Searching Low and High for the Who Behind The Who

A flurry of thinkpieces circulating at the moment about the dark side of identity politics—for […]

David Zahl / 11.21.16

A flurry of thinkpieces circulating at the moment about the dark side of identity politicsfor reasons that should be fairly self-evident. Just before starting in on a contribution of my own, a guardian angel reminded me that I’d already spilled plenty of ink on that subject in The Who chapter of A Mess of Help, an earlier version of which appeared in the Identity Issue of The Mockingbird. Somehow that essay never made it onto the site. Well, no longer:


It was the mid-90s, and one of my older brother’s friends had decided to make our house a stop on a summer-long road trip. He had been out of school and unemployed for a few years, but this was the kind of guy whose adriftness was charming, very much part of his personality. We were happy to welcome him.

The evening our guest arrived, he handed me a business card. I was a high school senior at the time, and business cards still seemed like a long way off, so the gesture registered. Instead of a company logo or job title, the card contained only two lines: his name on top, and below it, the words “Environmentalist Christian Funk Bassist”. He had found an answer to the age-old question that occupies every young person (and many older folks too): “Who am I?” His answer was tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but it was an answer nonetheless, and I envied him for it. I wish I’d held on to that card.

What would I have put on my own? Whenever the identity politics of young adulthood threatened to consume me, which was often, I would fantasize about it. I still do. An embarrassing amount of the options had to do with my taste in music: “Apolitical Axl Rose Enthusiast”, “Closet Beach Boys Expert and Occasional Episcopalian”, “Semi-Professional German Speaking Dylanologist”, “Unabashed Michael Jackson Defender (Especially the Later Stuff)”, and so on.

70theseeker-germany-the_whoClearly I identified with the artists I listened to, and no amount of winking self-awareness could disguise the fact that I was looking to them to do the heavy lifting of my self-justification. Most of my strongest convictions were are aesthetic rather than political, so I guess it made sense.

Looking back, it’s a little odd that it took me so long to turn to the most obvious example of identity-centric rock n’ roll for some guidance. I’m talking, of course, about The Who. Their very name announces a preoccupation with the subject, and their songs don’t exactly shy away from the question either, from “I’m A Boy” to “The Seeker” to “I Don’t Even Know Myself” to “I Am an Animal”.

Indeed, few songwriters in the rock idiom have written more extensively or perceptively about identity and its attendant anxieties than Pete Townshend. He is a master not just of melody but of honest contradiction, especially when it comes to himself—wisdom coexists with confusion, intelligence with pigheadedness, inspiration with self-sabotage and addiction. Perhaps this is what Townshend means in his autobiography, Who I Am, when he refers to “the polarities of my ego—the artistic grandiosity and the desperately low self-regard.” And his frankness goes further:

I could behave with dignity, and take on a range of ambitious commitments that would lead me into new, exalted circles, not only musically but intellectually. I could strive to achieve—and even pioneer—radical acts on behalf of social change. And I could also behave, frankly, like a complete arsehole. (193)

Can You See The Real Me?

In 2013, The Who celebrated the 40th anniversary of what many, including the band itself, consider their masterpiece, the double album rock opera Quadrophenia. As the name suggests, nowhere did Pete and co. delve more deeply into the who behind The Who than on Quadrophenia.

The record and its well-loved film adaptation tell the story of Jimmy, an English ‘Mod’ teenager with four distinct personalities. The split causes a nervous breakdown of suicidal proportions, which the songs document with force. But the plot points aren’t that important. All you need to know is that Townshend wanted to dramatize the identity crises that all young people go through—the confusion and rage that are so often involved—and, by and large, he succeeded. The intensity is appropriately unrelenting. Little of the band’s trademark humor made it into the grooves, which perhaps explains why the record is nowhere near as well-known as their other rock opera, Tommy. It’s just as good, though, if not better.

“The Real Me” opens Quadrophenia, following young Jimmy as he consults three authorities about his identity: his mother, his doctor, and, believe it or not, his priest. As the song builds, so does Jimmy’s desperation—he begs them all, “Can you see the real me?”, but no one can. No pithy business cards on offer.

thewhoThe implication of Jimmy’s frustration is a familiar one: we not only believe, instinctually, that the identity question has a discernible answer; we also believe we can get that answer right or wrong. Which means that in religious terms, “Who am I?” often boils down to a matter of righteousness, or ‘enoughness’. For Jimmy, every interaction—from a romantic overture to a job disappointment to a gang rivalry—becomes an opportunity to find an answer, not just to “Who am I?” but to “Am I enough?” Am I who I want to be? Or am I who ‘they’ want me to be? Who should I be, for that matter? Jimmy isn’t sure about any of it—little wonder he is so unsettled.

