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Off Their Rockers

Who I Am, A Memoir, by Pete Townsend (Harper Collins 2012), Life, by Keith Richards with James Fox (Little, Brown and Company 2010), The Heart Broke In, by James Meek, (MacMillan, 2012)

The Patrick Melrose Novels  (MacMillan, 2012) and  At Last (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), by Edward St. Aubyn —

It’s New Year’s Eve 1966 at the Roundhouse on Chalk Farm Road in London. My English girlfriend and I are surrounded by a frightening mob of inebriated, quarrelsome Mods and Rockers. It’s cold outside and The Roundhouse is an unheated brick train shed. Illicit warming fires are started here and there, right on the floor. Several fights break out. There’s only one door in or out and it’s far away through a sea of bodies. A 17-year-old American with good manners and virgin fists, I’m praying I won’t be called upon to defend anyone’s honor from these howling yobs, but no way would I consider leaving. I’ve come to see my heroes.

After a few uninspiring openers ( one of which was Pink Floyd, unbearably loud and incoherent) and three hours into 1967, The Who finally boil onto the stage. Their patched-together amps and instruments look like a portable war zone. The crowd roars and surges forward. Getting here early and staking out a spot close to the action seemed like a good idea; now we’re jammed tight against the stage. There’s no longer any need to keep our feet on the floor. Breathing becomes a labor of survival. We’re also too close for the music: John Entwhistle’s bass pounds us like brass knuckles but we can barely hear my idol drummer Keith Moon. Roger Daltry’s ankle is within easy reach as he struts by, but the PA speakers are pointed over our heads. Pete Townshend grows more manic with each song until it’s time for “My Generation” and the mandatory smash-up. By the ninth reprise, his guitar is held together only by its strings. He swings it above his head. Feedback screeches like a freight train slamming on the brakes. His eyes scan the audience threateningly. They light for an instant on mine. “There’s a wet-looking Yank,” I hear his lizard-brain speaking. “Maybe he should die.” I’m rigid with fear, but at the same time can think of worse ways to go. His gaze moves on and I breathe out to the extent possible.

In the end, the strings hold and no one’s skull merges with Pete’s Telecaster. Smoke pours from the amps, drums tumble and cymbals crash incoherently to the floor. The show is definitely over, as there’s nothing left with which to perform an encore. The crowd settles down to work on its hangover and makes for the single exit (even the unruliest Brit knew how to queue up in those days). The pressure is off. We can move, we can breathe. We can’t hear and may not for another week, but so what? We’ve been to a Who concert!

In his memoir Who I Am (Harper Collins, 2012), Townshend mentions this same night. He and his wife-to-be were coming down from an acid trip. Of the show so vividly etched into my memory, Pete has this to say: “My performance that night is reputed to have been destructive and angry, but I felt quite loved up, so I’m sure I was just going through my usual motions.” His usual motions. This is characteristic in that Townshend minimizes the hard work of rehearsing, performing, touring and recording — they’re just things one does as a professional, no sense agonizing about it. For all his athletics on stage, the bleeding fingers, the torn nails, the agony for Mr. T. is on the inside. He’s a troubled guy.

Which makes for an interesting comparison between Who I Am and Keith Richards’ Life (Little, Brown, 2010). The titles almost tell it all. (Note: Richards’ book was written by British journalist James Fox from many years’ worth of interviews, but one must take it that the good Mr. Fox accurately captured his subject on the page, and that the tone and humor belong to “the man death forgot.”) Richards observes, with wry amusement, the events that swirled around him between his post-war youth in England and his status as an icon. While it’s rock and roll in the fast lane, it’s also just…life. But Townshend, listed as the only author of Who I Am, is genuinely trying to figure out who he is and why he’s here. His tormented emotional response to events in his life, starting in the war-torn years just before he arrived, defines his narrative.

Richards is a gifted guitar player, songwriter, and genuine lover of music; Townshend is all these things, but also a haunted soul with a need to reach higher expressive goals. Richards doesn’t agonize about whether he’s demanding enough of himself, whether he’s really wringing lasting artistic value out of his talent. He’s good at what he does, he enjoys practicing his craft and has mostly enjoyed the life it provides — much to the detriment of his appearance if not his longevity. The excess, the sex, drugs and music are all rewards of a lot of work and a winning lottery ticket in the “starting a band” sweepstakes. Turmoil comes mostly when drugs are in short supply or the constabulary take exception to his possession of them. Townshend’s drugs and drinking are not celebration, they’re medication. He rarely seems to enjoy the perks of stardom beyond the opportunity to pursue his art without holding down a day job. He puts intense pressure on himself to take his lyrics and music to their highest possible artistic realization. No wonder Richards is laid-back and self-satisfied (though not in any unattractive way) where Townshend is neurotic to the point that one occasionally wishes he’d lighten up. But lightening up isn’t what artists do; Townshend is determined to work out his hang-ups or die trying. Rolling Stones lyrics are something to shape great music around; Who lyrics unflinchingly explore sexual confusion, identity in crisis and the outcomes of childhood abuse.

