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  • Pete Townshend traces drug use, child abuse, aging in wide-ranging biography

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    Published 11/28/2012 15:12:38
    Pete Townshend traces drug use, child abuse, aging in wide-ranging biography
    Pete Townshend, songwriter, guitarist and founding member of the rock band "The Who," poses for a photo to promote his memoir "Who Am I" in Toronto on Thursday, November 22, 2012. Townshend has weathered drug abuse, alcohol addiction, infidelity, near-deafening rock'n'roll assaults to his ears, and of course, those infamous child pornography charges. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

    TORONTO - Legendary Who guitarist Pete Townshend has weathered drug abuse, alcohol addiction, infidelity, near-deafening rock 'n' roll assaults to his ears and, of course, those infamous child pornography charges.

    Townshend discusses these trials openly in his candid memoir, "Who I Am," but admits he may never fully come to terms with what is arguably the book's most painfully raw revelation: that he believes he was sexually abused as a very young boy.

    Although he says childhood trauma has coloured nearly every aspect of his life, the guitar-smashing rocker admits he's buried the memories so deeply he can't be certain exactly what transpired.

    "If I remembered it in great detail, I think you would be suspicious that I was making it up," says Townshend in a free-wheeling interview during a recent stop in Toronto.

    "From what I know of acting as a counsellor myself ... is that if it happens between the ages of six-and-a-half and 12 we remember it. Prior to that you have to be very, very careful. So I don't want to insult anybody who remembers specifically by carelessly thinking, 'Ah, toss a coin, yeah, I'm pretty sure that something weird went on.' All I can actually say is that I'm pretty sure that something weird went on."

    Townshend's suspicions are sketched in broad strokes throughout "Who I Am," starting with vague boyhood recollections of physical and emotional torment at the hands of his irrational grandmother and moving on to accounts of sudden memory flashes and disturbing dreams as an adult.

    He writes that at age five, he was sent to live with his grandmother Denny — a time he describes as "the darkest part of my life." Unstable and moody, Denny was "a perfect wicked witch" who controlled his day with military precision and punished him by withholding food, brutally scrubbing him in the bath, slapping him, and threatening him with gypsy curses.

    Adding to his anxiety was a parade of strange men who would visit for tea, including an overnight guest with "a little Hitler moustache" he had to call "uncle."

    Townshend says he's since spent years of psychotherapy trying to understand it, but any time he's attempted to delve deep into his past he's "literally starting to froth at the mouth and shake and go into a kind of a fit."

    "I'm not going to do this to myself. I don't have to remember at all," Townshend says now.

    "I don't have to remember because the evidence is in my work. And the evidence is in the way that I operate as a man."

    That includes a misguided attempt in 1999 to investigate the financial ties of online child pornography, a quest that led him to use his credit card to access a website advertising images of children, he explains in the book.

    As a result, Townshend was arrested in 2003 and put on a sex offender's registry, although he was later cleared of possessing pornographic images.

    Townshend says hardcore fans would know he's been grappling with these issues for decades, pointing to disturbing themes he wove into his hit "A Quick One While He's Away" and The Who's seminal rock opera, "Tommy."

    Of course, "Tommy" was also notable for catapulting the British quartet into a new sphere of idolatry, and cementing their position as one of rock music's biggest bands.

    It followed ear-splitting anthems including "My Generation" and "I Can See for Miles," pushing the group from mod-inspired rockers to pop art innovators willing to venture into uncharted conceptual soundscapes.

    That creative journey was mainly driven by Townshend himself, who admits that as principal songwriter he wielded a power that caused continual strain with bandmates Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle and led to an ever-growing financial gap as he raked in songwriting royalties.

    Today, he admits he's enjoying the fruits of his hard work, referring to this part of his storied life as "the gravy."

    "I can afford to sit on my haunches and watch 'CSI' and every time it goes on I go, 'Ka-ching!'" says Townshend, referring to the CBS crime series which uses "Who Are You" as its theme song.

    He says he attacked his memoir with a passion last year, barrelling through the writing process more than a decade after first inking a book deal in the mid-90s.

    "I felt that time was running out, I just felt that I really had to do it," he says, noting the book also includes passages that were written during abandoned spurts over the years.

    "I'm 67 years old, I don't really want to be sitting like some old professor writing my life story when I'm 80."

    Townshend touches on all the major events in his life including the origins of his windmill wind-up, being banned from all Holiday Inns, his fascination with mystic Meher Baba, groupies, affairs, wild acid trips, Woodstock, lusting after Mick Jagger, reaching out to a heroin-addled Eric Clapton, and grappling with the drug-induced deaths of Moon and Entwistle.

    Townshend says he found the writing process "cathartic" and even insightful, noting that it forced him to question why he didn't do more to prevent some of his biggest heartbreaks.

    That included Moon's outrageous drug and alcohol binges while on tour, which he admits he failed to stop despite their alarming escalation.

    "I would sit and say to the other guys in the band, 'You know Keith Moon is going to die and we are going to do nothing about it.' And everybody would go, 'Well, that's not my (problem). (Continuing the tour) is for the greater good,'" he recalls.

    Fed up with touring and boozing, Townshend says he left the band in 1982 intending to put his rock days behind him. But he found himself continually pulled back.

    "You know Roger would make the call, 'Come on Pete, for heaven's sake I need a bit of money. Come out with me and John,'" says Townshend.

    "I would often tell myself I was doing it for the greater good but the reason was quite selfish and that epiphany was quite hard because I realized that what I wanted was still to go into the local restaurant and get the best table. It's that shallow. In a sense, (I wanted) to be respected."

    Nevertheless, Townshend says the motivation is different now that he and Daltrey find themselves on the road yet again.

    Their "Quadrophenia and More" tour included recent stops in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto and is set to visit Hamilton on Feb. 19, 2013.

    "This is something that I wanted to do, this is something I've been urging Roger to join me in for a long time. It's not kind of worked out quite as I expected, it's a bit more rock 'n' roll than I expected but that's OK, too," he says, noting he envisioned it as a "quite formal" affair that would protect his aging ears.

    Townshend says the recent stop in Montreal brought back strong memories of The Who's infamous 1973 stay there, when a raging hotel party escalated to all-out bedlam and a night in jail.

    "It was almost as though everybody that was in that gathering — and there were about 150 of us — everybody was waiting to smash a hotel room," he recalls. "There was not a single thing in that room that wasn't destroyed.

    "But that, funnily enough, that was the only time where I remember a hotel room being wrecked to such an extent that we all — and I think even maybe Keith Moon — felt a great degree of shame."

    Growing older has brought new perspective to all aspects of Townshend's life, and he's proud to say his oft-fractious relationship with Daltrey has eased into a more comfortable camaraderie.

    "For Roger and I, there's actually now a discovery of love that may always have been there but we certainly are not in accord in every subject. We still argue — just recently we had a shouting match about something or other and I remember ending up by saying to him, 'You need a ... hearing aid!' " he chuckles.

    And for a rocker responsible for creating the teen mantra "I hope I die before I get old" from the smash "My Generation," Townshend finds himself remarkably sanguine about settling into senior citizenship.

    Townshend says the older he gets, the less age matters.

    "I don't think that what we worried about when we were young matters," he says.

    "It doesn't matter about growing old — what matters is about still being current. Still being relevant. Still being able to do a really, really great show. Even if you're playing old songs. Roger and I go on with the band, there's no question The Who blow most bands away and we still do. I don't know how we do, but we do."

    "Who I Am," published by HarperCollins Canada, is on sale now.

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