Tonawanda News

May 12, 2013

BOOK NOOK: An old rocker looks back, and it's not pretty

By Ed Adamczyk
The Tonawanda News

— The elder statesmen of rock music — those who have survived at least — are doing something normally reserved for old men who burn up their lives in wing chairs before the fireplace. They’re writing memoirs, and turning them into ink-and-paper books.

Keith Richards and Steve Tyler are among those with stories to tell, but the most interesting, thus far, is Pete Townshend’s, 50-year leader of The Who. 

His book “Who I Am” is stunningly candid, and something of a confessional — not apologies for sex and drugs and trashed hotel rooms, but of acknowledgements of childhood sexual abuse, for example, which led to a lifetime of feelings of inadequacy and anger.

Townshend goes uncomfortably deep into his own damaged psyche here. The book has plenty of anecdotes the crowd at “Entertainment Tonight” would find deliciously airworthy, but it’s far more than that. It’s a look at the life work of a deeply introspective man playing an on-stage hooligan in a business famously tough on its practitioners.

It is also less than a few things. I suspect a person with little knowledge of the history of rock music would not learn much by reading Townshend’s book. He leaves out a lot— many of his achievements, for example — to stick with the psychological underpinnings of his life. So he created the rock opera, smashed instruments on stage, led the band that was the radio equivalent of pop art, got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the introductions of the “C.S.I” franchise, and is still on the road 50 years on; the book concerns how Townshend felt about it, and readers, he was not as thrilled as you might think.

The leader of The Who regards his life, evidently, as a knot to be painfully unwound, and it can be uncomfortable for the reader, even if a Who fan, to follow him as he attempts it. The book, then, is about a celebrity’s vulnerabilities, yet it does not come off as random whining of the rich and famous. It also does not come off as a rock star’s list of hits and successes.

“Who I Am” is a very, very good book, about a vastly talented and durable artist whose numerous insecurities were used to propel him to success, but were never resolved until, possibly, he wrote the book. It’s funny, in a way, that these old rockers require the antiquated medium of a memoir to put a coda on their life’s work (we await David Bowie’s). The product is a little predictable, except in Townshend’s case; the guy who wrote the rock opera explains the operatic convulsion inside him, to sometimes startling effect.

We longtime Who fans could almost have expected this, and now we’ve got it. This band seemed never to be in it for the money (destroying the equipment onstage every night meant shopping for new equipment in the morning), although the payment was plentiful. No band ever gave more, or demanded more, of its audience, and when its leader writes his biography we expect fewer lists of sets and concert dates, and more of the motivation behind each step along the way.

We get it here, a long confessional about Pete Townshend. I suspect he’d have been like this no matter what career path he chose, but he chose rock and roll auteur. The world is better for it, as well as for his story, at the expense of the artist.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

•••

• WHAT: "Who I Am: A Memoir"

• BY: Pete Townshend

• GRADE: A