I attended several other Who concerts over the decades, in London, San Francisco and Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl, long after Keith Moon was gone to Party Heaven and very shortly after Mr. Entwhistle’s love of cocaine did him in, as well. They were all great shows, but none packed the visceral wallop of that first one at the Roundhouse. The Who got big, the stage got taller, the shows had security, the audience eventually sat in assigned seats. The equipment stopped looking forlorn because there were fewer smash-ups and besides, the band could afford replacements, but the music was always electrifying. Perhaps it takes a dyed-in-the-wool Who fan like myself to persist through Townshend’s self-conscious, often painful inner reflection of events, of who he was, what made him who he is and who he wishes he could be. For all that, it’s a fairly easy read, full of good bits regarding other notable personalities and the role The Who played in the adolescence and early adulthood of rock. Even a non-fan might find him or herself motivated to re-examine the raucous oldies, and Townshend’s more thoughtful, poetic solo work of recent years, in a new light.

Allow me to now offer a segue, built on pretty thin foundations. Pete Townshend was arrested by British cyber-police in 2003 because he had paid by credit card for access to a kiddie-porn site run by Landslide Productions in Texas. The matter was cleared up — things were not as they had seemed; no charges were brought, though he was admonished to be more careful in future — but Pete’s name was tarnished and he’d been driven (in typical angst-y fashion) to thoughts of suicide by the most harrowing moments of the episode. The Heart Broke In, by James Meek (MacMillan, 2012) features the aging rock star Ritchie Shepherd, who unlike Townshend no longer performs. Ritchie has moved on, becoming a television producer of kiddie shows…and therein lies his problem: underage women who want to be on his show. If the police catch up with Ritchie, he will not be admonished, he will go to jail. Thankfully, self-indulgent, self-pitying Ritchie is not quite the central character of this fine novel. He is half of a binary star, his sister Rebecca (Bec) being the other, more celestial, body. Around them orbit a number of planets, each of which hosts quirky, amusing, desperate and occasionally scurrilous life forms. This isn’t going to be an elaborate review; the purpose here is to point readers who enjoy a good novel to something that may not have made it onto their radar. Delve into the first few pages and the odds are you will want to gobble up the whole thing.

The next tenuous segue: Edward St. Aubyn, author of  The Patrick Melrose Novels  (MacMillan, 2012) and  At Last (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) is also a British novelist. Connection made, I hope.

Having recently excoriated a movie for the ugliness of its characters and its lack of anything resembling a narrative line, I now turn to a collection of shortish, more-or-less sequential novels that deal in truly dreadful, toxic people and don’t produce, overall, much in the way of a plot. The difference between what can be accomplished on film and what can be accomplished in print was never brought into sharper relief; it is almost certain that any movie made from Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels and/or  At Last would fail. The story is weak and the writing is just too damn good.

“The PMN” is a recent agglomeration of four novels written over a previous 20+-year period and At Lastis St. Aubyn’s final book on the subject, namely a quasi-biographical celebration of the end of the English Upper Class as it used to exist. It’s a place where lineage is everything. A club that no one who is not already a member by birth can possibly join. Problem is, in today’s world its members can no longer depend on subservience and respect from their so-called inferiors. Thus the group has folded in on itself, everyone holding up mirrors to each other in which a reflection of who they used to be can be dimly perceived through the mask of who they have become. Some are warped by the wealth they still possess, others by their loss of wealth through waste, disinheritance and bad marriages. Either way, there isn’t an undamaged soul in the lot.

In the hands of a lesser talent, these awful people, their mostly unexamined, largely worthless and occasionally cruel existences would form a nightmare procession; one would soon abandon the book, dive into the nearest public house and drink until some quantum of affection for the human race resurged in one’s bloodstream. Truth be told, one might do that anyway, as St. Aubyn’s characters really do open a drain on the milk of human kindness.

But the writing. Ah, the writing. To snip out a few quotes here would be an injustice to all the ones for which there isn’t room. The novels are an endless verbal delight. The word “like” appears in a profusion of analogies, and in some hands this figure of speech can surely be overused. But St. Aubyn’s vicious, funny, razor-sharp quippery and his characters’ plummy, dolefully wise repartee bring to mind the old potato chip commercial that smirks, “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

Read the first eight pages of the “PMN” first novel, Never Mind. If that initial excerpt doesn’t grab you, then perhaps darkly hilarious British irony isn’t your thing. If it does grab you, be aware that you’re being seduced into a harrowing literary experience. There is humor here — lots of it — keen wit and mordant satire, but rarely the kind that makes a reader laugh out loud; more the kind that creates a certainty that there will never be a better way to phrase a given, precise judgment on the human condition quite so beautifully, though the thing being described is itself wince-worthy.

The second novel, Bad News, especially — at least for this reader — was painful. Drug addiction, seen from the inside, described with such clarity that one viscerally shares the cravings, the desperation, the bad choices, the highs that are so brief and the lows that seem to last forever — this is not a breezy read. But hanging in there with young Mr. Melrose, through the damaging childhood that produces the drug addict and the maturing process that produces the husband and father who is still damaged but trying hard to live up to his responsibilities, is worth the effort. That is, if you, as I did, achieve the reader’s equivalent of the “runner’s high”, and lurch across the marathon finish line, exhausted, but exhilarated by the richness of the experience.


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