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(Can you see) the real me?,
This review is from: Pete Townshend: Who I Am (Paperback)
I've been a (on and off) fan of the Who since the early seventies (in particular, I think Who's Next is one of the two or three best rock albums of all time), and feel their importance in the canon of rock & roll alongside the Beatles and the Stones is undisputed. In spite of the crucial contributions of the other members, this pre-eminence is largely due to the writing and musicianship of Pete Townshend, who is also known from his articles and interviews to be a perceptive and intelligent individual. Plus, he makes it all look and sound like such *fun*, up there on stage; I'm thinking especially of the brilliant 1978 performance of "Won't Get Fooled Again" in The Kids Are Alright, which culminates with a slow-motion shot of Townshend sliding across the stage on his knees as the band crashes back in at the climax: pure showbiz, but it has me in tears every time I watch it - that, and the way he hugs an ecstatic fan who jumps on stage at the end.
So my expectations were high for this memoir. It begins promisingly enough, with an account of his childhood in post-war West London, and his early exposure to music. This part of the narrative includes some startling episodes which presage two themes of this book: in the first, Townshend describes - somewhat elliptically - his belief that he was abused by the lovers of his mentally ill grandmother. The second of these comes a few pages later when, whilst out on the Thames with the Sea Scouts, he has an experience of hearing "the most extraordinary music, sparked by the whine of the outboard motor and the burbling sound of water against the hull. I heard violins, cellos, horns, harps and voices which increased in number until I could hear countless threads of an angelic choir; it was a sublime experience [...] my personal musical ambition has always been to rediscover that sound and relive its effect on me." [p31].
The following chapters describe him picking up the guitar and getting together with John Entwistle and Roger Daltry in early bands which had some of the same characteristics as gangs. The camaraderie of these exploratory, exciting times is well brought out as they climb aboard the London circuit and measure their prowess against (friendly) rivals like the Rolling Stones before hitting big with "I Can't Explain", their first single as The Who. The remainder of the book is a brisk canter through the history of the band, which hits many of the well-known high spots such as Monterey, the Smothers Brothers show, Tommy, Woodstock, Leeds and Live Aid - but by no means all of them: for example, Townshend doesn't mention anything about My Generation, their first album, or Who Came First, the first of his solo records. Gaps such as this get wider throughout the rest of the book, accompanied by some judderingly abrupt changes of subject like this (p384):
"At night I was still writing until the early hours. I wrote about the perils of stardom; about the way I had watched from an early age the sexual dalliances of my parents and my grandmother, and how I had been eroticised by them.
I was getting to grips with my Synclavier music computer. To be honest, I had no idea what I was setting myself up for by moving into the unknown world of musical theatre."
Sudden cuts like this might be because there's just too much for the author to talk about in detail (another reason might be some clumsiness in the editing: the afterword in this edition thanks his editor for cutting 1,000 pages down to 500), so more judiciousness in selecting subjects might have been useful. For example, he presents rather a lot of detail about his pursuit of a succession of beautiful young women whilst his wife and children were elsewhere, which is hard to admire - although it's entirely possible that, when compared to other world-famous millionaire rock gods who were the subject of adoration by their fans, he was the very soul of self-restraint. Or perhaps this depiction is just self-deprecating honesty on his part: thus, after being rejected by Theresa Russell (in spite of valiant - if somewhat pathetic - efforts on his part to get into her room) because she wanted to remain faithful to her film producer husband Nicolas Roeg, he describes being - justly - castigated by him the following week, and then realizing that such an episode wouldn't make Roeg keen to turn his Lifehouse story into a film, which is why (he belatedly recalls) Townshend had made the initial call to their house in the first place.
Townshend comes across as a complicated, tortured, inconsistent, talented man who - like many artists - has worked hard for his craft, and spent a lot of time thinking about his significance and influence, and worrying about the relationship with his followers and critics. It's perhaps unfair of us to expect too much of him as a person after he's given so much - including this fascinating book - but at least one other reviewer has wondered why the only omission from a lengthily generous acknowledgment section (that includes the names of the seven dogs possessed by his current girlfriend) is Karen, to whom he was married for thirty-odd years and is the mother of his three children.