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.