In his new 500-page memoir, Pete Townshend, quixotic songwriter/guitarist for The Who, bares his soul. It’s a pulsating, raw, and painful account of a tumultuous rise to musical stardom. From near-deadly trips on LSD to his own sexual abuse as a child, a look at 11 of most shocking secrets in Who I Am.
1. At age 5, he was sent to live with his deranged grandmother.
When Townshend’s mother got word that her own mom, Denny, had begun acting in bizarre ways, she sent 5-year-old Pete to live with his grandmother. So began what Townshend calls the “darkest part of my life.” Hallucinatory, irrational, and demented, grandmother Denny was nice to him only when he was freshly cleaned and perfectly silent—read: never. He describes her as a “perfect wicked witch” who threatened him with gypsy curses, spanked him violently, and punished him by withholding food. Townshend recalls waking up petrified—sweating and shaking with fear. Apart from slapping him and brutally scrubbing his body in the bath, she barely touched him. It was an experience that would lead to years of psychotherapy—and provide a roadmap for his seminal rock opera, Tommy.
2. He suffered sexual abuse as a young boy.
Always drawn to the water, Townshend begged his father to let him attend a “bunkhouse weekend” on the River Thames so he could go through the ceremony of becoming a “Sea Scout.” Even though he’d gotten weird vibes from the two men who led the program, his father reluctantly agreed. Riding on a large boat with the program leaders, Pete was euphoric. The feeling quickly dissipated when—shortly after—he found himself naked in a cold shower, surrounded by the two adult men. “Now you’re a real Sea Scout,” they said. “This is our initiation ceremony.” The only thing ceremonial about it, says Townshend, was the “wanking these two chaps were doing through their trouser pockets.” Shivering and terrified, he begged them to let him leave the shower. They refused until they had “achieved their surreptitious climax.”
3. He broke his first guitar by accident.
Known for demolishing guitars on stage, he recounts the first time it happened—an accident. It was June 1964, The Who’s first show in West London, and a typically reclusive Pete Townshend was uncharacteristically fearless. The feeling was “extraordinary, magical, surreal,” he writes. As the foursome played a cover of “Smokestack Lightning,” the crowd went wild. Thrusting his 12-string guitar above his head, he unintentionally sent it ripping through the ceiling. Rather than stop, he exploded—thrashing the guitar into the ceiling again and again until it was sheer carnage. Some called it a gimmick, but Townshend says he knew it was a turning point. “The old, conventional way of making music would never be the same.” He was right.
4. He wanted to have sex with Mick Jagger.
Introduced to the Rolling Stone by his manager in 1963, Townshend found him irresistible, frightening, and sexually provocative. When he witnessed Jagger getting friendly with other members of The Who, a pang of jealousy made it clear his feelings were more than just fascination. “Mick is the only man I’ve ever seriously wanted to f—,” he writes. Specifically, Townshend remembers fixating on Jagger’s body, and how well-endowed he was. The memories are vivid. One night, as the band sat around lounging, Townshend regarded Mick, whose loose pajama-style pants (without underwear) left little to his imagination. “I couldn’t help noticing the lines of his cock, laying against the inside of his leg, long and plump.” Mick’s gutsy sex appeal was contagious. The Who quickly began arranging their “parts” in such a way on stage and in photographs.
Watch Abby Haglage read a few of Pete Townshend’s crazier confessions.
5. He nearly died from an LSD trip while on a plane.
Townshend calls his LSD trip on an airplane “the most disturbing experience I’ve ever had.” When drummer Keith Moon decided to drop acid on a plane, Townshend and his then-wife, Karen, didn’t want him to be alone, and followed suit. The drug took effect quickly, turning the plane into a horrific dreamland. The female flight attendant morphed into a snorting pig while music of every genre—country, classic, rock, and show tunes—somehow played simultaneously. At one point, Townshend says he actually exited his body, floating up to the ceiling and staring at himself in the seat down below.
6. He admitted to Mama Cass that Jimi Hendrix stole his act.
Beyond imagining the Marshall stack—a configuration in which a powerful amplifier and speaker cabinets are stacked on top of each other—Townshend originated the concept of pyrotechnical stagecraft. Close friend Jimi Hendrix quickly began mimicking the explosive routine on stage, destroying his guitars and lighting them on fire. The copycatting simultaneously delighted and inflamed Townshend. At the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, as Jimi let loose—smashing his gear around the stage—Cass Elliot (from The Mamas and the Papas) lashed out. “Hey, destroying guitars is your thing!!” she yelled to Townshend. “It used to be,” he shouted back, “It belongs to Jimi now.”
