Having spent close to three years playing gigs at K.I.Sawyer Air Force Base, it only felt like I had done a tour of duty in the military. Perhaps that is why Pastor Jay’s sermons illustrated with anecdotes about his time wearing Air Force blues always conjure up memories of my college days. Back in the early fall, he told the story of one of his buddies who stopped a car doing 36 mph in a 25 mph zone. As he was writing out a ticket for the woman driver, the man in the passenger seat leaned forward and asked, “Sargent . . . do you know who I am?” “Yes, sir, you are the base commander,” the Sargent replied as he completed writing out the citation. Soon after, he found himself assigned to patrol a different part of the base.
The title “Who Are You” popped into my head soon after as I happened to be reading Pete Townshend’s 2012 memoir Who I Am (Harper Perennial Books) in which he examines his life and the experiences that formed him. I had read years ago some comments he had made about being in therapy to help him come to grips with certain parts of his upbringing. One may think, “Hmm, rich and famous rock star . . . why on earth would he need to be in therapy?” but perhaps one must look beneath the ‘rich and famous’ veneer to see what it covers up. I give Townshend a lot of credit for taking an unvarnished look at his own past to explain how he got to where he is now. Reviewing past media accounts, there seemed to always be an undercurrent of ‘cranky old Pete Townshend’ that he also addresses frankly in Who I Am.
Pete Townshend was born in May of 1947 just as World War II wound down. His father was a saxophone and clarinet player in the RAF Dance Orchestra, a group formed to perform for service members. The RAF organized the orchestra at the suggestion of popular singer Vera Lynn whose own saxophone playing husband, Harry Lewis, was also in the RAF. Lewis, it seems, was terrified of flying, let alone flying over Germany, so the Dance Orchestra was his way to serve his country without actually flying in combat. When someone told the senior Townshend his wife had just delivered a boy, he was on stage in Germany two weeks after VE day (and a few months before VJ day). Townshend’s mother had lied about her age to join up and was a vocalist with the RAF DO in 1941 which explains how she met her future husband. After the war, the RAF band stayed together as The Squadronaires and kept playing during the immediate post war years.
During this time, Pete’s mum complained that she hardly ever saw her husband as he was continually on the road somewhere or hanging out at the local pub, as common an English habit as tea time. Neither of his parents were particularly ‘parental’ and the marriage suffered. There were hints of possible infidelity on both sides but eventually they patched things up. Pete has fond memories of summers spent at various holiday camps where The Squadronaires were booked for long engagements. A naturally shy child, Townshend found himself a small gang of kids his age to run with which included his new best friend Jimpy. When not engaged in youthful hijinks, Pete was perfectly contented to live a rather solitary existence.
As the summer of 1951 passed, Townshend’s Aunt Rose reported to Townshend’s mother that his maternal grandmother was going “quite bonkers”. Denny, Pete’s maternal grandmother, had abandoned her family after eleven years of marriage to become a wealthy man’s kept woman. Her new man had responded to her increasingly odd behavior by sending her money and expensive gifts. Inexplicably, Aunt Rose and Pete’s mum decided to ‘help her’ by sending the young lad to live with Denny. Life with his grandmother was an unstructured free-for-all that included all kinds of characters every bit as eccentric as Denny. Townshend never clearly explains exactly what event(s) happened during his time with his grandmother that scarred him so deeply, but to hear him say, “I was a tiny child, just six years old, and every night I went to sleep feeling incredibly exposed, alone and unprotected.” That sentence alone is certainly one major clue as to why he felt he needed therapy later in life.
When Pete’s father finally had heard enough about Denny’s downward spiralling mental state (“This is ridiculous – he can’t stay with her there – she’s completely round the twist” was his father’s very English assessment of the situation), they decided to bring him home. Townshend’s mother was again catting around with another man that Pete liked immediately because he had a car (in which he was transported home from Denny’s). Pete found out years later that his father was prepared to let his wife and son leave for the Middle East where her ‘friend’ Mr. Brown had taken a new job. In the eleventh hour, the senior Townshends patched things up (again) and their renewed commitment to be a family lead to the birth of Pete’s younger brothers Paul and Simon. Back home again, Pete was reunited with his best bud Jimpy. He also took up the harmonica after having several instances where the rhythm of the natural world set off a sort of audible symphony of sounds in his head. He had no idea what caused this epiphany, but it would return to him later when he became more involved composing music. Early on, Pete found he had an affinity to drawing and his mind turned toward a future as an artist of some kind. Being a musician wasn’t on his radar until he and Jimpy went to see Rock Around the Clock at the Cinema. Pete walked away unimpressed with Elvis but awed by the power of the music.
