BOOK REVIEW: Pete Townshend: Who I Am

As much of a Beatles fanatic as I am, I'm as big a fan of the Who. In fact, while I absolutely adore everything the Beatles did and count John Lennon and Paul McCartney as two of my favorite (and two of the best) songwriters of all time (along with Ray Davies), for reasons which I've gone into before and will touch on briefly here, the top songwriter in my life has been and always will be Pete Townshend. I don't exaggerate when I say that no other songwriter and guitarist has had a bigger influence on me than Pete. As a musician myself, his songwriting and lyrics are among those I've studied and deconstructed the most over the years and which I've tried to amalgamate into my own songwriting. Likewise, his inventive and fantastic guitar playing is the closest comparison to my own style and ability of anyone else I've ever been influenced by. He and I are both excellent rhythm players, better soloists than we give ourselves credit for, and we both have to find new and interesting ways to express ourselves through the guitar. (Let me stop here and say that I readily acknowledge that I'm not half the guitarist Pete is...his fingerstyle playing continues to blow my mind yet still slightly elude me, while I'm nowhere near the composer or pianist he is). As a fan, his songs have meant more to me than those written by probably anyone else, part of their magic and impact coming from the fact that they mean different things to me now that I'm a grown man than they did when I was a confused teenager, but no less relevant. Finally, as one of the most articulate, intelligent, and ambitious musicians in all of rock music, I'm always interested in what Pete has to say, and his vulnerability, self-esteem issues, and somewhat tortured soul have always fascinated me, not least of all because I can personally relate to them in my own ways.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that I all but worship at the altar of Pete Townshend, so when I first heard the news in 2011 that his long-awaited memoirs would finally be published, to say I eagerly awaited the book would be an understatement. It was released in 2012 and my thoughtful wife bought me a copy for Christmas that year, knowing as she does how much Pete and his music mean to me. I read it cover to cover in a matter of days over the Christmas holiday and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then a funny thing happened...I started to read comments from music fans and Who fans online, on Amazon reviews, and elsewhere and they were a mixed bag. Many people felt the same way as I did and loved the book, but an even larger contingent of fans, as well as reviewers, disliked the book, saying it was too narcissistic and focused too much on Pete's personal life and not enough on the Who. I found this very strange since the whole point of a memoir is to discuss one's entire life, not just the most exciting bits. With that in mind, when it came time to review the book for this site, I decided to give it a fresh re-reading, and so that with that I'll (finally!) get on with it...

Who I Am took Pete many years to write and was originally over 1,000 pages long before his editor and publisher asked him to trim it to just over 500 pages.  When I had first learned this it disappointed me because I would love to read all 1,000 pages that Pete wrote...I remain hopeful that someday an unedited collector's edition of the full manuscript will be published for us hardcore fans. In any event, the book as constituted begins with Pete's birth in London in May 1945, mere days after the end of World War II in Europe. He was born into a musical family: his father Cliff was a saxophone player in the RAF and led a popular dance band called the Squadronaires, while his mother Betty was a well-known singer and dancer. Young Pete was not encouraged to pursue music as a child and in fact, in many ways he was discouraged, mainly by his father. He paints the portrait of a very lonely and isolated childhood, always on the road with his parents when they were performing, and of feeling left out at school. His lone friend was Jimpy, a neighborhood boy he fondly remembers. He was further traumatized at the age of six when he was sent to live with his crazy grandmother Denny, who he later says was literally "insane." His parents' marriage was falling apart due to their alcoholism and persistent extramarital affairs and for some reason that Pete to this day doesn't understand, they thought sending him to live with Denny would help. She was in the beginning stages of severe mental illness and abused him mentally, emotionally, and physically. She also allowed several strange men she would randomly invite in from the bus station across the street to sexually abuse Pete, the memories of which he would suppress until much later in his life. After this harrowing year, Cliff and Betty reconciled and brought Pete back to live with him. It was during these subsequent school years that he befriended future bandmates John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey (the latter who punched Pete on the playground during their first encounter...a rocky start to a lifelong friendship!). After displaying some musical aptitude while noodling on a piano, and encouraged by his beloved Aunt Trilby, Pete took up guitar, taught himself to play, and the rest is the well-known story of the Who.

