Back in my own miserable youth, the guy was legendary: a stunning performer, a songwriter gifted in expressing angst, anger, unhappiness. He was articulate and intelligent. He annoyed a lot of people. He was also, unlike the obvious rock-god Daltrey, a bit odd-looking. He wasn’t cool, just as we, as kids, weren’t cool. He was one of us. Quadrophenia seemed to sum up everything it meant to be young in England, even if the events it referenced took place many years and many miles from where we lived. Here was the whole teenage soap opera blown up to apocalyptic levels – perhaps something of what The Hunger Games has become for today’s youth, but grittier and more clued-in.
That, however, was a peak, and there was only one way left to go. A couple of rather lacklustre Who albums followed. Punk arrived. The music changed, and we moved on. So did Townshend. He worked for Faber & Faber, and produced a book of short stories, Horse’s Neck, very promising and with a few real gems. It looked as if a literary career might follow, but this – like so many other projects we would hear of through the years – failed to materialise.
Now, though, we have Who I Am, the autobiography, and it seems Townshend’s life has been even more confused, complex and extreme than we might guess. It begins with the portrait of an era, as Britain struggles to recover from the War, and ends as an account of a single, extraordinary life. As is customary in such books, there are scores to be settled – lots of them – and they’re all with Pete Townshend. He is here in all his ignominy: bad husband, absent father, romantic fantasist, alcoholic, drug addict… It’s as if he’s envisioned some future Albert Goldman hatchet job and decided to pre-empt it. In contrast, he seldom has a harsh word for anybody else. There are pop music figures it’s become fashionable to tell bad tales about, but if Townshend has any (and he almost certainly has) he keeps them to himself, preferring to redress the balance. He remarks on Paul McCartney’s political awareness; recounts an act of kindness from Jim Morrison towards a female fan. This sense of generosity is one of the things which make this sometimes harrowing book such a pleasure to read. Even in relating the events of his early life, he seeks to understand, rather than blame.
And it’s in childhood we find the essence of Pete Townshend, what comic books would call his “secret origin”. Born of a tempestuous, off-on marriage between a leading dance-band saxophonist and a singer, there was little stability in Townshend’s early life. At six he was sent away to live with his grandmother, a woman with clear mental health problems. There was a constant air of eroticism, as she chased after servicemen, bus drivers and, it seems, almost anybody else. At this time, Townshend believes that he was sexually abused, though the details continue to evade him. This, he suggests, may be a blessing: some memories are better lost.
His parents didn’t encourage his musicality. Nonetheless, swing was dying, replaced by “beat groups” and Townshend found his niche. Music gave him power and identity; he never lost an argument on stage, though admits that he was something of a wimp off. Yet the stage persona came at a cost, and there were times the mere idea of touring with the Who filled him with panic. He did tour, but he also did a great many other things. In fact, he was insanely busy, recording, writing, producing, running various businesses and doing charity work. He discovers, rather to his own surprise, that his royalties have made him a millionaire. Following this, the narrative becomes surreal. He is still unhappy. Ironically, he worries about money: can he really afford all those charter flights to visit his new-born son? Estranged from his wife, he sleeps in the rock star equivalent of the garden shed (in fact, his home recording studio). Then one day, seeking to donate to Russian orphanages, he happens upon a child porn website. He becomes involved in treatment of abuse victims. He investigates the role legitimate banks play in handling money from child porn sites. Then the police come knocking at his door…
Journalist Duncan Campbell has criticised Operation Ore, which netted Townshend and other innocents along with genuine paedophiles. In print, though, Townshend is kind to the officers who arrested him, remarking on their honesty – he feared he was about to be set up – and recounting how one of them went out and bought him a burger during the interview.
Since then, he has continued to work too hard. CSI keeps some of his best tunes before the public. And now we have this book, the true story of Tommy, the damaged boy who, through an apparently trivial skill – pinball, pop music – achieves a remarkable life. He doesn’t seem to have enjoyed a lot of it, but that’s alright: we can.