The camera falls on Entwistle, who's caught with a half-assed grin that quickly turns into a grimace. That one shot says it all for John: the guy standing at the back who had more up his sleeve than he was letting on.
It's funny. Yesterday I sent out a long post to the PopMatters editors' e-mail list poking some light fun at the Who for all the compilations the band has put out over the course of its career, pointing out that the number of repackaged best-of's almost equaled that of the group's regular releases. And then I mentioned the fact that I'd still love to see the band, now just about to embark on a reunion tour. It always felt like the Who knew when to get back together and do a few shows, unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, whose regular appearances for each new weary album they trot out feels like nothing more than a forced commitment.
And then I read the news last night.
Bassist for the Who dies at 57 . . .
What the hell? If I hadn't been doing a usual routine look at the news headlines on the Yahoo! main page, I'd probably still be sitting here now thinking everything was all and well. But it's true. John Entwistle -- "The Ox", "The Quiet One", the best damned bass player there ever was in the history of rock and roll for my money -- passed away of a heart attack on 27 June 2002 in his Las Vegas hotel room. He will be very much missed by this fan.
And since this is more or less the first "official" piece I've written for publication regarding the death of one of my rock and roll heroes, I'd surely prefer not to dwell on all the grim realities that bring me to write this article. All I do want to say regarding John's death at this moment is I hope that it receives the respect and dignity it deserves. It doesn't need to be paraded around Entertainment Tonight and E! as some hot topic. And I'm sure that even though it will be reported, the groovy kids at MTV will undoubtedly make it feel glamorized to some degree. Or maybe not. It would be hard to imagine anyone over there but Kurt Loder seriously giving a damn.
But enough of that. I want to discuss John and his work with the Who. You couldn't have had four more different guys in a band if you had picked them yourselves. Pete Townshend was the spiritual storyteller who always made sure to speak to the kids, because that's who was important. Roger Daltrey was the macho lead singer who nevertheless always managed to find just the perfect way to sing Pete's lyrics. And you could tell that he did genuinely get into all those songs and gave them all he had. Keith Moon was the madman who craved the attention and the love and had a most fantastic drumming style that no one else could ever replicate. At the start of the Who's career, Moon wanted the band to be a surf rock act, while Daltrey was more inclined to do the R&B thing. Luckily the band pulled it all together and synthesized their own dynamic formula that went from R&B to British mod to psychedelia and ultimately to arena rock. All within their first handful of albums.
Then there was John Entwistle. Classically trained, quiet, and equipped with a viciously hilarious dark streak, he was the man who anchored the other three. Like Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, one got the sense that Entwistle really was his own man and never let the antics or politics of the rest of the group get in his way. He showed up and played his part fantastically and then went home and enjoyed his evenings. At least, that's the feeling you got when looking at him. A very satisfied soul who just so happened to be supplying the best bass lines around. And don't forget that French horn talent he brought to the group, either. A funny combination, to be sure, but again, it worked within the strange chemistry of the Who.
It wasn't until the band's second album, A Quick One that Entwistle's personality really emerged. On the band's debut The Who Sing My Generation, we were treated to his instrumental entitled "The Ox", Entwistle's nickname at the time. But on the second album, the band was faced with contributing a couple tunes from each member, and John delivered the goods with his classics "Boris the Spider" and "Whiskey Man". The former is a tune that you could be guaranteed to hear decades later at most any Who concert. John could also often be seen wearing his Boris necklace during those shows as well. It was a crowd favorite, but "Whiskey Man" was the better of the two songs. Exhibiting Entwistle's knack for more orchestrated music, the song -- about an alcoholic with mental delusions -- was sad and wicked all at once. John's storytelling elevated the band from a mere mod group to something more. And perhaps his songwriting had an effect on Pete, who turned in the fantastic mini opera contained in the title track of the album.
Entwistle's humor was also on display visually. If you can get a hold of the Who's video collection Who's Better, Who's Best, be sure to give it a look. Throughout the clips for such early hits as "The Kids Are Alright", "Substitute", "My Generation", and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", John looks on at the rest of the band at times as if he can't believe he's stuck with the other three guys. He sometimes dishes out his funny fake yawn, and has the best shot in the video for "I Can See For Miles" at the moment when Roger sings "You're gonna lose that smile". The camera falls on Entwistle, who's caught with a half-assed grin that quickly turns into a grimace. That one shot says it all for John: the guy standing at the back who had more up his sleeve than he was letting on.
But with all the great humor and hilariously nasty songs comes the most amazing bass playing ever laid down. Sure, it was true that in the mid-sixties Paul McCartney was turning out great bass lines that proved the instrument could be used effectively in a rock band without resorting to just playing the notes to follow the other guitarists' chords. Paul had been influenced by Brain Wilson's work. And so the two seemed to work off each other, getting better with every release. But John Entwistle . . . where did he come up with all that stuff? His playing took Wilson and McCartney's and effectively squashed it. As if to say, "Now this is a bass line, boys."
They called John "Thunderfingers", and it's easy to hear why. Just listen to any Who song. From the first album on through to It's Hard. Entwistle's bass never lost any of its energy. Along with Keith Moon's explosive drumming, John's playing was as audible and solid as Daltrey's impassioned singing and Townshend's lightning-fast rhythm guitar skills. You could always hear the bass in a Who song, and well you should. Bass lines such as Entwistle's are not created to be merely pushed to the back. Just listen to "Heatwave" from A Quick One, and notice how loud that damn bass is at the beginning and how it provides more of a frame for the song than Pete's guitar. Terrific stuff.
