“As I raised the stuttering guitar above my head, I felt I was holding up the bloodied standard of endless centuries of mindless war. Explosions. Trenches. Bodies. The eerie screaming of the wind. I had made my choice, for now. It would be music.” (Who I Am, 62)
I should reveal my bias right away: I consider the Who the greatest band in rock and roll history. At the height of their career, they were revolutionary, always pushing their creativity and musicianship beyond expectations and into new territory. Aside from technical innovation, the Who were also fantastic performers, constantly infusing their music with an explosive energy that few other bands could match. Years after I originally heard the band, I still have chills when listening to certain songs.
Considering my fanaticism for the band, my decision to read an autobiography by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and principal songwriter for the Who, might be one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made. I didn’t simply want to read Who I Am, I needed to read it.
In Who I Am, Townshend describes his entire life and career thus far, from his troubled childhood and socially awkward teen years to his rise to fame and his life after the dissolution of the Who. As a fan, the sections about the band and their music are more interesting to me, but I did enjoy reading about the origin of such a legendary songwriter. In interviews promoting the memoir, Townshend discussed the sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of his grandmother, but he wisely avoids specific details in the book itself, focusing more on the effect it later had on his creativity and life. This omission works well, because he garners sympathy without shocking or unsettling the reader.
Being a non-fiction book, Who I Am does not have characters in the regular sense, but Pete Townshend is able to describe the people in his life in a way that gives them complexity. One of the reasons the Who had such explosive energy is that the four members had such distinct personalities; whenever they played, each member competed with the others, trying to pull the music in a certain direction. Townshend based his rock-opera Quadrophenia on the differences between the members, so he takes some time in that section to address the chemistry of the band. Likewise, he has opportunities to provide depth to the individuals. For example, the late drummer Keith Moon had a reputation as a party animal, but Pete explains that the parties were a way for Moon to cope with the jealousy he felt about his girlfriend. Small details about the band are revealed throughout the memoir, which makes the book worth reading for fans who might not know everything about the Who.
Of course, Pete Townshend includes details about people other than his band mates. While some rock stars might remember their wilder days fondly, Pete shows regret for many of his actions, especially the ones that hurt his ex-wife and family. His remorse might take the fun out of the book for some readers who want to read about the hedonism of rock and roll, but for me it made Townshend more human. It also reminded me about why he’s one of my favourite songwriters: he’s very thoughtful and intellectual. He’s always critiquing his own decisions and considering how he could have acted differently.
Pete Townshend adopts a very journalistic style in Who I Am. He is very direct and tries to sound objective when describing moments during his life. The style can be a little dry occasionally, but for the most part, it’s very effective. There are some sections where I wish he would have elaborated more upon the creative process, such as when he talks about recording my favourite album Quadrophenia, but that’s simply based on my personal taste. He goes into more detail about Tommy, which makes sense because it was a bigger moment in the band’s history. My only other complaint is that Townshend spends a lot of time detailing the recording equipment in every home studio he made. I’m sure those details are important for historical purposes and interesting for those who are knowledgeable in recording, but they mean little to me.
I rarely read memoirs or non-fiction books unless I’m very interested in the topic, and Who I Am easily fits the bill. The Who is my favourite band and I enjoy reading about the stories and people behind the music. Aside from some small complaints, I really loved the book and I recommend it to anyone who also likes the Who or wants to read about Pete’s rock and roll lifestyle. Clearly, the book isn’t for everyone, because each person will have their own opinion (or lack thereof) regarding The Who, but as a fan who waited a long time for this book to be released, I’m satisfied. I give Who I Am a 4.5 out of 5.
What does everyone think about biographies? If you have read some, what was your favourite? Do you read non-fiction books often or rarely? Let me know what you think below.