Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Who Am I - Pete Townshead. (Biography)

Townshend's world is complex, perhaps enough to turn the rock dream sour. His relationship with his fans is awkward; he has an inability or unwillingness to recreate the hits of one's heyday with the Who and there's a paranoid insecurity associated with that: sustaining a loving marriage is an overwhelming ordeal for him; His childhood in post war UK was unhinged by early interventions from his wayward grandmother. Plus there's the auto-destruction, far more effective than smashing guiitars - a sybolic point, a trademark and an albatross.

I think this is an important book. It's fearless. It's an account by an influential cultural figure from a period when rock music could still transform lives. Today rock has lost that. Rock gods live for thirty seconds. The X factor and the Voice have proven anyone can wail to a decent over produced backing track. Anyone can cry on stage and claim what it means to be adored, to be larger than life, to be a leader or thoughts and inspiration. But none of those people have the charisma created by the actions - not the way Led Zeap did. not the way the Stones did. not the way The Who did. No body became so big that it took the Sex Pistols and Punk to big big and ugly enough to tear them down. Today you can dismiss a rock star’s on facebook with just two characters - :( [ Rock'n'Roll is Dead - Long Live Rock'n'Roll! ]

The writer Nik Cohn was the first to nail the Who's significance, observing in 1971 that they had made themselves into both the epitome and the entirety of rock music. The best thing the who was that they were disaffected and they were loud - often with rock that's all you need. Sure we judge them as a template, a renewable rebellion that has led – via the Clash – to Nirvana and beyond. And Townshend's chords resonate still. With the greats, Keith Moon and John Entwistle gone, Townshead and Roger Daltrey still fly the flag defiantly at their rousing live shows. Townshend calls them the "celebration machine".

But despite being an ungainly and a coruscating performer on stage, his writing is mostly the reverse - well-behaved and ordered, a catalogue of uppers and downers. Does the book lack the fiery eloquence of Townshend's windmilling mind? Perhaps. but after Sten Tyler's anarchic literal vomit, that could be a good thing. Though I wonder that given all he's done there's still a sad lack of "hell-yeah!" enjoyment to his life. Occasionally, irony flashes around but too much straight-faced telling without showing, and an uncharacteristic lack of imagination in the architecture of the narrative can ake t a little boring at times. Also, as many rock stars are prone to do - Townshead refers to some incidents of debauchery, scandal or misbehaviour without decribing them or giving his point of view - leaving them to previously reported stories. i find that just lazy and annoying. If you are going to comment - give me context - I might not know the story. And if there was blood, alchohol, nudity, sex, telivisions and motel balconies then I want the whole unvarnished, not just a passing comment.

But I did find myself laughing at the excesses, something Townshend also now finds absurd. In 1967, for example, he was worried that the Who are no longer the loudest group on Earth, threatened by the auditory explosions of that Vanilla Fudge, of all people. "They had found a way of amplifying a Hammond organ up to rock guitar decibels," he writes. "We were actually upset by this."

Townshend's story is essentially one of searching. Who songs powerfully reference the act of seeking. He’s always been keen to engage his own followers with this spiritual quest. But it's a mission that has barely concluded at the volume's close. So we find insightful vignettes on the creative process in all its haphazard and accidental fumblings. Tommy only made sense to its creator once it was performed live. On vinyl, he found a collection of oddities, beheaded dreams awaiting a body of performance.

Overall it’s a worthwhile, comprehensive and culturally valuable account of a life. Yet it’s also a solidity, slightly enervating book, too. A bit miserable, here and there – no celebration machine.

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