It’s June 1964, and Pete Townshend, the son of a big-band clarinetist and saxophonist, is playing a cacophonous rock gig in west London when he accidentally thrusts his guitar through the club’s ceiling. “I make a split-second decision,” he later recalls, “and in a mad frenzy I thrust the damaged guitar up into the ceiling over and over again. What had been a clean break becomes a splintered mess. I hold the guitar up to the crowd triumphantly. I haven’t smashed it; I’ve sculpted it for them.”
It is such a paradoxical sight — a musician silencing his own instrument — that fans will bay for more, and in later concerts Townshend won’t be able to leave the stage until he’s standing over the wreckage of his Rickenbacker. One more sacrifice to the rock gods.
But how expensive it must have been! If you’re thinking this, you have officially entered middle age. Further proof: You are reading Pete Townshend’s memoir, “Who I Am,” and wondering why you’re not having a better time.
The history of The Who has been thoroughly picked over by chroniclers such as Dave Marsh, Andrew Neill and Matt Kent. It began when a boy named Roger — with “hair combed into a grand quaff” and “trousers so tight they had zips in the seams” — asked a boy named Pete to join his band. The audition was quick: “Can you play E? Can you play B? Can you play ‘Man of Mystery’ by the Shadows? ‘Hava Nagila’? OK, then.”
Throw in another boy, bass guitarist John Entwistle. Add an exhibitionistic drummer named Keith Moon and you have . . . The Hair. That, at any rate, was the name Townshend wanted; the rest of the band opted for The Who. Stardom was slow in coming, but they earned a reputation for youth anthems (“My Generation,” “I Can’t Explain”) and high-octane live shows. To fans and detractors alike, they were “the loudest band on Earth.” And when other counterculture groups dwindled into irrelevance, Townshend pushed into the new terrain of rock opera — and assembled one of the most remarkable songwriting catalogues in modern music.
Is it any wonder we come to “Who I Am” with high expectations? Something befitting both the articulate man who has written and edited books and the cheeky monkey who has given interviewers such a tart perspective on the rock-and-roll circus. Instead, we get pretentiousness: “I dedicate this book to the artist in all of us.” We get therapy: endless rehashing of Townshend’s selfishness and alcoholism and workaholism.
Worst of all, we get drab diplomacy. Paul Simon is “a towering songwriter.” Elton John is “not just a talented musician and composer, he’s also an amazing trouper.” Bruce Springsteen makes a “special connection with his audience.” “Sgt. Pepper” and “Pet Sounds” “redefined music in the twentieth century.” It all makes you long for the angry yobbo who clobbered Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock, got kicked out of every Holiday Inn in the world and raged at the Queen Mum for having his Lincoln Continental towed.
That guy has grown up, of course, and has become by his own testimony “a mouse, albeit a mouse with mood-swings.” So he didn’t die before he got old, but it might have been better if the book had. In Townshend’s telling, the events of the past three decades wander down a half-dozen different directions, many of them personally profitable (a Broadway production of “Tommy”) but none diverting. Rumors of gay liaisons oblige him to confess that he’s “probably bisexual.” His 2003 arrest on child pornography charges inspires a lengthy affidavit in his defense (corroborated by later news reports). But every time the heat inches up, Townshend slips back to the perfunctory: a new house, a new recording studio, one more charity event, one more Who reunion (minus the late Moon and Entwistle).
“Even now,” he admits, “I’m still trying to find out who I am.” I would argue he is every teenaged guitar hero, windmilling his arm toward the waiting strings of a Fender Starcaster (or the air) and producing a power chord. It’s a simple beast, the power chord — no more than a root note twinned with its fifth — but Townshend was the boy who noticed how much it reverberated and how powerful a boy could feel making it. And unmaking it.
Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.
WHO I AM
By Pete Townshend
Harper. 538 pp. $32.50