Of course, even in those rare instances when we have all the boxes checked, the identities we latch on to still fail us. They are too flimsy, and we are too flimsy. Later on the record, in “I’ve Had Enough”, Townshend juxtaposes Jimmy’s calculated self-presentation with the spiritual exhaustion it produces. “My jacket’s gonna be cut and slim and checked / Maybe a touch of seersucker, with an open neck / I ride a G.S. scooter with my hair cut neat”, he tells us in his peppiest voice. But Jimmy’s efforts are revealed to be futile when he spies his ex-girlfriend with his best mate. The idealism falters further when he discovers the Mod leader he admires most is in fact working as a bellboy at a Brighton hotel, not a rebel but a worker bee.

The discrepancy between the Real and Ideal proves too much for Jimmy to handle; the hollowness of the ideals to which he has aspired leads to exhaustion and disillusionment. Later in the same song, Daltrey intones, “I’m finished with the fashions / And acting like I’m tough / I’m bored with hate and passion / I’ve had enough of trying to love”. Is he articulating nihilism or repentance? Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

There Once Was a Note

A year before Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend posed similar questions in his unrealized Lifehouse project. Lifehouse was conceived in the period after Tommy, when The Who were at the peak of their popularity. It was to be a double album, a series of concerts, and a feature film. Though ultimately abandoned, the project inspired an absurd amount of creativity in its composer, yielding many of his finest songs, from “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to “Pure and Easy” and “Behind Blue Eyes”. Most of the music would end up on the Who’s Next album, but like The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, the songs would continue to trickle out over the next 20 years or so, nary a dud among them.

Lifehouse tells the story of a dystopian England that has been ravaged by pollution, rendering it a toxic wasteland. To keep safe from contamination, human beings have plugged themselves into an Internet-like “Grid” via “lifesuits” which allowed them to exist in a state of constant entertainment (and intravenous dependence) without ever needing to leave home.[1] For the sake of security, individual identity was subsumed by a hive-mind until citizens gradually became united solely by their loneliness and longing. “Don’t pretend that you know me”, Daltrey warns at one point, “cause I don’t even know myself”. The loss of identity presages the loss of love, which presages social eruption.

Only farmers on the edge of the polluted zone preserve hope, via the subversive unifier known as… rock n’ roll. As an act of rebellion, they organize a mammoth concert to bring people out of their homes and—literally—into harmony with one another. At the concert, each attendee is given a unique individual note, all of which “join together” to form one giant cacophony of purity, and something like salvation.[2]

If the project sounds a little convoluted, it was. As undeniably brilliant as the songs Townshend had written were, it would have taken supernatural goodwill for a financial backer to sign off on such a bloated mix of Orwellian cynicism, Eastern spirituality, and early 70s self-seriousness. You know you’re in trouble when Keith Moon wants to reel you in.

Still, Lifehouse’s core ideas carried weight. Some might say all it was was ideas. Pete wanted to portray a social order that had pledged blissful interdependence, but had instead delivered atomization, alienation, and totalitarianism. He proved particularly prescient concerning the advent of the World Wide Web and the dangers of social media, which, under the guise of greater connection, cocoon people in themselves, “behind blue eyes”.

Indeed, forty years later, despite some undeniably fabulous upsides, technology has not ushered in the age of leisure, community, and peace of mind it initially seemed to promise. If anything, it has become harder and harder to avoid the escalating (and well-documented) rates of exhaustion, anxiety, loneliness, and even suicide that have accompanied our advancement.[3] Instead of making it easier to answer the “Who am I?” question, the expanded laboratory afforded by the Internet seems to have only made us more frantic and worried about our answers.

Go to the Mirror! (Smash the Mirror)

The observation seems so obvious that it almost goes without saying: we are insecure about how we are perceived because of the all-too-real gap between who we feel we should be, or want to be (the Ideal), and who we actually are (the Real). In technological terms, you might say that a nagging discrepancy exists between our status updates and our browser histories. ‘Anxiety’ is a word we use to describe what that discrepancy feels like. Cue social psychologist Sherry Turkle, talking about a young man she interviewed for her book Alone Together:

Brad says, only half jokingly, that he worries about getting ‘confused’ between what he ‘composes’ for his online life and who he ‘really’ is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn’t really know are true… He says that even when he tries to be ‘honest’ on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site ‘to make the right impression.’

