Over the years, millions of fans have gathered to hear Pete Townshend play music, but Monday night in New York City, a crowd gathered to see the legendary Who mastermind talk…for two hours.

Like Keith Richards before him, Townshend appeared at the New York Public Library for a question-and-answer session about his memoir, the newly published Who I Am.  In front of a rapt crowd, Townshend and the library’s Paul Holdengräber had a far-reaching conversation that covered a wide variety of topics, including his childhood growing up in post-World War II Great Britain; his musical, literary and artistic influences; his songwriting process; the other members of The Who and why his guitar-smashing antics weren’t just a gimmick.  Most of what he touched on is contained in his book, the writing of which, he said, was a real departure for him.

“I am a performer,” he told Holdengräber and the crowd.  “And I kinda go into performing.  I don’t care if you like me but I want to make you laugh, I want to make you feel like you’ve had value for money.  When I sat to write the book, I realized that I wasn’t performing.  It was exactly the opposite.  I had to write for me.  I had to write the truth as I saw it and I had remembered it.” 

Admitting that some friends have begun complaining that incidents he describes in the book are not wholly accurate, Townshend insisted that he wrote what he believes to be the truth.

The guitarist also made one particularly enlightening comment about what he feels his mission was as a member of The Who, both with the band’s music and with their often violent and confrontational stage show.

“There were two levels to what I felt I was doing as an artist in The Who,” he explained.  “One was to serve the audience with relief, with release, with hope, with vision, with possibility.  And then the other was to bring them into the reality of the time in which we lived.”

Townshend, who was alternately serious and lighthearted, also read several passages aloud from Who I Am, and delighted the crowd by performing two acoustic numbers, both from Quadrophenia: “I’m One” and “Drowned.”

Before the talk started, Holdengräber said he’d asked Townshend to describe his life in seven words.   The guitarist’s answer?  “The words are yours.  The music is mine.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio