Book Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townsend

I was a fairly big fan of the band The Who. I never bought any of their singles – I wasn’t much into 45s – and the first album I picked up wasn’t until Tommy (1969), but I purchased every studio album since, the earlier The Who Sell Out, as well as Live at Leeds and a couple compilations.

The lead guitarist of The Who, Pete Townsend, has written an extraordinary book, Who I Am. Part of the great strength of the book is based on Townsend’s fortunate habit of keeping journals.

The first part has amazing detail about his parents and grandparents even before he was born. I’m jealous; I wish I had such information about my recent ancestors. Then he talks about the development of the band. I’ve read any number of rock biographies, some of them quite good. It’s different, though, when one hears the story from the point of view of one of the participants, especially one who writes so well and so thoroughly.

The development of the rock opera Tommy is fully explained. It utilizes, as a jumping off point, some the actual abuse Pete experienced while in a grandparent’s care. He added the pinball motif fairly late in the game, in order to get a better review.

He explores the stresses on the now successful band, after Woodstock, Live at Leeds, and the Who’s Next album. In some ways, the pressure was just as great as when the band struggled to find an identity. The smashed guitars were an artistic expression, not just random mayhem.

Somewhere in this period, particularly after Who drummer Keith Moon died, I was hoping that Pete would stop with the sex and drugs, and stick to the rock and roll. His (now ex-)wife Karen must have been a saint. He could not quit the booze until 1994, though he had tried as early as 1981.

Townsend summarizes, right before his successful abstinence: “Although my marriage was failing, I had a beautiful son as well as two beautiful daughters who were doing well at university, I had fallen in love, and the girl I had found was slowly falling in love with me too. And I was rich. So what was messing me up?

“It would be easy to point to alcohol, but the problem wasn’t the booze; it was the fact that it longer worked as a medicine to fix the dire consequences of my self-obsession, overwork, selfishness and manic-depression.”

I enjoyed watching his interaction with a variety of musicians, from the evolving relationship with Who singer Roger Daltry to folks such as Joan Baez, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.

A great read, which he started way back in 1996, and once Pete got his head on straight, I wanted to read more. The false accusation that he was dealing in child pornography wounded him greatly. He foresaw a day when music would be delivered digitally long before it happened. An interesting feature, mostly in the latter half of the text, are footnotes to The Who website, probably in part a function of having to reduce the manuscript from 1000 pages to 500.

Highly recommended.
Rolling Stone book review.

Pete Townshend receives 2013 Les Paul Award.

Lefty Brown reviews Quadrophenia.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townsend”

  1. Love Tommy, but I’m a nut for rock operas in general. Phantom of Paradise is great.

    Like the Who, but I’ve never actually bought one of their albums.

    I generally hate autobiographies (my inner cynic: “Oh, sure, write your own myth”), but this one I might try out. You make it sound pretty good.


  2. Pete Townsend… I know he is almost completely deaf from playing in front of loud speakers. Years of other types of self-abuse have been taking their toll as well, so it’s good he got this book together.

    I don’t blame him for the child-porn debacle, and before anyone jumps on me, let me be clear: VICTIMS OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE OFTEN REPEAT THE CYCLE, either through feeling sexually stimulated by seeing someone else abused, or by becoming an abuser. I’m only glad he remained a voyeur, and I am a constant critic of the child-porn business. But frankly, as long as men are in control and possess “joy sticks,” child porn and prostitution will be around. Sad.

    Somehow I knew instinctively, years ago, that Townsend was a member of the “child sex abuse club” when I heard Tommy. The song, “Fiddle About,” is an exact commentary. I believe that Freddie Mercury’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” can be read in the same context.

    The Who are now in the chips forever, thanks to royalties from CSI’s various franchises using Who songs. I wish him well and hope he attends recovery groups, even those just for celebs. Hard to go 12-step when you’re famous. Thanks for this Roger! Amy


    1. Amy – as is written in the book, he HATES child porn, had heard there was such a site, wanted to investigate it, did one time, and by that very act was labeled wrongly.


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