Who I Am – Pete Townshend
The blurb on the inside cover of this 538-page tome shrieks “The Most Eagerly Awaited Music Memoir Of The Century”. Townshend admits it has taken him a long time to write: one imagines the runaway commercial success of Keith Richards’ Life has renewed his enthusiasm for the project. Given Townshend’s legendary self-centredness and pessimistic worldview my expectations were limited and this book has lived down to them. I am a big Who fan: my first gig was Charlton 1976. Enthralled I excavated the bands past, whilst simultaneously following their current activities. I lost faith when Kenny Jones took over on drums but was wooed back by Zak Starkey and I am looking forward to the Townshend / Daltrey Quadrophenia tour. I have enormous respect for Townshend as a performer and songwriter, to the point that Sunrise was played at my wedding.
However at no point have I mistaken Townshend for a ray of sunshine. The best thing about this book is the 462 pages that were edited out and which, according to a Q+A at the Old Truman Brewery last week, will emphatically not be published as Part Two. As a result the narrative skips along and the years fly by.
Even so the second-half of the book is heavy going. Partly this is because everything significant musically has happened by page 250, after which comes the Who’s final disappointing studio albums and Townshend’s subsequent solo career. In addition Townshend becomes even more insular and even more torn, bitter and miserable. Despite his oft publicy-stated desire for self-knowledge he comes over (to use his own words) as “a complete arsehole “. That his key work associates such as Bob Pridden have put up with it for around fifty years suggests he has his good points and pays well. Why his ex-wife Karen put up with Townshend for so long is inexplicable. Her reward is to be ignored in the seven-page section of Acknowledgements, which pointedly thanks everyone else, including his new partners’ seven dogs. What the book needs desparately is some of the self-deprecation and humour shown briefly at the Q+A when Townshend was talking about being snubbed by Bob Dylan (“Where’s Roger?”). For the rest of the time Being Multi-Millionaire Pete Townshend seems rather hard and joyless work.
The most disappointing aspect of the book is that we learn little about Townshend as a musician or a songwriter: books written by Dave Marsh and Ritchie Unterberger both do a better job than this. John Perry’s masterful analysis of Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy dwarfs Townshends own musical musings. So well known are incidents such as Woodstock that, with little new insight on offer, Who I Am comes across as a routine cut-and-paste job. We learn a lot about Townshend’s toys, chiefly home recording studios and yachts, both of which get bigger as the royalties increase. What we don’t get is any sense of where his golden run of hit singles came from. Keith Richards once told Townshend that he thought too much. Lyrics such as The Seeker support this, but also show a rare pop songwriter unafraid of expressing his spirituality. If only Townshend had worked out a way of integrating his spiritual beliefs and his rock’n’roll-ness, in his life and in this book.
Who I Am is Life-less.