Who I Am: A Memoir
  • Who I Am: A Memoir
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Who I Am: A Memoir

3.5 52
by Pete Townshend

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Long acknowledged as one of rock music’s most intelligent and literary performers, Pete Townshend—guitarist, songwriter, singer and founding member of The Who—at last tells his wild story in this candid and immersive autobiography.

Raised in west London by an eccentric grandmother, while his parents were off living the early post-war, rock

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Long acknowledged as one of rock music’s most intelligent and literary performers, Pete Townshend—guitarist, songwriter, singer and founding member of The Who—at last tells his wild story in this candid and immersive autobiography.

Raised in west London by an eccentric grandmother, while his parents were off living the early post-war, rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, Townshend describes a frenetic childhood of displacement and abuse. Then, in high school, everything changed when he met Roger Daltrey and formed a band that would travel the world, earning fame, fortune and critical acclaim. In Who I Am, Townshend brings us from the inner sanctum of Eric Clapton’s drug-ridden hotel rooms to the feet of Jimi Hendrix and his electric kool-aid guitar; from the first trial performance of Townshend’s rock opera, Tommy, in a London bar to his infamous arrest (and acquittal) on child pornography charges.

With his trademark eloquence, fierce intelligence and brutal honesty, Pete Townshend has created a work of literature that stands as a primary source for popular music’s greatest epoch. Readers will be confronted by a man laying bare who he is, an artist who has asked for nearly sixty years: who are you?

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Editorial Reviews

What does rock 'n' roll do to a person, long-term? Decibels, overload, and the ravening Id; chemical attrition, abuse of the higher faculties; near-limitless scope for bad behavior... After decades of these, what effects? Well, the specimens are walking, or shambling, among us — and more than that, they are writing up their own case histories. On the microscope slide of memoir they are offering us slivers of old rocker brain. Keith Richards did it in 2010 ? in his book Life — with the help of co-author James Fox. Now Neil Young and Pete Townshend have done it, each in his own way, no co-authors involved. "Writing is very convenient, has a low expense, and is a great way to pass the time," declares Young in Waging Heavy Peace. "I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn't know what to do next. You could hire someone to write it for you if you can't write it yourself.... Just don't hire some sweaty hack who asks you questions for years and twists them into his own vision of what is right or wrong." Townshend, most Townshend-ianly, concludes Who I Am with a letter to his eight year-old self: "You have a brilliant mind. Unfortunately you are not going to exercise it quite as much as you should."

These are two very different books by two very different men. Who I Am is literate, self-aware, painstakingly chronological, and written in a spirit of lacerating candor. "I was still experiencing manic-depressive anxiety attacks, hearing voices and music, seeing visions. The only medication that helped was alcohol." Waging Heavy Peace is candid, too, but hazier and more graciously self-forgiving. The book ambles back and forth on a woozy narrative spiral — now he's talking about his latest car, now his broken toe, now his first band — and reads for the most part like it came curling off the top of Young's magnificent head. "So we are getting into this now. There may have to be more than one book. I read up on this sort of thing, and the worst thing you can have is a book that is too long." A couple of points of commonality, though, between Neil Young and Pete Townshend: they are both geniuses, and they have both largely expressed themselves with electricity, using amplified guitars.

Townshend's classic sound is a near-celestial ringing and whooshing, his solos a matter not so much of individual notes as of the huge choral combinations at that moment forcing their way through his built-to-order high-tensile noise-conducting neurotic Englishman's frame and hands. As a boy, we learn from Who I Am, he was subject to mysterious sonic overwhelmings, often triggered by rivers or the sea: "I began to hear the most extraordinary music, sparked by the whine of the outboard motor and the burbling sound of water against the hull. I heard violins, cellos, horns, harps and voices, which increased in number until I could hear countless threads of an angelic choir." When, as a man, he channeled this "alpha-state music" through his guitar, it would emerge stamped unmistakably with Townshend-ness — what Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing of the composer Henry Purcell (also a favorite of the young Townshend), called "the forg'd feature": "...it is the rehearsal / Of own, of abrupt self there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear."

Neil Young's sound — when he's really going — is heavier, weirder and more searing, with the glimmering immaterial weight of an epileptic aura. (Young himself has suffered from seizures, rushes, strange buzzings and gusts of "cosmic wind".) In Waging Heavy Peace he recounts the moment when he first delivered himself to it, surrendered to it, dangerously — the full current of his musical being. The occasion is a show by his pre–Buffalo Springfield band the Squires, at the Flamingo Club in Fort William, Ontario, where having played a solo "like I was out of my mind" Young is approached after the set by a well-respected local guitarist, a real shredder and proponent of "the Toronto sound." As Young records it, the man is agog. "What the fuck was that?! What the hell were you doing? I have never heard anything like that in my life! It was fucking great, man! Shit!" (That last exclamation capturing beautifully the enraptured, covetous sense of affront that is the truest tribute one artist can pay to another.)

