Other rock star autobiographies have garnered much attention this year (Gregg Allman, Rod Stewart), but few were as much anticipated as those from two enigmatic and eccentric musicians who gained fame in the 1960s: Pete Townshend and Neil Young.
Despite their much different personalities, the two have surprising commonalities. Both are known for their unique approach to playing the guitar, their obsession with music technology, their prolific production and large catalog of works. Both were born in 1945, both describe playing at Woodstock, and their respective autobiographies were released within two weeks of each other this fall, each numbering about 500 pages of narrative.
As expected, both books are rich with the back stories behind their albums and songs, the joys and sorrows of the rock-and-roll lifestyle and their takes on a number of other well-known musicians.
But their approaches to describing their lives are much different, reflecting not only their much different personalities but in some ways mirroring their musical careers.
Townshend’s book takes a traditional biographical approach, beginning with a key moment that explains why his band, The Who, began smashing their equipment, then taking a chronological examination of his life.
Everything I am and have done for myself, all my artistic work, was rooted in the British way of life, the two world wars and the hidden damage they had done to four generations, he writes, later acknowledging my self-obsession, overwork, selfishness and manic-depression.
Born into a musical family – his mother sang and he saw his father play saxophone at numerous gigs – he was just a child when he met bassist John Entwistle and a mere teen when they began playing with singer Roger Daltrey. The Who broke into the British Top 10 with I Can’t Explain when the song’s writer – Townshend wrote virtually all of the band’s hits – was 19.
Early on, he had a fascination with music technology, building his own speakers and constantly updating his home recording equipment. London in the 1960s was brimming not only with vast musical talent but with innovators in the quality – and volume – of sound. In 1963, Townshend bought an amplifier from music-store salesman John McLaughlin, who became a groundbreaking guitarist in his own right, as well as Jim Marshall, whose Marshall amps became ubiquitous at rock shows.
For those looking for secrets into Townshend’s psyche, he repeatedly refers to the year he spent with his grandmother at age 6.
While he superficially describes the abuse he suffered at her hands, he only hints at what happened when she brought numerous men into the home and suggests he himself has continued to repress many memories.
Townshend also details his following of Meher Baba, an Indian mystic and spiritual master who died in 1969 but who continues to provide guidance.
Of course, Townshend offers vivid descriptions of his mega-works – Tommy, Quadrophenia and the abandoned Lighthouse, which failed at the time because few collaborators understood what he was trying to achieve.
Some of the passages exhibit pretentiousness – it was Townshend who inspired Marshall to improve his amplifiers – and an almost unhealthy obsession with money. Indeed, when approached in 1989 about doing a Who reunion tour, Townshend doesn’t even suggest the motivation was about getting back with his bandmates to enjoy making music together. If I agreed to do the tour and made a new Who album, it would be hard work but in the year ahead I would be generating 14,000 (pounds) every day. I wondered – and I am not joking – would that be enough, but I very quickly came around. I couldn’t pass up this kind of money.
The Who Sell Out indeed.
Young’s book, on the other hand, is the product of short, stream-of-consciousness chapters – the book has 68 – that make no attempt to offer a chronology, a factor that leads to more repetition than a reader expects in an autobiography. Just as Young has suddenly switched styles from folk to country to rock to folk-rock to borderline heavy metal, his book quickly switches time and place from chapter to chapter.
His description of writing Greendale – an album, a movie and graphic novel – mirrors his approach to the book. I just carried a pad with me and would write when something came to mind. Still, he offers insights into the people and events that shaped his long career, including the members of his bands – Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators.
Young, in fact, makes light several times of the exclamation-heavy book you are reading. After describing collaborating with Linda Ronstadt, he adds parenthetically: By the way, Linda was addicted to peanut butter at the time! Isn’t that exactly the kind of interesting information you expect from a book like this?
Consider his take on Jimmy Fallon’s Neil Young impression: How about Jimmy Fallon? He is a classic. He does me so well, I don’t have to bother anymore. He looks great, and I am an old guy who doesn’t want to be on TV, so Jimmy has done all of my television performances for the last year or so. Thank you Jimmy!
As an aside to you, the reader: Writing this has been a lot of fun so far. As we make our way through this experience and I grab some thoughts out of the bag while waiting patiently for ideas that come out of the blue, inevitably we are going to get to some of the longest run-on sentences in history, ending in places I may have been avoiding, but not if I can help it!
If Townshend’s life was shaped by a year away from his parents, Young’s is dedicated to his son, Ben, born with cerebral palsy – our spastic, quadriplegic, nonverbal spiritual leader.
Young takes much space promoting new ventures – including PureTone, now called Pono, a music technology he describes as far superior in quality to the MP3 format, which he criticizes at every opportunity.
Young’s love of automobiles is more than evident. He describes many of the key moments of his life in context with the car he was driving at the time, often something large from the 1950s, including hearses and an old ambulance, usually with a name.
Young spends a lot more time describing his cars than his guitars, and even threatens to write a second book: Cars and Dogs. Because there is so much more to say than I could ever say in one book. There is a lot of room for me to wander, which I am very fond of doing.
And in his autobiography, it shows!
Book factsWho I Am
by Pete Townshend
544 pages, $32.50
Waging Heavy Peace
by Neil Young
(Blue Rider Press)
512 pages, $30