiosyncratic, and because they inform so much of his writing, a more thorough explication would have made for a more satisfying portrait. This much we know: Although raised in an Anglican household, Townshend became a devotee of Indian guru Meher Baba and remains one to this day — though the intensity of his ardor has waxed and waned over the years. Baba espoused a syncretic cosmology in which Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed were all “avatars”: perfect masters who had attained “God-realization.” The title of Baba’s “autobiographical” book God Speaks makes it clear that the guru considered himself the latest in this line.

#page#Whatever one may think of all this, adherence to Baba’s teachings — particularly the prohibition of drug use — did keep The Who’s guitarist relatively grounded during a period in which hedonism and chaos surrounded him on all sides. This afforded him a uniquely detached perspective. Indeed, readers who have grown accustomed to the priapic braggadocio of other rock biographies (see recent entries by Rod Stewart and Gregg Allman) will probably be surprised by Townshend’s conflicted take on The Who’s storied on-the-road excesses. Of one infamous incident instigated by drummer Keith Moon, which involved driving a Lincoln Continental into a hotel swimming pool, he writes, “How amusing it has been to spend my life pretending it was amusing. In truth, this day was unpleasant for me.”

The aloofness was not to last. Around the time of Moon’s death from an overdose in 1978, Townshend did finally give in to the twin temptations of hard drugs and available women: a surrender that had disastrous consequences both for his health and for his personal life. Not surprisingly, a tone of deep melancholy pervades the final third of Who I Am. Of his infidelities, which ultimately contributed to the demise of his longstanding marriage, Townshend writes from the perspective of someone who has logged hundreds of hours on the therapist’s couch. While it’s a compellingly tawdry read, there’s nothing in his revelations that was not already articulated in The Who’s “Imagine a Man”: “Imagine a man / not a child of any revolt / but a plain man tied up in life / Imagine the sand / running out as he struts / parading and fading, ignoring his wife.”

The book reaches its climax with a pair of chapters — “Black Days, White Knights” and “Trilby’s Piano” — that confront the elephant in the room: the 2003 arrest. The details of this incident are convoluted, but the gist is that Townshend was apprehended as part of a computer-crime sting called “Operation Ore.” His defense — then and now — is that he had accessed the illegal site in the process of conducting “research” for an essay or book project addressing the shadowy world of Internet porn. As preposterous as that sounds, Townshend had published just such an essay, titled “A Different Bomb,” a year prior to his arrest. In it, he described how he initially came across some extreme images by accident and became incensed at the idea of pornographers’ openly profiting from this material. It’s a confused, manic piece of writing that reads more like the product of an obsessed and somewhat troubled crusader than that of a Jerry Sandusky–type abuser. The police concurred in this view — bolstered by the fact that they found nothing incriminating anywhere on his property. They knew from past experience that pedophiles gain pleasure, not anxiety, from images of child abuse and almost always keep a “stash.” All Townshend had in that regard were his anti-porn screeds. Ultimately he was issued a caution.

There’s no getting around the fact that the story of this arrest makes for a pretty downbeat, and singularly un-rock-’n’-roll, ending to an already somber book. That’s just as well, since one of the primary purposes of Who I Am seems to be to demythologize the celebrity life. While Townshend remains justly proud of his creative output with The Who, he rues the wreckage that accompanied it. As he said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “I tend to use my defects and vulnerabilities to provide reflective catharsis for my audience — and in the process, I’ve become exposed. My ex-wife would much prefer that I’d never, ever said anything or written a single song.”

She would probably prefer he hadn’t written this book either. Nevertheless,Who I Am allows Townshend to define himself on his own terms, and reinjects some of the old magic into a body of work that has become overexposed as the soundtrack to the CSI franchise. Reading about the genesis of that material, we are reminded of both its intrinsic power and the seismic impact it had on the society upon which it was unleashed. The ascent of The Who, after all, signaled the end of peace-and-love idealism and ushered in a worldview that was simultaneously more cynical and more yearning. Now the very capable architect of that music has produced this impressive self-portrait. Many years ago he hoped out loud he’d die before he got old. It is to our great benefit that his wish was thwarted.

– Mr. Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.

Robert Dean Lurie — Mr. Lurie is the author of the forthcoming book Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Good Ol’ Tip

At the end of November, the House voted to name a building after Tip O’Neill — a building on Capitol Hill. John Boehner, the Republican chief, called O’Neill “a giant ...
Politics & Policy

Glorious Decline

One of the defining characteristics of the modern European liberal intellectual is cultural and even racial self-hatred: and nowhere is this self-hatred stronger than in England. Such self-hatred has become ...