Both Neil Young and Pete Townshend are also, in the best and most constructive sense of the term, cranks. Parts of Waging Heavy Peace double as a product pitch for Lincvolt, Young's vision of a fuel-efficient, sort-of-green classic car ("Lincvolt will be powerful, clean and sexy. This has to happen. It is going to.") and PureTone, his attempt to rescue recorded music, and the ears of its listeners, from the plague of the MP3. Throughout the book he is building, designing, inventing, fiddling with wires, giving up, starting again; he is a lifelong model train buff, with a "small share" in the collectibles company Lionel; reworking the interior of Broken Arrow Ranch (where he wrote "Old Man") he makes connoisseurial trips to the lumberyard, going through "stacks and stacks of twelve-inch-wide planks of rough-sawn A-grade redwood, choosing the ones with the most beautiful sap and grain. Maybe I took one out of every twelve."

He is a glorious gearhead: his relationship with his cars, with his guitars, is true intimacy. Ragged Glory, he tells us (rumbling with ecstasy) was mainly written in his "car barn," surrounded by "all of my best shit": "My Fender Deluxe with a Fender Reverb, my whizzer attached to it, my Magnatone feeding from that, and my Baldwin Exterminator feeding off of it, too." He has also adored dogs and people — especially people who, like good cars, do their jobs properly and with a bit of style: his formidable manager/confrere David "Be Great or Be Gone" Briggs is eulogized, in bursts, throughout Waging Heavy Peace, as are the likes of sideman Ben Keith ("a wonderful man, gentle as the rain") whose steel guitar playing on "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" is the very definition of the word plangent.

The crankiness of Pete Townshend is more, shall we say, abstract. True, his breakthrough work with synthesizers around the time of Who's Next was quite Young-esque in its balance of inspiration and hands-on monomania. (Why is he not acknowledged as a pioneer of electronic music? Oh, that's right: because his greatest innovations are buried under the power chords of "Baba O'Riley.") The real action, however, was upstairs, in the throbbing Townshend brain.

There vague intuitions and intimations — about the power of Rock, about the coming of virtual reality, about the one true note from which all music springs, about a sad boy in a bubble — congealed into concepts, "high-flown congregational notions", few of which he was able to get across. "My excitement was greatest," he writes, "when I was exploring the terrain between the spiritual magic of music and the march of physics. Unfortunately I wasn't having much success communicating in the language I was using — one part science fiction, one part mystical waffle, one part visionary glimpses of the role computers could play in the future of electronic music." As he himself had prophesied in an early Who hit, he couldn't explain. His ego would rise in indignation. "It's like trying to explain atomic energy to a group of cavemen," he complained to his wife Karen in 1970, having failed to put his bandmates in the picture with regard to his Lifehouse project.

But the point about Lifehouse was that nobody understood it — not the Who, not their management, certainly not the kids who gathered at London's Young Vic theatre, in early 1971, in nebulous expectation of a futuristic Who/audience mash-up. ("We did manage to perform some songs to a pre-recorded backing track," relates Townshend in Who I Am, "but no new music was produced; the assembled audience wasn't given access to electronic instruments, or even tambourines to bang.")

We should be grateful, I suppose, that Townshend the electro-druid has opted to tell his story straight, in sequential black-and-white, rather than in whirring cyber-splinters on some unusable new social media platform. But telling it straight is important to him now, particularly with respect to the child pornography scandal that enveloped him in 2003. (Who I Am will reassure you that he meant no harm.) As for the reasons or purposes behind Waging Heavy Peace, they seem to be twofold: first, to check that Neil Young's brain is still working, and second, because no songs are coming to him at the moment. On the former point he is disarmingly straightforward: "I am always getting scared that I will be in the middle of some long-winded story and forget what I'm talking about and my secret that I am slowly losing my mind will be out. It is a real fear. Everyone will know! But that is not new. That is not a recent development. I have always been like that. That is what makes detecting the onset of early stages of dementia in me so difficult."

On the latter he is shrewd and artistic: "Songs are like rabbits and they like to come out of their holes when you're not looking.... So I feel like am standing over a song hole. That will never result in success." Childlike, senescent, wise, and wonderfully foolish, Young in Waging Heavy Peace hands down his lessons — the most fundamental of them, perhaps, being one to which the Townshend of Who I Am would readily assent. And it goes like this: "Don't be greedy. Be ready."