Brad’s problem is Jimmy’s problem, is your problem, is mine. What he describes is something people have always done to deal with presentation anxiety. To fend off potential judgment, we manage appearances. We spin reality. Social media has simply given us non-stop opportunity to do so. The venue never closes.

The modern word for this phenomenon is ‘curation’. It used to be that only art galleries were curated. Today, people are curated; lives are curated. What to leave in and what to leave out of our presentations to the world, what we allow to be seen—these are questions that keep us occupied, with the foregone conclusion being that something warrants omission or emphasis. Our unvarnished self, whatever it may be, is not acceptable, either to others or ourselves. You can find plenty of pictures of people vacationing on Instagram, fewer of them fighting with their spouse or microwaving pizza.[4]

The problem here is not simply that the ideals which Jimmy or you or I or venerate are arbitrary or even false, but that they are isolating. Addressing the pitfalls of social media, Rosa Smith observed in The American Reader that we are “uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you?”[5] In other words, because we know that what is receiving love is a reduction, i.e., it’s not actually us, we may even feel lonelier than before. The various ‘lifesuits’ we don don’t bring life.

Pete Townshend didn’t need the Internet to recognize the distance between his public persona and his private existence, his international fame and his everyday shortcomings. For him, this distance was not just a matter of exhaustion or isolation, but of genuine despair. He confronted himself with characteristic honesty (and uncharacteristic sobriety) in the song “However Much I Booze” off of 1976’s The Who by Numbers:

I see myself on TV, I’m a faker, a paper clown
It’s clear to all my friends that I habitually lie;
I just bring them down
I claim proneness to exaggeration
But the truth lies in my frustration…
That however much I booze—there ain’t no way out

His self-excoriation in “However Much I Booze” may sound extreme, but perhaps it points toward the true nature of our predicament. The gap between his public image and real life is painful, the helplessness even more so—it should come as no surprise that substance abuse would plague Pete so. It is also no coincidence that Townshend is such a religious man. He is too well-acquainted with his need to be otherwise.

There were those who might’ve scoffed at Townshend, saying there is no more noxious self-pity than that of the rich and famous. But viewed from another angle, his despair might come as a relief to people whose talent and achievements aren’t commensurate with Townshend’s—a comfort to those of us who might be tempted to conclude that ‘if only’ I were more gifted, wealthy, intelligent, beautiful, i.e, more like Pete Townshend, then I would be happy. What we see in Townshend’s dismay is that The Law of Who You Must Be knows no satisfaction, that identity curation is a game which no one wins. It is a game which no one can win. As music-media mogul David Geffen once noted, “Show me someone who thinks that money buys happiness, and I’ll show you someone who’s never had a lot of money.”

Townshend himself described this state of mind at the height of The Who’s success:

I was a workaholic, running away from the present, and probably the past, because something about my life made me uneasy—I was myself a really desperate man. At a time when I could have been supremely happy I was feeling ashamed about being an adulterer, and oddly guilty about my professional success. (201)

Instead of alleviating anxiety, success highlighted its inescapability. We often assume that prestige and fame will make us more happy and bring us closer to who we’d like to be. The experience of Townshend, and many like him, testifies otherwise: the standard always recedes, and no amount of accomplishment can close the gap.

Unfortunately, the insurmountable gap between the ideal and the real was only the first part of the anxiety equation for Townshend. A second aspect has to do with the notion of a fixed identity itself. That is, independent of Who We Feel We Should Be, human identity is diffuse. Who we are can seldom be pinned down long enough to be defined, let alone measured. We may not be a quadrophenic, but are we ever just one thing and not another? Or if we are today, what about tomorrow? Even when we do find an answer to Who We Are, it is by definition incomplete. Sometimes, a fixed identity seems to protect us from being an “absolute nobody” (Salinger), even though it may involve dishonesty. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

petet“When people say ‘I’m the kind of person who,’ my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous.”

This is perhaps one reason why the graduation adage to ‘find yourself’ can be so crippling, why so many recent college graduates flounder for years rather than commit themselves to anything. “Finding yourself” presumes that there is an identifiable, coherent self to find!

