Who guitarist and composer Pete Townshend originally wanted to call his memoir, “Pete Townshend: Who He?” His publisher, HarperCollins, settled on the less cheeky, more digestible, “Who I Am” — though a better title might be: “Who I Was.”
Townshend has long been rock music’s most articulate interviewee, a multisyllabic spokesman for a style of music that thrives on immediacy and rhythmic simplicity. As a writer friend a few months ago in New York said, “Sometimes I enjoyed his interviews more than his music.”
In interviews, Townshend could be both bombastic and eloquent, veering from the personal to the political to the literary in one or two comments.
The narrative of his digressions was driven by his confusion — the thoughts of an individual earnestly trying to trace the convergences in his mind while sustaining a famous rock band.
His first hit single was called “I Can’t Explain” It was written to capture the ineffable sensation of listening to Charlie Parker while on marijuana. As we learn in “Who I Am,” he quickly turned it into a more conventional love song at the behest of his managers when a legendary producer offered to record it.
Yet “I Can’t Explain,” is what a band called The Who was trying to say, even in their name. Like most serious writers of music and literature (as opposed to journalists and academics), what Townshend wants to convey sometimes can’t really be said.
Whatever you thought of Townshend’s songs, or his band, his analyses were usually dramatic and energizing.
So the biggest surprise in his memoir is how quiet and plaintive is the voice behind it. “Offstage, truth be told, I am a mouse,” he writes, “albeit a mouse with mood-swings.”
That mouse has written a book that is more about his past wars, personal and political, than his current calm. The principal character in its pages is most often an insecure egomaniac, constantly checking his pulse to see if he is alive or relevant. He brands himself a hooligan, amid other less savory epithets, yet he admits to yearning for genius. He downplays his achievements even as he acknowledges their impact on his peers.
The strongest parts of the book come in its early pages, wherein Townshend writes about the global tsunami of World War II and its brutal effects on artists struggling to swim in its wake.
In a recent interview, I asked him about the bridge between Japan and England,the horrors both island nations endured and the creative foment in the aftermath.
“There is indeed a connection,” he tells me. “One thing the British and the Japanese share is a firsthand experience of the real threat of nuclear devastation. Japan, because it actually happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Britain, because we were so close to Russia and were allies of the U.S. In Lifehouse Chronicles (a box set compendium of his aborted concept album), I open the program of music with a short spoken piece about the bombs in Japan at the end of WWII, and how they changed the face of human existence on our planet.”
The best of Townshend’s book makes history feel intimate through the miasma of rock-star indulgence. He writes like a grandfather telling his offspring how awful were his beginnings, inspired were his youthful ideas, and failed is his legacy.
Townshend’s first young adult engagement with the threat of war occurred amid the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. “Why does this (matter),” he writes of a Who rehearsal. “We’ll all be dead soon.”
The best rock music personalizes politics, and The Who was masters of this alchemy, which is why punk followed in their footsteps in the ’70s.
Still,to hear the 67-year-old Townshend as a calm, quiet spokesman for the form and its humble status in today’s pop landscape is jarring.
“I struggled to reconcile my family and my work,” he says about The Who’s absence from Japan for decades. “I always felt we were under huge pressure to meet the demand from the audiences we had already reached in the USA, Canada, Germany, France, Scandinavia and the U.K. I had been told by friends, especially by Deep Purple, that once you visited Japan, you had to maintain contact in order to sustain loyalty. It seemed too much to add to my existing burden. I always wanted to visit Japan, and to perform there, but I refused. It was my decision entirely.
“I wanted my book to make it clear that after WWII music had to change. We had no choice. Music changed before fashion, art, style and the rest. Instead of songs about love, romance and fantasy, we needed songs about reality and how we could cope with the stress of the ghost of the bomb, and the fact that as young men we could never have the dignity of going to war in the old-fashioned way. We were useless, in a sense, unless we flew bombers or operated computers.”
Townshend is now on tour, reviving his song-cycle called “Quadrophenia,” which offers a stark portrait of has-beens in its hero’s life.
“I was actually 27 in 1972 when I wrote most of ‘Quadrophenia,’ ” Townshend reminds me. “I was writing about a 16 or 17-year-old called Jimmy who felt The Who were already washed up in 1963-64. The Who are not lionized, they are criticized by Jimmy. The Who as a band understood what was going on. Jimmy laid out the four extremes of his personality disorder, then abandoned us.”
Townshend is ruthlessly honest, which makes his book equal parts depressing and inspiring. In its final pages, one senses a stillness achieved.
“There was only one real epiphany,” he says of the writing process, “and that was that however conflicted I felt in my life and career, I have ended up in a good place.