There were times when young Pete received some encouragement about making music, but not from his parents. His Aunt Trilby often remarked about his attempts to make music on her piano. When Jimpy’s father made his son a guitar from a box, Townshend amazed even himself when he was able to pick out a simple tune without really knowing what he was doing. Oddly enough, it was his crazy grandmother Denny who bought him his first second hand guitar. He promptly broke three of the strings but carried on with the remaining three. After showing enough promise on this decrepit instrument, he set it aside in favor of the banjo. Pete found himself playing it in a group called The Confederates (that included future The Who bass player John Entwistle). His first guitar had been a disaster, but playing music now put a fork in young Pete’s road to the future: one lead to a career in art and the other bent toward music.
Along the way, Townshend’s parents ended up running an antique shop called Miscellanea. He upgraded to a slightly better Czechoslovakian guitar which he eventually electrified so he could run it through a small amplifier he purchased. Entwistle was now playing with Alf Maynard’s jazz band. Maynard also played the banjo so Pete kept practicing with Entwistle on the side. When Entwistle joined a group with a school friend of theirs named Pete Wilson, Townshend was able to finally join a proper group as a guitar player even though the music Wilson favored didn’t excite him all that much (Wilson was a big fan of Cliff Richard and The Shadows). Being the youngest in his group of aspiring musicians, the shy Townshend continued with his schooling, working at Miscellanea, and playing occasional gigs with his new found band.
At this point, Townshend only knew Roger Daltrey as a rough and tumble Teddy Boy who had been expelled from school for smoking and fighting. Technically, Daltry wasn’t supposed to enter the school so it was a bit surprising when he swaggered up to Pete in the hall and informed him that Entwistle had told him that Townshend played guitar pretty well. Daltry asked, “If an opportunity came up to join my band, would [Pete] be interested?” Roger’s band, The Detours, were a popular party band and the mere act of Daltrey talking to him (let alone inviting him to try out for The Detours) raised Pete’s social standing several notches. The opportunity to audition came several months after Townshend had enrolled at Ealing Art College. Daltrey asked Pete to come by his house, asked him to play several chords and a couple of tunes, ending the session with, “OK, then. See you for practice at Harry’s.”
Now sporting a Harmony solid-body, single-pickup Stratocruiser, Townshend learned the ropes. Daltry wasn’t the lead singer (yet) and the guitarist Pete replaced had decided he would rather be The Detours road manager. While they played the London gig circuit, Townshend kept his band and school life separate. It would take some time before his friends from both forks in the road recognized that Pete was living a dual life. Daltrey’s younger sister Carol was interested in Townshend and it was through her circle of friends that Pete was introduced to the ‘Mod’ side of the ‘Mods and Rockers’ culture. The Rockers were the macho tough guys who traced their existence back to the Teddy Boys, and Roger was all in with their lifestyle. The Mods were more into high fashion, R&B music, motor scooters and new dance moves. One wonders if Roger the Rocker even knew that his little sister was indoctrinating Townshend into the other end of the social spectrum right under his nose.
By May of 1963, a gig at the Carnival Ballroom near Ealing Art College put The Detours in direct contact with many of Pete’s Art College crowd. While he was a little embarrassed by some of the chart hits of the day the band performed, he found they were balanced by the funkier R&B songs he had managed to sneak into the band’s set. The decision to put Daltrey out front and hand all the guitar duties to Townshend was made after a supporting slot they played for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. During this time he really began to develop the art of mixing rhythm and lead guitar that would later become one of The Who’s biggest contributions to rock music. Meeting Tom Wright about this time was another life changing moment for Townshend.
An American Air Force officer’s stepson, Wright introduced Pete to his extensive collection of R&B records and to recreational marijuana. The music pulled Townshend into the world of rhythmic blues as practiced by Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Hubert Sumlin. Pete learned that one could play R&B guitar without needing to be excessively clever or fast. He learned to create their sound now pursued it with a vengeance. In February of 1964, Entwistle heard that there was another band touring under the name The Detours, so the band set about brainstorming a new name. Luckily, they decided on The Who rather than Pete’s favored suggestion: The Hair.
As music and constant gigging occupied more and more of his life, school became an afterthought. He confided to a guest lecturer (a well placed ad-man working in Graphic Design) that his band work was exhausting him. The lecturer was stunned to learn that he was earning 30 quid a week playing music. The ad-man suggested that perhaps he would be better off following the music fork in his road. By the end of the summer break of 1964, Art College was a dead end and Pete Townshend became a full time musician on an upward trajectory. The rest of the story will have to be told another day because there were many more formative moments in Townshend’s journey to Who I Am. The Who are currently wrapping up their latest ‘last tour’, so only time will tell if we will be seeing Townshend in that role again. The Who has retired before, so one never knows which ‘last tour’ will actually be the end.
Top Piece Video: Vintage Who performing Who Are You? (what did you expect?). IT took a while to find one without the gratuitous f-bomb Roger likes to toss in, but here is a spirited Glastonbury Festival version in the rain from 2007.