Polar opposites driven to seek their fortunes
Who I Am
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