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Behind the Music

by Robert Dean Lurie
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.

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.