Before I excavate all the lies, half-truths, and braggadocio that color this overly ambitious tome to extended adolescence, I must admit I hero-worshiped The Who like I hero worshipped the Beatles or the Stones and countless other great bands from the golden age of R-O-C-K. Let me warn you now. This auto-erotic wannabe tell-all gets boring real fast and by the mid-mark I was falling asleep, getting migraines and feeling constipated.
I could make other excuses, but PeteTownshend is not a sympathetic character. He's self-absorbed and shallow despite his intellectual and spiritual longings. He seems to wear his altruism like a cloak that can be taken off and discarded without a passing thought. Townshend is part of that upper echelon rock star mythos that perpetuates the almost cultish devotion to narcissistic rock gods who are hopelessly infantilized by their hero-worshipping dip shit fans...like me. Now let's take a peek inside the cover and read between the lines.
Townshend carves out three “ACTS” in this 500 page monster. I'll comment on the chronological progression represented in each of the acts from the earliest days of the Who to their ascendance into the highest nether-regions of the rock god worship to their ultimate decline as a creative force.
ACT ONE: War Music
The opening sequence involves the Who's first show in June 1964. The music is as raw as the musicians and Townshend accidentally punched a hole in the ceiling with his guitar, stumbling upon the formula of destruction as a gimmick or as a statement.
The next few pages jumps back in time to the end of the war in 1945. Townshend's father was a musician and performed swing. It was the center of the post-war universe and helped pave the way for early rockets like Bill Haley, Little Richard and Elvis. Townshend lets us into a secret. His famous windmill style of playing rhythm guitar was stolen from none other than Keith Richards. Townshend observes that the guitar became a primary instrument in rock & roll like a saxophone was in jazz and swing. This chapter covers a lot of ground from the creative tension between mods and rockers (the Who were mods) to the Who's first great single I Can't Explain and the baroque undercurrent in My Generation and the Kids Are Alright that also spoke to class hostility.
This is Townshend's most realized part of the book with a keen emphasis on the considerable craft of Townshend's glorious pop singles such as Pictures of Lily (an ode to the joy of masturbation), Happy Jack (McCartney inspired) , I Can See For Miles, and Substitute (an homage to Smoky Robinson via The Stone's 19th Nervous Breakdown). Shel Talmy was the producer of many of these gems up until Substitute. His ouster led to a nasty law suit that the management team of Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert were powerless to prevent.
At one point Townshend considered making a pact with the devil in the personage of Allen Klein, one of the most notorious exploiters of rock and roll stars. Their incredible performances at the Grande Ballroom and Woodstock in 1969 are sketched out nicely as well as an extended examination of Townshend's first (and perhaps only) masterpiece Tommy that was released on May 17th 1969.
Townshend was only 24 years old. It was a busy and creative time for the Who including the release of Live at Leeds that revealed an incredible growth in their craft that was tantamount to a leap across the Grand Canyon. This ushered in a new phase for the Who, the quirky pop songs were replaced by thunderous high energy rock. A perfect coda to the first act.
The First Act was well written and paced nicely so as you don't lose interest. The rest of the book is a bit spotty like a teenager covering his zits with Clearasil not realizing that everybody can see that dried up goo all over his pimply mug.
ACT TWO: A Really Desperate Man
This begins the decline of the Who even when the are at the peak of their powers. Townshend seems to get hung up on rock operas and follows Tommy with Lifehouse, an incredible concept that produced such great songs as Pure & Easy, Won't Get Fooled Again and Behind Blue Eyes. Eventually Lifehouse became Who's Next, a masterful album that helped the Who ascend to the top of the heap.
The seventies ushered in a decade of substance abuse, mental health problems and unencumbered infidelity and promiscuity. There were a few sentinel events in ACT II that had a crushing effect on the future of the Who. In September 1978 Roger Daltry called Townshend and said, “He's done it.” Keith Moon had died. On December 3rd, 1979 the Who was at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati. They performed their usual high energy performance. It went over well but after the show their new manager Bill Curbishley assembled the band and crew to tell them that eleven kids had died. There was a problem at the entrances and kids were trampled.
ACT THREE: Playing to the Gods
This final act describes the Who's descent into irrelevance. They lost touch with their fan base in the late seventies during the rise of punk. The addictions piled up, mostly booze though cocaine and heroin took their toll on Townshend and John Entwhistle (one of rock & rolls greatest musicians).
There was a farewell Tour and several reunions that were motivated more by potential earnings as opposed to craft. Townshend became an editor and writer for Faber's magazine with a focus on popular arts (mostly music, books/novels and poetry. He began to expand his circle of acquaintances to include writers, models, and movies stars. He was particularly fond of William Golding - a generous man with a keen mind. He wrote the iconoclastic Lord of the Flies.
Townshend was friendly with Paul and Linda McCartney and when she died Paul asked Pete to do the eulogy. By 1999 John Entwhistle was broke and in debt. Townshend dropped his current projects in order to reform the Who and embark on an extended tour to help his old friend. On June 27th, 2002, Entwhistle died of chronic health problems exacerbated by the use of cocaine.
This final act also addresses Townshend's arrest and trial for possessing child pornography. On January 11th, 2003 he was accused and the tabloids had a field day. Ultimately, Townshend agreed to accept a caution and a low-profile listing for a limited time as a sex-offender. A few years later Townshend was vindicated when investigative journalist Duncan Campbell did a forensic examination of the Landslide (porn) website and found no evidence that Townshend had ever accessed the site.
The book ends on a positive note as Townshend and his old bandmate Roger Daltrey made amends and became close friends.
Never mind my grousing - Who I Am is an incredible journey to a magic kingdom of princes and pawns, kings and paupers, everyday people.