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.