Hope I die before I get old: The Who at 52

1401x788-gettyimages-5136150802016

The entrance to the Target Center. The air reeks of secondhand smoke built up over the decades, even in the absence of any active cigarette-wielders. I stand behind a pillar, hands in my pockets to ensure no one takes my phone or my wallet, occasionally tugging at the neck of my t-shirt. The shirt bears the likenesses of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon, all in their prime. A sort of monument to days gone by, under the circumstances.

As I wait for Heather, I people-watch. The usual scalpers amble up and down the street, demanding for someone, anyone, to sell them their extra tickets. Security, made up of mingled Target Center officials and actual police officers, makes sure they don’t get too close to us. Every time someone ducks inside the building, I glance in their direction to make sure Heather isn’t slipping in past me by mistake—in five minutes, three girls who can’t be over ten years old pass by and rush inside, which drags a smile out of me.

Just before Heather shows, a very Midwestern man wearing a tractor cap strikes up a conversation with me, asking if I know anyone who needs a free ticket—his buddy, who was supposed to be here, threw his back out yesterday. I decline, but we talk for the next ten minutes anyway. The Who, he tells me, were his very first concert, all the way back in ’82. Even then, in the midst of what was generally considered to be their personal and professional nadir—it would be the year that saw the first of their many farewell tours—they played what he says is still the greatest show he’s ever been to, though he admits the weed he smoked for the first time that night may have influenced his taste. He invites me to share a bowl with him later in the evening, just as Heather shows up. I decline to decline, rather just shake his hand and tell him I hope he enjoys the show.

st0902121546412010

I stumble onto “Pinball Wizard” completely by accident. It’s in the “Related Videos” sidebar on YouTube, next to the Green Day song I’m listening to; I have just discovered them, and they’re the first Real Band I’ve ever loved. I’ve heard the name The Who (always in the company of The Beatles and The Stones, those other members of the holy trinity), and maybe I’m curious, or maybe I just want a break from Green Day for a while. Regardless, I click the link.

It’s the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, Pete already growing the beard that would remain with him throughout the next decade, John dressed in a skintight skeleton suit—not that I know their names. “The guitarist”, then, begins strumming a progression, strangely quiet and timid-sounding against the vast crowd. Gradually, though, his tempo increases, the strumming gaining in apparent confidence. I’m mildly enjoying this, I think, but it doesn’t seem particularly similar to Green Day.

Then the bassist strikes his strings, blaring forth a lead-guitar line that has been delegated to him for lack of studio overdubs. Even at fourteen, with next to no musical experience, I know there’s no way that instrument should be playing that loud. This could get interesting.

The singer comes in, his voice ragged and worn but crackling with power, never mind the nonsense lyrics he’s spitting. And then the drummer enters, spraying his sticks all over the place, and I’m thoroughly entertained.

It isn’t a big eureka moment. The heavens don’t open, my world doesn’t change right then and there. But it is a pretty damn good song.

2016

The opening act, a blues-rock band with the dubious name of Slydigs, is thoroughly decent, but they feel perfunctory. Joan Jett was intended to open this concert, but due to Roger’s coming down with a case of viral meningitis the band had to postpone the date to seven months later than planned. Losing an artist of her stature and instead recruiting a bunch of (comparative) nobodies seems like it could be a bad omen.

After all, it’s not as if the band hasn’t had bad tours before. From 1967 to 1978 they wore the title of Greatest Live Band in the World, bestowed upon them by critics and fans alike, as a badge of honor, but even toward the end of that run Keith Moon’s deteriorating health resulted in occasionally erratic evenings. After Keith’s death came a demoralized and unhealthy few years; Kenny Jones should have been a perfectly serviceable replacement, but replacing Keith with someone perfectly serviceable was a disastrously wrong approach. And then, the reunion tours. The 1980s saw the tenure of a bloated, embarrassing incarnation of The Who; brass bands and far too many backing musicians took all that gave the band their fire and crushed it. Sure, they’ve recovered from that black hole, but they’re old now. Who knows? What if it’s not good? What if it disappoints you?

Slydigs takes their leave, and half an hour passes. Heather and I talk, and browse on our phones, and wait. The crowd, relatively thin during the opener, swells until empty seats are nearly invisible. The giant screen behind the stage plays a slideshow of Who history. The lights remain stubbornly bright.

