Giuliano's 'Townshend': from the Who's mouth

November 24, 1996|By J. D. Considine BTC | J. D. Considine BTC,sun staff

"Behind Blue Eyes: The Life of Pete Townshend," by Geoffrey Giuliano. Dutton. 352 pages. $24.95. One thing people love about celebrity journalism is the chance to hear an artist "speak" through interviews that stress long, unedited quotes. Unlike conventional profiles, where the writer acts as a sort of filter between the subject and the reader, these quote-driven pieces simply take down what the star has to say and offer it up without comment.

That may make for magazine copy, but it's hell on biographies. Because, to be blunt, celebrities aren't the most reliable of witnesses. They exaggerate, they equivocate and sometimes they prevaricate.

Or, as is the case with rock star Pete Townshend, the interview talk often has less to do with what actually happened than with how Townshend felt about it at the time. As a result, his press folder is a thicket of contradictions, full of passionate insistence, gruff denials, bold claims and hasty dismissals -many of which simply do not add up. Any biographer hoping to square what Townshend said with what he did is facing an almost Herculean task of fact checking.

Perhaps that's why Geoffrey Giuliano prefers to take Townshend at his word. Even though "Behind Blue Eyes" is full of quotes from other sources - other members of the Who, professional associates, relatives, even a pseudonymous family "insider" - it's Townshend's own voice that dominates.

In taking so much straight from the horse's mouth, Giuliano is able to put a very personal spin on Townshend's life. For instance, where Dave Marsh's "Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who" frames Townshend's famed guitar-smashing within the context of pop culture and modern art, Giuliano suggests it was sparked by the guitarist's anger, particularly at his mom.

On the other hand, because he has Townshend's word, Giuliano doesn't seem much inclined to dig around for confirmation. That's most grating when he gets to the guitarist's 1990 %J declaration, "I'd had a gay life." Although Giuliano dutifully trots out a couple of quotes from two earlier interviews to show Townshend had said such things before, he doesn't delve further; the matter is brought up and quickly dropped, without giving any sense of whether Townshend's comments were honesty or hyperbole.

Perhaps it's just as well, though, as Giuliano isn't a terribly reliable researcher. After all, he expects us to believe that, in 1959, Townshend "was studying the stirring guitar work of Hank Marvin, Eddie Cochran and the more aggressive R&B riffs of Memphis sensation Steve Cropper." Pretty prescient of him, that, since Cropper wouldn't make his first record until 1961.

Most amazing of all is Giuliano's odd sense of what is important in Townshend's life. That he would devote numerous pages to Townshend's adaptation of Ted Hughes' "Iron Man" is one thing; that he'd relegate the deaths of 11 concert-goers at a Who show in Cincinnati to just a couple of paragraphs is something else again. It may be true, as the book jacket claims, that Giuliano "has known Townshend intimately for almost 20 years," but that intimacy provides precious little insight into what really goes on behind those blue eyes.

J.D. Considine, pop music critic for The Sun, writes about musi for several publications.

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