I don't intend to go into much detail on the Who's career in this review as it's been done to death, both by me right here on this site, as well as countless others. Pete himself goes through their career in good detail, from his time in art college when he joined the Detours in 1961 to the solidifying of their line-up in 1964 and their subsequent career. The interesting part of all of this is how he describes his creative process as he learned how to write songs, developed his home recording studios (an area in which he was a true pioneer), and created masterpieces like Tommy, Who's Next, and Quadrophenia. Throughout this period in the book, he also touches on his feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and the spiritual vacuum that was eventually filled by his becoming a lifelong disciple of Meher Baba in 1968. This went hand in hand with his self-loathing and low self-esteem, especially as he slowly sank further into alcoholism and was sporadically unfaithful to his wife Karen. In fact, it's his constant relationship problems that run throughout almost the entire book which even to such a huge fan as myself, are difficult to comprehend. He was incredibly shy and lacked confidence around girls as a young man, and he didn't have his first sexual experiences with a woman until he was around twenty years old. From that moment on, it's not that he was a serial philanderer in the mold of Mick Jagger or many other of his rock and roll peers; Pete's problem was that he was a serial romantic. Apart from a handful of one-night stands during his years on the road with the Who, he mentions how he tried very hard to stay faithful to Karen, which he able to do for long stretches at a time. However, getting back to the "serial romantic" bit, he was constantly falling in love with other women and embarking on newly obsessive relationships with them. At the same time, he kept professing his love for the long-suffering Karen, wanting desperately to stay married and be a good father to their young children, yet his periods of fulfillment were always countered with flights of fancy with other ladies. As a husband and father myself, this is the biggest aspect of his personality of his that was most difficult for me to understand; it fascinated me that he could rationalize it as much as he did, while at the same time it confused and disturbed me, especially because Pete didn't seem to think there was anything unusual about his marriage or the way he fell in and out of love with just about every woman, including his wife. It was almost anti-climactic when he and Karen finally divorced in the late 1990s after 30 years of marriage (with long stretches of separations over the final decade). He does, however, seem to be finally happy (and faithful!) with Rachel Fuller, with whom he's been in a relationship with since 1996. As he himself admits, much of this is due to her being a workaholic musician and hot-tempered individual, just like him...finally, he has found someone who can relate to him on that level and vice versa.

As for the biggest revelations in the book, in my opinion those would be Pete's discussions about his struggles with alcoholism, his hearing loss, and the scandal involving his investigation of his past childhood sexual abuse which led to his arrest in an online sting operation. Regarding his alcohol abuse, he grew up with two parents who had drinking problems and though he was able to control it reasonably well throughout the main part of the Who's career, after Keith Moon died he used alcohol (and a newly developed drug habit) to cope with his grief. Indeed, he touches on how he has never been good at coping with grief or expressing his sadness, and called the decision to carry on the Who in the wake of Keith's death, especially so quickly, as "insanity." He spent a long time sober in the 1980s but fell off the wagon again until he finally sobered up for good by the mid-1990s. When John Entwistle died in 2002, Pete was no less devastated but was able to handle his grief much better and didn't need alcohol as an emotional crutch. As for his hearing loss, the incredibly loud volumes the Who were famous for playing at during their live career certainly contributed, but Pete also pinpoints several specifics examples of when his hearing was acutely and irreparably damaged, including the famous Smothers Brothers Show performance in 1967 (thanks to Keith Moon purposely overloading the explosive charge in his bass drum), and an instance in the 1970s when the PA speaker stacks fed back so loudly next to him that it brought him to his knees.

And then finally, we get to the "child pornography" scandal that has dogged him to this day, is misunderstood by most of the public, and for which Pete still gets unfairly labeled a pervert. In the late 1990s, Pete had been blogging on his personal website on the evils of exploiting children, a crusade which was inspired by a friend he'd made earlier in the decade who had escaped from a Russian orphanage that was involved in this criminal activity. During a bout of "white knight syndrome" which he now regrets, he accessed a site and paid a small fee on his credit card in order to prove in a subsequent blog post not only how easy this material was to access, but that banks and credit card companies were complicit since they processed the financial transactions that contributed to the abuse of children. He called his bank to cancel the transaction, published his blog post, and thought nothing of it until nearly four years later when he was contacted by investigators and told that he had been caught in a sting called Operation Ore. Pete cooperated fully with authorities, who found nothing on any of his computers from his houses and studios which they forensically examined...they didn't find any images at all. Not only that, but the transaction on Pete's credit card never even went through in the first place because the bank never processed it since they were involved in the sting. However, this last fact wasn't learned by Pete until much later, well after he was presented with two choices by the police: admit his guilt (even though they themselves didn't believe him to be guilty and had cleared him of all wrongdoing) and be placed on a sex offender registry for a few years, or go to trial, plead not guilty, and clear his name. At the point at which he faced this decision, Pete was so tired and stressed from the entire ordeal and didn't want to remain in the public eye and go through the ordeal of a trial, so he took the first option which he has regretted to this very day. Even the revelation of all facts in the case, as well as many of his friends and colleagues, including bandmate Roger Daltrey defending Pete in the media has not done enough to exonerate him in the public's eyes. For Pete, as he explains, it's just something he'll have to live with and his only comfort is that his true friends and fans know the real story.

