Led by the formidable Pete Townshend, the Who were undoubtedly one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great bands, but Townshend’s recent autobiography, Who I Am, does not add much to their legend. By now, indeed, the stories of classic rock have been told so many times – by journalists, critics, spouses, hangers-on, and by the musicians themselves – that most retellings diminish rather than enhance the legacy. This Is Spinal Tap was an early satire of the genre; later accounts, Townshend’s among them, wear all too straight a face.
Townshend grew up in a postwar Britain still recovering from Nazi bombs and relegation to second-class status next to the American superpower. He had an awkward childhood: his father was an itinerant trumpeter, his mother had a drinking problem, and the boy spent an unhappy period farmed out to eccentric relatives. As an adolescent he discovered the liberating energy of music and taught himself to play guitar, sitting in with friends and schoolmates. Eventually these coalesced into a gigging rock band, and soon afterward the players were taken up by an idiosyncratic management team who promoted them as an expression of the era’s fervent youth culture. Their shows became bigger; the group began to record and release Townshend’s very personal, very passionate songs; they developed a major following in first their city, then their country, then Europe, and then North America. International success exacted a toll, however, on Townshend’s marriage and his relationships with his bandmates. Years of fame and fortune and relentless touring and recording contributed to his alcoholism, but he took spiritual guidance from an obscure Indian guru. Into middle age he conquered most of his demons, even as fellow musicians succumbed to them, and he has emerged sensible (and wealthy) enough to look back on the adventure with a healthy perspective on his career and his imperfect but fundamentally decent self.
Who I Am relates Townshend’s private story in his own articulate voice, but, as the above summary might indicate, there is nothing very surprising here. (Who bassist John Entwistle, stone deaf and nearly broke when he died in 2002, was a lifelong Freemason; “Pinball Wizard” was partly inspired by the flipper skills of English rock writer Nick Kent.) For all their genuine talent and hard work, figures like Townshend were in some ways propelled to their stature by an audience that was bigger and more moved by the music than anyone had anticipated. The vast rock community was interested in everything the performers said and did, even if the performers weren’t always inherently interesting.
Townshend is no less deserving of his stature and considerable fortune than any other classic rocker, but the predictability of his autobiography suggests that he and his cohort were winners of a kind of lottery: millions of young men in those years picked up instruments and declared their estrangement from conventional society, or their love / lust for a girlfriend, or their struggle to understand their own minds, but for various reasons only a handful of them became rock stars. Keith Richards’ Life memoir tacitly acknowledges this, when the guitarist recalls how the experience of sudden celebrity deluded and doomed Brian Jones: “He loved the adulation. The rest of us didn’t think it was bad, but you don’t fall for it all the way…’No, we’re just getting lucky, pal. This is not fame.'”
Pete Townshend and his handful of peers have spent most of their lives trying to live up to (or live down) the achievements of their twenties, only some of which were intentional artistic efforts. Thus, as with most such books, including Keith Richards’, Townshend’s story starts to flag as he evolves from outlaw yob to aristocratic elder statesman. His post-1978 music is likely of interest only to diehard Who fans (the same way few but Stones freaks appreciate Main Offender, or no one but Zeppophiles are into Outrider). This is not to denigrate the great burst of creativity that made “I Can’t Explain,” “Pictures of Lily,” “Substitute,” Tommy, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, and the author’s other landmarks – they are truly the anthems of at least two generations. But if the triumph of rock ‘n’ roll’s democratic ethos is that we got the Who, a less rewarding byproduct of it is that we have Who I Am.