When I was growing up in the seventies, I can honestly say that there were few artists that affected me in quite the same way that the Who did.
On the surface, you had the fact that these four guys made one hell of a big noise. Yet in spite of the unhinged chaos that characterized their live performances, there was something lying underneath all of that which made complete, perfect sense.
The sheer, off the rails power of the Who’s live concerts was certainly a major part of it though. Even today, when you listen to something like The Who Live At Leeds — which I will maintain to my grave was, and is, the single greatest live rock concert album ever made — there is no getting around how raw and primal these guys sounded, even by todays modern punk-rock standards. In terms of pure, unbridled, and unrestrained noise, nothing before or since comes even remotely close.
But underneath all the ungodly racket, there was a perfectly ordered sort of sense to it — even if that sense comes in the sort of chaotic wheels about to fall off the wagon way it does. On albums like Tommy in particular, Townshend’s bludgeoning power chords play in perfect counterpoint to Entwhistle’s fluid bass runs. And even in the case of Moon the Loon — for my money, the greatest pure rock drummer who ever lived — the all over the place drumming could actually serve as an instrument of melody, just as much as it could one of simple, primal beat.
For anyone who doubts me about this, I would direct you towards the song “Underture” from Tommy, where Moon’s fills are every bit as crucial to that songs melodic structure as Townshend’s simple, stunning chord progressions.
But beyond all of that, were Townshend’s songs. When I was a teenager growing up in Seattle, if Alice Cooper (“Public Animal # 9”) and David Bowie (“Rebel, Rebel”) fed the sort of fuck all disdain for any establishment authority I felt, Pete Townshend’s songs were the ones that fed my actual soul. From “My Generation” to the “teenaged wasteland” of “Baba O’Reilly,” nobody captured all the confusion, alienation and angst of youth the way Townshend did.
Outside of wanting nothing more in life than to become a rock star (and looking and dressing the part), I was a pretty typical teenaged kid trying to make sense of all the usual raging hormones and unanswered questions most kids have. I knew I wasn’t anything like the callous jocks I knew in high school who used to pick on the weird kids. But deep inside of me, I also knew that I really wasn’t the sort of rock star material who would go through hopeful groupies the same way that some people go through toilet tissue.
I was a sensitive sort of kid. I had feelings. I had doubts. I had questions.
This is where Pete Townshend’s songs really spoke to me directly. In that respect, there was never an album that hit home quite like Quadrophenia. There were times back then that I would go down to Lincoln Park in West Seattle, and just sit on the beach with a six pack of beer, watch the ferry boats go to and from Vashon Island, and listen to the songs on that album. The beach just seemed like the perfect place to listen to lyrics like “Here by the sea and sand, nothing ever goes as planned” or “Only love can make it rain, the way the beach is kissed by the sea.”
Diehard, if closet, romantic that I was, these were songs that made absolute, complete sense to me. Roger Daltrey wasn’t just singing those lyrics, he was speaking directly to me as a then sixteen year old. As I grew into my twenties, later Townshend songs like “How Many Friends” from The Who By Numbers would have an equally resonating effect on me.
Of course, every bubble must eventually be burst.
That’s exactly what happened when I met Pete Townshend at the bar of Seattle’s Edgewater Inn after a show the Who did here. As I extended my hand to shake the same of my teenaged hero, he drew his away. Townshend was apparently far more interested in the groupies who were lined up in waiting than his wide-eyed biggest teenaged fan, and I guess in retrospect I can’t really blame him for that.
I’d have no doubt done the same thing in his position. But at the time, it shattered my image of the hero I had so worshiped in my youth. How could this guy who wrote songs that spoke directly to my heart be such an asshole, I immaturely wondered to myself?
Even as my best friend at the time joked for weeks afterwards about just why my hero hated me so much, I later learned Townshend was going through his own rather considerable issues of addiction and such back then. But this would be the end of my perfect, if unrealistic image of the guy whose songs for me epitomized everything about the passion and the promise of rock and roll.
Townshend continued to disappoint me throughout much of the eighties and the nineties when he seemed to turn his back on the legacy of his great band, and in fact seemed to be running furiously away from it. I just couldn’t understand how this guy who to me had represented everything that makes rock and roll such a liberating force of nature, could turn into such a bitter old curmudgeon.
Anyway, I’m not sure if it was the death of John Entwhistle that knocked Townshend out of his post-Who funk or not, but in recent years Townshend seems to have been reawakened creatively.
More importantly, he seems ready, along with his longtime partner Roger Daltrey, to reclaim control over the legacy of the Who. Their last album Endless Wire, wasn’t Quadrophenia or even Who’s Next to be sure, but it did show that there is still some creative fire burning there.
VH1 is currently running one of those Rock Honors tribute shows they do from time to time on the Who. Check your local listings, as I’m sure they will be repeating this one into submission, but it is not to be missed. A slew of modern bands including Foo Fighters, Flaming Lips, and Pearl Jam pay tribute to the venerable British rock institution, showing their love for the band with some truly electrifying performances.
The Foo Fighters roar right out of the gate with a straight from Live At Leeds rendering of “Young Man Blues.” Flaming Lips bring the house down by destroying all their instruments Who fashion at the end of a letter perfect “Overture” from Tommy.
But it is Pearl Jam who really walks away with this one, and appropriately they do so by knocking two songs from Quadrophenia right out of the park.
Backed by a full compliment of strings and horns, Eddie Vedder nails every impossible scream on “Love Reign O’er Me,” proving he may be the only man alive, outside of Daltrey himself, with the voice to do one of Townshend’s most poignant songs the justice it demands. It is a performance that damn near brought tears to my eyes.
As for the Who themselves? Clearly they are no longer the band they once were (with both Moon and Entwhistle gone, how could they be?). But to their credit, they still give it everything their sixty something year old bodies can muster.
Performing hits like “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Who Are You?”, Roger Daltrey has a tough time hitting those high notes he once did so easily as a bare chested, golden maned rock god. But God bless him, he still gives it his all anyway. The voice may not still be quite all there, but the passion certainly is. It shows in every pained expression on his face as he attempts to do so.
For Townshend’s part, he windmills the ass off of that guitar here. The backing band, including bassist Pino Paladino and drummer Zak “Son Of Ringo” Starkey also fill the rather large shoes of Entwhistle and Moon admirably.
As an old Who fan, I couldn’t be happier that the band’s two surviving members have apparently come to terms with whatever personal problems once separated them, and seem ready now to reclaim, re-embrace, and perhaps even expand upon their legacy. They may have broken their original promise of dying before they got old, but the Who seem ready to put an exclamation point on their amazing career and history, by going out with the fire still in their eyes.
Check your local listings for VH1’s Rock Honors: The Who. But if you love rock and roll, don’t miss it.