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Rock Opera

A Memoir
By Pete Townshend
Illustrated, 538 pp., Harper/Harper Collins Publishers, $32.50

Except for Bob Dylan, no '60s rock star is better qualified to write an autobiography than Pete Townshend. Most of the rock gods are or were plenty smart, but Townshend's I.Q. has always seemed a thing apart, and his conceptual audacity as the music was forging an identity was surpassed only by the combined firepower of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. What's more, he always had a special affinity for the written word. Friendly with many journalists, he turned out a column for the British music weekly Melody Maker in the early '70s, and later that decade opened a bookstore and started a publishing company. To top that off, he began work as an editor at Faber & Faber just as he was launching his post-Who years in 1983.

It was a real job, Townshend emphasizes. He was paid £7,000 a year plus points, reporting to the office twice a week in a limo because that's how he rode. And in the not quite four years covered by the pertinent 23-page chapter, that job was only the beginning. In addition to overseeing many reprints and originals and having his life "enriched by time spent getting to know some of the more pre-eminent authors on Faber's list," he wrote a story collection for Faber. But in those same four years he also did extensive charity work, with prolonged attention to rehab programs and a shelter for battered wives; mastered a daunting new digital composing console; completed songs for an autobiographical film and a televised dance suite you never heard of and then began developing a children's musical based on a story by his Faber pal Ted Hughes; organized a new band you never heard of; switched labels; produced an album for his brother; watched his father die; and did a lot of therapy. He also somehow maintained a marriage that had begun in 1968.

You have to be impressed, right? I am. But reflect briefly and you'll see that cramming all this into 23 pages is unlikely to produce much of the detail and incident that make narrative taste good, and might stanch flow and coherence too. Entitled "Still Loony," the chapter is an extreme instance that typifies a major problem, one that worsens as the book proceeds: because he wants to get everything in, including hundreds of dropped names, Townshend can't take the time to make much come alive. With over 500 pages of text subdivided (by my hand count) into something over 380 sections that seldom exceed two or three pages, the book hops along indefatigably, gathering explanatory mojo only by accrual, even as to his Who bandmates and his long-­suffering wife, Karen. There are so many studios! So many yachts! So many enticing beauties! He loves every one of them! But why, exactly? Even when we glimpse the answer, we forget it 20 pages later.

Although Townshend is vain enough to grouse that Britain will never grant him recognition comparable to the Kennedy Center Honor that Bush II bestowed upon the Who in 2008, this isn't an especially self-congratulatory book. Having long resisted the sexual and pharmacological stupidities of the rock lifestyle and succumbed with palpable reluctance when he did, he takes pains to examine his faults and tell stories that make him look bad--although not, to be clear, about the child pornography charges that hit him in 2003, which he argues altogether credibly occurred only because he was campaigning against such images. As he tracks the chronology, he can sometimes seem inconsistent, because he's gone back and forth about many things. But three generalizations sum up crucial final positions.

As regards his marriage, which cracked up for good in the mid-90s: "The problem wasn't the booze; it was the fact that it no longer worked as a medicine to fix the dire consequences of my self-obsession, overwork, selfishness and manic-­depression." As regards the band that made a multitasking solo artist famous: "My greatest achievements had always been under the Who umbrella." As regards "Tommy," the Great Achievement that ultimately gained that band entry to the Kennedy Center: "We knew that what we were doing owed more to British music hall than to grand opera."

One aim of this book is to add cachet to the rafts of art Townshend has floated since the 1978 death of the drummer Keith Moon effectively ended the Who, no matter how many tours and albums the surviving members worked up thereafter. Another is to outline a substance abuse saga. A third is to trace Townshend's psychological problems to a complicated although hardly loveless childhood with a hard-­working saxophonist-clarinetist father, a flamboyant ex-singer mother and too many relations--a childhood that may have included sexual molestation and certainly caused credible emotional trauma. Having noted that the scenes from Townshend's youth inspire relatively vivid portraiture, allow me to observe that these are all rock-memoir commonplaces, and that Who I Am doesn't distinguish itself by rehashing Townshend's particularities. But it does offer fresh insight into the first aim.

Although a big Who fan, I'm also a known grump, so don't believe me about the art. Believe the keepers of the tradition at Rolling Stone, which after inadvertently omitting Townshend's solo oeuvre from its 2004 record guide gave only 3 of 13 albums more than three out of five stars in its online database--and seven just two and a half or less. Really, there's a consensus, as the author himself hints between the lines. Post-Who his solo music tends to be insupportably grandiose, and is often tied to narratives featuring a troubled young seeker, a troubled old rock star or both. These generally hold together worse than "Tommy," which as Townshend indicates is a mishmash plotwise. People love that career-making work because it's so compassionate, hopeful and melodically direct, with Moon roiling its sweetest surfaces, and the crazy hit "Pinball Wizard" is, as Townshend puts it, "daft, flawed and muddled, but also insolent, liberated and adventurous." Pretentious, tangled and tenebrous is a harder sell--when I called Townshend conceptually audacious, that wasn't what I meant at all.

What I did mean was that no other '60s rock hero understood pop in the Pop Art sense so fruitfully. Giving the death--defying spokesman of "My Generation" a stutter or burying the absolute freedom of "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" in a chaos of drumming and feedback, basing a whole album on advertising jingles or reviving music hall and calling it opera--these were conceptual strokes with an "insolent" yet also "liberated" Pop edge that had musical consequences of exactly the right shape and magnitude. But for Townshend, we learn, this approach was the passing fancy of an art school dropout. The formative musical experience of his youth wasn't even his dad's stubborn professionalism. It happened when he was an 11-year-old Sea Scout sailing the Thames and heard in his head "extraordinary music" replete with "violins, cellos, horns, harps and voices." Townshend says his "personal musical ambition" has always been to relive that "sublime experience."

From his 45 years of devotion to Meher Baba to his adoration of Keith Jarrett to his lifelong fascination with the synthesizer to decades of advanced prog-rock, this understandable ambition illuminates a lot about Pete Townshend. But of course, he has never achieved it, much less conveyed such sublimity to the rest of us--not even when he somehow came up with "See me feel me touch me heal me."

New York Times Sunday Book Review, October 26, 2012