Politics & Policy

The New Wisconsin

Michigan became a right-to-work state so swiftly that the Detroit Free Press couldn’t settle on a cliché to describe it: The legislation “moved like greased lightning,” wrote its reporters on ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

The Real Cliff

One way of looking at the 2012 election is that Mitt Romney provided the most persuasive explanation for his defeat — six months before the voting. A surreptitious recording at ...
Politics & Policy

A Fizzy Bundle

Greg Gutfeld, host of Fox News’s sneaky, funny late-night show Red Eye, and co-host of its afternoon smash hit The Five, is an angry dwarf. His words, not mine. But the ...
Politics & Policy

Gadfly of the Arts

She’s a fast-talking gadfly-hipster, an iconoclastic critic of the cultural world, amusing, perceptive, and (occasionally) infuriating; sometimes glib, but seldom dull. Despite her dogmatic pronouncements, she’s a sort of intellectual ...
Politics & Policy

A Swollen Hobbit

The good news first: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, part one of the long-gestating trilogy of prequels to Peter Jackson’s astonishingly good Lord of the Rings, is not a failure, ...


Politics & Policy


Saved, Not Abandoned “The Week” is a favorite part of my week. Thank you for it! But a point of clarification is needed for a paragraph from the December 17 issue, which ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ 2016 campaign slogan: Bin Laden is dead, AIG is alive! ‐ News of the passing of Judge Robert H. Bork, a National Review contributing editor, arrived as we were finishing ...

Comrade Stone

The Showtime series Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is like The Donner Party’s Christmas Cookbook — the title alone is sufficient warning. Some critics have objected to ...
The Long View

Bestseller Excerpts

From The Republican Brain Trust: The Untold Story, by Bob Woodward Publication Date: December 1, 2016 Page 23: . . . very deep in the building, below even what the blueprints of the structure itself ...
Happy Warrior

Beautiful, Please Hurry

Some years ago, my late BBC comrade Alistair Cooke took a young friend to New York’s famous Plaza Hotel, where a pianist was gaily tinkling. As Alistair enthused about each ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Sinking Collusion Ship

The entire Trump-Russia collusion narrative was always implausible. One, the Washington swamp of fixers such as Paul Manafort and John and Tony Podesta was mostly bipartisan and predated Trump. Two, the Trump administration’s Russia policies were far tougher on Vladimir Putin than were those of Barack ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Problem with Certainty

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays. Dear Reader (Including those of you having this read to you while you white-knuckle the steering wheel trying to get to wherever you’re going for the ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Worst Cover-Up of All Time

President Donald Trump may be guilty of many things, but a cover-up in the Mueller probe isn’t one of them. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, attempting to appease forces in the Democratic party eager for impeachment, is accusing him of one, with all the familiar Watergate connotations. The charge is strange, ... Read More

Theresa May: A Political Obituary

On Friday, Theresa May, perhaps the worst Conservative prime minister in recent history, announced her resignation outside of number 10 Downing Street. She will step down effective June 7. “I have done my best,” she insisted. “I have done everything I can. . . . I believe it was right to persevere even ... Read More
PC Culture

TV Before PC

Affixing one’s glance to the rear-view mirror is usually as ill-advised as staring at one’s own reflection. Still, what a delight it was on Wednesday to see a fresh rendition of “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family, a show I haven’t watched for nearly 40 years. This time it was Woody Harrelson ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Democrats’ Other Class War

There is a class war going on inside the Democratic party. Consider these two cris de couer: Writing in the New York Times under the headline “America’s Cities Are Unlivable — Blame Wealthy Liberals,” Farhad Manjoo argues that rich progressives have, through their political domination of cities such as ... Read More

The Deepfake of Nancy Pelosi

You’ve almost made it to a three-day weekend! Making the click-through worthwhile: A quick note about how National Review needs your help, concerns about “deepfakes” of Nancy Pelosi, one of the most cringe-inducing radio interviews of all time, some news about where to find me and the book in the near ... Read More

America’s Best Defense Against Socialism

The United States of America has flummoxed socialists since the nineteenth century. Marx himself couldn’t quite understand why the most advanced economy in the world stubbornly refused to transition to socialism. Marxist theory predicts the immiseration of the proletariat and subsequent revolution from below. ... Read More