History, Mystery, Music and Pop…

Random thoughts on books and events.

Category: Autobiography

the insane beauty of the banjo

An old blog which I think is ok.

History, Mystery, Music and Pop...

I hate self-indulgence, but I need to explain from where my beloved Washburn B9 banjo comes. Due to a set of circumstances I don’t need to relate here, students and some staff at the institute where I teach chipped in and bought it for me. I still can’t express the gratitude I have for them doing that. I had played a tenor banjo some years back, and the B9 is a 5-string. So, a new instrument. (I also think the tenor was tuned like a guitar… ok, I cheated.)

As you’ll see from my profile pic, I play mandolin (that’s a solidbody I’m holding). I also play guitar and bass. The beauty of the mandolin is its symmetry. Not just horizontally, but vertically, everything works. You play a chord shape or scale on one set of strings, you can play it on another. What I quickly discovered on the banjo…

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Who I Am: Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is one of the very few rock stars who can talk about making art without seeming ridiculous or pretentious. A highly literate and deeply intelligent man, Townshend’s compositions are among the most important of the rock genre, and the twentieth and twenty-first century. The Who, renowned for their destructive and energetic stage shows, set the template for many acts after, including Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols. The Clash, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Plus many others. Shaped by Townshend’s angry, funny, poignant and fun songs, and acerbic and loud guitar, led by the Wagnerian vocals of Roger Daltrey, and driven by the powerful rhythm section of John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, the Who were vital, important, and most of all, great.

Townshend asks the right question in this book. There are seemingly many Townshends: the arrogant, drunken, stoned rock star; the little boy starved for affection; the insecure artist; the family man; the alcoholic; the spiritual searcher, and follower of Meher Baba; and many others. Townshend tries to reconcile all of these. As other reviewers have said, Townshend is most critical of himself. A portrait of a damaged, yet vital man appears.

Townshend did not have a normal childhood. My reading of his childhood is of a man who has examined it many times, resolved some of it, but not really fully come to terms with it. There is an emotional distance. His parents’ troubled marriage (both are alcoholics, and that’s just the start) see him sent to his grandmother’s home. His grandmother is emotionally distant and (I think unintentionally) psychologically abusive. He does poorly at school, though makes some useful friends. Like many ne’er-do-wells of the time, (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood), he goes to art school. He also learns harmonica, but soon realises the guitar is his instrument.

Art school turns his head around, and he eventually joins The Who, who become the High Numbers, who then become the Who again. Like nearly every rock biography, except Dylan’s Chronicles, there is not a lot of new information. What is new, though, is Townshend’s examination of his life. He has bled publicly for years, but this book it seems to me, is Townshend trying to distance himself, yet look closer. Townshend’s life was chaotic. Constant struggles with alcohol and drugs (was it Billy Connolly who once quipped that Pete Townshend was trying to quit God and get back to hard drugs?) leads to all kinds of personal problems. His first wife, Karen, comes across as a saint: Pete himself comes across as an arrogant, selfish drunk.

I found the chapters on his work with Faber fascinating. I had no idea he commissioned one of my favourite rock books: Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic. (I must check the acknowledgments again). He gained the respect of the literary elite in Britain – Ted Hughes, poet laureate, in particular. Yet he cannot get close to many, and his often self-destructive behaviour distances him from many.

As to the Who, he clearly is very proud – and with good reason. Distance has probably dimmed the grief he feels for the early death of Keith Moon: Townshend admits that Moon could be ‘a bit of a twat sometimes’. Roger Daltrey, sometimes friend, sometimes foe, comes across extremely well in Townshend’s eyes. The years have cemented a deep connection to the two, I suspect.

Keith Richards’ Life does not have the depth of analysis. Eric Clapton’s autobiography was light, and ultimately unrevealing. We are still waiting for McCartney’s, and Jagger’s memory and lack of enthusiasm for the project saw him return a large advance and along with it any chance of his view of things. Ray Davies’ is apparently excellent. Townshend tells us little about his times, but, with a bit of digging, plenty of his life. Whereas Richards plays up to his ‘rogue’ image, Townshend tries to explain his. Richards tends not to praise anyone. Townshend tends to seem more tolerant. (Townshend indeed gives the opposite view to Mick Jagger’s physical prowess to RIchards’ own description.)

So, who is Pete Townshend? As he states himself, most of his fans would claim to know him, but he ‘wasn’t quite real’. He also acknowledges (in a conversation he remembers with Eddie Vedder) that the public elect you to be a rock star, whether you want it or not. Townshend struggles with his public image and private man throughout the book. In his last chapter, he summarises himself, and quotes from the letter he wrote his eight-year-old self. He acknowledges his strengths and his weaknesses. I was most touched by this touching book by the appendix, in which he opens a fan letter from 1967. He concludes that although now he can recognise the love inherent in the letter, had he recognised it in 1967, his life would have been vastly different.

Fame, wealth, creativity and talent have come at a price to Pete Townshend. His rock star lifestyle has led him to make some bad choices. As a fan, I can’t claim to know the real Pete Townshend, but I can claim to have some insight with this book. He seems, at the end of the book, to be in a good place. I thank him for the Who, and I hope he can continue to find some peace and contentment. Most memoirs diminish the writer. This one enhances him, despite, or most likely because of, its tough and brutal approach on its subject.