Po­lar op­po­sites driven to seek their for­tunes

Who I Am

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ven­ero Ar­manno

By Pete Town­shend HarperCollins, 538pp, $39.99 (HB) By Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger with Peter Pe­tre Simon & Schus­ter, 646pp, $32.99

PETE Town­shend and Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger have been in the pub­lic spot­light since the 1960s and dur­ing that time nei­ther has been ex­actly shy of speak­ing or of seek­ing me­dia cov­er­age. Their mem­oirs, taken to­gether, re­veal that we al­ready know plenty about the pri­vate and pub­lic lives of both men.

Yet th­ese books end up of­fer­ing some­thing un­ex­pected: a sam­pling of two psy­cho­log­i­cal po­lar­i­ties. You could say Who I Am and To­tal Re­call give us an ex­am­i­na­tion of ex­treme self­doubt in con­trast with ex­treme self­con­fi­dence. Of course it’s no sur­prise which be­longs to who.

Town­shend, al­ways re­garded as the think­ing per­son’s rock star, trans­formed pop­u­lar mu­sic with a com­bi­na­tion of gui­tar noise, song­writ­ing craft and in­stinc­tive ge­nius. It’s hard to imag­ine any other rocker coming up with early songs as vi­tal as The Kids are Al­right, My Gen­er­a­tion, Sub­sti­tute or Pin­ball Wizard (which he de­scribes as ‘‘ daft, flawed and mud­dled, but also in­so­lent, lib­er­ated and ad­ven­tur­ous’’). It’s also hard to imag­ine any­one other than Town­shend of­fer­ing up some­thing as freaked-out and quasi mys­ti­cal as the rock opera Tommy.

Al­ways am­bi­tious and, it seems, re­lent­lessly hon­est, Town­shend of­fers a harsh cri­tique of his own work. Tommy, he says, didn’t work for him or the band un­til well af­ter it was recorded and the Who played it live. The dou­ble al­bum Quadrophe­nia is his ‘‘ cre­ative high point’’, but that was in 1973. Town­shend’s great­est achieve­ments, he tells us, have all been un­der the um­brella of the Who.

Cen­tring on self-doubt, sub­stance abuse and al­co­holism, in­fi­deli­ties and break­downs, this mem­oir doesn’t aim for per­sonal ha­giog­ra­phy. It’s more an ex­am­i­na­tion of Town­shend’s ‘‘ artis­tic grandios­ity’’ set along­side his ‘‘ des­per­ately low self-re­gard’’.

Town­shend’s par­ents, both mu­si­cians, were steeped in mar­i­tal woe and chose to send him away at age six to live with his grand­mother Denny. De­scrib­ing her as a ‘‘ per­fect wicked witch’’, Town­shend re­calls he suf­fered beat­ings and abuse. He also sus­pects, but re­mains un­cer­tain, that he was mo­lested by var­i­ous mem­bers of Denny’s ver­i­ta­ble conga line of lovers.

Psy­chother­apy has gone only so far in un­lock­ing the se­crets of a mind Town­shend says ‘‘ shut down’’ such mem­o­ries. He of­fers flashes of what might have hap­pened: an open and invit­ing car door, a small flat that seems empty but that draws him in­side. Trauma seems to have worked deep into the mind of a small boy who was al­ready in­se­cure and more at home in the male-based gangs of his Lon­don neigh­bour­hood’s streets than with his fam­ily.

The pass­ing down of the mu­si­cal and en­ter­tainer’s gene isn’t very sur­pris­ing, but some­thing more nu­anced in Town­shend made him a gen­uine seeker — per­haps some in­stinct to find spir­i­tual com­fort away from the emo­tional tur­moil of his child­hood.

There’s not much to be gained from hear­ing more about his 45-year de­vo­tion to Me­her Baba, but when he speaks of be­ing an 11-yearold sea scout sail­ing the Thames and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a moment of the ce­les­tial sub­lime —‘‘ ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­sic ... vi­o­lins, cel­los, horns, harps and voices’’ — we know some­thing im­por­tant is go­ing on.

The search to re-cre­ate that mu­sic has con­sumed his cre­ative life. Cou­pled with teenage frus­tra­tion and self-doubt, it ini­tially led to his own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Gus­tav Met­zger’s be­lief in ‘‘ auto-de­struc­tive art’’. The im­age of Town­shend that will live be­yond him is of the arm-wind­milling, gui­tar smash­ing id of a gen­er­a­tion. He ac­knowl­edges this in an ob­vi­ous way: the in­side cov­ers of his mem­oir fea­ture beau­ti­fully lit stu­dio shots of a 65-year-old man smash­ing what looks like a per­fectly good SG Gib­son.

What is gra­tu­itous to­day was of course full of vis­ceral re­lease in the late 60s. ‘‘ As I raised the stut­ter­ing gui­tar above my head, I felt I was hold­ing up the bloodied stan­dard of end­less cen­turies of mind­less war. Ex­plo­sions. Trenches. Bod­ies. The eerie scream­ing of the wind.’’ Film of such early in­cen­di­ary per­for­mances by the Who re­veal Town­shend wasn’t the only one get­ting off: au­di­ences loved the he­do­nis­tic joy of de­struc­tion and noise. One can’t read about any of this with­out mar­vel­ling at what an an­gry, rag­ing beast rock ’ n’ roll used to be.

Who I Am of course deals with the Who in some de­tail, but read­ers may be dis­ap­pointed in the broad-brush pre­sen­ta­tion of Roger Dal­trey, John En­twistle and Keith Moon. The bits there are we al­ready know: the com­pet­i­tive re­la­tion­ships, the mad­ness, the de­vour­ing of all-too-will­ing groupies, not to men­tion the love that has grown be­tween the Who’s two most com­bat­ive, yet sole-sur­viv­ing, mem­bers.

Town­shend has writ­ten mag­nif­i­cent mu­sic, fea­ture ar­ti­cles and prose ( Horse’s Neck, pub­lished in 1985, is an ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of short sto­ries), yet in th­ese pages he doesn’t come across as much of a sto­ry­teller; it’s as if his story of the Who has failed to ex­cite him since Moon’s death in 1978.

Though the band has con­tin­ued in var­i­ous in­car­na­tions, there’s a cer­tain joy­less­ness to what cyn­ics may see as a tour­ing en­ter­prise meant to help age­ing rock­ers pay their bills.

The sec­ond half of the book chron­i­cles Town­shend’s solo ca­reer and the seem­ingly end­less res­ur­rec­tions and restag­ings of Tommy.

Yet his cre­ative out­put has been far from small, from the won­der­ful Rough Mix (a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ron­nie Lane) and Empty Glass al­bums to projects of vari­able qual­ity, such as the mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man and Psy­choderelict.

He fails to men­tion his first proper solo al­bum, the ex­cel­lent Who Came First. There’s a hint of cre­ative re­vival with the last proper Who al­bum in 2005, End­less Wire, which

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