Yet the treat for me was always seeing or hearing John play his lines during "Won't Get Fooled Again". On record, his work is prominent, but during a live version of this song, man, you can't get any better. The way he'd just run his fingers down the fretboard of his guitar between the lines "I get on my knees and pray" and "We don't get fooled again" was just simply breathtaking. Watch one of those live videos sometime and you'll see what I mean. The man was so fluid at playing the bass that you just sit there in awe and wonder how someone can play so many great notes at one time in a short section of music and not overdo it.
Speaking of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and its source, Who's Next, I must say that "My Wife" was always my favorite song from that record. It has as much to do with the sound of John's voice as any of his playing or (again) the funny lyrics. Entwistle had become a terrific singer from album to album, and on "My Wife" he really hits his mark, charting a demanding course that was easily the equal of Roger Daltrey's charismatic belting. And well, there's also those fantastic drum fills from Moon throughout the tune. It may as well have been a showcase for the rhythm section of the band, and a damned fine one it was at that.
From there, John seemed to become even more assured with his role, and his songs moved from being the novelty of the album -� a quick break from Townshend's often deep ruminations on life �- into a must-hear experience, even if it was only one track per record. (And it's hard to imagine John wanting any more within the Who -- he went on to do many a fine solo album during the group's existence, including the wonderful Whistle Rhymes). Again, John got the best track on the band's weary album The Who By Numbers (an album for which John also created the classic ragged connect-the-dots cover art). Although the record was mostly a display for Townshend's growing distaste for band politics and rock and roll stardom, John weighed in with "Success Story", a song that bettered Pete's frustrations and said it all in under four minutes:
Just like Cinderella
When she couldn't go to the ball
A voice said, "I'm your Fairy Manager
You shall play the Carnegie Hall"
I gotta give up my day job
To become a heartthrob
I may go far if I smash my guitar
Away for the weekend
I've gotta play some one night stands
Six for the tax man, and one for the band
Back in the studio to make our latest number one
You know, this used to be fun
If you've ever seen the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, then you're probably familiar with the portion of the film which features this song being played as the background music in the scene where John is walking through his house. As the camera pulls back slightly, we catch a glimpse of all these fantastic guitars lining every inch of his walls. He then grabs a couple gold records that are also prominently displayed and takes them outside for skeet practice.
It's hard to assess whether or not Entwistle had a better grasp on being a star than the other three. Stories abound of how the band members would all get into knock down drag out fights before and after a show, putting on the good face in between for the audience. Hell, it probably only fueled their terrific energy for each set and propelled the shows along at an even tougher pace. But it did seem to be that John had a way with summing it all up in one great song, an action that often took Pete Townshend a whole album to work through.
Despite the turmoil and excess, the band soldiered on. How could they not? Their shows were huge and epitomized the whole arena rock experience. The Who worked through Townshend's demons on The Who By Numbers and the (yet another) concept album Quadrophenia. Yet the overload was about to take its toll, and it did shortly after Who Are You was released and Keith Moon died of a drug overdose at 31. You can see the washout in the band members' faces on the cover of the album. If The Who By Numbers' cover art was a cartoon variation on how the band felt at the time, the photo on Who Are You was a grim shot in the arm. Townshend looks absolutely a mess, and even the usually crazy Keith looks as if he's about had enough.
The music on the album was a bit of a mess, too. Who Are You has its moments, but it also sounds like the band was grasping at whatever ideas they could muster. But in his best fashion, John Entwistle delivered the bizarre "905", a futuristic / semi sci-fi tune about test tube humans. It was another great song, formed with various and sundry synthesizer burps as its backbone, and was certainly a highlight of an otherwise tired set of songs that just seemed downright nasty (in the not-so-good way) at times.
Yet all was not finished. The Who decided to keep going after Keith's death. The resulting first album with new drummer Kenny Jones, Face Dances, happens to be one of my favorite Who albums. It seemed to be the great set of short pop songs that Who Are You could have been if the band hadn't been so tired. John Entwistle contributed two fine songs yet again. These were the autobiographical "The Quiet One", in which John finally said it all and really sounded like he meant it, and the terrific "You", which he let Roger sing, but was no less acidic.
However, the energy the group found on Face Dances was short-lived and its follow-up It's Hard really did feel like the end. Even John's contributions seemed secondary. Although the album did have some good tracks like "Athena", "Eminence Front", "I've Known No War", and the oddly erotic "One Life's Enough", there just wasn't any energy left to sustain. So it was time to quit. Or so Pete said. The following album Who's Last was hardly that. Every few years, the itch to pull the group out "one more time" would hit Pete and he'd take his band out and entertain the masses once again.
And so it was to be as we speak. The Who were ready to embark on a three month national tour in support of their latest greatest hits collection. But those plans have been sadly sidelined now due to John Entwistle's passing. The Vegas show was canceled. The rest of the dates are uncertain, but it really just wouldn't seem right to press on without the Ox. It'd be kind of like the current touring version of the Beach Boys (Mike Love and Bruce Johnston): it's not really the Beach Boys at all. It's hard to say. The Who have soldiered on in the past, but this time it feels like it could be final.
But let's not end on a grim note. Let's remember John Entwistle as being one of the best bassists in rock. Let's remember him for his humor and his terrific songs. Let's remember him for how much he absolutely despised playing "Magic Bus" live because the bass line was too simple and boring (an amusing fact that John always enjoyed bringing up whenever given the chance). How much he really hated playing it when Pete would extend it for longer than five minutes (which was often; check out the epic version on Live at Leeds). Let's remember John for being that anchor in the Who that held down the craziness of the other three guys in the band.
Let's just remember John for being John. I think he'd like it that way. I'll miss him plenty.