Finally, the Target Center is plunged into near-darkness. Figures start making their way onstage, lit by spotlights, but from this distance it’s hard to tell who’s who. Do I cheer yet? Is that Pete or a backing member? It looks like Pete, but I know his brother is on guitar as well…

Then, an explosion. I’ve been told they open every show of this tour with “I Can’t Explain”, so “Who Are You” takes me entirely by surprise. The synths shake the house, Zak Starkey’s drums rattle in my teeth, and then one of the old men on stage leans toward his mic. High backing vocals come in. Who are you, hoo hoo, hoo hoo.

I grin. It’s Pete, all right.

23c162425c594fea1ef74494d97889eb3265ad202010

I mention to my youth pastor, Nick, that I listened to a Who song I liked pretty okay the other day. “Dude,” he says, “check out ‘Teenage Wasteland’.”

On YouTube, again. It takes me a few minutes of searching to find what I’m looking for, but eventually I realize that calling “Baba O’Riley” by “Teenage Wasteland” is a mistake that’s existed since the song was first played in 1971. That settled, I open one of the thousands of uploads of the song and hit “play”.

The opening synth line will never be anything but magical. Pete commented on that in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, in a decidedly more sentimental mood than is usual for the old cynic:

One of our best songs is “Baba O’Riley.” I spent three or four weeks in the studio cutting bits of tape up of this synthesizer-y, synth-processed organ, turning it into what felt like a replication of the electronic music of the future. When I took the tape to Glyn Johns, who was one of the finest sonic engineers at the time, he said, “Pete, we can’t improve on this, it’s fantastic.”

The guitar doesn’t come in until about maybe two and a half minutes into the song. So when I’m onstage with the Who, out comes the recording that I made in my home studio. There is this moment of standing there just listening to this music and looking out to the audience and just thinking, “I fucking did that. I wrote that.”

Everything about the song is perfect. The echoing crash of the piano chords coming down over the liquid synth riff, Roger’s roaring, defiant voice contrasting with Pete’s soft, high, wistful one, the entire band accelerating to a frenzy as Nick Arbus plays his violin for all it’s worth in the jam-session coda. Listening to it, I can’t believe it’s the same band. That’s not to say that “Pinball Wizard” was incredibly inferior to “Baba O’Riley”, just that the latter is so different. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before.

From there, I find another song. And another. And I’m hooked.

2016

The band is certainly bigger than the four-person juggernaut that existed prior to the death of Keith Moon—in addition to drums, bass, Pete’s guitar, and Roger’s vocals, there’s an additional guitarist (Pete’s brother Simon) and three keyboardists. But the song isn’t horribly bloated, swollen with horns and strings and god knows what else, like in the 80s. The band sounds lean, powerful. And loud.

Roger’s voice is audibly deeper, more strained—an old man’s voice—but he’s learned how to use it. Pete’s guitar playing is as fluid as ever, and halfway through the song he throws a windmill like the old days and the whole place cheers. I was worried that when this moment came it would feel cheap, as if we were applauding for a fragment of past glory, but this feels right. This feels real.

They transition to “The Seeker”, and then Roger says a few words about how great it is to be in Minneapolis again. He jokes that the hotel windows still won’t open, and Pete, acerbic as ever, grumbles that it’s probably so some twisted old fuck wouldn’t throw himself out the window.

The next few songs are all from their pop singles days in the ’60s. “My Generation” is the only one that falls a little flat. Pino Palladino’s competent bass playing can’t hide the fact that it’s not John Entwistle playing that thunderous bass solo—indeed, it’s hard to even hear it, where Thunderfingers would’ve had it blasting louder than anything else in the hall. And the inescapable irony of a 72-year-old man growling that he hopes he dies before he gets old is ever-present. But they rescue it—at the end of the number Roger smiles sheepishly and says, “My generation. What happened?! We failed!”

052010

Keith Moon is the first person to really make me sit back and pay attention to a single instrument’s part in a song. There are no superlatives I can add here that haven’t already been used elsewhere a thousand times; he claimed he trained himself to play the drums by listening to guitar riffs rather than other drummers, and no one else has said it better. He is the lead instrument in nearly every great Who song; everyone else simply follows him. John Bonham’s rock-solid beat is often rated the more impressive of the two, but while Bonham has probably influenced more drummers, no single drummer is more distinctive or more exciting to listen to than Keith.