James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press), and a correspondent for The Atlantic.

Reviewer: James Parker

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

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Who I Am

By Peter Townshend

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2012 Peter Townshend
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-212724-2




It's extraordinary, magical, surreal, watching them all dance to my feedback guitar solos; in the audience my art school chums stand straight backed among the slouching West and North London Mods, that army of teenagers who have arrived astride their fabulous scooters in short hair and good shoes, hopped up on pills. I can't speak for what's in the heads of my fellow band mates, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon or John Entwistle. Usually I'd be feeling like a loner, even in the middle of the band, but tonight, in June 1964, at The Who's first show at the Railway Hotel in Harrow, West London, I am invincible.

We're playing R&B: 'Smokestack Lightning', 'I'm a Man', 'Road Runner' and other heavy classics. I scrape the howling Rickenbacker guitar up and down my microphone stand, then flip the special switch I recently fitted so the guitar sputters and sprays the front row with bullets of sound. I violently thrust my guitar into the air – and feel a terrible shudder as the sound goes from a roar to a rattling growl; I look up to see my guitar's broken head as I pull it away from the hole I've punched in the low ceiling.

It is at this moment that I make a split-second decision – and in a mad frenzy I thrust the damaged guitar up into the ceiling over and over again. What had been a clean break becomes a splintered mess. I hold the guitar up to the crowd triumphantly. I haven't smashed it: I've sculpted it for them. I throw the shattered guitar carelessly to the ground, pick up my brand-new Rickenbacker twelve-string and continue the show.

That Tuesday night I stumbled upon something more powerful than words, far more emotive than my white-boy attempts to play the blues. And in response I received the full-throated salute of the crowd. A week or so later, at the same venue, I ran out of guitars and toppled the stack of Marshall amplifiers. Not one to be upstaged, our drummer Keith Moon joined in by kicking over his drum kit. Roger started to scrape his microphone on Keith's cracked cymbals. Some people viewed the destruction as a gimmick, but I knew the world was changing and a message was being conveyed. The old, conventional way of making music would never be the same.

I had no idea what the first smashing of my guitar would lead to, but I had a good idea where it all came from. As the son of a clarinettist and saxophonist in the Squadronaires, the prototypical British Swing band, I had been nourished by my love for that music, a love I would betray for a new passion: rock 'n' roll, the music that came to destroy it.

I am British. I am a Londoner. I was born in West London just as the devastating Second World War came to a close. As a working artist I have been significantly shaped by these three facts, just as the lives of my grandparents and parents were shaped by the darkness of war. I was brought up in a period when war still cast shadows, though in my life the weather changed so rapidly it was impossible to know what was in store. War had been a real threat or a fact for three generations of my family. In 1945 popular music had a serious purpose: to defy post-war depression and revitalize the romantic and hopeful aspirations of an exhausted people. My infancy was steeped in awareness of the mystery and romance of my father's music, which was so important to him and Mum that it seemed the centre of the universe. There was laughter and optimism; the war was over. The musics Dad played was called Swing. It was what people wanted to hear.

I was there.

