Who I Am
by Peter Townsend
Harper Collins Publishers, Kindle edition, 2012
[For extra credit: A biography or autobiography about someone still alive.]
I had planned to finish up my 2017 Reading Challenge with Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon, by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, but it was stolen, along with the lunch bag it was in, a foldable spork, and some reading glasses, from my workplace. I was more than a little PO’d because I was just getting into it, and I truly cannot see what any of the homeless people, the probable thieves, would want with a book about the American space program. Not only that, the eyeglasses case was one shaped like a video game controller and hard to replace.
So, for a last minute substitute, I pulled in Who I Am the autobiography of Who guitarist Pete Townsend, one of the more erudite and philosophical personalities of the 1960s. This was actually a Kindle edition I purchased because I had tried twice to read a library copy of the book, and failed. Something about the immense pain on his face on the cover pic made me afraid to open it, and I was not sure of what I would find.
I’d actually been interested in the Who and their music for a couple of years now. The group’s Tommy rock opera was one of my earliest exposures to rock music at the age of 5, the album being an obsession of my older brother’s. My favorite songs were Pinball Wizard and Go to the Mirror. The metaphysical aspects, though, went over my head until I could read well enough to understand the lyric sheet, and in retrospect it was a influence on some of my own early fiction. Townsend’s book, happily, goes into great detail about Tommy’s genesis, recording, and legacy. In fact all of the material dealing with the 1960s is great, to me at least, because I’m always interested in artists and their influences. Also of interest was Townsend’s journey as a recording studio pioneer, especially of the small in-home studios many rock stars of his age began to employ. In today’s era of cheap, sophisticated, digital tools, it’s hard to remember how much sheer experimentation and invention it took to achieve unique sounds.
The other members of the Who, and the group itself, did not receive as much attention; those interested in a bio of the early Who will have to look elsewhere, such as Tony Fletcher’s Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend. (I’d read that bio before this one, so didn’t feel shortshrifted at what Townsend left out.)
Though the early sections of the book were interesting, the middle was largely a slog. It became too diary-like in a “I did this, then I did that” way and although as erudite and well-written as the previous chapters, it lacked a story arc, for want of a better term, such as going from addiction to sobriety, or discomfort with celebrity to acceptance of it. In the final third, with Townsend investing more in his sobriety and realizing some truths about his past, things get interesting again, leading up to the infamous incident where he was busted and fined for visiting a child pornography site, and it’s not what you think. He also had some interesting insights about digital media devaluing itself — when everything is freely available, all the time, anywhere, it becomes harder than ever to find the good amidst the bad, or even determine what makes a piece of media good at all.
In sum: I’m glad I read this, and as a person I’d rather hang out with Townsend than many of the other rock stars I’ve read bios of.