Monday, November 19, 2012

"Who I Am" by Pete Townshend (2012)

Art schools, or colleges, in England during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, produced some of the most influential musicians of the modern age. From the Beatles to groups such as the Kinks, Rolling Stones and even the Who, these “art schools” played a tremendously important part in the cultural upheaval that defined the 1960’s. With it came the friction between 2 generations; one tested by 2 world wars and an economic Depression; the other born after those hard days were over. It’s almost as if, after fighting for so long, the older generation had to fight with someone, and so the new enemy became the new youth culture.

“A Quick One”, performed on “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”, was the initial influence for the later creation of the rock opera “Tommy”. The song had been born of necessity as the group had 10 minutes left to fill an album, prompting Pete Townshend to write the 10 minute “mini-opera”. It is largely autobiographical, as were parts of “Tommy.” This was a very fascinating section of the book for me, as I have always been a fan of “A Quick One”, and having its meaning explained in terms of the author’s own experiences growing up makes it even more enjoyable to listen to. The story involves Mr. Townshend’s growing up in a very dysfunctional home, with his mother having an intense affair, which split the family apart and had Pete living with his grandmother, who was also equally dysfunctional. It was during this period of his youth that he was molested. These early years would come to define much of his life and the choices he made regarding his expressions of anger and violence in his work.

Exploring the early work of bands such as The Small Faces; later The Faces with Ronnie Wood and Ronnie Lane; Mr. Townshend is able to paint a vivid picture of the arts scene in England at the time, and which would then reverberate around the world. His work on his solo albums, as well as the story behind his all too brief collaboration with Ronnie Lane on “Rough Mix” was of special interest to me. That album, which is one of my favorites, encompasses folk, country, rock and even a wonderful number called “Street in the City”, in which Mr. Townshend accompanies an orchestra with his acoustic guitar to create a musical portrait of a city street on a “working day.” I was surprised at the many characters in that song who come from the author’s own childhood.
This is also the story of Jim Marshall and the creation of the Marshall Stack amplifiers, which were a great leap forward as they allowed the musician to recreate, in person, the power formerly relegated to the studio.  Also of great interest are Mr. Townshend’s own contributions to the fusion of light and sound in order to bring to life the visions in his own head and create a “new” form of musical expression.

In so many ways The Who enabled the arrival of bands such as Led Zeppelin, and even Jimi Hendrix, who first came to Pete Townshend for help in creating his sound using the Marshall Stack system. But the music scene was a two-way street, and Mr. Townshend freely admits his admiration for groups such as The Kinks, and their early attempts at rock operas such as “The Village Green Preservation Society” and their later album “Arthur-The Fall of the British Empire”, as influences on his own work.
From Mods and Rockers, and on through “Quadrophenia”, Mr. Townshend hacked out a new avenue of approach to the music of a younger generation. His destruction of musical instruments as a form of aggressive expression became a mainstay of the earlier Who performances, and the author credits the beginnings of his hearing loss to the explosion on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967.
Through his manic depression, drinking, and limited use of LSD, the author is honest and candid about his own failings, and unflinching in his criticism of others when they deserve it. In exploring his beginning interest in the teachings of Meher Baba; which eventually became his spiritual haven; he lends a unique insight into one of the world’s most well-known rock icons.
Surprisingly, though they were all close friends, they never did seem to share the camaraderie of let’s say the Beatles, or even the Rolling Stones. Mr. Townshend puts that down to two things; the first being that he is, by nature, a loner; the next being that he has never been comfortable with co-writing anything, let alone a song. In spite of their many differences over the years, the 4 men remained close until the untimely deaths of both Keith Moon and John Entwistle.
The author has penned one of the better rock autobiographies, and this book stands tall, right alongside them all. Being a rock star has a certain allure, but beneath it all, they suffer from  the same insecurities which afflict us all.

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