Monday, August 11, 2014

Who I Am: A Memoir by Pete Townshend

Can you see the real me? Can you?
Pete Townshend has always been one of rock’s most intelligent and articulate songwriters, so when he published his memoir Who I Am in 2012, fans of The Who may have expected an epic masterpiece. The result, however, is adequate at best. Those looking for insight into the personal dynamics and conflicts within The Who will unfortunately be disappointed. From reading this book, you would think that The Who was a power trio consisting of Townshend and two guys named Kit and Chris (Lambert and Stamp, respectively, the band’s managers). Almost every paragraph of the book is peppered with these two names, while Townshend’s bandmates are rarely mentioned. The only time Keith Moon and John Entwistle receive more than cursory treatment is in discussion of their deaths. Roger Daltrey is a shadowy figure lurking around the periphery, possibly because he’s still alive and therefore potentially litigious.

Over the years Townshend has kept personal journals, which you would think would aid in the narrative, but instead this practice has resulted in a morass of tangential detail. He remembers every gig he ever played, what he drank afterwards, whether or not he vomited, and which woman he pursued that night. The length of the biographical narrative could have been cut in half if Townshend had simply provided four appendices: the first for a list of every car he’s ever bought; a second for boats; a third for houses and their furnishings; and a fourth for recording equipment. In matters of music and love, Townshend has an irritating propensity for the melodramatic. Every time he has a great idea, he attributes it to a vision from God or a choir of angels. Such lofty rhetoric hinders our understanding of the man. Why he decided to devote his life to the Indian guru Meher Baba, for example, is never adequately explained, so the motivations behind many of his subsequent actions are baffling. Equally mysterious is why he’s spent so much of the past quarter century rehashing the same three ideas—Tommy, Lifehouse, and Quadrophenia—rather than making new music.

While every autobiography has an agenda, Who I Am is more manipulative than most. It’s constantly apparent that Townshend is striving to mold the reader’s opinion of him. He wants so much to be liked. This is most blatantly manifested in the way he repeats every word of praise that he’s ever received, dropping famous names left and right, and then somehow finds a way to heap more plaudits upon himself. Not wanting to appear egotistical, however, he tries hard to paint himself as a lovable loser, a sensitive soul who’s socially awkward and unlucky in love. There’s an awful lot of personal disclosure, but the sincerity behind it is often questionable. After he’s boasted about all the coke he’s snorted and the tail he’s chased, it’s hard to take him seriously when he expresses regret for cheating on his wife. Ultimately, one comes away from the book with an image of Townshend as an emotional child, desperate for approval, who happens to have millions of dollars at his disposal.

As a writer, Townshend has an excellent command of the English language and can turn a clever phrase. Like a bag of chips, his prose can be addictive but in the end yields little nourishment. Avid fans of The Who can’t help but come away from this book with a boatload of trivia, but what it all adds up to is less than satisfying. Rather than renew my interest in Townshend and his music, Who I Am may have actually diminished my admiration for the man and his accomplishments.

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