Burgs Sunday book review
Reviewed by Gene Hyde. He is a member of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library Board of Trustees and is archivist and special cCollections librarian at Radford University. He saved his allowance to buy his first Who album, Tommy, back in 1970.
The Who were one of the most influential bands to emerge from the 1960s British music scene, rivaling the Rolling Stones in record sales and popularity. Led by guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, The Who were legendary for their frenzied, manic live shows featuring smashed guitars and flying drum sets. But it wasn’t all stage antics – The Who created a respected and revered body of studio albums. “Who I Am” is Townshend’s autobiography, and it’s a thoughtful, reflective work by a deeply serious artist.
Townshend was born to a musician father in the wake of the second World War. His father spent his summers playing gigs at “holiday camps” in Britain, while young Pete was partially raised by various relatives, living in conditions that a modern social worker might call abusive. He learned how to play guitar, spent his time in various bands, then founded the Who with his friend Roger Daltrey. By 1965 The Who had their first British hit single with the Townshend-penned “I Can’t Explain.”
Continuing with hit songs such as “My Generation” and “Substitute,” The Who established themselves as a chart-topping band. But Townshend, always a restless and creative musician, wanted to do more than crank out rock hits. He composed the rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia,” expanded thematic works that examined spirituality and teen angst while stretching the musical and conceptual boundaries of a genre based on three chords. By the late 1970s The Who was in decline, and Townshend went on to a successful career as a solo artist, occasionally bringing The Who back to life for a tour or concert. In fact, The Who’s current tour performing their 1973 album “Quadrophenia” is garnering rave reviews across the U.S.
Townshend has lived quite a life, and he describes it with soul-searching honesty. Early in his career he became a devotee of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, and that influence can be heard in “Tommy” and other works. He struggled with alcoholism for decades, grappled with moral conflicts as he balanced family life with the hedonistic temptations of rock stardom, and dealt with the difficult deaths of his friends and bandmates, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle.
Of course, Townshend’s narrative is ripe with tales of being a rock n’ roll star: hanging out with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, unknowingly drinking an LSD-spiked drink just before the Who’s appearance onstage at Woodstock, and dealing with Keith Moon’s wild behavior on tour (Moon liked to blow up things, from his drum kit to motel room toilets).
But it’s not all rock star anecdotes – Townshend also discusses his creative process in some depth, including his work with theater and writing. His career also includes an editorial stint with British publisher Faber and Faber where he befriended T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie and poet Ted Hughes, who he later collaborated with on a musical version of Hughes’ “The Iron Man.”
In what would become the biggest controversy of his life, Townshend was investigated for accessing online child pornography in 2003. Townshend has, in fact, been very active in supporting various children’s charities, and had actively campaigned against child pornography on the Internet. His version of this tale is brutally honest.
Pete Townshend’s book is a well-written narrative that reveals a complex and fascinating artist. And, yes, there is a great rock n’ roll irony at work here: Townshend, who famously penned the line “hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s 1965 hit “My Generation,” is now a sexagenarian grandfather who seems content with his life. It’s a good thing that he chose to share it with us in this fine autobiography.
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