Excerpted from Who I Am by Peter Townshend. Copyright © 2012 by Peter Townshend. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Who I Am 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
TucsonTommy More than 1 year ago
Just finished the book, "Who I Am" by Pete Townshend, 2012, Harper Collins books, New York, 500p. For those of you who may not remember, Pete Townshend is one of the founding members of the band, The Who. The book is not really an autobiography; it's more a memoir. I was big fan of The Who during my younger days, from about 1967 on into the days of "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia." I was fortunate enough to have seen them perform in concert, twice. Pete was born in 1945. His mother was a singer in swing bands and his father was a musician (clarinet and sax) in the swing band era in London shortly after WWII. He is 5 years older than me, he's 67, the same age as Eric Clapton, and a bit younger than George Harrison and the rest of the Beatles. He has 2 younger brothers, Paul (1957-) and Simon (1960-). He has 3 children, Emma(1969-), Minta (1971-), and Joseph (1989-). He is a grandfather of a boy as of this book's publishing. Both Keith Moon and John Entwisrle, original members of The Who, are deceased. He is barred for life from Holiday Inns. I was impressed by all the artistic endeavors of Pete Townshend over the years. He was the main songwriter of nearly all the material performed by The Who. He was heavily involved in the management of The Who, as well as all their financial affairs. He experimented early on with multi-track recording, digital recording, synthesized music, and theatrical and musical production. He was a publisher, a promoter, and a producer. He was a sailor and owned several boats. He owned (or owns) several houses. He was the quintessential rock star and has lived the life in all its gory details as covered in the book. He has been an addict and he has been in therapy for years. He is partially deaf. He invented "the Marshall stack" made famous by many bands in the 60's and 70's, including Jimi Hendrix. He is a follower of Meher Baba ( I'm not sure who Baba was or what following him means.) My take on the book is that Pete Townshend has presented a memoir describing who he is, and from his perspective, who is The Who. Pete Townshend is an artist in the sense a musician creates and performs his art. But he is also much more, especially in the realm of writing, recording, and producing music. If that interests you, so will reading the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am enjoying this book. There are many references to other top stars of his genre and I particularly reading about his upbringing and personal life. Kind of the behind the scenes influences. I always believed he was the brains behind the great music and this has solidified that opinion. There are times when the book is kind of slow going, but these seem to coincide with very busy times in my schedule, so may just not be too strong a pull to keep my attention. When I have the time, I am very much enjoying reading and have sought out other biographies from this genre of musicians to read next.
Frostillicus More than 1 year ago
Good, not great. It certainly lives up to its title as it is very introspective. I think that Townshend wants the reader to understand that he is first and foremost, an artist. I appreciate this, but I was hoping for more information about his songwriting. He does convey just how personal most of his songs are, but most of us already knew that. The most interesting theme of the book is his strange relationship with his wife. I don't believe I've ever heard of such a disconnected and public marriage lasting so long. I'm still trying to figure out if it is a testament to a strong family or patience for a really mixed up and stressed-out workaholic. Regardless, Karen Townshend comes across as a saint. I imagine that was the author's intention. I also enjoyed the fact that him and Daltrey were always friends and fierce co-workers. A much different perspective than that which we got through media outlets.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This memoir is both awful and good. Townshend is completely full of himself; so much so that it distracts from his stories. But it's his memoir, his story, his life.
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KNSerrano More than 1 year ago
I am a long time Townsend and Who fan and was eager to read Who I Am. Overall I found the book enjoyable and educational. At times the writing felt tangential and disconnected and I had higher expectations for the quality of writing than was delivered. That being said, I am grateful for the opportunity to read Townsend's thoughts and experiences. Who I Am inspired me to read other Rock Bio/Autobios. Thank you Pete!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a huge Who fan. Pete was fine but I really liked John and Keith's playing but still interested in what the guitarist would say about his life. Well, I now know way too much about his houses, girlfriends, silly religious views, sexual interests, boats, boring books, films, and musicals, and drinking. I wanted a real musicians take on song construction, the Who's compositional and musical approach, and a more philosophical read on the role of music, and the Who, in larger social contexts. I got just a touch of these, however. Pete pretends like he doesn't think he's deity in this book but I am pretty sure he thinks he is one. Pass on this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
missbeverlyann More than 1 year ago
So very often we really never know the person behind the tunes we all love. What makes them tick. How did life treat them during their career. What really happened back then!!! Well now you will know. Great read.
Bookie-Book More than 1 year ago
Ok so, full disclosure; I love The Who. That said, I love this book. It gives a keen insight into the genius that is Pete Townshend. He comes across as honest and almost apologetic for his life of stardom and indulgence. His love of music and art. As well as his love, respect and frustrations of his fellow band members. I've heard many give comments on his thoughts on Mick Jagger however this has simply gotten too much press as being sensational. This book is so much more. It's charming and sophisticated. Even if your a casual fan of this genre you'll get something from this man's prospective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SnookieB More than 1 year ago
What more can I say that hasn't already been said about Pete's book? He's honest, truthful, gut-spilling, evasive and at times, pompous. He sounds pretty human --just like the rest of us. Celebrity does not make you perfect. Reading this book and listening to the audio-book made me pull out some of my old vinyl and CDs to listen to and I am struck by the depth and brilliance of Pete's writing and composing. I love how he can say what so many of us have felt at so many stages in our lives. Pure and easy,this book has some great stories and leaves you wanting more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Its a good book, but too dark for my tastes. His depression followed him through life. Not my cup of tea, but to its credit there are a lot of musical tidbits in the book that i really enjoyed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He is interesting, and the book reads easily enough. But the man is quite an egotist and self absorbed...
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Ronniegirl More than 1 year ago
Pete Townshend speaks to his generation and beyond. Magical insight into the mind of one of the greatest musicians who ever graced the Earth. From his boyhood as a post WWII Londoner, to the profound success of The Who, to today, a living legend among us who&rsquo;s music is the chronicle of so many lives. I thoroughly appreciated his honesty, emotions, stories of the past and narrative in this memoir. Thank you Pete for being Who you Are!
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nbkcmg5 More than 1 year ago
I was so excited about this book. God it was awful!  It was just awful...