It's an age-old axiom that you should never meet (or learn too much about) your heroes, because you'll always be let down. I suppose in a way I've always been lucky in that I can separate the person from the art because if that weren't the case, there wouldn't be too much music I would be able to listen to! In the case of Who I Am, the book has done nothing to dampen my admiration for Pete Townshend the musician and musical innovator, and as for Pete Townshend the person, apart from his confusing views on love and marriage (which, given the strange and dysfunctional marriage of his parents, which involved his mother having a long-time boyfriend on the side that she made no effort to hide from Pete or his dad, explains why Pete had this attitude himself), there was nothing that made me like him any less. In most cases I was able to understand and appreciate why he is the way he is a lot more than I did before I read his book. A criticism often levelled at this book is that Pete is too verbose, pretentious, and that he goes on and on about boring things like the various houses and boats he's owned, or his recording studios. For me, I could listen to/read about Pete talk about recording gear and technique all day, but that's probably because I'm a musician myself...I realize that more casual or non-musician fans would find this boring. I can see certainly where these multiple criticisms come from and they do have some validity, as even I got a bit tired of reading about every house Pete decided to buy on a whim (to his credit, he is honest about the fact that he's rich and privileged in ways most of us aren't), but at the same time anyone who is enough of a Townshend fan to want to read this book should already have a pretty good idea going into it what he's like. Again with the disclaimer that I'm a massive Townshend fan, my only major complaint with the book is that I wanted sincere hope is to someday read the unedited 1,000 page manuscript. Otherwise, the book is enjoyable, easy to read, brutally honest and candid, and contains numerous examples of the trademark Townshend dry humor as well as some very insightful and thought-provoking passages. It's not a perfect book but it's damn good...needless to say, whether you end up loving or hating the book, it's essential reading for any Who fan.



  1. Good review. If I were innocent, I don't think I could plead guilty unless the law was jury rigged so that pleading not guilty would hurt me in doing so ie. West Memphis Three. But again, it's hard to judge someone unless you have walked in their shoes, so you just have to accept it or not. I think some of Pete's past informed his future ie. his parent's relationship. I guess you could go either way, either, I'm not letting that happen to me and my relationships or mirror the situation.

    I used to work at a railroad, mostly men, and you saw quite a few guys that would mess around on their wives/families. I never understood it, plus many had been divorced multiple times. Eventually they'll settle down once their sex drive diminishes, but most of the time it's a little too late financially. Many wives, houses, and child support payments later will really wreck your financial situation. Sometimes rather than erectile dysfunction meds someone should create sexual diminishing meds for men, maybe some women too.

    Saw a good DVD the other day called The Wrecking Crew about the studio musicians who played backup for so many musicians and singers during the 60's. Bands like the Beach Boys, the Association, the Monkees, Phil Spector bands, and many others, some surprising.

    There's also another music related DVD on Glen Campbell I saw recently called, I'll Be Me about his recent ordeals with Alzheimer disease.

    1. I'm with you, if I absolutely knew I wasn't guilty and the police TOLD ME that I was in the clear, I'd probably fight it to the end to make sure my name was cleared. I can understand Pete being worn down mentally and emotionally and just wanting to move on from the situation, but it seems like the solution he chose ended up causing more grief for him in the long-term, at least in the perception that a large part of the public now has of him. Again, like you said though, unless you've walked in his shoes, it's hard to say how any of us would react to a situation like that.

      The Wrecking Crew basically WERE the Beach Boys, in the studio at least, by the mid-1960s. Pet Sounds is basically Brian and the WC with the other BB's putting vocals on top. Weird "band" dynamic, for sure.


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