“on top of the sky is a place where you go…”
John Entwistle, also known as Thunderfingers, The Ox, The Quiet One, and Johnny Twinkle (hey, ask Daltrey about that one, I sure don’t know), was found dead today of a heart attack at age 57. On the eve of a Who tour that was to begin tomorrow.
I am an unabashed, unapologetic Who fan. They are my band more than any other, ever, since the age of 14. One night in 1978, I went to see The Kids Are Alright and walked out forever changed. I own every record, including all the solo albums of all of the members. I know every damn song by heart, I still have posters on my walls and a sticker on my car. I wrote my senior thesis in high school on Tommy. One of my prized possessions, still, is the original “My Generation” single on the Brunswick label. My father, whose idea of a good radio station is 710 WINS talk radio, can tell you the first and last names of every member of the Who. My mother still cuts out articles about them for me. The Beatles taught me how to love music, but the Who taught me how to be a music fan. Their music inspired me and challenged me and consoled me and gave me strength and comfort. They were my band.
I have loved them and been furious with them, adored them and been mindblowingly frustrated with them. This dichotomy of emotion is, however, an inextricable part of being a Who fan. Townshend did not like or want mindless sheep in his audience. He relished the contentious relationship he had with us. And he never got soft, broke down, or went easy on the fans. He was impossible, mercurial, outspoken, direct, sarcastic, witty and charming, usually all in the same moment. His rants at the audience, both onstage and in interview, are legendary. And we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
During the 1982 Who tour, some friends and I brazenly checked ourselves into the Who’s hotel in New York. In a further display of shamelessness, we invited John Entwistle to a birthday party. My friends had made a cake with black frosting (okay, it ended up more like a dirty grey) and a plastic spiderweb on it. John invited us to his suite, where we sat up all night, drinking and talking. Now, this wasn’t about what you may think this was about… None of us were the least bit interested in sleeping with him. It was the time to ask about the light up neck on the bass, and playing with Cheap Trick in Germany, and stories about Keith Moon.
Around 3am, after having enough gin and tonics in me that I managed to spill an entire glass into my purse (it was a running joke for years), I turned to John and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to do this, I’ll never have a chance again,” and asked him if I could see his trademark spider necklace up close. Without even blinking an eye, he beckoned me closer and held the necklace up so I could hold it in my hands and look at it. “I’d take it off, but it’s a pain in the arse to get back on..” he said. He explained that there was a smaller spider that went with it, but that his girlfriend wears it now. (She was hanging out with us, but gave up after a few hours. I’m sure she was used to it…)
It was one of those stupid moments of teenage fandom that you hold in your heart with equal parts embarassment and sly satisfaction.
I gave up seeing them after they broke up for the first time in 1982. I had no interest in seeing retreads or greatest hits or nostalgia. And I didn’t want to sit next to the two annoying drunk guys in baseball hats who yell “Magic Bus!” the entire show. While those guys were always there, once the Who stopped making new music, it seemed like the entire audience was full of people only there to relive their lost youth.
In 1994, Roger Daltrey had two shows at Carnegie Hall for his 50th birthday. This time, I was there. And although I was dubious, the first night, hearing the orchestra play the “Overture” from Tommy (Yeah, the one that Pete sold to a prescription drug company. Oops. Wait, I’ll get to that) gave me goosebumps and the tears started running down my cheeks. There are just some things that never leave you, and I learned that night that the Who is one of those things for me.
In 1996, out of a clear blue sky, they decided to revive Quadrophenia in its entirety and take it on the road. They didn’t get to successfully tour Quad when it came out in 1974. But this time, it was the whole album, beginning to end, from the ecstatic ocean wave whispers that open the record, to the heart-wrenching passion of of “Love, Reign O’er Me’ at the end. For the most part, they played it straight, with a few other singers (Billy Idol as the Bellboy, for example) to give Roger a chance to rest (and that was Keith Moon’s song anyway).
It was, quite simply, brilliant. Forget the fact that I never thought I’d hear these songs live in my lifetime. Forget that i never dreamed I’d see the entire concept performed from start to finish, ever. Quadrophenia 96 was energetic and dynamic and full of fire. The songs were still incredible songs.
From that point, I was back on the bus. Not that I ever really left.
1999 and 2000 were great years to be a Who fan. They dropped what we referred to as “The Who On ice” concept, going out with just the three of them, plus Zak Starkey (yes, Ringo’s kid) on drums, and John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, their old keyboard player. No horns. No percussionists. No guest singers. No movies, no sound effects, nothing to distract you from the music. It was that legendary wall of Who sound, and it made you remember why they were the greatest rock and roll band in the world.
Don’t believe me?
Exhibit A, the Who at the House of Blues in Chicago, 1999. 1500 people. I’m one person from the stage. Have you ever seen The Kids Are Alright? You know that moment at the end, during “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” where they come out of the drum solo and the lasers, and then Roger hits the power scream and the supertroopers come on and there’s Pete mid air, landing on his knees and sliding to the other side of the stage? Probably the greatest rock and roll moment ever captured on film? Well, the entire House of Blues show was like being in that moment. It was one of the best nights of my life.
When I got to work this morning, I did my usual check of the Ticketmaster site to see what was available for their Seattle show on July 6. Believe it or not, I did not yet have a ticket for this tour, and my plan had been to not see them this time. This decision was agonizing, but when it came time to ‘put the money down,’ I couldn’t do it. I could not hand Pete Townshend $192.50 [before Ticketmaster taxes]. I just could not do it. It just felt wrong. I would have felt better handing that cash to a struggling band to buy equipment than giving it to Pete et. al. this time.
I’d already dealt with my anger seeing “Bargain,” the most spiritual song Townshend has ever written, being used to sell cars. I’d gotten over my fury over Pete giving the best anthem of counterculture rebellion, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” [which was just as valid in the last few years as it was when he wrote it over 30 years ago] to Nissan. But giving the “Overture” from Tommy, a piece of music so ethereal and evocative and almost holy that it still gives me goosebumps, to a prescription drug company… That made me lose it. Movies, okay, sure. TV shows… borderline, but not a complete and total perversion. Yes, it’s his art to do with what he wishes, but it seemed to go against everything the Who ever meant for these songs to be exploited like that. Pete’s explanation was that it was the only way for him to expose his music to a new audience. (Pete. Anyone who buys a record based on what they hear in a commercial is not going to resonate with the rest of the Who’s catalog. These are people who treat music as a trivial commodity at best.)
But $192.50 for the Seattle show made me see red. $250 for side stage, first level seats at Madison Square Garden made me apoplectic. There was no way i could justify this to myself. There was just no way. So I didn’t buy a ticket. Each and every day I had a conversation about this with someone. “You’re breaking up with Pete??!” said one friend, horribly concerned. Even with today’s news, I still feel like I made the right decision. I was keeping my relationship with this band honest.
And now John is dead. While I’m sure Pete and Roger will go on somehow, as far as I am concerned, there is no more Who. Tonight I sat in a funky bar in downtown Seattle with a friend, and we toasted John with tall glasses of Guinness and smoked cigarettes, while the bartender played “My Generation” and all of Who Are You, in order. Our cheer that went up when the thrashing chords of “My Generation” started earned us quiet knowing looks of respect, while the scenesters around us chatted animatedly, seemingly oblivious. As I sat there, head in hands, dejected and as close to catatonic as I’ll ever get, I almost envied them their detachment.
Almost, but not quite. Because I would not trade my love, hate, fury, adoration – my sheer utter passion for the Who – for anything in the world.
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