Not Pete Townshend’s new autobiography Who I Am – it’s well-written and an engaging read. The mess I’m referring to is the story told on the pages of Who I Am, which would be the story of Pete Townshend’s life … which, I guess, would be the roundabout way of saying that Pete Townshend’s life has been a mess.
Surprised? Why should we be? Townshend has made a career of shining the harsh light on life’s warts, goiters and carbuncles – much of the stuff that one doesn’t want to acknowledge, much less talk about – putting it to music, and turning the weird shit into anthems of pop culture with killer guitar parts. The fact that Townshend’s life story itself is chock full of that same weird shit (pick your struggle; chances are good Townshend has at least arm-wrestled it himself) shouldn’t be a forehead-slapper.
It’s unsettling to think that we may have young Pete’s time spent in the care of his twisted grandmother Denny – and her revolving cast of paramours – to thank as the inspiration for the darker moments of his work, including “Uncle Ernie” from Tommy. Denny does get points for providing the lad with his first guitar: one that “she saw hanging from the wall of a restaurant, whose owner was a friend of hers. It was an awful instrument … but I was delighted. After I got it correctly strung, I started learning a few chords. Within minutes three strings had broken and the neck of the guitar started to bend, but I just reduced the tension and made do with the three remaining strings.” And so it began.
The substance abuse; the often wretchedly-excessive rockstar lifestyle; the internal conflicts among the members of The Who; the marital turmoil; 2003’s child pornography scandal (Townshend, a longtime supporter of NAPAC [National Association for People Abused in Childhood] says he’s a victim of his own “White Knight Syndrome”). It’s all here. The sensational stuff is handled matter-of-factly and the deeply personal stuff is offered up openly and without excuses. And along the way, you realize that we already know much of this story solely from the music that Townshend’s been making for nearly 50 years.
As reckless and self-destructive as The Who seemed to be back in the day, there was still an air of awareness about Townshend. The fact that he chose to keep an unopened letter from a fan written back in January of 1967 (he shares the present-day unsealing with us in the appendix) tells that there was at least an assumption of posterity – a career (and a life) that would last long enough to be worthy of reflection. “Hope I die before I get old” – really? Really? Reading Who I Am leads you to believe that if Townshend truly felt that way, it may have had to do more with the prospect of lugging around his personal inner turmoil for any length of time rather than the reluctance to deal with the standard burdens of maturity.
Click HERE to read the rest of my review on Jambands.com