Ironically enough, exhorting a 22 year-old to be self-realized, i.e., define and meet one’s own inner expectations, may be just as anxiety-producing as the ‘tiger mother’ command to fit into a pre-defined set of societal expectations. They are both forms of law. At least with one you know what’s being asked of you. As Pete himself so memorably phrased it in his greatest anthem, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” (1971).

The third and final anxiety related to identity which we see borne out in Townshend’s story, arises when some shred of “the real me”, however fleeting or provisional, is revealed, and it is different from what we had hoped or imagined we might find.

This anxiety is felt when we look back on the experiences and relationships that make up ‘who we are’, and they do not inspire pride, but shame. Maybe the person we’ve become is not the person we set out to be. Maybe something’s been done to us, something we never had a choice about, and all of a sudden that classic New Yorker cartoon hits home, where a woman confides in her friend, “I wish my identity weren’t so wrapped up with who I am.”


Speaking about his family, Pete Townshend confessed:

“I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn’t give a toss for fatherhood—he needed freedom.” (410)

Townshend clearly didn’t choose to be this way, but he seems to have accepted, for better or worse, that his identity is very much tied up with who he is. As his description indicates, though, he is under no illusion that what’s “deep inside” is necessarily good, or morally neutral. If anything, Pete’s autobiography details the pain his impulsiveness has caused those who love him. Infidelities, broken promises, you name it, he makes little attempt to hide the wreckage. In “Dreaming From The Waist” off The Who By Numbers, he even resigns himself to keep “dreaming of the day I can control myself”. Again, given his withering self-understanding, Townshend’s conflicted religiosity—“faith in something bigger” than himself (1968)—should come as no surprise.

Then again, perhaps identity-related anxiety has just as much to do with who we aren’t as with who we are. As soon as we do see “the real me”, we wish it were different; we want to trade up. You look around and see others from your past who have taken different paths, and each one represents a potential self, someone you could have been. Not even towering, envy-inducing figures like Pete seem to be immune to such insecurity. In conversation with the magazine Uncut in 2011, he admitted that a contemporary had inspired regret:

“What would I have done differently? I would never have joined a band. Even though I am quite a good gang member and a good trooper on the road, I am bad at creative collaboration. I would have made a much more effective solo performer and producer.”

Journalist Judith Shulevitz calls this “the myth of the counter-factual”—though tyranny is more like it. The second we catch a glimpse of who we actually are, even if that person is relatively laudable, regret sets in, or worse, rage and self-reproach that we are not someone else. Indeed, the thought that our personality can be contained within a specific set of parameters is frightening, partially because lurking around the corner lies the suspicion that if we can be pinned down to who we actually are (and aren’t), then we might be subject to judgment.

Somebody Saved Me

Ultimately, I’m not sure we really need another think-piece telling us these things. In fact, one of the principle ironies here is that talking or writing about anxiety usually makes us more anxious, not less. Our problem isn’t one of insufficient information or inaccurate diagnosis, and it never has been. The person drowning in a sea of fear and failure isn’t looking for an explanation—they “can’t explain”, after all (1964). Our problem is one of agency. We know that the burden of self-definition makes us restless and unhappy, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from allowing it to run our lives. The allure of control is simply too strong.

Salvation is another matter, though. The person whose anxiety has landed them on the operating table—maybe they’re too anxious to take their medication, maybe they took too much—isn’t interested in a diagnosis, at least not first and foremost. They may even be too far gone for a cure. But they might be interested in something as antiquated as atonement and the justification of the ungodly. Because when the curtain is pulled back on the “real me” and what’s revealed is someone less capable, less in control, and less self-possessed than we imagined, all of a sudden the need for someone else to give us a new identity, or at least a word of assurance, becomes plain. In that moment, we need more than just assertions about forgiveness or love—we crave the things themselves. The pangs of death prepare us for the Who behind every who.

I’m convinced that Pete Townshend had just such an experience. He smuggled it into one of their most widely played—and most irritating—radio staples, the 1978 track “Who Are You”. Featuring some of Keith Moon’s final playing for the band, many consider it to be the band’s last gasp of greatness. I’m not so sure. But that doesn’t mean it does not have serious merit.

Hidden at the end of the track, after a lengthy synthesizer breakdown, Roger Daltrey belts out a third verse that would make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up—if the lyric was intelligible. His delivery obscures the words almost entirely! Perhaps Townshend let it stand because the emotions were too raw, and he wanted some cover. Perhaps he saw it as another stunning juxtaposition; who knows? The verse goes like this:

My heart is like a broken cup
I only feel right on my knees
I spit out like a sewer hole
Yet still receive your kiss
How can I measure up to anyone now
After such a love as this?

