No, this won’t be a philosophical statement of my essence; it’s just my reaction to Pete Townshend’s 500-page autobiography, Who I Am (now out in paperback).
I read a lot of reviews of this, both before and while reading it. And clearly a number were disappointed to find out what a flawed human being this very talented artist is.
Personally, I had never looked up to him as a personal hero in that sense, so I wouldn’t say I was disappointed in him. But I was very struck by his extremes, by how he would so frequently repeat destructive patterns of addiction, overwork, isolation, speaking out unwisely. In one chapter he would be mourning the loneliness of being the only band member trying to stay monogamous; a few later, he would be brazenly chasing younger women, even in front of his daughters. Here he’s giving up drinking, then he’s drinking daily, possibly with a side of cocaine. Then sober again, then taking a test drink.
You’re getting the idea. My most frequent synopsis, after finishing another section, was “Wow. Pete is really messed up.” I ended up straggling the reading of this over a number of months, as his life wasn’ always the happiest one to travel through.
So if you needed more proof that genius, creativity, success, and money doesn’t always bring inner peace and satisfaction, here it is.
While some biographies have wide appeal, I do think this one requires a pre-standing interest in the man, in his band, or at least in the music of that time. Though it should be noted that often doesn’t spend a lot of time on some of the best-known events of the band’s history, only mentioning these perfunctorily, as though obliged, sometimes with reference to websites for more information. This would be true, for example, of their literally explosive appearance on the Smothers Brothers; details of the creative process behind Tommy; the incident where Roger knocked him out cold at Quadrophenia rehearsals; the death of 11 fans in Cincinnati… Even Keith Moon and John Entwistle’s deaths don’t take as many pages as you might think. In some cases, I can see why he might feel he’s already said enough about that elsewhere. In others, I think he may just have been unwilling to delve too deeply into it.
Naturally, I had a particular eye out for what he’d have to say about Roger Daltrey. And mostly, it was positive, complimentary stuff. Some of the many personal conflicts they’ve had through the years are mentioned, but definitely downplayed. Despite the self-censorship, I did learn some things:
- While I knew that originally Pete was supposed to sing much more of Tommy than he did, I didn’t realize the breakthrough came because Roger deliberately worked very hard to develop that beautiful, high, falsetto tone that we hear in “See me, feel me”. [Both Pete and I are relieved that he did.]
- The usual story of the Who By Numbers album is that Pete wrote a bunch of really personal songs that Roger had to be persuaded to sing, indeed refusing to in some cases. Here Pete writes that he actually had many songs available for that album, and it was Roger who personally picked out those more personal and bleak ones. [Hmm.]
- During the time of the filming of the movie Tommy, Pete felt the physical contrast between them was at its height: Roger had never looked more fit and beautiful, while he himself was especially bedraggled and unhealthy.
- Becoming a bigger star in his own right, Roger started showing up at band events in his personal helicopter, which Pete found weird and which made Keith Moon very jealous. [That’s just funny.]
- Pete thinks that Roger’s vocal performances on the little-known (but lovely) “One Life’s Enough”, from It’s Hard, is one of his best. [I agree. Listen for yourself.]
- Pete says wrote “After the Fire” (1985) about South Africa, and that it’s Roger’s interpretation that turned into a dirge for their lost youth of being rock stars [the latter, I admit, is how I’ve always interpreted that song!]
- Pete hesitated to appear at Roger’s Daltrey Sings Townshend concert (1994), not, he says, because he was angry about the whole idea (as had been reported), but because he was afraid that performing again would threaten his newfound sobriety. [I love Pete’s appearance, and indeed that whole concert. Glad he did it.]
- There was a lot of pressure on him to make his Iron Man solo album a Who album, but he was sure Roger would hate singing these songs. So sure, I guess, that he has completely forgotten that Roger did sing “Dig” on that album. It’s never mentioned. (Only, in passing, that he did have Roger sing and John Entwistle play on a cover version of “Fire” on that record.)
Video proof of something Pete has apparently forgotten ever happened…
As for the whole child pornography investigation, it’s a bit amazing that it’s received so much attention in book reviews and interviews, as it, appropriately, makes up so little of the book itself. Pete did nothing wrong. Can we move on now?
But it was nice to hear that he received many letters of support related to that and that he even made an effort to respond to many. And that he does seem happier as an older man than he was a younger. As an appendix, he includes a fan letter from 1967. He comments how he realizes now, as he couldn’t then, that this fan, his fans, love him in a genuine. And thinks how different his life would have been if he could only have learned to see and accept love earlier.