WHO I AM
By Pete Townshend
HarperCollins, 538 pages, UK£20
Review by Joseph O’Connor
Pennie Smith’s iconic cover photograph for The Clash’s brilliant 1979 album London Calling
famously depicts their bassist Paul Simenon pounding the floor of a stage with his Fender
Precision bass as though trying to bludgeon a hole through the floorboards. But like almost
everything else that was acclaimed as new and revolutionary about punk, the image had its
roots in the past. Johnny Rotten was a Dickensian urchin, the Artful Dodger grown up. Billy
Bragg was Woody Guthrie plugged in. Siouxsie and the Banshees were like stragglers from
Isherwood’s Berlin who had gorged on early Bowie and Iggy Pop. Central to punk’s origins,
if usually unacknowledged, was an explosive band of misfits called The Who. They opened
their shows the way dynamite opens a safe. The Beatles had claimed all you needed was love, a
beautiful contention that no sane adult has ever believed. But The Who’s idea of stagecraft was
to destroy their instruments while you watched. Sid Vicious, they made seem a wuss.
Their founder member Pete Townshend opens this eye-poppingly readable and long anticipated
memoir with his account of the pub gig, in June 1964, during which he first reduced a
Rickenbacker to rubble. He would do it again many times in the subsequent decades. Indeed,
the opening artwork of this book shows a carefully staged re-enactment of the ‘auto-destruction’
that would become one of his trademarks, with Townshend, now 67, smashing up a guitar while
apparently unaware of the cumbersome bunch of keys incongruously dangling from his belt.
It’s like watching a slightly prosperous Fine Gael voter go suddenly bonkers while listening to
Who I Am traces a fascinating and circuitous journey from Townshend’s student days at Ealing
Art College to the pill-popping Mod subculture of 1960s London, from there to the delirium of
international stardom, the flamboyances of rock opera and the high tide of the Woodstock stage
and beyond. He wanted to call his band ‘The Hair’, a close escape, proving that a rose by any
other name actually doesn’t smell as sweet. There are not many rock legends who went on to
be editors for Faber and Faber, publishing the writings of Jean Genet, Ted Hughes and Harold
Pinter, as Townshend did, turning up to work every morning in a limo. He has lived a long,
strange journey, and he recalls it with a stylish carefulness and an admirable degree of sang-
Like so many of his searching generation of post-war English musicians, this son of an Acton
saxophonist father and a jazz-singing mother began with an attraction to the blues. We will never really know why one tributary of the folk music of black America, radically reshaped
by recording technology and internal migration, inspired legions of besotted imitators on
the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, the happiest accident in all of Twentieth Century popular
culture. The magnificent Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy were among
young Townshend’s idols. But he quickly wearied of what he regarded as the limitations of the
three-chord-trick and the faintly cringe-inducing cul-de-sac of white middle-class suburbanites
emoting about the injustices of the Mississippi Delta or the mean streets of wintry Chicago.
Elvis he found corny, ‘a drawling dope singing songs about dogs’. Bill Haley’s Rock Around
the Clock at least swung. But from his earliest teens young Pete regarded himself as an artistic
pioneer, a struggler to find a musical language capable of incarnating anything meaningful about
the grungy discontents he saw around him.
The Mod movement, with its derision of greasy rock clichés and its Wildean sense of style as
substance, gave him a look and a context for his restlessness. The ‘lovely Irish Mod girls’ of
London were part of the attraction. (Irish people having recreational sex in London? In 1964?
Why was a whole generation of Irish novelists never told??) With one of them he lost his
virginity and a little of his crippling shyness, but he soon outgrew the parka and the pose. His early meetings with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are recalled with generosity, a really
touching and wide-eyed affection. This is a book by a music fan, first and last, a figure that for
all his avowed ‘musical self-certainty’ seems unaware of his own immense contribution to the
genre that burst his world into life.
Hearing the chugging mesmeric riff of Booker T and the MG’s ‘Green Onions’ opened doors.
He tried to do with the electric guitar what black American soul musicians were doing with
the Hammond Organ and with that most nuanced of instruments, the voice. Townshend, a
figure who really did change rock music, in that he invented the power-chord, that muscular
punctuation of the form’s basic grammar, writes with the attractive combination of deftness
and forcefulness he always displayed in his playing. He was famous for ‘windmilling’ the
guitar, a form of reiterated looping thrash, and if the book is sometimes a tad repetitive, as those
windmills could be too -- well, what the heck, it’s Pete Townshend, let him thrash if wants to,
since he does it far better than most. If in doubt, stick on The Who’s Live at Leeds while you’re
reading this memoir, as this reviewer happily did, at high volume. All sorts of things occur to the
listener of such a stunning document. The main one is that economy can be overrated.
A self-searching, ruminative and troubled man emerges often from this long account. He
suffered heartbreaking abuse as a boy, was prone to ‘depression and paranoia’, always felt like
an outsider and has spent many years in psychotherapy. His early song ‘I Can’t Explain’ was
played up-tempo and became a classic. But the struggle to explain the inexplicable has been at
him a long time. he photographs of Townshend that illustrate this book show the particular
combination of watchfulness and sadness you often see in the eyes of those whose childhood was
Bands, like most other families, are often bound together by a whole nexus of loyalties only
one of which is love. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce once remarked of their own band, Cream,
that it was essentially a jazz group but they decided never to tell their oversensitive guitarist
Eric Clapton this fact, lest it upset him and cause him to leave. Somewhat similarly, the version
of The Who that appears in these pages is a coalition rather than a band of true brothers. Their
notorious drummer, Keith Moon, an anarchic spirit laid waste by the excesses of stardom, is
evocatively and affectionately remembered here. But there is also, perhaps unconsciously,
a fulgurating acknowledgement of the pain involved in loving a Gas Character. ‘Things they
do look awful c-c-c-cold,’ snarled The Who in ‘My Generation’, their remorselessly brilliant
anthem of stuttering teenage fury. ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ But Keith Moon and bassist John
Entwistle did just that. A great song, a great slogan, but an empty one.
Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey comes across as a generous and fascinating presence, a wise, tough
and lovable survivor, possessed of a measured intelligence. This reviewer happened to see him
a couple of years ago in a pub in London’s Soho, looking hale of heart and leather of trouser. He
appeared three times healthier than most of the establishment’s youthful clientele. You would see
more fat on a chip.
There has never been a really satisfactory biography of The Who, one of the most exciting
and perennially influential rock bands of all time. But this readable, honest, indeed bracingly
frank account by an insider will do very well until we get one. For those many of us frightened children who couldn’t play guitar but sometimes wondered what it would be like to smash one
to pieces before stalking regally from the stage, in an alleluia of screaming feedback, back to the
magistracy of our haunted solitudes, it’s a compelling and moving read.