Long promised and produced in sputters and fits over the last decade, Who I Am is the recently released memoir of Pete Townshend, primary orchestrator of The Who. Likely being the most artistic tempered in the pantheon of the ‘70s rock gods, Townshend offers his view on nearly 50 years of his career in The Who, as a solo artist, and the events that shaped it. Townshend does little to present himself as anything other than as he is; conflicted, contradictory, a unique visionary.
Who I Am unfolds chronologically, from birth to the writing of the book itself. Starting with growing up as the only son (his brothers born during his teen years) of alcoholic musicians in post-war England. Townshend paints a clear picture of the climate that spawned a generation of Blues and R&B influenced musicians. The Who started as many iconic acts did, teens in a room struggling to learn their instruments. Those teens would go on to define their generation in many ways, from the ‘60s Mod scene to a powerful turn at the original Woodstock festival. Stories of their fame and the excesses that come with it are examined, but Townshend also delves into the repercussions of his actions. Townshend is open about his excesses and their effects on his marriage and his years as an inattentive father to his children. The Who’s appetite for drug and drink are infamous but he doesn’t glorify it as some of his peers have.
Townshend writes of his deep seeded lack of self esteem candidly and points to much of it coming from time spent with his mentally ill grandmother and the various abuses he suffered while under her care. The psychological waves caused by this time would touch throughout his career, most directly in Tommy and a misguided “experiment” with the Russian sex trade in the early 2000s. The blocks created by these events would only be dealt with after years of regular psychological counseling.
Townshend also examines the thinking behind some notable career achievements. A regretted casual decision to throw away a tours’ worth of live recordings to gamble that one show would be sufficient, resulting in the legendary “Live At Leeds” album. The technical miscalculations of 1973’s “Quadrophenia” tour and the frustration following the compromises made on Townshend’s late 80’s solo album and theatrical adaptation of Ted Hughes’ ”The Iron Man”. Townshend also tries to explain the stillborn “Lifehouse”, a multimedia musical project pointing towards the internet as early as 1971. Townshend offers insight as to why the band couldn’t cancel The Who’s 2003 tour after Bass player John Entwhistle’s death on the eve of it’s beginning and as to why they decided to proceed after the 1978 death of drummer Keith Moon.
Who I Am is self indulgent to a degree, it is the nature of memoirs to be so. The author’s voice is candid and self effacing enough to keep the average reader engaged and there are enough insights to keep even the harcore fan riveted. The casual fan may find it a bit long, at about 500 pages, it’s considerably longer than the average rock star memoir of late, but with so much history to tell can anybody really blame him for being a bit long winded.