[…] I rise up,up, up into the sky where the air is as soft to rest upon as Mrs Williams Penthiw’s powdery bosom. Up here, far away from everybody, the night is peaceful; there’s no sound except the hum of the Earth. At school, when I sang the note to Mr Hughes Music he said it was B flat but he laughed when I said it was the note the Earth hummed. He said: You’ll be hearing the music of the spheres next, Gwenni. But he doesn’t know how the Earth’s deep, never-ending note clothes me in rainbow colours, fills my head with all the books ever written, and feeds me with the smell of Mrs Sergeant Jones’s famous vanilla biscuits and the strawberry taste of Instant whip and the cool slipperiness of glowing red jelly. I could stay up here for ever without the need for anything else in the whole world.
On my first Isle of Man fishing trip, I had a fiasco with a huge trout and was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly I was hearing music within the music – rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I’d been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of a trance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea – and to what might be described as the music of the spheres.
Soon after he has another Piper at the gates of dawn-like experience:
The tide was high and it wasn’t safe to row, so the men fitted an outboard motor to the stern and fired it up. As we swept past the old boathouse at Isleworth once again I began to hear the most extraordinary music, sparked by the whine of the outboard motor and the burbling sound of water against the hull. I heard violins, cellos horns, harps and voices, which increased in number until I could hear countless threads of an angelic choir; it was a sublime experience. I have never heard such music since, and my personal musical ambition has always been to rediscover that sound and relive its effect on me. At the very height of my euphoric trance the boat ran up against the muddy shore at the troop’s hut. As it stopped, so did the music. Bereft, I quietly began to weep […] I kept asking the other boys if they had heard the angels singing, but none of them even responded.
Pete Townshend was a serious, shy young man, always a bit of a seeker. More than any of his successful contemporaries he tried to apply his Art School experience, and – as it developed – his spirituality, to what he was trying to achieve with his music, to what he saw initially as The Who‘s mission. Who I am is a fascinating and passionate book, insightful both about himself and his generation, fully aware of the contradictions its writer has committed himself to in plying his trade. He signed the contract to write it in 1996 and here’s the statement he put on his website about it back in May, 2011:
This book is not a vanity for me. It is an essential rite of passage. I know I am good at what I do as a performer and composer, but since my early teens I have been happiest when writing. Writing is my principal daily occupation. Rock ‘n’ roll is a tough career, however cynically or comically it is portrayed by its detractors. I am lucky to be alive and to have such a crazy story to tell, full of wild adventures and creative machinations. I am happy that I am able to write my book myself, in my own ‘voice’ […] I am not my favorite subject, that will always be art and music, but whenever I write about my life and work I learn something. So the year ahead spent writing will also trigger the last vital bit of ‘growing up’ required by the now pensionable fellow who once wrote I hope I die before I get old. I want to write a book that is enjoyable to read, but above all, I want it to be honest.
I’d say he’s mostly succeeded on both counts and, at least as far as I can know about the latter, painfully so. This is a very different take on life from Keith Richards‘ celebrated swagger of a book, last year’s successful Life. Townshend acknowledges his “angry ‘inner yobbo’“, “the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me” that gave his wife, Karen Astley – his patient and long-term supportive art school sweetheart, wed in 1969 and, after 15 years’ separation, divorced 2009 – such a hard time. And elsewhere “[…] the problem wasn’t the booze; it was the fact it no longer worked as a medicine to fix the dire consequences of my self-obsession, overwork, selfishness and manic depression.” One of the things that does give me pause is that in his lengthy Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, although there is mention of her mother, her siblings and their three children together, and how they have all fared, Pete gives Karen no specific mention, with no indication of whether this is at her request or a deliberate act on his part (though the text itself is testimony to her role).
For another taste, here’s the infamous Keith Moon-driving-a-car-into-a-swimming-pool episode:
Suddenly it became clear that I longed for a transcendent connection with the universe itself, and with its maker. This was the moment I had longed for […] While I made progress with my search for meaning, Keith was causing havoc with a birthday cake, a car, a swimming pool, a lamp and a young fan’s bloody head. How amusing it has been to spend my life pretending it was amusing. In truth this day was unpleasant for me, though it has been turned into something of an apocryphal joke by everyone involved.
I could go on at length. The triumphs, the disappointments, most importantly the striving, are all here. By a long chalk it is not all Who. In a brief Coda he dedicates the book to “the artist in all of us,” for which I’m happy to give thanks. I usually make the odd note as I read and with Who I am broke the record for sheer quantity. For a start, I can readily identify with the boy.
- He read Enid Blyton and The Quatermass experiment on telly gave him nightmares.
- unlike Ray Davies, he passed his 11+ and the roots of The Who are to be found in a grammar school band
- On My Generation: “That first version was a kind of talking blues. The title came from Generations, the collected plays of David Mercer, a dramatist who had impressed me at Ealing. Mercer was a socialist … ” (Mercer’s Morgan: a suitable case for treatment is still one of my favourite films)
- listening a Czech recording called Masters of the Baroque experimentally drunk, the powerful Chaconne part of Purcell’s Gordian knot untied chamber suite impressed; the lessons learnt were first applied in The kids are alright
- what a joy to be reminded of how great it was to discover the Charles Lloyd Quartet‘s wondrous Forest flower recording; Townshend socialised with pianist Keith Jarrett, who consulted Pete about his own one-man band singer-songwriter album, Restoration ruin (the existence of which came as a complete surprise to me; it’s there on Spotify if you can be bothered to cringe; the best that can be said is it’s a product of its time)
- “They met me in the lobby of the hotel, where I sat talking to Lisa, having given her some books. I especially wanted her to read The blindfold by Siri Hustvedt. Later Emma told me that what made her suspect I had intentions towards Lisa was that I was giving her books.” Great writer, Siri Hustvedt.
Enough. It’s an absorbing read. It is just a happy coincidence that I can now return to Mari Strachan‘s rather wonderful The Earth hums in B flat. Set in a village in North Wales in 1958, her sister’s Buddy Holly poster on the shared bedroom wall, it’s a tale told in a lovely sing-song voice, the bitter-sweet tale of quirky Gwenni growing up within what is revealed as a web of tangled relationships, of hurt, damaged lives, love, dedication and anguish. And optimism, bruised but still there. For what it’s worth, in passing, (and I think it’s worth a lot) all the while the main family action in the kitchen is expressively observed by a row of Toby jugs. Right at the end, after all the traumatic revelations, Gwenni’s dad draws her a map of where everyone important to her has gone, and they’ve coloured it in together:
This map is beautiful, and when Tada works out how to write the Earth’s hum into it, it will be perfect.
I think that’s what Pete Townshend’s been aiming for too, all this time. There’s a nobility in the quest.
December’s Scribal Gathering was a good’un. Featured poet Vinnie Gibbons kicked off with a spirited attack on the ’80s revival and ventured into the zoologically bizarre and other sardonic or surreal places. Dodobones had a superb red-headed female vocalist and boasted the mighty Antipoet as rhythm section. She had a lovely voice with a never overblown intensity, which also serves as a decent description of what the band delivered. They went down very well and then provided the accompaniment, restrained but relentless, as a beautiful counterpoint to Mysteries, a noirish short story from the Antipoet’s Paul Eccentric. This spoken reminiscence from the owner of a seedy night club that had seen better days and of the dancers working there was a real tour de force. Not exactly short, if it buggered up the running order for what was to come, it was worth it.