John Entwistle is the first person to demonstrate to me why the bassist matters. It’s easy not to notice his playing in much of the group’s studio stuff—he always complained about being too low in the mix, and on Tommy especially it’s a crime against humanity that he’s practically inaudible—but once your ear picks up on it it’s impossible to unhear. Melodic, nimble, eccentric, a complete contrast to the man onstage. And live, it’s the sound of a rampaging locomotive, matching Pete’s guitar for power and volume.

Roger is a paradox—the frontman who’s almost always overlooked in discussions of the band due to his proximity to three of the greatest rock musicians ever to play. But the sheer fire in his voice, especially in the band’s recordings of ’71-’73, can take your breath away. In a sense, he could be seen as the most easily replaceable of the band, but thank god we never had to come to that point.

Pete is their greatest strength and their weakest link. His ambition in songwriting reaches dizzying heights at its best and comes off as pompous and affected at its worst. His introspection is incredibly powerful, or incredibly navel-gazing, depending on the album. His spiritual ideals can be quietly beautiful, as in “Bargain”, or nonsensical and pseudo-profound, as in most of Tommy. There’s no question, even with the bad days considered, that he’s one of the four or five greatest songwriters of all time. And while everyone praises his guitar playing primarily for his rhythm, he’s one of the criminally underrated great lead guitarists.

Put them all together, and you get a four-man army. Listening to Live at Leeds, you would believe that they were all possessed by the devil.

2016

One of my biggest worries going in to the concert was that it would be a mere greatest hits rehash with no real personality. The setlist is indeed mostly comprised of singles, but the band refuses to let it turn into a re-run of past glories. “My Generation” ends with an extended jam session, Pete’s windmills morphing from a perfunctory whirl every now and then to really meaning it. And after his solo rendition of “I’m One”, the band launches into a blistering rendition of “The Rock” from Quadrophenia that ascends and ascends in scope. The screen behind them hints at Pete’s more unfortunate pretensions—a montage of world events up to and including 9/11 scrolls across the background, and I’m not at all sure how an instrumental about a teenage boy fleeing to the sea is supposed to relate to such global events—but it doesn’t matter, the guitar playing overwhelms it. The jam is similar to the studio version, but it’s not a note-for-note copy; all the musicians are improvising, Pete flailing away at his guitar and Zak Starkey pounding for all he’s worth. And then we transition to “Love, Reign o’er Me”, and Roger stuns us all by screaming the final chorus as if he’s young again, and all is right with the world.

The mini-Quadrophenia set gives way to “Eminence Front”, and then the inevitable Tommy run begins. “Sparks”, as ever, is ferocious, barely controlled chaos. “Pinball Wizard” is great fun.

And then the lights go down, and Roger begs us “See Me, Feel Me”. There’s a group of teenagers directly in front of me and Heather, and one of them has her arms raised to the sky, in the grip of seeming religious mania. The moment is pure Tommy, a sort of over-the-top pseudo-spirituality that’s completely absurd, but I think back to all the teenagers who did the exact same thing in front of this group in 1969 and all of a sudden I’m almost choked up.

2011

First Baptist School does not like rock music. Thinks it’s literally of the devil, in fact. I’m one of the lucky students; my parents have no rules about the stuff at home, and my mother is quite fond of The Who herself, so I’m in the clear. But nevertheless attending school there makes me love the band in a new way. There are people out there who would love to kill their art, who have had rock music burnings in the past, and that makes the music so much more important to me.

One day, apropos of nothing, one of the sophomore students asks me how many Beatles albums I have. Not many, I reply, Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul and that’s it. She asks if I’d like to borrow the rest of them and burn them to my computer, and I accept. At the time I’ve no idea just how cool this makes her, a.) because The Beatles are virtually tied with The Who in terms of The Greatest Thing Ever, b.) because her father is not someone who takes kindly to rock music, and so in addition to smuggling the CDs into First Baptist she’s been hiding them in her closet as well.

I want to return the favor, and so I find some discs and burn as much Who stuff as I can onto them. I ignore everything past Keith Moon’s death save The Kids Are Alright, and there are other sacrifices I have to make. “Drowned” is slashed from Quadrophenia simply so it can all fit on one disc. The Who By Numbers and Who Are You have to share one. And most of the albums aren’t proper recordings either, but mp3 rips of YouTube videos; the idea of simply borrowing the CDs from the library hasn’t occurred to me at this point in time. In a way, that makes it more special, for me at least—the albums are homemade patchworks constructed with the help of other music fans, and there’s something charming about the shitty quality; it’s the equivalent of watching a bootleg concert on VHS. (This is largely nostalgia talking; I wouldn’t trade in my proper Who albums for those YouTube rips for anything these days.)

