Monday October 29

The Amazing Journey: Who I Am by Pete Townshend

The soulful man who gazes out at the reader from the cover of the must-read memoir Who I Am may seem at odds with the enfant terrible, guitar-smashing version of Pete Townshend the public might envision. In fact, in the course of this remarkably touching and very naked self-exploration, this photo of the man who takes you in beyond blue eyes is the perfect image of Townshend.

Townshend begins his mesmerizing story with his earliest memories, beginning with his parents, his mother a singer and father a horn player. He then introduces his grandmother Denny, a complex and dark character with whom he was sent to live for a year in an attempt to “sort her out.” (Needless to say this was an impossible task for a six-year-old.) Of course, later on, sex, drugs, and rock and roll all appear -- in abundance. The other members of The Who, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Eddie Vedder, and many more all make appearances. Most stirring are Townshend’s characterizations of the people to whom he was close and about whom he cared most. Keith Moon, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle along with his family comprise the most evocative portraits. But Townshend has clear moments of insight about many others, including Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (The Who’s managers) and other longtime associates.

Still, it is Townshend's reticence to see himself in the way others might see him that is most alluring. In detailing his days as an art student, enthralled by Gustav Metzger and his theories of auto-destructive art, to his struggles and successes with creating songs for The Who, along with full-length song cycles and what is probably the most successful rock opera of all time, Tommy, Townshend is in many ways cerebral and unexpectedly measured in his self-evaluation.

It is often difficult to round out a memoir, to connect the pieces so that the life appears whole on the page, but Townshend's account of his early experiences and his musings about them help to bring this memoir full circle as they surface throughout the book. This is not to say that Townshend presents himself as someone who has it all figured out – not at all. This is the emotional pull of the narrative: he transports you within his head to his doubts, fears, creative processes, and his very strong romantic streak.

Townshend left rock and roll for a while (actually he tried to leave The Who any number of times) to work as an editor at Faber & Faber, where he mingled with many of the literati and held his own in conversation and through his editing work. Quite apparent in this memoir, and in a lovely way, is a mixture of strong intellect, sensitivity and high flown ideas along with a gentle self-mockery. As you read the last word, you will find yourself cheering what appears to be, at sixty-seven, Townshend’s long-sought achievement of artistic and emotional fulfillment – he knows who he is.

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