Who I am
By Pete Townshend, HarperCollins, 538pp, £20
Pennie Smith’s iconic cover photograph for The Clash’s brilliant 1979 album London Calling famously depicts their bassist Paul Simonon pounding the floor of a stage with his Fender Precision bass as though trying to bludgeon a hole through the floorboards. But like almost everything else that was acclaimed as new and revolutionary about punk, the image had its roots in the past.
Johnny Rotten was a Dickensian urchin, the Artful Dodger grown up. Billy Bragg was Woody Guthrie plugged in. Siouxsie and the Banshees were like stragglers from Isherwood’s Berlin who had gorged on early Bowie and Iggy Pop. Central to punk’s origins, if usually unacknowledged, was an explosive band of misfits called The Who. They opened their shows the way dynamite opens a safe. The Beatles had claimed all you needed was love, a beautiful contention that no sane adult has ever believed. But The Who’s idea of stagecraft was to destroy their instruments while you watched. Sid Vicious they made seem a wuss.
Their founder member Pete Townshend opens this eye-poppingly readable and long-anticipated memoir with his account of the pub gig, in June 1964, during which he first reduced a Rickenbacker to rubble. He would do it again many times in the subsequent decades. Indeed, the opening artwork of this book shows a carefully staged re-enactment of the “auto-destruction” that would become one of his trademarks, with Townshend, now 67, smashing up a guitar while apparently unaware of the cumbersome bunch of keys incongruously dangling from his belt. It’s like watching a slightly prosperous Fine Gael voter go suddenly bonkers while listening to Morning Ireland.
Who I Am traces a fascinating and circuitous journey from Townshend’s student days at Ealing Art College to the pill-popping Mod subculture of 1960s London, from there to the delirium of international stardom, the flamboyances of rock opera and the high tide of the Woodstock stage and beyond. He wanted to call his band The Hair, a close escape, proving that a rose by any other name actually doesn’t smell as sweet. Not many rock legends went on to be editors for Faber and Faber, publishing the writings of Jean Genet, Ted Hughes and Harold Pinter, as Townshend did, turning up to work every morning in a limo. He has made a long, strange journey, and he recalls it with a stylish carefulness and an admirable degree of sang-froid.
Like so many of his searching generation of postwar English musicians, this son of an Acton saxophonist father and a jazz-singing mother began with an attraction to the blues. We will never really know why one tributary of the folk music of black America, radically reshaped by recording technology and internal migration, inspired legions of besotted imitators on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean – the happiest accident in all of 20th-century popular culture. The magnificent Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy were among young Townshend’s idols. But he quickly wearied of what he regarded as the limitations of the three-chord trick and the faintly cringe-inducing cul-de-sac of white middle-class suburbanites emoting about the injustices of the Mississippi Delta or the mean streets of wintry Chicago. Elvis he found corny, “a drawling dope singing songs about dogs”.