A brief reflection on Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am”

February 25, 2013

I know photos can lie, but Towshend looks great at 67!

I’m back home in the States, having returned yesterday from Kenya. I still want to share one or two more posts related to the trip. In the meantime, I finished Pete Townshend’s brutally candid autobiography Who I Am on the plane yesterday.

It is, at least in small part, about the author’s deep spiritual yearning. In the late-’60s, Townshend became the most famous follower of a 20th-century Indian mystic called Meher Baba, to whom he dedicated the album Tommy (and his first solo album, Who Came First) and about whom he wrote several songs (including one of the Who’s most famous, “Baba O’Riley”) and articles. He even founded an institute in England dedicated to Meher Baba’s teachings.

Unless I’m mistaken, Meher Baba falls within the realm of Hinduism and is considered by some to be a manifestation (or “avatar”) of God.

Who I Am is already a long book, with a lot of ground to cover. Nevertheless, I wish Townshend had said more about his religious journey. He leaves too many questions unexplored. For example, he said he heard the voice of God in a hotel room at a Holiday Inn in the Midwest. What did God say? How did he experience this “voice”? How does he interpret its meaning? He describes having an out-of-body experience during an LSD trip, which was interrupted by an actual angel telling him that it’s not time to go yet. In fact, he makes at least a few references to literal angels and demons.

If Townshend accepts the reality of a spiritual dimension populated by angels and demons, surely their appearances to him deserve further comment and reflection than simply to mention that they were there. He surely knows that many of his readers will think this discussion is bunk. Also, how does this spiritual realm fit within the worldview espoused by Meher Baba—and might such beliefs fit more tidily in another religion, i.e., Christianity?

The main story that Townshend tells in the book is his struggle with and victory over drug and mostly alcohol addiction. Given his many relapses, this “victory,” as Townshend knows better than anyone, is always frighteningly provisional.

Townshend describes a doctor on the West Coast whom he credits with saving his life on more than one occasion. He’s the same doctor, I think, who also helped his friend Eric Clapton. Regardless, he said the doctor had an “infectious Christian faith,” which he shared with Townshend, although Townshend remained committed to Meher Baba. Given that Townshend grew up within a largely Christian culture in postwar England—even though he wasn’t a churchgoer and never professed Christian faith—I wanted to hear about those conversations. What did he learn about this doctor’s faith and what made it compelling to him? How was this doctor’s faith different from other Christians he’d encountered?

These questions probably don’t matter as much to Townshend because he assumes universalism: many paths lead to God; you’ve got Jesus, I’ve got Meher Baba. I just wish someone as intelligent as Townshend would have identified this assumption and at least called it into question.

Townshend describes his relationship with George Harrison, who became the world’s most famous Hindu convert in the ’60s and never looked back. Townshend loved Harrison, but he offers a small but surprising critique of Harrison’s faith. Regarding one long conversation with Harrison, he writes:

George was happy to talk to me about Indian mysticism and music, even his use of cocaine. I found it hard to follow his reasoning that in a world of illusion nothing mattered, not wealth or fame, drug abuse or heavy drinking, nothing but love for God.[†]

I’m glad he said so! I find it hard to follow as well: Christianity utterly rejects this kind of dualism that imagines that how we live our lives has little or no connection with our love for God. We are bodies and souls, inseparable and intertwined, as even our best science understands.

By the way, here’s one of my favorite Townshend songs from one of my all-time favorite albums, (All The Best Cowboys Have) Chinese Eyes, from 1982. The song is about God’s providence. It challenges us to see that that “somebody” who saves us is the One who loves us and is working for our good.

Pete Townshend, Who I Am (New York: Harper, 2012), 265.

4 Responses to “A brief reflection on Pete Townshend’s “Who I Am””

  1. Marc Rettus Says:

    I’m just a sinner saved by grace. Townshend, my favorite guitarist from my heathen days, USED to talk about Jesus. Now he wants to keep his beliefs, about Jesus at least, to himself. This, of course, contradicts the bible. (I want to reiterate that I’m just a sinner saved by grace.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t think Townshend ever professed Christian faith. He used to talk about some guru called Meher Baba. He was the “avatar” listed in the credits of “Tommy.” Townshend says he still follows him, but without talking about him. I need to pray that he’ll find Jesus.

  2. Jay Rogers Says:

    Meher Baba was a Sufi mystic. It is a religion more related to Islam and Zoroastrianism than Hinduism. It is usually defined as the “inner mystical dimension of Islam” — it is popular in Iran. Meher Baba’s cult is universalist in nature and attempts to blend all religions.

    I had a seven hour conversation with a woman who was an Iranian Muslim mystic. It is very different than other forms of Islam. She told me that she was trained as a “dreamer” and had founded a multi-million dollar encryption company. She claimed that the codes for her powerful encryption (more powerful than the government’s she claimed) came to her in dreams.

    Townshend turned to this after a several day long bad trip on STP — in which he had hellish outer body experiences. He sad that after this he went looking for answers. I think there is something to it in mind training because his music changed a lot after this and The Who became successful — when they were bankrupt following their first three albums.

    It’s not compatible with Christianity, but probably enabled him to tap into parts of his mind and spirituality that he hadn’t experienced before. It may have caused him to become demon possessed too.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks! You’ve already written more about the substance of Townshend’s religion than he does in his lengthy book!

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