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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Moon: The Life And Death Of A Rock Legend, by Tony Fletcher

I’m about to wrap up reading Moon: The Life And Death of A Rock Legend, Tony Fletcher’s biography of Keith Moon. This kind of book always brings out somewhat mixed feelings in me. I always enjoy reading about music and musicians, and Keith was certainly the most influential rock drummer who ever held the sticks. Great drummers like John Bonham and Dave Grohl are impossible to imagine without Moonie blazing the trail.

Yet at the same time I am more aware than ever of the promise and talent that was wasted. Reading of Moonie’s often hilarious exploits can make you laugh, but there’s a sadness underpinning the laughter because the exploits are so often fueled by an absolutely insane intake of drugs and alcohol and it was these vices that killed him in the end.

Why should it matter to me? I didn’t know Keith. Never met him. He never heard of me. I was only 14 when he died and the only Who albums I owned at that time were By Numbers and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. But the soundtrack of my adolesence is largely provided by The Who. Over the next few years as I traveled the halls of high school, it would be The Who, among others, who I would keep going back to. I loved Who’s Next…who didn’t? But hearing Quadrophenia (on an 8-track tape, kiddies) blew my doors off. By the time high school ended I had memorized every note on every album, from The Who Sings My Generation to Face Dances. Townshend was, to me, even cooler than Keith Richards because he was not only such a captivating presence on stage but he was also so frickin’ smart. My old friend JT drooled over every note John Entwistle played. We all liked Roger, the mic swinging rock god.

But above all, it was Moonie. The powerhouse engine that propelled this beast forward. Listening to him on Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia was like hearing a man with eight arms playing a 50-piece drum kit. How on earth did he do that and still be so…musical? Naysayers may point to the fact that Moon was not the world’s best timekeeper, but to a teenage boy with raging hormones and a perpetual hard-on, and no clear idea what to do with either, I could never be satisfied with a timekeeper. I loved Kenney Jones in the Faces, but when he joined the Who it was obvious to everyone within earshot (except, apparently, Pete Townshend) that it was a poor choice. But yes, Kenney sure could keep time with the best of them. That was the key. The Who was us, and we were the Who and Moonie was the fire raging inside of every teenage boy…uncontrollable, blazing hot, anarchic, confusion incarnate. Jones was a very good drummer.

But reading Fletcher’s book, the adult version of me is struck by the notion that I would love to be in the bar watching Moon carry on, as long as he stayed far away from me. And knowing that he was obsessively jealous and abusive to the women in his life doesn’t sweeten the picture.

Moon comes across as a real life Jekyll and Hyde. In fact, Entwistle’s song “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was written about the drummer. Sober, he was sweet and charming and generous to a fault, a kind and caring man who would do anything for anybody. Drunk or high, he could alternate between being an over-the-top, laugh-a-minute clown or an abusive, nasty prick. And he was mostly drunk or high. Towards the end of his life, the laugh-a-minute clown became harder to find as the abusive prick began to take over. It is the same story as Jim Morrison, though spread out over a longer period.

So my teenage dreams of all the fun Moonie was having are tempered with the adult reality that Keith Moon the man was little more than a scared little boy who hid his insecurities behind walls of practical jokes and under oceans of brandy. Many illusions are shattered in this book. A lot of Keith Moon’s life was self-serving, self-perpetuated mythology and the purpose of a good bio, and Moon is one, is to report the myth, and then report the truth.

But because I did not know him, I can compartmentalize somewhat. I can deplore the man who beat his wife. I can laugh at the man who, with the actor Oliver Reed, walked naked into the restaurant at breakfast time and ordered brandy in an uppercrust British accent (which was, itself, a put-on to hide his working class roots). I can admire and laugh at his genuine wit…it wasn’t all practical jokes. Moon possessed a razor sharp wit and verbal skills. But for me the one thing that still remains is the drumming. Despite the madness, and maybe because of it to some degree, Moon still sounds to me like an eight-armed man on a 50-piece kit. I still shake my head and smile, or drop my jaw in surprise and awe, at some particularly outrageous fill.

Keith Moon may not have been a great man, but he was the greatest drummer rock music’s ever seen. He smashed every rule of drumming that existed and proved, like Hendrix did with the guitar, that there were no limits as long as there was imagination.

Keith Moon, dead at 32. R.I.P.