(Today is Pete Townshend’s 69th birthday.)
As a teenager, The Who was my favorite band. Their explosive combination with introspective lyrics fit the bill for a confused teenager trying to make his way through the world. At their best, they were an intellectual band that played with fury. They could expand your mind and capture your all frustrations with an un-matched aggression.
As the leader of The Who, Pete Townshend quickly became one of my heroes. But to be a fan of Pete Townshend you have to accept certain things about him. For every brilliant move he’s made, there’s always been a frustrating one around the corner. His failed rock-opera Lifehouse was designed in part to bring The Who’s audience and the band together in some sort of rock and roll nirvana. But at the same time, he could just easily curse out the same audience for not living up to his own expectations. (One such tirade is captured on The Who’s 4-disc boxed set 30 Years of Maximum R&B.) He’s also an extremely spiritual guy, who succumbed to both alcohol and drug addiction.
Unlike Bob Dylan (who is very guarded in his brilliant memoir Chronicles Vol. 1) and Keith Richards (who is very nonchalant about his addictions in Life), Townshend lays out his contradictions in Who I Am. He’s very candid about the abuse that happened while he stayed with his grandmother as a kid and the addictions that nearly took his life in the early 80s. But then he’ll come off as completely arrogant when talking about Lifehouse (even though it’s a failure) because he’s convinced that the audience was too stupid to understand it.
It would be easy to think of Townshend as a class-A jerk. He can certainly be that. When I first started to like The Who and discovered more about him, I became disappointed that he wasn’t quite who I thought he was. Sometimes I was pissed at him for dismissing his audience’s intelligence in interviews. Other times I hated him for being too ambitious. At first, I despised Quadrophenia because it wasn’t as simple as some of The Who’s early singles. I wanted the angst without the pretentiousness that filled most of Quadrophenia.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Townshend was exposing my own contradictions through the music of The Who. I wanted The Who (and him) to exist within a certain context that existed within my own mind. I began to see many of the contradictions in my own life as result. I could be smart and intelligent, but also had a huge lazy streak that kept me from achieving certain things that I wanted.
When I read Who I Am, I gained a new appreciation for Townshend. He’s never been some guy who has rested on his laurels. But unlike some other rock and roll artists where it can be hard to sympathize with them, I did with Townshend. But not because he’s had tremendous lows. Being completely open, his memoir made him all the more human and relatable. Even after all that he’s achieved; he’s just trying to figure it out just like the rest of us.