Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Townshend memoir takes readers on windmill ride

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WHO guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend attempts in this reflective, warts-and-all memoir to answer the question first posed in the 1978 recording Who Are You.

Well, it seems the frenetic performer known for wild leaps and guitar smashing onstage is the sum of many influences and traits, and a man who was as unsure of the answer to his question as were his legions of fans.

When a record label executive tells him, "Your fans don't know who you are any more," the guitarist reflects: "Had they ever known? Even now I'm trying to find out who I am."

The Who was embraced by hordes of British and North American fans as much for its stage craft as its hit songs like My Generation, Magic Bus, See Me, Feel Me, Won't Get Fooled Again and Baba O'Reilly.

Townshend, now 67, explains how two of his signature moves -- the guitar smashing and windmill guitar playing -- came to be. He accidently drove the neck of his guitar into the low ceiling of a club one night and thus was born a signature stage move, along with Keith Moon's drum destruction antics.

The windmill playing actually came from another British guitar sensation, Keith Richards, who used to warm up before shows with the move. Townshend saw him backstage while the Rolling Stones and Who were on a package rock show and adopted another move that has since defined his image.

It was Townshend's pen and artistic vision that propelled the Who to its heights of popularity. He wrote the chart-topping singles and the more intellectual long-form pieces such as the rock opera Tommy.

While band-mates Moon and bassist John Entwhistle wholeheartedly embraced the excesses of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll from the start, Townshend held out for awhile before succumbing to the siren song of young women and drugs.

There were ups and downs with band members, of course, but the three who started performing together as teens -- singer Roger Daltry, Entwhistle and Townshend -- still had a good long run of it with albums such as The Who Sings My Generation, The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who Are You and The Kids Are Alright.

That success was a long way from the earliest repertoire. When Townshend auditioned for a party band Daltry led, "The audition was very quick. 'Can you play E? Can you play B? Can you play Man of Mystery by the Shadows? Hava Nagila? OK, then.' " That's a long journey from Hava Nagila to "Hope I die before I get old."

Townshend's prose is as crisp as his lyrics, and he doesn't attempt to gloss over faults, such as his infidelities and generally poor record as a husband, or hide his insecurities.

He describes early childhood trauma when his hard-drinking musician parents sent him to live with his mentally ill grandmother, who he is convinced allowed him to be sexually molested by her lovers.

It was that abuse that prompted him to start researching an exposé of child pornography during which a single unprocessed credit-card payment caught him up in a retroactive U.K. crackdown on child porn, which still leaves a cloud over Townshend.

Townshend's post-Who life includes a solo music career, a stint as an editor at the British publisher Faber and Faber and the once wild man of rock has settled into a second marriage.

His long-delayed memoir goes a long way to answering the question, but not even Townshend can fully explain who he is.


Chris Smith is a Free Press copy editor and jazz writer.



Who I Am

By Pete Townshend

HarperCollins Canada, 538 pages, $34

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2012 J9

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