If there’s a more radio-friendly example of desperation serving as the wellspring of faith, I haven’t heard it. We are not far from what Paul described in his letter to the churches of Galatia: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” What he meant was that the death of one’s identity—the realization that there’s “no way out”—may signal the beginning of something new. The dismantling of the ego, the extinguishing of our attempts to pin down a defensible self, may actually constitute the beginning of hope. Hope in something that is not you.

Indeed, Townshend is describing nothing less than the experience of grace, the moment when we stop asking “Who Am I?” and start asking “Who Are You?” The moment when, to our eternal surprise, the answer comes back: “Love”. And not just airy-fairy love, but love in the midst of deserved judgment. Love that meets the sewer hole with a kiss. Anyone acquainted with their own broken cup of a heart knows just how miraculous, indeed how divine, this kind of love is. We know that it cannot come from us, only to us. Perhaps that’s why we call it one-way love. If it is to be trustworthy, it must be bound to the identity of the Lover, not the beloved.

Lest we are tempted to turn Townshend’s experience into a new formula for leveraging affection, divine or otherwise, let’s be clear: his experience is uncommon. We may never ‘hit bottom’ as he did. Townshend’s story gives us a glimpse of how faith is sometimes born, not of the object of faith itself. The hope offered by the Christian faith is not hope in a ‘felt experience’ of our own death and resurrection, however liberating that may be. Our hope is in “a substitute for another guy” (1966), a savior who dies for those who are unable to summon humility enough to receive him, those who know they should give up their tiresome self-definition projects but can’t. Indeed, it is for those of us—which is to say, all of us—who actively push him away, on our knees or not.

Furthermore, the central symbol of the Christian faith—the cross—announces that Christ became a “nobody” in the eyes of the world. He was treated as the lowest of the low: no recognition, no affirmation, no synth-driven songs of gratitude. He suffered the full brunt of our aspirations to be ‘somebody’. And yet—and this is grace—his response to those who put him on the cross is not retaliation but pardon. To those who would take his life, he offers the forgiveness of sins. To those who stripped him of all identity, he bestows new names. The business card contains only one line: ‘Forgiven Sinner and Child of God.’ This is the miracle of God’s grace: identity is not earned or established; it is given. And it cannot be taken away.

Quadrophenia begins and ends on a rock in the middle of the Brighton Beach coastline. There poor Jimmy sits, reliving his tortured and futile search for ‘the real me’, listening to the voices in his head vie for supremacy, resigned never to find peace in himself. His search has taken him nowhere but to the precipice of suicide. And yet, in bringing him to the end of whoever he is, we see that his journey has not been in vain. Just as he is ready to silence the voices once and for all, something happens. The skies open and it begins to pour. As the waters cover him, and baptismal imagery floods our ears, the last song of Quadrophenia begins to play.

The bassline isn’t terribly funky, but there is an undeniable note of joy in the refrain:

Love, reign o’er me
Reign o’er me, o’er me, o’er me
Love, reign o’er me, o’er me

[1] Think of a more Soviet version of Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy, or a more emaciated form of the exiled humans in Pixar’s WALL-E.
[2] At least that is what I think he was trying to say. The lyrics to “Sister Disco” aren’t exactly straightforward!
[3] Taylor Clark, in his 2011 book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, quotes psychologist and anxiety specialist Dr. Richard Leahy as saying, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s” (p. 11).
[4] The Onion satirized social media curation with its classic headline “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture”.
[5] Sadly, Rosa’s diagnosis applies to many church settings as well. In a setting of Christian moralism, in which behavior matters more than belief (by implication at least), the temptation is to be one person on Sunday and another person during the other days of the week. Personal integration proves next to impossible when moral scrutiny becomes the operating philosophy of an institution. The Law of Who You Must Be (In Order To Be Accepted/Loved) is not bad but dangerous—at least when communicated in a grace-less vacuum. Preaching law without grace, or law after grace, isolates a suffering person, causing them to hide and pushing them away when they most need to be brought closer. This isn’t a theoretical issue.

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One response to “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind The Who”

  1. Patricia F. says:

    Oh WOW, David Zahl. You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    And I know what you mean about ‘Christian moralism’: where ‘behavior matters more than belief’. It’s a nasty thing to find yourself inside of. I’ve had a couple of experiences with it in church. And it’s awful.

    Thank you, for this excellent post.

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