Sunday, November 03, 2013

Who's in England?

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Review: WHO I AM by Pete Townshend

(It took me a year and a fortnight but I finished it!)

 Pete Townshend writes in his autobiography that as an up and coming rock star in the early 1960s England he was approached by a group of peers (then teenagers) who asked him to write lyrics about the things they were experiencing. Telling him pointedly that they wanted him to speak for them through his song writing, essentially requesting that he make sure that The Who, not lose the connection to Mod street level culture.

A decade later, a music industry and alcohol addled Townshend finds himself being assured by a younger more radical group of young people (this time Steve Jones and Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols) that he's still relevant.
If that sounds less like a Rock memoir and more like the plot of a British football film, with pub goers in wollen jumpers raising pints of ale and debating about the social codes of English life and chortling on about how "Geez was a visionary, he stood for what we believe in..." than a music biography then you're not far off. Much of what makes Townshend's biography work so well are his vivid reminisces of Great Britain in the late 40s, 50s and of course the 1960s. There are many sentient, Post War British moments in Who I Am with the audience being both territorial and loyal towards his music music. Home grown music much like football, drives Britain (especially London) to this day. And no bands personified it better in their heyday than The Who, who like their great contemporaries, The Kinks, stayed in Britain and sang about Britain.

Of course The Who are one of the most popular British invasion bands in Bay Area history and for those who were fortunate enough to see shows at The Fillmore, Day on The Green, the Cow Palace and more recently San Jose and Mountain View will find that many concerts come back to life on the pages. Townshend even writes of not being able to enjoy himself nor play very well during the sold out anniversary concert in 1989 at the Oakland Coliseum. Apparently the FBI had picked up word of a possible mentally ill would be shooter who was trailing him around the country and there was a strong possibility of him being in attendance at the concert.

Fans and non fans will find the book clears up many questions. Townshend comes with a huge overlay of what fans think he's supposed to be made even more mercurial that he's been very private about his family for much of his career. He clarifies a great deal of personal information including his controversial intimate life. Rebecca Walker's auto -biography (which ironically contains a nameless and justifiably unflattering reference to The Who's nemesis and first producer Shel Talmy) also bravely confronted sexual doubts, desires and defiance. Like Walker, Townshend adds nothing prurient, apologetic or salacious; he's simply honest. As Pete has always been a great writer the tome is of course light years ahead of the proverbial ghost written tabloid style 'celeb bio'.
Ultimately, this book shows Pete's Townshend's ability to class shift. He endured bizarre instability and clearly lived too much of an at risk, itinerant life as a small child to be squarely middle class like his former wife Karen Astley yet he did not grow up proper council house working class like Daltrey or John Lydon did. Clearly being from an unstable, professional but not vastly solvent musical family gave him his class shifting abilities. Thus the only caveat for me appears to be a new project Pete is working on called "Floss". The theme and concept sound very staid and middle class given his oeuvre.

 It apparently took Townshend 12 years to complete this book and despite the initial reservations of many fans who were worried he'd ape Keith Richard's 'Life", he pulled it off with equal parts acumen and originality.