The recent autobiography of Pete Townshend (born 1945) is entitled Who I Am, and has aroused diverse assessments, including my own contribution. He was guitarist and songwriter for The Who, and also became known for a religious affiliation to the Eastern mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969). A very obvious discrepancy is that the religious sympathies did not mix too well with the career of a rock star, in this instance featuring a long term alcohol problem and a susceptibility to hard drugs during the years 1980-81.
The British rock group known as The Who emerged in the mid-1960s, and eventually became superstars in America. They became icons of the Woodstock Festival at Bethel in 1969, an entrepreneurial event celebrated in a well known film. Ironically, Pete Townshend did not approve of the hippy venue, which he described as a mudbath laced with LSD. The previous year, he had declared himself to be a follower of Meher Baba, who was strongly opposed to LSD and other drugs. Townshend ceased his intake of marijuana (cannabis), and did not revert to LSD.
The stage performance of Townshend was noted for athletic leaps and the smashing of guitars. The “destruction art” was derived from his attendance at Ealing Art College and the questionable ideas of lecturer Gustav Metzger, who did however, disagree with Pete Townshend over the issue of a new commercial promotion. Townshend writes: “I was supposed to boycott the new commercial pop form itself” (Who I Am, p. 115). He also admits that “at a psychic level the Angry Yobbo, or hooligan, had seared himself into my soul” (p. 194).
In 1970, by his own account, he began to experience “regular manic-depressive episodes” (p. 210). His very questionable remedy for this setback was to drink alcohol. To such an extent, indeed, that he cultivated a habit of drinking brandy while performing on stage. His situation was surely not assisted by the activities of his fellow performers Keith Moon and John Entwistle, both of whom were alcoholics who developed a partiality for cocaine. The ill-fated career of Moon ended in 1978, when that drummer overdosed with medication for his chronic alcoholism.
Townshend was evidently upset by this development. “The incredibly charged emotions around Keith’s death made me lose all logic” (p. 309). He was suffering from impaired hearing, and had previously resolved not to tour again with The Who. Yet now he favoured a replacement drummer, and was keen to undertake concerts again in 1979. His alcoholism became evident, and in 1980 his resistance failed when he was offered cocaine. A drastic two years of addiction followed, and eventually included a resort to heroin.
The effect on Townshend was catastrophic. At one point he came close to death in a Chelsea hospital. His reckless disorientation included the well known incident where he jumped a fence into the bear pits at Berne, Switzerland. “I could have been eaten alive” (p. 330). There were other dangers also. Medical doctors knew that he had to break the bad habit of night club attendance, the root of his troubles. He was told to take up physical exercise instead, or invite certain death; he wobbled badly, and eventually had to seek help in California. A month of neuroelectric therapy switched off the addiction, but anxiety attacks and psychological unravelling entailed five years of psychotherapy during the early 1980s.
The subject continued his musical career and became an editor at the London publishing house of Faber. These events are well known, but rather more obscure is the phase of Meher Baba Oceanic. This centre was established by Pete Townshend at Twickenham in 1976, and featured facilities for filming and recording. Something went wrong, and the project changed name to Oceanic, becoming a purely private enterprise relating to Townshend’s musical career. Different explanations were given by onlookers at the time. Some Meher Baba devotees implied that Townshend had lost interest in Meher Baba as a result of his drug and alcohol excesses. This is contradicted by his own subsequent statements, which strongly indicate a continuing allegiance to Meher Baba.
The available data suggests that Townshend was basically confused in his project of Meher Baba Oceanic. This conclusion is inescapable when reading a report written by his close friend Richard Barnes:
“He [Townshend] was constantly initiating new ideas and concepts, but in a few days or weeks his mind would have raced ahead to something new.... At first there were facilities for filming and editing, then it was video, then it was recording. Pete was like a rich kid with too many toys.... I was staggered at the stupidity of some of the people Pete had given key jobs. By mistake, the tape would be wiped off after a day’s recording session, or a video would be ruined because somebody forgot some vital function.... The incongruous combination of recording studio and Baba workshop under one roof was a typical, badly thought-out move by Pete. The whole place [Meher Baba Oceanic] seemed to be a reflection of his own confused state of mind at that time.” (Quoted in Geoffrey Giuliano, Behind Blue Eyes: A Life of Pete Townshend, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996, pp. 144-5)
The most controversial event in the life of Pete Townshend occurred in 2003, when allegations surfaced on the media about his purported interest in child pornography on the internet. He denied these allegations, but some critics were persistent, including certain partisans of a rival guru to Meher Baba, who were eager to imply that Townshend’s conjectural role as a paedophile amounted to proof of Meher Baba being a deficient guide. Sectarian thinking often exhibits peculiarities.
The autobiography of the subject supplies details that negate the allegations (pp. 482ff.). His home was surrounded by reporters and camera crews intent upon a celebrity scoop. Townshend was taken to a police station, but released on bail. Forensic examination of his computers could not find any evidence to incriminate him. These and other matters are mentioned in Who I Am, and the allegations may accordingly be set aside.
Unless otherwise specified, all page references above are to Pete Townshend, Who I Am (London: HarperCollins, 2012).
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
ENTRY no. 51
Copyright © 2013 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.