In 1967, a 21-year-old Pete Townshend stashed away an unopened fan letter. His group The Who had just begun to morph from a promising outfit with a couple of hit singles to an iconic force. The fame Townshend knew for the rest of his life had barely kicked in. But the ambitious, introspective guitarist-songwriter already thought that one day, he might write a book about his life. Upon completing that book sometime in the future, he imagined, he would open and read that old letter, in hopes that it might give him some perspective on his long, illustrious career—the career he hadn’t yet had.
That book is Townshend’s new memoir, Who I Am. As he predicted decades ago, he did wind up with a life worth writing about. Born the month World War II ended in Europe, he grew up among a family of musicians—most notably his father, Cliff Townshend, a bandleader who had a minor solo hit in 1956. “My father the pop star! I wanted to be like him,” Townshend recounts, although his childhood was far from idyllic. After living with his abusive grandmother and witnessing his parents’ infidelity and alcoholism, he turned to music to escape. By his late teens, he’d abandoned art school and become a working musician, hooking up first with his boyhood friend John Entwistle in a band called The Confederates, and then with singer Roger Daltrey in The Detours. The three of them soon formed the core of The Who, whose lineup jelled with the addition of madcap drum virtuoso Keith Moon.
Townshend both dispels and revels in the mythology of The Who. He’s quick to admit the massive influence his peers had on him, most notably The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks, all of which were well-established groups by the time The Who burst onto the scene. It’s heartwarming to hear how deeply Townshend still idolizes the people he considers his heroes; his fandom is infectious, and it counterbalances the high flights of ego Townshend embarks upon. As The Who sheds its pop-single training wheels and begins to work on Tommy, the rock opera that would change the band’s fortunes, Townshend ponders his role in the cultural landscape of the 20th century. In this case, his self-lionization is completely justified: It’s refreshing to see him own his place in rock history, even as he does so with the curiosity and enthusiasm of a Who fan.
Then again, Townshend has always been the outsider of the group he led. With the bombastic Daltrey as the frontman and lightning rod, The Who stormed into the ’70s as one of the era’s biggest groups, with Townshend always squirming to find a comfortable place within it. His behind-the-scenes account of the making of classics like Who’s Next and Quadrophenia are breathtaking, and his astute placement of these albums in the broader rock context elevates the first half of Who I Am beyond the sex-drugs-and-rehab formula of lesser rock memoirs.
And then the second half of the book settles into little more than sex, drugs, and rehab. Moon’s 1978 death precipitates a tedious checklist of clichés: the desperate attempt to keep the hits coming, the midlife crisis, the affairs, the money problems, and ultimately Townshend’s navel-gazing preoccupation with the contents of his own bloodstream. To his credit, he manages to imbue this boilerplate with a heightened level of self-awareness and vivid writing; as he explains his own state of mind at the time, “My problem was not only that I was an addict, but also a fantasist.” The insular, imaginative boy of the book’s early chapters isn’t so different from the middle-aged superstar he becomes. If nothing else, that knack for the dramatic arc keeps even the dull parts of his narrative moving along, just as it underpins his high-concept masterpieces.
Still, there are glaring gaps and dead ends in his story. Daltrey, Moon, and Entwistle are shunted to the background, leaving the alchemy of their unique collaboration mostly in the dark. Townshend’s intellectual tone sucks up too much of the emotional oxygen. And when the most challenging tribulation of his life comes up—his arrest on child-pornography charges—he fails to answer the looming question he’s been building to throughout the whole book: whether he was sexually abused as a child. At least he gets around to opening that fan letter from 1967; parts of it are reprinted in an appendix, alongside Townshend’s wry, wistful commentary. Still, there’s nothing profoundly revelatory about it. Townshend will always reign as one of rock’s foremost storytellers, and while Who I Am is inspired in spots and solid overall, it’s far less epic than the music that informs it.