Despite enormous self-awareness, Ian Macrae says it’s what, not who Pete Townshend is that’s at the heart of this unusual account of the rock star existence.
The broadcaster Danny Baker (who is shortly to release his own autobiography) once complained that keyboard legend Keith Emerson’s book about himself was self-aggrandising and egotistical. To which the only reaction can be, well yes, it’s about Keith Emerson and by Keith Emerson.
In other words, you have to approach the autobiography of a rock ‘n’ roll god prepared for a degree of self-obsession. In this respect, perhaps even more than is usual, Pete Townshend does not disappoint.
And why should he be a shrinking violet? He and his friends Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle founded a band which, in the mid 60s, became the voice of a generation. And that at a time when guitar-based beat groups of a musically more bland stripe were two a penny.
Townshend himself took Gustav Metzger’s notion of artistic auto-destruction and turned it into a defining part of The Who’s already explosive act. He pushed the boundaries of amplification and studio recording tolerances to their limit making acoustic feedback part of the group’s musical brand.
In 1969, if he didn’t actually invent a whole new genre, he was certainly the first to define it and bring it to full realisation when the rock opera Tommy took the concept album beyond what anyone had previously imagined. He was The Who’s main creative force for more than three decades and was responsible for the bulk of the writing of 27 top 40 singles and 17 top 10 albums with worldwide record sales in the commercial stratosphere. He has survived addictions to alcohol and a whole variety of drugs too.
Plenty then, you would think, for him to crow about. And, indeed, he does do a certain amount of crowing. So far, so predictable then. But what makes this book different, and what makes it of interest to Disability Now is that his account goes way beyond what might be termed these rock banalities of the music biz.
It might have been enough for us that the two central characters – can they really be called heroes – of his big rock operas are disabled. But what’s more fascinating is that both Tommy, undoubtedly the world’s most famous deaf dumb and blind kid and Jimmy from Quadrophenia are imagined versions of Townshend himself.
It would be trite and facile to talk about Pete Townshend facing up to his demons. He has clearly lived with mental health issues for much of his life: Bipolar, clinical depression and massive episodes of anxiety have all played their part. At one point he writes a letter to his wife Karen apologising for the times when, for him, the edges of the windows have all looked dark. He recounts an episode when, in a meeting to plan a Who tour, he hallucinates, seeing oars around people and, as the reality of touring closes in on him, his anxiety levels become intolerable.
It’s not that this is a book lacking, to use the cliche, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. All those elements are there in spades. It’s that, where other rockers may revel in such things, Townshend finds little or no satisfaction in any of them, apart, perhaps, on certain occasions from the music which does seem, in all sorts of ways, to be a release for him.
The story is littered with almost as many ill-advised sexual encounters as it is with tales of unrequited love, if something so impulsive and obsessive can really be called love. The drugs and booze may provide support or short-lived emancipation but are ultimately destructive of precious relationships.
But what’s at the dark heart of this book is something which Townshend himself appears only able to guess at. His parents, themselves both musicians, sent him away to stay with Denny, his disturbingly strange grandmother. What happened during that south coast sojourn is something which has clearly reverberated throughout Townshend’s life: but it’s something which he seems able only to guess at.
In the book’s title, Who I Am, Pete Townshend set out to answer the question he’d posed in one of The Who’s most famous songs, Who Are You. In the end, it’s an answer which, though highly revealing, is ultimately deeply unsatisfying for him as much as for the reader.
Who I am by Pete Townshend is available in print and as a digital book published by HarperCollins