Thus, inauspiciously, begins a friendship that continues all the way to this stage, five years later. I’d say we turned out okay.

2016

Throughout the show, Pete has been in a better mood than usual, smiling and cracking jokes and being generally expansive. Before the final run, he looks into the audience and says, “You know, we’re really far too fucking old to be doing this. And most of you are far too fucking young! Shouldn’t you be listening to—” he drops his voice— “Justin Bieber or something?”

The boos are immediate, and he smirks. “Oh, he’s not that bad. ‘No, Pete, no, I’m informed, I know all about good rock music!’ No you fucking don’t.”

There’s a deluge of laughter, and he himself chortles, but I almost hope he’s genuinely mocking us. It’d be perfectly in character.

“Baba O’Riley” is—well, there’s not much I can say. It’s transcendent, always will be. I almost tear up again here, because when Pete comes in on his guitar I’m reminded of another quote from his recent Rolling Stone interview:

It plays, and then I deliver myself this amazing moment of being able to play this guitar. You talk about it as though it’s a song from CSI [laughs]. For me, the interesting thing is that it’s entirely mine — much more mine than anybody else’s.

I just hope that on my deathbed I don’t embarrass myself by asking someone, “Can you pass me my guitar? And will you run the backing tape of ‘Baba O’Riley’? I just want to do it one more time.”

I find myself wondering how far off that day is, and am so grateful I got to see this, the last chance I’ll probably ever get.

Two full hours have passed, and all of us know the evening is drawing to a close. When “Won’t Get Fooled Again” starts up, I’m excited but a little crestfallen—what about “I Can’t Explain”? “Slip Kid”? “5:15”? “Magic Bus”? There are still so many left to do!

But the subsequent ten minutes are absolutely stunning—this rendition of the song is fiercer, harder, louder than anything else they’ve done this evening—and when Roger nails the final scream everyone roars.

* * * *

the_who_umgIn a 1980 interview with Greil Marcus, Pete commented on the future of his band.

But always, always, there is a very, very strong grab—a deep, instant grab—which lasts… forever. It’s not like a fad. People who get into The Who when they’re thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, never stop being fans. The Who don’t necessarily captivate the whole teenage generation—as each batch comes up every year—but we certainly hit a percentage of them, and we hold them.

There have been greater artists than The Who. My favorite album is not Who’s Next but Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator), and just below that is Abbey Road. And it’s true that what I watched that night was really only half a band, albeit with very competent replacements for missing faces. And yes, songs like “My Generation” and “Pictures of Lily” just can’t be sung by old men and keep their power.

But all that fell away that night. Even if the show hadn’t been the best concert I’ve personally been to—and it was—it would still be the most powerful.

In 2010, at the age of fourteen, I discovered The Who by watching a video of a live performance recorded forty years prior. They inspired me to get into music the exact same way they inspired countless teenagers in the 1960s and the 1970s. I met one of my absolute best friends by passing their music back and forth, the same thing fans would do with bootlegs decades before I was born. And a few nights ago, I and thousands of others sang every word along with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend just like they did at Leeds, or Hull, or the Isle of Wight, or Woodstock. There aren’t words for that.

I expected to be overcome with a feeling of awe or magic when I saw Roger and Pete take the stage. Instead, there was a wonderful sort of familiar delight: “Oh, look, it’s Pete! Hey there!” Because the band aren’t gods to me in some great towering sense. They’re better than that. Through reading their interviews, and watching them perform, and learning about them in books and websites and documentaries, and most important listening to their music over and over and over again, they’ve come to be more familiar to me than many people in my personal life. They’re my friends in a very true sense. Of course if I were to encounter Pete Townshend on the street I wouldn’t be able to do anything but babble, and he’d probably tell me to fuck off and go back to whatever it is he’d be doing. But on that stage, he was someone I’d known for years and years.

In several years, Pete and Roger will both be dead. But their music will endure and will change lives, just as it still does more than fifty years after “I Can’t Explain” first hit the record stores. And I’ll be able to say that, for just one night, I took part in the mythos that’s built up around them. I am an infinitesimal part of the history of my favorite band. That’s all a music fan can ever really ask for.