Who I Am: Pete Townshend’s refreshingly candid biography deconstructs Tommy and his entire career


Who I AmPete 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.


Pete Townshend: “Apple is a Digital Vampire”

Digital Vampire

Pete Townshend thinks Apple needs to get into the A&R business.

Pete Townshend tells the BBC that he feels Apple is a digital vampire, bleeding artists dry as the company destroys copyright as we know it. He then attacked music fans he accuses of “stealing” music online, saying we might as well steal his son’s bike while we’re at it. He really goes off the deep end, however, arguing that Apple, a software and technology company, somehow needs to get into A&R, by “employing 20 talent scouts from the dying record business” to guide new acts and provide marketing support to the best ones.

Let me say this: Pete Townshend is out of his depth for several reasons.

1. Apple does not inherently owe anyone in the music industry anything, for having innovated in ways the dying record industry failed.

2.  Digital music is not going anywhere. Selling music online doesn’t stop record company A&R folks from going out and finding new talent and then giving them room to develop. But wait!

3.  A&R doesn’t exist anymore in the way Townshend envisions it. The days of giving bands years to find their artistic way are dead and gone. You either have yourself a big-assed hit right now or you find your way to the door and walk through. And if you can’t match that hit double or nothing, you can go just as easily.

4. We’re supposed to force a tech innovator to go back to what DOESN’T work in order to prop up an industry built on ideas which are mired in the past? Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Bob Lefsetz does a good job taking apart the idea that bands will benefit by being signed by these so-called “Industry Experts” in his column from yesterday. The true inefficiency in the music industry is in the artists themselves … who’s going to stand up and fight for good music if the bands aren’t willing to work, expecting some big benefactor from on high to step down and hand them a career from the top of the music industry mountain? If Townshend wants to step off his high horse and do something productive, let HIM be the A&R man. Let HIM sign a few artists he believes in and then put his money where his mouth is! Teach these kids what it means to work your ass off for years before you get a big break … how to tour like mad, work music like a job until maybe, just maybe, some success comes around.

Or he can sit around and blame Apple. And blame the music fans who put him in the perfectly comfortable situation he’s in right now where he can mouth off and call us all virtual bike thieves.

The success of music-based technology, and Apple’s success in particular, proves that you can do things on your own, taking full control of your artistic destiny by bypassing the gatekeepers and putting your music out on your own terms. It’s music democracy … no one’s going to hand it to you, you’ve got to earn it. And if your music isn’t good enough, you’ll sink to the bottom.

Don’t blame that on Apple. And don’t blame that on music fans. Blame that on a fundamental unwillingness to adapt and rebuild.

We’re never going to save the music industry by rebuilding the failed system.