Pete Townshend’s Who I Am proves that a rock autobiography can exist as more than just revisionist history, actually examining in detail what made the music matter, not just to us as listeners but to the artist as creator. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, as Townshend built his reputation as a songwriter intensely obsessed with the idea that music needed artistic ambition in order to provide listeners with anything of consequence.
The book is a must-read, if anything for the honest discussion of the creative process behind Tommy, and “Pinball Wizard” in particular. When critic Nik Cohn of the Guardian commented to Townshend that the opera behind Tommy was good, but the music itself suffered from humorless bloat, Townshend reimagined his Meher Baba-esque protagonist as more than just a “divine musician, [who] felt vibrations as music and made music in the hearts of his followers,” [p.161] re-casting Tommy as a pinball wizard, shifting the concept into the realm of potential absurdity. His argument illustrates the need for any artist worth his salt to be willing to trust his instincts, even in the face of potentially profound threats of failure:
I made a huge leap into the absurd when I decided that the hero would play pinball while still deaf, dumb and blind. It was daft, flawed and muddled, but also insolent, liberated and adventurous. I had no doubt whatsoever that if I had failed to deliver The Who an operatic masterpiece that would change people’s lives, with ‘Pinball Wizard’ I was giving them something almost as good: a hit. [p. 162]
Proving his willingness to shift the direction of the title character, Townshend built beyond mere cliché, developing his avatar’s concept of “God playing marbles with the universe,” using the pinball element to echo the theological underpinings of Meher Baba’s message.
Incidentally, though the character drew derision upon the albums initial release from members of the British music press who called Townshend’s creation of a blind, deaf and mute protagonist “sick,” my favorite anecdote from Who I Am illustrates how Townshend’s deft characterization had a profound affect on his listeners. Roland Kirk, the legendary blind jazz improvisationalist, responded dramatically when he first heard Tommy performed live:
After we had performed …, I stood exhausted in the dressing room as Roland Kirk pushed his way in shouting, ‘Where is that little white motherfucking dude that wrote the thing about the deaf, dumb and blind kid?’ I stayed quiet, but he heard me breathing, came over to me and gave me a hug.
‘You don’t know what it’s like man, but you gave us blind folk our own opera thing at last! But I ain’t dumb, and I ain’t deaf.’
Roland Kirk taught me that when musicians pay respects they don’t always do it with claps and hugs or fan letters. Sometimes they merely listen. If they happen to be blind, they listen with acuity. [p. 170]
Who I Am proves Townshend is equally capable of writing with acuity, assessing his career as honestly as one can through fifty years of rearview mirror. It is a distinctly interesting additon to the band’s canon, shining a light on the process behind the songs we’ve grown to love. Of all the amazing rock bios published in 2012, this should top your “must-read” list.