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BlogNovember-December, 2012
Some thoughts on Who I Am

I'm not a speed reader -- I can spend hours on a single paragraph -- but I blasted through Pete Townshend's 500-plus page memoir, Who I Am, in a matter of days.

The verdict? I enjoyed it -- and I'll probably read it again -- but I'd only recommend it to fans of Townshend's art.

The memoir has a surprising lack of focus. Its selection of scenes and opinions seems almost random. As Joe Flint points out in the Los Angeles Times, the book feels like a "diary dump" with an excess of name-dropping. Sometimes you wonder if the editors at HarperCollins were eager to include as many famous people as possible, for the sake of excerpts or sound bites or a more compelling index.

That typed, Townshend deserves high marks for the reporting he brings to his own life. He never hesitates to criticize himself or his relatives and he is refreshingly honest about how much money he's made -- and blown. The world seemed to love Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, but as I pointed out last year, Smith was annoyingly coy with the juicy details of her adventures. Who I Am is deserving of the commonly applied nonfiction adjective "tell-all." (Whereas Just Kids was a frustrating exercise in "tell-what-I feel-like-telling.")

But what Smith's book lacked in candor, it made up for with its focus on a particular window of Smith's life (her late teens and early 20s) and a secondary character (the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). Who I Am doesn't bother with the art of character development -- Townshend's friends and relatives and lovers come and go. Some of them receive drive-by introductions. Others -- such as his longtime wife Karen and his bandmates -- we see more frequently, but we don't get to know them any better during the journey.

Nevertheless, there are countless moments where Townshend's descriptions and memory offset his storytelling shortcomings. Here are my three favorite parts:

1. The first three chapters. If you like "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"-type details, you're in heaven. I don't want to spoil too much; just know that if you've always wondered what type of childhood Townshend had, these early pages are fascinating. Also, it's in these early pages that Townshend is free from the more difficult choices you have to make, when writing an autobiography. There's no name-dropping, no moment where you wonder why this or that is included. Everything is novel, everything is vital.

2. Townshend's 1962 audition for Roger Daltrey's band, The Detours. Again, I don't want to give too much away. I'll just reveal the setup: When Townshend arrives at Daltrey's house, a blond girl opens the door. She is weeping. She tells Townshend to tell Daltrey, "It's either me or that bloody guitar of his." Drowned in the details of Townshend's story, it's easy to forget that his bandmates were artists too -- artists who also had to make their own tough choices.

3. Townshend's influences. There are some pleasant surprises here: "There were few artists that all four of us respected and enjoyed, and the Everly Brothers were among them." Suffice it for me to share that if you love learning about artistic likes and dislikes, Who I Am is well worth your time. One more bon mot: "I loved listening to my two favorite albums, Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds, and every time I listened I heard something new, but I wish I could say I heard something important." With this one sentence, Townshend sums up what so many music critics have been afraid to say, lest they be caught blaspheming the Beatles and Beach Boys. He also sums up what made The Who -- in my opinion -- so important and different: Their decision to sing about topics other than the corny, honey-dripping nonsense that defined the first decade of the rock era.


Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club and Oysters & Chocolate.
Another story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer Train competition. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
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