7. He heard the voice of God on a vibrating bed in rural Illinois.
While The Who was touring America for the first time, Townshend was on a mission to find the secret to existence. “Smoking grass” and listening to his favorite albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds, he yearned to “connect with a higher power.” On what he calls an “oversized vibrating bed” at a Holiday Inn in rural Illinois, he got his wish. In a “singular, momentous epiphany—a call to the heart,” he says, he “heard the voice of God.” The moment was one he had been longing for his whole life.
8. He is banned for life from Holiday Inns.
“Happy Twenty-First Keith Moon” read the sign outside the Holiday Inn somewhere in Middle America. Inflating his age by a year (in reality turning 20 at the time), Moon was determined make his birthday a smash. On a drug- and alcohol-induced rampage, he drove a Lincoln Continental into the swimming pool, smeared birthday cake all over the walls, and knocked out his front teeth. When a fan approached to ask for a signature, he threw a lamp at him—cutting open the innocent devotee’s head. If it weren’t for an emergency dentist appointment, Moon would surely have been arrested. The Who, meanwhile, was banned from Holiday Inns for life.
9. He scored big with Tommy, then was nearly deported for kicking an NYPD officer in the groin at the Fillmore.
The era of Tommy—a rock opera that many consider to be Townshend’s magnum opus—was a tumultuous one. Vaguely biographical, it was inspired by his spiritual teacher at the time, Meher Baba, and told the story of a deaf, mute, and blind boy who becomes a master of pinball. The Who was uneasy about its live debut. “Townshend, you sick c--t, smash yer guitar’” one fan yelled as they walked on stage for their first show in London. But the controversy paid off, and the music worked. When the band brought Tommy to New York—their “spiritual home in the USA”—to perform live, they chose the Fillmore as the venue. In the midst of an intense set, a man came on stage and stole the microphone from Moon. A hyped-up and high Townshend was furious. Running over to the man, he aimed to kick him “in the arse,” but at the last minute, the man turned. “My Doc Martens connected with his balls,” he writes. It wasn’t until later that he was informed that the man was an off-duty officer in the Tactical Police Force. The TPF put him in a “cage,” and threatened deportation, but he was eventually released.
10. He saved Eric Clapton from heroin.
When he got word in 1973 that Eric Clapton’s addiction had reached a breaking point, Townshend dropped everything and went to him. He wasn’t completely clean himself—literally running his Porsche off the road on the way there and almost killing himself. But it wasn’t until years later that he would recognize the irony—a “drunk showing up to help a junkie.” Clapton and then-girlfriend Alice Ormsby-Gore were using heavily, and he was having trouble making music or performing. Townshend saved him in the only way he knew how: with music. Quickly throwing together a band, he pushed the group to perform only weeks later in concert at the Rainbow Theatre in London. The move reinvigorated Clapton, bringing him back to his love of music and saving him from drugs.
11. He was embroiled in a child-pornography tabloid scandal that has dogged him ever since.
It all began with a simple online search in 1998: “russian orphanages boys donations.” After seeing the film The Waiting Children, a documentary about an American couple traveling to Russia to adopt a child, Townshend was moved, and wanted to help. Clicking on the first link that appeared, his Toshiba computer was suddenly covered in images of young boys being sexually abused. Townshend says he was stunned, anxious, and full of rage. A year later, with the images still plaguing his memory, he decided to set aside time to “look at the issue of child pornography.” His plan was to run a story on his website illustrating that online banks and others were complicit in taking money for the disturbing images of children. As a part of the plan, he used his credit card on a website that read: ‘Click here for child-porn.’ The plan went horribly wrong.
When his manager called in January 2003 to say that the Daily Mail was running a story of a nameless millionaire rock star who was on a registered child-pornography list, Townshend replied: “That’ll be me then.” What came after was a tabloid storm so horrific, he dreamed of taking his own life. “The house was surrounded by reporters, television satellite vans … At that moment, if I’d have a gun, I might have shot myself, just to escape the lynching.” After waiting four and half months for his computers to be scanned, the Kingston police gave him a choice: accept a low-profile listing as a sex offender, or go to court. Tired of waiting and exhausted of the media, Townshend chose the listing. It plagues him to this day.