It’s safe to say that my finger has never, ever been on any kind of pulse, literally or metaphorically. So it’s only appropriate that my first “book review” concerns an autobiography published nearly two years ago. This is what passes for “cutting edge” in my life.
That said, I was genuinely excited when Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am” was released back in October 2012. I had heard and fallen in love with The Who by the time I was ten, and not even the era of 70’s AOR–how many thousands of times did I hear “Bargain”?–could squelch my fascination with the band. There’s something about their blend of vulnerability, cynicism, noise, and sheer, crushing power that continues to thrill me to this day. And as the band’s chief spokesman and lyricist, Pete Townshend always exhibited a truly compelling mix of charm, genuine wit, and even tenderness.
The opportunity to examine Townshend’s thought process and history seemed a dream come true, but sadly, as I plowed through his book my curiosity turned to disappointment, eventually curdling into something resembling real anger. It’s certainly too much to expect one’s heroes to be perfect humans, and Townshend is reasonably open–and occasionally even contrite–regarding his many lapses of judgment.
But in the end, my problem with Townshend is simpler: He wrote a dull book. One never gets a sense of how it felt to experience the many truly epochal moments in his life. This is disappointing in any memoir, but doubly so given the author’s demonstrable capacity for sensitivity and emotional detail.
The book begins on a strong note; the details of his childhood in postwar Britain are fascinating, and he’s candid about his troubled childhood, replete with a demented, abusive grandmother and her sinister cronies.
But as he finds his creative voice and meets his future collaborators Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle—a major musical hero for me—the emotional nuances and insights begin to drop away. Rather than give an inside perspective on the highs and lows of being a popular and highly original songwriter in a golden age of rock and pop, Townshend falls back on cataloguing his achievements, personal, sexual and financial. It’s not that I expect him to reject his spoils, but laundry lists of conquests–with occasional, somewhat weak stabs at contrition towards his long-suffering wife–hardly count as insight. The shockingly scant treatment of his bandmate Keith Moon’s death–roughly one page, total–does little to further one’s faith in the author’s emotional reliability.
That said, there are highlights: The glimmers of backstage and backroom deals, and especially the (too rare) details about the sonic development of the band are priceless. And the sketches of life in post-war Britain, morphing from a heavily strictured and repressed society into one rent asunder by the upheavals of the ‘60s, offer a fascinating glimpse at a world in flux.
Much like the story of The Who itself, it’s all downhill from there. A seemingly endless string of country estates and yachts can’t compensate for the band’s gradual loss of energy and focus. Once we trudge through the relative vacuum of the 80s and 90s, we’re treated to the author’s explanation of his 2003 arrest on child pornography charges, which is at worst less than convincing and at best, shockingly clueless.
Reading “Who I Am” didn’t turn me off the Who, thank goodness. But it did make me question my desire to know my musical heroes better. Its long been an article of faith that artists best express themselves through their art, and this book only strengthens the argument. Ultimately, one learns more about Pete Townshend through his omissions than through his disclosures. Coming from a writer so able to explore the human condition, it’s a discovery I rather regret having made.