Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am“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 Am4.5 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.

All That’s 90s is New Again

I don’t typically write about music here, but I do love music and I have noticed an interesting trend that excites me.  First, let me mention that, for the most part, my musical tastes formed in the late 1990s.  I like music from all decades, but the alternative rock in the 90s came at the right moment, when I was nearing the age where I could explore music in a complex way.  As years passed, the mainstream radio focused more on pop and hip-hop, leaving me disappointed and nostalgic for the 90s again.

A group of rock bands who were popular in the 90s – Third Eye Blind, Eve 6, Matchbox Twenty, Everclear, Blink-182, among others – seemed to drop off the radar roughly around 2003 and stopped making music for most of the nine years since.  Third Eye Blind finally released their fourth album, Ursa Major, in 2009, and Blink-182’s 2011 album Neighborhoods came after an eight-year hiatus, but so far 2012 is topping them all with four albums from bands who have been silent for a while.  I thought I would focus on them:

Eve 6Speak in Code (released April 24th)Often incorrectly labeled a one-hit-wonder band because of “that heart-in-a-blender song” (It’s called “Inside Out,” okay?), Eve 6 was able to maintain a dedicated following between their 2003 album It’s All In Your Head and this year’s Speak in Code.  The new album sounds a lot like their second effort Horrorscope, though, which works out well because that was a fantastic record.  The first radio single from Speak in Code was “Victoria,” but I actually prefer “Lost & Found”:

 

Matchbox TwentyNorth (coming out September 4th).  I just heard their new single “She’s So Mean” this morning, which was good enough to inspire this post.  Matchbox hasn’t been completely out of the spotlight in the past decade, having released five new songs on Exile on Mainstream in 2007 (then there are the Rob Thomas solo albums, which don’t sound entirely different from Matchbox Twenty), but it’s good to see the band back together to make a new full-length album again (their first since More Than You Think You Are from 2002).  After the first listen, “She’s So Mean” was stuck in my head.  It doesn’t sound like a specific older song from the band, but it’s catchy and it has their signature sound. If the other songs are just as good, North could be really great.  Listen to “She’s So Mean” below:

 

EverclearInvisible Stars (coming out June 26th).  I have to be honest, I haven’t been as excited about this release compared to the others.  Everclear had one of my favourite albums from the 90s, So Much for the Afterglow (featuring such hits as “Father of Mine” and “I Will Buy You A New Life“), but they have been in a slump in the past ten years.  After two of the members left in 2003, frontman Art Alexakis decided to replace them with a random assortment of other musicians, whom he also replaced a few years later.  He then made two albums that seemingly consisted of remakes of his old hits and covers.  Needless to say, Everclear is probably the band that should have been on a break for nine years.  But, hearing their new song “Be Careful What You Ask For,” it’s hard not to be nostalgic and hopeful.  Perhaps the original excitement of Everclear could re-surface after a decade of underwhelming decisions.  Listen to the song below:

 

LitThe View from the Bottom (coming out June 19th).  Lit is known best for their late-90s ode to self-destructive behaviour, “My Own Worst Enemy,” but they continued to make records until their self-titled release in 2004.  The band has experienced some changes in their line-up between that album and this year’s The View from the Bottom, with the band adding an extra guitarist and hiring a replacement for drummer Allen Shellenberger, who unfortunately passed away in 2009 from cancer.  However, the band’s sound and attitude have appeared to survive unscathed.  In their slightly-crude new single “You Tonight” (guess which word is omitted from that title), Lit rock out with the same energy that they had over a decade ago:

These albums might not live up to the past works of these bands, but I’m just happy they’re releasing music at all.  Eve 6, Everclear, Matchbox Twenty, and Lit all represent an important time in my life, and even their new songs make me nostalgic about that time.

To end this post, I thought I would share a recent mashup of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” and the 90s hit “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind.  The mashup is made by Dan Chamberlain, also known as Chambaland.  It’s not an entirely new song, but to me it shows how good the music of the 90s was, because I prefer this version over the regular “Call Me Maybe”:

That’s it for today.  Don’t worry – I will talk about books again soon.