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Sunday January 20, 2013

He who is Townshend

Although he never
gained the kind of
recognition his
peers received as
a guitar player,
The Who’s Pete
Townshend carved
a path all his own. Although he never gained the kind of recognition his peers received as a guitar player, The Who’s Pete Townshend carved a path all his own.

Who I Am
Author: Pete Townshend
Publisher: HarperCollins, 515 pages

MOST of us lead, dull, ordinary lives ... unless, of course, you’re a rock star. Take, for example, the life of visionary, literary prince, and rock musician Pete Townshend. The Who’s guitar player checks all the boxes of a rocker, having survived the clutches of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

Yet, in the calm of his life’s chaos, there were two constants, proliferated, set to a trajectory that always got him through. They were the two T’s – Tommy and Thames. The Tommy album would be his muse and the river Thames in London would guide him through life. Townshend was born and grew up in the district of Acton, in West London, during the post World War II rebuilding of the capital. For most of his childhood, his dog Bruce and his buddy Jimpy were the sources of entertainment amidst the backdrop of family drama caused by his mother’s infidelity and the eventual rescue of his parents’ marriage vows.

Music thrived in the Townshend household – his father played the sax in the Royal Air Force’s the Squadronaires while his mother was a singer, but it was really his aunt Trilby who set the cogwheels in motion for young Pete’s musical discovery.

Like most English kids growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, skiffle was the predominant musical preoccupation of the day. Even Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting partnership was weaned on this brand of folk. Surf music, though, served up by The Shadows and The Ventures, became the music for bands. However, the birth of The Who didn’t come down to the music but rather, to a tight bond Townshend formed with John Entwistle. In fact, one of the most touching moments in this autobiography is Townshend’s heart-felt tribute to The Who’s late bass player.

The Who was a working class band and it was only natural for four young boys in such a situation to dream big. But the trappings of the social scene and burgeoning music culture didn’t pass the band members unnoticed. Singer Roger Daltrey apart, all the bandmates indulged in a lifestyle of excess to various degrees, with drummer Keith Moon and Entwistle the toxic twins joined at the hip.

Townshend embraced hedonism too, as he’s provided explicit accounts (the escapades with buddy Joe Walsh are quite hilarious), but his artistic pursuit kept him on the – in the words of Who’s Next’s Getting In Tune – straight and narrow, along with his singular homage to Meher Baba, the Indian spiritual master.

While the musicians of the time were more engrossed in merely cobbling a solid album’s worth of songs together, Townshend was a few steps ahead of the game, constantly chasing the concept of the rock opera. His obsession would finally pay off when Tommy was realised in all its splendour in 1969.

Though he eschewed pandering to an audience’s whims and fancies, Townshend still engaged in wining and dining the more influential factions of the music press to ensure Tommy’s all-encompassing success (Pinball Wizard was written specifically to impress Guardian record critic Nik Cohn).

Tommy remains Townshend’s shining glory to this day, even if the ill-fated Lifehouse project was meant to supersede it; the latter was, in the end, released as a partly-realised concept on Who’s Next.

Who I Am has gained critical acclaim since its release last year and has even been voted “book of the year” in music rags. If you’re a Who nut, chances are this autobiography will resonate; otherwise, this is the voice of a musician whose insecurities have, more often than not, gnawed at his intrinsic genius.

Sure, grounding is important, what more for a bona fide rock star for whom the stakes are immeasurably higher, but the swings between self-deprecation and narcissism come across as contrived at times.

And at the end of the day, every autobiography should be taken with a pinch of salt (we’ll never know every detail in truth, will we?). The greatest allure for music anoraks will probably come from the rock ’n’ roll trivia. So, to confirm a few myths muddled in the mists of time, yes, Jimmy Page did play the guitar solo on The Who’s first single, I Can’t Explain, and Townshend, with the help of designer Jim Marshall, did invent the stack amp.

Who I Am is packed to the brim with music history, the British social scene of the time, the sort of stereotypical characters who infiltrate our lives, and a celebration of The Who’s music. But there remains a nagging sense that Townshend has left some perspective-altering details out.

Still, it seems he’s led an honest life as a musician and in his later years has realised the need to give back to the world that’s given him so much. And it all filters down and shows the 67-year-old as a dignified human being, even if a few skeletons continue to reside in his closet.

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