Pete Townshend–The Man, The Myth, The Mensch
It seems to be the time of the season for rock star dinosaurs–those who survive, at least–to pick over the bone-yards of their lives and offer up answers to the burning questions all of us flower children have nursed for so many years. Such as, “Just how large is Mick Jagger, really?”
First it was Keith Richards’ sloppy and repetitious Life, which should have had the subtitle “Can you believe I’m still even here?” And now we have Pete Townshend’s Who I Am, 500+ pages of reminisces by the greatest live guitar performer who ever strode onstage. Being a lifetime Who fan, my expectations were a tad higher than they were for the man who removed one of his guitar’s strings because his hand kept accidentally hitting it.
My frustration with these rock-star biographies is that they only touch on those aspects that you really want more of, while giving you reams of material on things you could care less about. In Pete’s case, I would have loved to hear more about the creative process in bringing Tommy and Quadrophenia to the world, and more about the musical interplay between John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, since we won’t be getting that from the principals involved, them being dead and all. There is some of that, but not nearly enough.
OTOH, we get a first-hand account of seemingly every woman who took Pete to bed, a task that does not appear to be all that challenging, given the right equipment and a bottle of Remy Cognac. I began to lose track as Karen faded into Lisa, who faded into Jacqueline, who faded back into Lisa, then Rachel, plus a drunken cameo by Theresa Russell, followed by a falling out with director Nicolas Roeg, who was leaving his own wife for her at the time, etc, etc…
OK, I get it. The guy is sho’ nuff homely, but he scored a lot with beautiful women. Strangely, this does not come across as boasting–more like, “Can you believe this?” But it’s not that hard to believe, Pete. You’re a multimillionaire, a songwriting genius, and a top-notch performer. Until now, the world was largely unaware that offstage you are an insecure mouse with mood swings.
Hey, he said it, not me.
There are more than a few interesting moments along the way, such as the story about the inclusion of the pinball theme (and the resulting song Pinball Wizard) as an afterthought to Tommy because the simple guru story was considered ‘old hat’ by The Guardian‘s young music critic. And Pete’s hastily feckless decision to destroy the 1969 US summer tour concert recordings, some thirty peak shows which had been faithfully compiled by soundman Bob Pridden. Kind of like Picasso saying one day, “You know, on second thought I really find the color blue depressing. Burn all those canvases from 1901 to 1904.”
Then there’s Lifehouse, the Townshend equivalent of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony. Although Lifehouse never got the full-blown treatment originally envisioned by Pete, it was cannibalized for many years for other albums, both with the Who and solo. And my favorite Townshend song, “Pure and Easy”, was the fulcrum song for this doomed project that initially led to Pete’s nervous breakdown. Of course, the non-stop drinking probably had a hand in that as well.
And for a bit of jazz weirdness, there is Pete recounting the time he heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk live at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. Astounded by his musicianship when the blind jazzman played multiple horns, he tired rather quickly when Kirk wandered to the piano instead and began playing two-fisted. Pete whispered to his wife that he would rather hear him play his horns, at which point Kirk–who heard everything–stopped, glared, and walked back center stage: “…where he stuffed six different instruments into his mouth and played while singing at the same time. He looked over at me a few times, as if to make sure I was getting enough horn.”
A year later, Kirk came backstage after a Who performance of Tommy, to give Pete a bear hug and proclaim, “You don’t know what it’s like man, but you gave us blind folk our own opera thing at last! But I ain’t dumb, and I ain’t deaf.” When Pete managed to speak, Kirk recognized his voice from Ronnie Scott’s. “You’re that white motherf*cker who wanted me to stop playing piano at Ronnie’s last year!” And a second, more crushing hug ensued.
After Keith Moon died, I sort of lost interest in the Who, especially when I heard the lackluster Face Dances. But Pete kept going, and lent his talents to a host of causes like Amnesty International, Live Aid, Rock Against Racism, and others. From the book’s last chapter, also called “Who I Am”:
“When you get to my age, charity work becomes a necessary fact of life…It is service of the most humbling kind, and one of the most levelling aspects is being ticked off by press diarists who…believe we only do it for some selfish, self-serving motive, to which I can only say: if you don’t like my trumpet go try blowing one of your own.”
So there it is. If you don’t like it, blow your own.
- Posted in: Profiles