Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend, by Mark Ian Wilkerson

Mark Ian Wilkerson’s massive biography of Who guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend is a long-overdue look at one of rock music’s greatest talents.

For all of their legendary status, The Who is a band whose career hasn’t seen all that many books. There was Dave Marsh’s excellent Before I Get Old, but that was back in 1983 or so, and there was Tony Fletcher’s masterful biography of the Who’s drummer, Moon (also titled Dear Boy in some editions).

But the main guiding force behind the band has received very little attention from biographers. Geoffrey Giuliano wrote a slim bio called Behind Blue Eyes a few years ago, but Giuliano is an atrocious writer whose main research tool is previously published interviews. So Who Are You: The Life Of Pete Townshend marks the first serious bio of one of rock music’s most towering figures.

It’s a qualified success. There is no question that the book is exhaustive. At more than 600 pages, it’s about twice as long as the average rock biography, and with good reasons. For starters, Pete Townshend is still alive and still making music more than 40 years after the Who first smashed their equipment. There’s a lot more to cover than there is in books about Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin or any of the other dead-too-soon rock icons.

Another reason is that Pete Townshend agreed to be interviewed by the author, and God knows that once Pete starts talking he doesn’t shut up. Fortunately, he’s been the single best “rock interview” since about 1965, and age hasn’t mellowed him a bit. He’s still every bit as cantankerous and opinionated as the 19-year-old punk who wrote “My Generation.” So by all means, let the man talk. He’s almost invariably fascinating.

Where the book does not succeed is in giving much information about the man. Much of the first half of the book is virtually indistinguishable from a more general biography of the Who. Mentions of Townshend’s marriage, affairs, and other aspects of his off-stage life are skirted (the one exception being his devotion to the guru Meher Baba). Townshend’s childhood is covered briefly, but once the Who is formed the book becomes the story of that group, with a slight accent on the guitarist.

It is only around the time of the aborted Lifehouse project and the slightly later Quadrophenia that the author starts spending more effort on Pete’s life. This may be because these were quieter years for the Who. The albums were more spaced out, the tours not as endless. There was more time for Pete to be Pete. Whatever the reason, this is where Wilkerson’s book achieves lift off and becomes a truly world-class addition to the “rock bio” library.

Surprisingly the Who’s “Farewell Tour” (their first, that is, in 1982) happens at around the halfway mark. That leaves fully half the book to be about a small spattering of solo albums and some Who reunions. More surprisingly, this is the best part of the book. Seeing Townshend groping for meaning in his life and bouncing between solo artist, book editor, and writer…all while feeling the irresistable undertow pulling him back to the Who…makes for a fascinating story.

Townshend remains something of a mystery in the book. For someone as loquacious as Pete, the idea that there can be any mystery about him or his motivations may seem difficult to believe. But for all of his talk, Townshend has a tendency to stick to general philosophies: about the nature of art in rock music, about the meaning of life as expressed in lyrics, etc. He’s much less specific about his actual life. The closer one gets to Pete, the more closed he becomes. Dissing Roger Daltrey can be great fun, but he’s much more reticent to discuss his relationship with his wife.

This is why Who Are You is an excellent title for an excellent book. You will close the book knowing much more than you ever knew about Pete Townshend. What you won’t know is who he really is.

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Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans

I’ve read several of the slim volumes about classic albums that Continuum publishes in the “33 1/3” series. Most of them have been very enjoyable. The books on Electric Ladyland, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exile On Main Street were particularly enjoyable, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation of those classic albums.

So I had very high hopes when I saw that someone had the exquisite good taste to write a book about Love’s 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes. When I first heard the album, back in the early ’80s I fell in love with the sound. In a year that saw the release of many classic albums by legendary artists (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors and Strange Days, Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love, Surrealistic Pillow…just to name a few), Forever Changes stands shoulder to shoulder with any of them. It has been in my “Top 20” albums of all time since 1981…one of the extremely few that has never fallen out of my favor.

Unfortunately, the book written about this classic album is one of the unfunniest jokes I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I have no idea who Andrew Hultkrans is, but I know his type. In grad school, he was one of the extremely earnest guys who sat in the front and uncritically swallowed whatever “lit-crit” the teacher of the moment was spewing. After class he went to the bar with everyone else, but he ordered a mixed-drink when beer was the order of the day, and when the subject turned to baseball he tried desperately to drag it back to Jacques Derrida’s or Stanley Fish’s latest assault on Western civilization. He was a drag, and a well-known drag.

I know this despite never meeting the man. I know it because I read his atrocious book about Love’s Forever Changes.  It reminded me of all those awful late 20th century “critics” I had to read in grad school…the ones who wrote about Shakespeare in prose so convoluted and so inarticulate that it made you hate the Bard of Avon…until you realized that your anger was misdirected and that it was the critic who was deserving of scorn and opprobrium.

Hultkrans mentions almost nothing…nothing!…about the gorgeous music on the album. The strings and horns that are perhaps the most perfect ever put onto a rock album, the sublime acoustic guitar that serves as the foundation for every tracks, the intricate drums…none of it worth even a brief mention.

Similarly the recording of the album: how Neil Young was the original producer, but left; how the band was so strung out on drugs that the famous Wrecking Crew of L.A. session musicians was brought in to play the album until the band managed to pull itself together; the push and pull of the band personalities, lorded over by the supreme egoist, genius and eccentric Arthur Lee…yeah, none of that gets mentioned either.

What does get mentioned? Page after page about Gnosticism, Marat/Sade, The Crying Of Lot 49, the Manson murders, and several other irrelevancies. The author’s contention here is that Arthur Lee was a prophet, perhaps a mad prophet, in the jeremiad tradition. Late in the year of the Summer Of Love, Forever Changes cast a darker, bleaker view of flower power and hippiedom, while still coming from that tradition. Lee saw a different vision of the hippies, one that directly anticipated the Manson murders. I wonder if Hultkrans ever heard the first two Doors albums, both of which preceded Forever Changes, and both of which were considerably darker in tone and sound.

But other albums that took a similarly dim view of what was happening culturally in California in 1967 don’t figure in. Prophets don’t come in droves after all, and if you make the case that Lee’s pessimism about Flower Power was shared by artists as diverse as the Doors and the Mothers of Invention, well, then Hultkrans doesn’t have much to write about.

Throughout the book, lyrics are twisted and bent out of shape to fit Hultkran’s thesis and to forge allusions with other more literary works and critical theories. It’s all a buncha crap, if you ask me. I’m not saying the songs don’t have meaning; I’m saying they do. By twisting the meaning to match his overblown theories and overheated rhetoric, it is Hultkrans who is saying the lyrics mean anything he wants them to mean. Makes my head hurt just to think about it.

Eventually Hultkrans resorts to the sort of hideous wordplay that the lit-crit types love so much because it makes them seem so much smarter and more sophisticated that the bourgeois proles who just want to read about an album full of great songs. Let me be the first to say that anyone who seriously uses the word “zeitgeisticide” in a sentence should never be allowed to write again. Not even a letter to a friend.

Back away from the pen, Andrew Hultkrans, before you attempt to ruin another album with your bloated eggheadery.