I went to see The Who at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park, Ill on a beautiful August night and walked away a mess of conflicting emotions, perhaps the only appropriate reaction to a band that plays songs about the identity crises of teenagers for people who have trouble understanding teenagers. Writing a review was going to be impossible.
There is no other band I have loved as much or ever wanted to see more than The Who, but I still wasn’t sure if I had actually seen The Who when the show was over. Just when I come to accept Ringo’s kid for the new Keith Moon, John Entwistle dies and is replaced by a faceless session musician-type who plays so quiet I’m not sure he was even plugged in. I mean, if they were going to do that, why didn’t they just get Brian Wilson?
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg as far as contradictions here go. The set list was totally predictable, but it was carried off with so much emotion and (yes) professionalism that still it completely worked for me. The pure, sweet volume and power of Pete Townshend’s power chording guitar made me believe in arena shows again, but not enough to forgive the $32 T-shirts and $8 cups of beer. Without the pretense of a new album to support, this tour has to be seen as an exercise in nostalgia, but how can it only be nostalgia when much of the audience (including me) was born at the beginning of the Kenney Jones era, thus having no first-hand memories of the band’s glory days?
How do you review something like this? I had no idea. Then I had a dream that night that cleared everything up for me. I was in a Las Vegas bar sipping Brandys with Who bass player John Entwistle just before he went on that one last bender that ended his life in June. I was interviewing him about the new tour, and his answers (which I know probably came from my own subconscious and not via a psychic message from rock ‘n’ roll heaven) helped me understand how to feel about the concert I just saw.
Me: Is it hard for you to believe that The Who is still touring almost 40 years after its first album?
John Entwistle: Not really. After all this time, it’s hard to imagine anything that could keep us off the road.
Me: Come on. The Who can’t last forever. I mean, let’s say you died tomorrow. There’s no way Townshend and Daltrey would keep the band going.
JE: (laughs and sips his Brandy) Let me tell you what would happen if I died tomorrow. My body would by lying there, right? And the roadies and the rest of the crew would be standing there crying, right? Pete and Rog, they would be all beat up about it. I’m their mate; moreover, I’m their bandmate. They would have to figure out what to do with the band. I give them a couple days, a week tops, before they say, “Fuck it, let’s get back on the road.”
Me: I can’t believe that.
JE: Believe it because I know that’s what would happen. And I’ll tell you what else. Either Rog or Pete would say that the tour is being carried on as a tribute to me, while the other one would totally disagree. You can’t do nothing without a fight in The ‘Oo. Not that I would care because I would be dead, but you know.
Me: The Who would definitely be missing something without your rapid-fire bass fills. Townshend is still an incredible guitar player, but you supply that trademark thunder rolling under every song. The Who would lose its pulse without you.
JE: Oh, don’t be overdramatic. The Who would be fine without me. Rog still has most of his voice, and he sounds shit hot after all the touring we’ve been doing lately. And Pete has been fucking brilliant ,too. Thank God or Baba or whoever that he’s finally showing an interest in playing electric guitar again. He’s no longer an ace rocker trying to be a fucking mediocre song-and-dance man on Broadway. We’re putting out live bootlegs from the shows on this tour on the Internet, and I think Pete’s solos on those records will match much of what he did on Live on Leeds. He won’t match what I did, but you know. The Who is a machine with enough working parts to create magical rock ‘n’ roll, with or without me.
Me: You are totally dismissing your contributions to this band.
JE: (takes another sip of Brandy) Maybe. But we’ve been doing this for almost 40 years so we know how the fuck to make a rock ‘n’ roll band work. Shit happens and you deal with it. Keith died and we carried on. That horrible thing in Cincinnati happened and we carried on. Pete almost killed himself with drugs and drink in the early ‘80s and we fucking carried on. It’s the way you survive in this business, by carrying on, even when you shouldn’t sometimes. Look, it’s not rocket science. We play the same set every night. You start with “Can’t Explain”, Substitute”, and “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”. Then it’s the hits from Who’s Next, a suite from Quadrophenia a bit of Tommy in the obligatory encore, and you go home. If I died tomorrow, I could do that set in my casket.
Me: What about spontaneity?
JE: What about it? That set works every time because the songs are the best rock tunes ever and we bash them out like pros. Maybe it shouldn’t work, but there’s no denying that it does.
Me: Fine, you might have the how figured out, but what about the why? Why does The Who keep going?
JE: Let me answer that this way. Go home, put on your copy of Live at Leeds, and turn it up as loud as you can. Now imagine that you get to create that every night, that you get to be a part of that magic. Now you know it will never be as good as it once was, but it’s still pretty fucking wonderful. It’s special, you are a part of it, and you cannot let it go. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s about being 57 years old, and knowing that you aren’t going to be around forever and wanting to experience the deepest, most beautiful, most orgasmic sensation of your life as much as you can before you’re gone. That, and I need the quid.