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Legendary guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend composed rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia, and helped define rock music for generations. (Courtesy of the artist)

'Who I Am': The Public And Private Pete Townshend

Nov 12, 2012 (Talk of the Nation)

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One of the most gifted rock guitarists of the last 50 years — and the main songwriter and creative force behind The Who — Pete Townshend spent decades touring the globe and writing rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. He helped define rock 'n' roll for his generation and many to follow.

Townshend tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that he never set out to have such a significant cultural impact. "I definitely, in the early days of The Who, knew that I wanted, more than anything — more than being a performer, more than being a songwriter, more than providing any service for the audience — I wanted to be an artist. And I was teased about that."

In his memoir, Who I Am, Townshend composes the story of his life in more than 500 pages. The book is a compendium of conflict — between the private man and public performer, between the rock legend and an all-too-human husband and father, between addiction and sobriety, and between longing and belief.

Here, he talks with Lyden about the life experiences that shaped his art.


Interview Highlights

On how his childhood informed his musical career

"I have memories of being on the band bus with my mom and dad. ... She was singing in the band sometimes. My dad was playing saxophone. And we've been on this cranky old bus, and I can remember driving up English country lanes and then arriving at a wonderful dance hall.

"And I'm a little kid, you know, a tiny kid, and I really don't — I don't have any difficulty at all with life in those times. I was happy. I knew I was on the right side of the blanket. I was, you know, I was on the right side of the curtain. The audience was out there. ...

"I knew ... even at 4 1/2 years old, who I was going to be. ... But when I was 4 1/2 years old, my mother found a lover, a rich lover. She was fed up with my dad touring, always being away. He spent a lot of time — he was in an Air Force band, so he played a lot in Germany. And she sent me to live with my grandmother, who was very, very ill mentally, deranged, spoiled, strange, Victorian disciplinarian, and certainly not loving. And so the contrast was so awful, and I blacked it out.

"... When I was about 6 1/2, just before I turn 6 ... my parents got back together again and took me back. And so then life was wonderful again. I was back with the band, back with the colorful parents, glamorous parents. So my life has always been about these extremes. And I found those extremes, too, when I started to work with a band."

On being teased about wanting to be an artist

"I was teased about that, because it seemed pretentious to claim to be an artist when you're playing guitar in a silly rock band who smashed their guitars and wore jackets made of flags. [But] I wanted to operate as an artist. And as an artist, my brief was that I wanted to serve my audience, and my audience were the people in front of me. So that was the job."

On viewing himself as an artist and a journalist

"It's interesting that being in a pop band in the '60s, for me, my role was not just entertaining. It was also slightly journalistic. ... I would talk to people. I would find out what's going on in their heads. I would observe them very, very closely. I will try to find things about them that would enrich not only my craft, but that would touch them.

"And Quadrophenia grew out of the fact that ... for a lot of the time, I didn't have that kind of access to the audience. I had to just look at the four guys in the band ... I had to measure our audience through looking at them. And there were four very, including myself, four very eccentric characters ... I still like to think of myself as, above everything else, as an artist with a stroke of journalism."

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