Who I Am
by Pete Townshend
HarperCollins, 538 pp.
Bear with me while I ask a seemingly dumb question: Was Pete Townshend a member of The Who?
Knowing what I knew before I began reading Townshend’s Who I Am: A Memoir, I would have answered this question in the affirmative. After all, Pete was the leader of the band, the writer of all those great songs and rock operas, an innovative and iconic guitar player and smasher, and the creator of hundreds of complex demos from which singer Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle, and drummer Keith Moon could learn their parts.
Asked this question, I would have emphatically answered that Pete Townshend was The Who. But, having finished Who I Am, an amazing journey through Pete’s mind and art, I know that my answer would have been wrong. Even though Pete appeared with the band on records and photos, in films and on stage, he never fully psychologically committed himself to being one of the boys in the band.
Sure, Townshend felt fully comfortable being the band’s composer – but that’s it. Unlike his more working-class bandmates, he attended Ealing Art College in the early 1960s. It was at Ealing that he learned to think of rock ‘n’ roll in terms of pop art and to erase the line that separated high and low art. Rock music, Townshend learned, could be art, and his infamous gig-ending, guitar-smashing performances weren’t gimmicks or outlets for masculine rage but examples of auto-destructive art akin to the work of Yoko Ono and Gustav Metzger.
According to Townshend, the three “yobbos” in The Who and perhaps even his fans just couldn’t understand the artistic meaning of shoving his Rickenbacker into his amp and grating his ax against his mic stand. But aesthetic philosophy – and not male aggression – was at the heart of what The Who did. Why was Pete the only one to see it?
Furthermore, why was Pete the only one to recognize that The Who’s pre-Tommy work consisted only of “pop curios”? That the two records that “redefined music in the twentieth century” – The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – were mind-altering atmospheric pieces that proved that by 1967, music was only a drug and an end in itself?
Townshend, having given up psychedelic drugs in 1967, decided that rock music had to lead the way in creating a true spiritual revolution – and that he was the rock musician to do it. His devotion to the Indian mystic and spiritual master Meyer Baba, who had roundly renounced psychedelic drugs for their maddening effects, helped inspire him to write Tommy, the rock opera and spiritual biography of his generation, as well as the unfinished Lifehouse album (many of whose songs appear on Who’s Next) and Quadrophenia, which Pete deems the group’s towering masterpiece.
But even though for Townshend these three projects stand out as The Who’s greatest achievements, he feels that perhaps with the exception of Daltrey (whom he praises for embracing the role of Tommy), his bandmates never understood their meaning – or, for that matter, understood him.
That’s the thing about Townshend. No one, he feels, knows what it’s like to be him: the sad man behind blue eyes, forever isolated and unknowable. But he’s also a true artist; his work is so intimately connected to his personality that the two truly are one and the same. Perhaps that’s why his artistic confidence (he thinks Face Dances and Psychoderelict are good albums!) contrasts so sharply with his low self-esteem.
On the one hand, Pete can write bravely and honestly about his sexual relationships with and desire for other men (at one point, he writes about the lead singer of The Rolling Stones, “Mick is the only man I’ve ever seriously wanted to fuck”), but he can also admit his insecurity about being the least masculine member of a macho-music making foursome. He can write equally bravely and honestly about the physical and sexual abuse that he suffered as a child, and then long to be included when Roger, John, and Keith had strings of random sexual encounters in which they and their female fans used each other.
Who I Am is really about the complex mesh of artistic vision and low self-esteem that is Pete Townshend. It’s also about his need to stand alone. This need, of course, leads to an inherent sense of loneliness (for example, he doesn’t write with much depth about his relationships with the members of The Who but uses a lot of ink writing about his own personal struggles with drugs and alcohol), but it also leads to an artistic integrity that, with a few exceptions, is unparalleled in rock music.
Townshend is his art, and other people, as they’re presented in Who I Am, for the most part exist to help him advance it.
Does this make Pete selfish? Pretentious? Ungrateful? I don’t think so. Townshend is his own man, working through his own problems in his own way – and, at the end of the day, who needs The Who?