Pete Townshend's childhood puppy was "shamelessly disloyal." His first kiss was harrowing: "I felt more like being eaten alive." His first sexual experience was sad and slapstick: "I'd put both of my precious new boots into a bucket of wallpaper paste." When the Who scored a hit with 1965's My Generation, that stuttering, world-turning rallying cry, a magazine shoot spiraled the brooding Mod into depression: "My nose, not small in any lens, would look enormous."
You'd think being one of the mightiest guitarists and songwriters in rock history would be, y'know, AWESOME. And yet, in Who I Am, a gargantuan memoir written with all manner of fever-dream angst and gray-cloud recall, the 67-year-old Townshend comes off as a deeply tormented Brit, tirelessly feeding "the polarities of my ego — the artistic grandiosity and the desperately low self-regard." The first time he wrecked a guitar was a mistake; after the second smash, however, "music would never be the same." And so on.
Of course, Townshend's pervasive disenchantment was integral to the Who, which blended counterculture rage and pop hooks, labyrinthine lyrics and theatrical stagecraft: gorgeous singer Roger Daltrey, the intoxicated rhythm section of bassist John "Ox" Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon, and Townshend. Despite the fact that he defined the '60s and the '70s, he didn't particularly like them, and yet his unease fueled such rebellion as the barbaric yawp of Won't Get Fooled Again.
Townshend's introspection was a heck of a burden (as were his many addictions), but for us, his bad mood was a boon. At one point, when he's convinced his girlfriend is cheating on him, a sleepless night pays dividends. "It was this kind of paranoid, unhinged thinking that spurred me to write I Can See for Miles . . . about the viciously jealous intuitions of a cuckolded partner."
He reveals that rock opera Tommy was driven in part by abuse Townshend believes he suffered as a toddler while living with his unbalanced grandmother and her parade of shady male suitors. (His musician parents shipped their only child away, for which he still hasn't forgiven them.) Townshend is still not sure what happened, and yet he has deduced that his art (including the later Quadrophenia) comes from dark beginnings.
"I wanted to show the hero of Tommy abused by his family, by school friends and by drug-pushers," he writes. "There was no moral message intended; I simply wanted to demonstrate that my hero was, by my own measure, a normal postwar child."
Head-shrinking aside, Who I Am, doorstop size at 500-plus pages, is, for all its bloat and gloom, addictive. If the genesis of many Who classics is oddly overlooked (after all, he wrote them!), he's exhaustive in name-checking his influences, and therein lies an enlightening narrative of 20th century rock 'n' roll.
A memory of Mick Jagger is better suited for Penthouse Forum; a mention of another Stone is nothing less than music-nerd nirvana: "As Keith Richards waited for the curtain to open he limbered up by swinging his arm like a windmill. A few weeks later we supported them again at Glenlyn Ballroom, and when I noticed that Keith didn't use the windmill trick again I decided to adopt it." The great ones steal!
Townshend reveals all, including the particulars of a late-life scandal. If Tommy was a positive interpretation of a negative memory, in 2003, negative turned nightmare when Townshend was linked to an FBI investigation into online child pornography. He says he was doing research: "My plan was to run a story on my website illustrating that online banks, browser companies and big-time pornographers were all complicit in taking money for indecent imagery of children." The feds offered him a choice: a low-profile listing as a sex offender or a court date. "I wish now that I had gone to trial, but perhaps that is a foolhardy notion. Instead, I have relied on my friends and the general public to speak for me — until now."
It's a horrible way to cap a legendary life, and yet if anyone was prepared for a depressing denouement, it's Townshend. After all, at the funeral of the destructive Moon, who died in 1978 at the age of 32, Daltrey was a mess; Stones drummer Charlie Watts was, too. As for Townshend: "My eyes were hard and dry." He explains: "Throughout my life I haven't been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies." Oh, Pete.
Townshend, it should be noted, never cries for himself either. Not through personal or professional pain, not through the muddying of his name. In the end, he reasons, he has been saved time and again by that windmilling arm, by that smashed guitar, by the songwriting demons in his head.
In the end, Pete Townshend both takes, and offers, good advice: "If in doubt, just play."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.