Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who I Am, by Peter Townshend

And so we shift from A Pair of Blue Eyes to the man Behind Blue Eyes.

Celebrity autobiographies aren't generally my thing. For one thing, living in Malaysia and having no television, I rarely have any clue who these folks are, never mind why I'd want to read their accounts of their (no doubt scintillating) lives in cinema and theatre and the bedroom.  I do remember clearly, though, the day in 1978 when I first heard a song on the radio that all but blew me off my feet. A male singer screamed/shrieked/bellowed, "WHO ARE YOU?"  My thought: Well, I'm not altogether sure yet, but meanwhile, who are you?

The band was, of course, The Who.

Pete Townshend has, I suppose, earned the title of Rock Star Emeritus, or he would, if he'd ever retire. He and Roger Daltrey (the two surviving members of the original four) are on a Who tour as I write, and he's still writing solo work, as well.  Despite the band's controversial habit of smashing instruments on stage at the end of the show and wreaking frequent mayhem in hotels, Townshend's lyrics betray a fierce, sensitive intelligence.

I admire the openness with which Townshend tells his life story. The book has a very level, factual tone, giving himself credit when its due and confessing his shortcomings in a gently self-deprecating way. He's equally gentle in his treatment of others. When talking about a life with such manic peaks and dives, this is an achievement.

In the 1950s, when the four young men got together, Pete Townshend was a  gawky, insecure teen-ager. As the band's fame and success grew, he often seemed bewildered by the fans' adulation. He married with the intention of remaining faithful to his wife, hordes of groupies notwithstanding, and often struggled with the conflicts between his career and his family. When not on the road, he was most often working long hours in the studio. Times of heavy substance abuse alternated with long periods of sobriety.

Who I Am is an autobiography of the artist, but also a biography of his music. I first heard Tommy, the first rock opera, in the late 1970s, a decade after its release. I didn't grasp then what a landmark it had been -- the first rock song cycle with a plot, a theme, a story tying the music together -- I just loved the music. In this book, Townshend gives the context -- the Who played to the generation that had reached adulthood at the end of WWII, whose parents had survived (or not) the Blitz, listening to their jazz for solace and cheer, to the Queen and Churchill for strength. There is a sense of flailing in the next generation (My Generation, as an early Who anthem puts it). Their roles were less clearly defined, their heroes few if any.

The opera about the deaf, dumb & blind boy who wows the crowds as the Pinball Wizard and becomes a prophet in his own right spoke to the younger generation's confusion.  When Ken Russell began production of the film, Townshend's reservations speak eloquently of his own vision.
I realised that Ken had missed a key point at the heart of my rock opera: that it spoke of the end of dictators and self-created messiahs. Somehow Russell, eighteen years older than we were, was operating on the far side of the generational divide. He knew the rigours of war first-hand: he had been bombed, blitzed, and had performed military service in both the Royal Air Force and the post-war merchant navy. But he had little sense of the next generation's post-war shame and anger, or the way our parents' denial of those feelings might need to be confronted by us, and cast aside.
It struck me that The Who was a partnership of four equals, each with his own musical and character strengths, and each leading the band in a different regard. Being professional performers, they also boasted four significant egos, which makes the band's longevity even more astonishing. It seems that each of them deeply appreciated what the others contributed to the whole. After Keith Moon's death, Roger Daltrey complained that the replacement drummer couldn't intuit his needs as Moon had. The "quiet" John Entwistle laid down innovative and driving bass lines that lifted Townshend's lead guitar riffs off the ground. Watching this quartet -- much like a family -- evolve over the years was fascinating.
Roger arrived in a twin-engined Jet Ranger helicopter, and announced that he owned it. Thirty minutes later he flew out again. Roger's home was in West Sussex, so the helicopter was certainly useful, but we all found it strange. With the release of the movie Roger had become ostentatiously rich, a superstar teenybopper sex object, complete with helicopter. Keith was clearly jealous -- the two of them seemed to compete over such mine-is-bigger-than-yours displays. He gazed at Roger's helicopter dwindling in the distance, and I could tell he longed for something equally impressive. Did I long for anything? I was longing for my hair to stop receding.
The amount of time Pete Townshend spent and spends at work, especially in the days before digital recording, is stunning.  His descriptions of the many studios he designed for himself and The Who drove home the point that he has always been an innovator, quick to try new technologies, fearless of investing a fortune in the process. His workaholism was central to the failure of his marriage, but it's a compulsion that he's been unable to control, sadly watching as his beloved wife and daughters receded into the distance. His energy to break new ground is awe-inspiring, and Who I Am provided a time-line of Townshend's creative life to date. His solo career has been every bit as vital as that with The Who.  

Some of us fans have welcomed his metamorphoses more than others. There are still goons who bellow demands that he smash his guitar.  Fortunately for the rest of us, he doesn't seem to oblige them much nowadays. To one critic, Townshend makes plain that although some of his fans might appreciate his stagnation, he's not about to oblige them.
"You've gone all whiter than white and squeaky clean," he said. "Your fans don't know who you are any more." Had they ever known? Even now I'm still trying to find out who I am.

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