Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am

close-up of photo of Pete Townshend from his book 'Who I Am,' image from prefixmag.com


Those who know me are well aware of two of my greatest passions: writing and music. While I have zero talent at the latter, I hope I have enough friends, family, and fans who would say I have something to offer regarding the former.

As a result, I would seemingly scoop up every book I could about some of my favorite musicians. However, my experience in reading biographies leans toward them feeling like long magazine interviews which merely report the events of some famous person's life without any real insight from the very person who is the focus of the article.

I'm even more skeptical of autobiographies. While the idea of hearing a musician tell his or her own story sounds appealing, the reality is that they are musicians, not writers. I'm happy to hear musical giants wail on their guitars or sing their lungs out. I'm not so sure they need to hole up and recast their personal journals into some format for public consumption. Let me reiterate: they are musicians, not writers.

Of course, there are those musicians who have great appeal precisely because of the literate storytelling they bring to their music. This is certainly the case with Pete Townshend, the chief songwriter for The Who. Here was a man who built his reputation on rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. In his solo work, he continued to pursue more involved themes for his albums and often conceived them in broader contexts such as theater and film. Outside of music, he'd even worked with a publishing company, dabbled in music journalism, and written short stories and novellas.

I still approached his autobiography with caution. In tackling previous such works about musicians, I wanted hints about what inspired these people. What makes them iconic? Is it simply an overabundance of talent? A strong work ethic? A supersized ego that will accept nothing less than being revered by the world? Is it all just luck?

Instead, these books typically glorify of the decadent rock 'n' roll lifestyle. How much did I want to dive into another account of a gifted musician with a troubled childhood who carries out childish behavior throughout his adult life? Do I need to know, yet again, that rock stars seem predisposed to overindulge in drugs and alcohol to the point of ruining themselves? In case their substance abuse issues aren't enough, these narcissists sabotage their intimate relationships with a string of sexual dalliances and largely become absentee fathers.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, that's essential what I had determined. I was dismayed that Pete Townshend was, in fact, the stereotypical rocker with all these faults and a seeming unawareness or disassociation with the effect his behavior had on those around him.

Keith Moon, drummer for The Who;
image from sportsgrid.com

For example, those versed in The Who would see the death of drummer Keith Moon as one of, if not the, pivotal moment in the band's history. Townshend almost saw it as a mere bump in the road. As he confesses,

"I haven't been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies. It's a terrible defect that makes me appear cold-hearted...In the case of Keith, my reaction was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane...I called a meeting with Roger and pressed him to join me in taking The Who on the road" (p. 309).

He writes that at the funeral "my eyes were hard and dry" (310). In the next paragraph, he's recruiting Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, to take over drums. Moon died on page 308. By page 310, he's history.

Townshend is at least aware of his aloofness. He addresses it again in regards to how he treats his family:

"I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn't give a toss for fatherhood - he needed freedom" (410).

With roughly 100 pages to go, I was perturbed. Townshend wasn't showing much in the way of redeemable qualities. He occasionally expressed regret about cheating on his wife when he was on the road, but he certainly didn't stop. He wrote about giving up alcohol and drugs and then falling off the wagon with a removed nonchalance.

I might have been able to forgive these indiscretions if I'd at least got the other element from the book I wanted - insight into the mind of a musical genius. The closest I got was a paragraph in the third chapter of the book:

I "was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly, I was hearing music within the music - rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I'd been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of atrance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea - and to what might be described as the music of the spheres" (30).

The Who's 'Quadrophenia' used the sea prominently,
image from allmusic.com

This is pretty good stuff. It hints at what makes a musical genius tick. From there on, however, we get a pretty methodical account of how The Who came together as a band, how Townshend immersed himself in writing and recording in home studios, and struggling with bringing his ideas to fruition. There isn't a lot in the way of revelation as to why he became one of the biggest musicians on the planet. In fact, when The Who first launched, he assumed it would be a short-term thing and he could eventually go back to what he really wanted to do - art school.

This is also where I finally come to a point about writing. Be it a work of fiction or non-fiction (or my own rambling blog), a piece of writing needs an overall intent or purpose - a theme. Autobiographies tread dangerous ground in just becoming an outlet for someone to turn their scribblings in a journal into a book. In the case of Townshend's work, I would have liked more of a message. What did he learn from his mistakes? What inspired him? Give me some foreshadowing - after all, you know how this all ends.

So, in the end, I did learn something about Townshend, but I also learned something important about myself and what I want in my own writing. Be purposeful. Know your intent and make sure the overall work plays into that. I may have to revisit this blog and check myself on that very point. In the meantime, I'll just borrow the title of one of Townshend's songs to prompt you into asking of yourself, "Who Are You?"


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