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”.
Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock at least swung. But from his earliest teens young Pete regarded himself as an artistic pioneer, a struggler to find a musical language capable of incarnating anything meaningful about the grungy discontents he saw around him.
The Mod movement, with its derision of greasy rock cliches and its Wildean sense of style as substance, gave him a look and a context for his restlessness. The “lovely Irish Mod girls” of London were part of the attraction. (Irish people having recreational sex in London? In 1964? Why was a whole generation of Irish novelists never told?) With one of them he lost his virginity and a little of his crippling shyness, but he soon outgrew the parka and the pose.
His early meetings with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are recalled with generosity, a touching and wide-eyed affection. This is a book by a music fan, first and last, a figure that for all his avowed “musical self-certainty” seems unaware of his immense contribution to the genre that burst his world into life.
Hearing the chugging mesmeric riff of Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions opened doors. He tried to do with the electric guitar what black American soul musicians were doing with the Hammond organ and with that most nuanced of instruments, the voice. Townshend, a figure who really did change rock music, in that he invented the power chord, that muscular punctuation of the form’s basic grammar, writes with the attractive combination of deftness and forcefulness he always displayed in his playing. He was famous for windmilling the guitar, a form of reiterated looping thrash, and if the book is sometimes a tad repetitive, as those windmills could be too – well, what the heck, it’s Pete Townshend; let him thrash if wants to, as he does it far better than most. If in doubt, stick on The Who’s Live at Leeds while you’re reading this memoir, as this reviewer happily did, at high volume. All sorts of things occur to the listener of such a stunning document. The main one is that economy can be overrated.
A self-searching, ruminative and troubled man emerges often from this long account. He suffered heartbreaking abuse as a boy, was prone to “depression and paranoia”, always felt like an outsider and has spent many years in psychotherapy. His early song I Can’t Explain was played up-tempo and became a classic. But the struggle to explain the inexplicable has been at him a long time. The photographs of Townshend that illustrate this book show the particular combination of watchfulness and sadness you often see in the eyes of those whose childhood was sad.
Bands, like most other families, are often bound together by a whole nexus of loyalties only one of which is love. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce once remarked of their own band, Cream, that it was essentially a jazz group but they decided never to tell their oversensitive guitarist Eric Clapton this fact, lest it upset him and cause him to leave. Somewhat similarly, the version of The Who that appears in these pages is a coalition rather than a true band of brothers. Their notorious drummer, Keith Moon, an anarchic spirit laid waste by the excesses of stardom, is evocatively and affectionately remembered here. But there is also, perhaps unconsciously, a fulgurating acknowledgment of the pain involved in loving a Gas Character.
“Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold,” snarled The Who in My Generation, their remorselessly brilliant anthem of stuttering teenage fury. “Hope I die before I get old.” But Keith Moon and their bassist, John Entwistle, did just that. A great song, a great slogan, but an empty one.
Their lead vocalist, Roger Daltrey, comes across as a generous and fascinating presence, a wise, tough and lovable survivor, possessed of a measured intelligence. This reviewer happened to see him a couple of years ago in a pub in Soho, in London, looking hale of heart and leather of trouser. He appeared three times healthier than most of the establishment’s youthful clientele. You would see more fat on a chip.
There has never been a satisfactory biography of The Who, one of the most exciting and influential rock bands of all time. But this readable, honest, indeed bracingly frank account by an insider will do very well until we get one. For those many of us frightened children who couldn’t play guitar but sometimes wondered what it would be like to smash one to pieces before stalking regally from the stage, in an alleluia of screaming feedback, back to the magistracy of our haunted solitudes, it’s a compelling and moving read.