The Coolness of John

Now there are only two left. Just like the Beatles. The Who minus two. It feels odd, and makes me feel . . . old. Odd to think that John Lennon, George Harrison, Keith Moon and now John Entwistle didn’t even make it to age 60. Heck, Moonie didn’t even make it to 35. The Who somehow soldiered on without him in the nearly 25 years since, but without John Entwistle? It’s hard to imagine.

I saw Entwistle perform live twice; two concerts more than 25 years apart. The first time was back in 1975, during the Who’s Who By Numbers world tour at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. The second time was just a year ago, when Entwistle took part in Alan Parson’s Beatles tribute, “A Walk Down Abbey Road”, playing a high school auditorium/performing arts center down the road from my South Jersey home.

Back in November of 1975, I was a 17-year-old high school senior, newly obsessed with the Who via the outlandish Ken Russell flick, Tommy. More specifically, I was obsessed with Roger Daltrey in the way only a music-loving high school girl can be. The blond, tanned rock god propelled me to explore the Who’s entire musical catalog, working backward from Who By Numbers, which, fans may remember, features a funny cartoon illustration by John Entwistle. By the time I heard the Who was playing Philadelphia to plug the new record, their show was already sold out. But I was not deterred, traveling by train into the city, and buying two decent tickets outside the venue from a scraggly scalper –- the first and only time I’ve ever done so.

Billed as the quintessential London “mod” band, the Who –- in their early years, at least -– seemed to personify swingin’ London itself. Not particularly a handsome brood (remember Daltrey in that awful wig?), the group was decidedly English –- I still think Townshend’s Union Jack jacket was the coolest –- and sounded a lot more pissed off than, say, the Beatles. When Daltrey sputtered out “hope I die before I get old”, in “My Generation”, no one assumed he was joking.

While Who records like Magic Bus and Tommy were less than a decade old when I discovered them, they were, to me, “old” Who albums with a decidedly dated ’60s feel -– the “modern age” of the band’s music being ushered in with 1971’s still fresh-sounding Who’s Next. (For those who doubt that album’s durability just check out the snazzy new Nissan Sentra radio ads, complete with the Who belting out “Bargain”).

With a full decade of fame already behind them, the Who I saw that night back in 1975 were young men -– Keith Moon was still in his twenties; Entwistle all of 31. But in my teenaged mind, the Who itself was an “old” rock band, right up there with the Stones and the Kinks, competing successfully against young upstarts like the Average White Band and the new Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac configuration.

They played with ferocious energy that night, covering the entire span of their records, and plowing through half of Tommy in the process. They lived up to their reputation as rock’s madmen, too: Keith Moon kicked over his drum kit; Daltrey leapt and bounded around the stage, using his microphone as a lasso; and Townshend took great delight in smashing his guitar (two, to be exact). As for Entwistle, well, he spent most the show out of the spotlight with his back almost to the audience. Twice, however, he moved to the edge of the stage and a spotlight drenched him in light for his two numbers, “My Wife” and “Boris the Spider”. Without any of the flash and frenetic energy that his bandmates displayed, Entwistle drove the audience wild. The sound of 20,000 fans bellowing “Boris the Spider” in unison with the unassuming bassist still brings a smile to my face.

At the time, I wasn’t much interested in bass players as they didn’t seem to do all that much –- and I wasn’t yet in tune with the “bass-as-musical-backbone” concept. Yet, at that instant, I understood the value of John Entwistle’s rock-solid strength amid the pinball-bouncing craziness of his bandmates’ fierce energy. If they were the sizzle, “The Ox”, as he was affectionately known, was the steak.

More than 25 years went by before I saw Entwistle perform live again. Last June, he took part in “A Walk Down Abbey Road”, which, surprisingly, was one of the best concerts I’d seen in years. A seemingly disparate mix of musicians on the stage –- Todd Rundgren and Heart’s Ann Wilson among them –- the little supergroup played more than a dozen Beatles tunes, with each member then selecting a few numbers from their own catalog. Entwistle, of course, stood in the sidelines until it was his time to belt out his numbers: “My Wife” -– which has got to be one of the weirdest, most sardonic rock songs ever –- and “Boris the Spider”. The crowd, as expected, went crazy. The guy still had it.

I knew more about John Entwistle by that point, and had a great appreciation for his musicianship -– he could even play French horn, and he did, sporadically, throughout his Who career. As a journalist, I had access to the front of the stage, so I wandered down, planted myself about a foot away from Entwistle, looked up and took his photo. He saw me, smiled, and kept right on singing. Cool as a cucumber, I thought.

He’s gone now, suddenly and without warning, hopefully hanging out in that mythical rock ‘n’ roll heaven with Keith Moon, John Lennon and so many others who took rock from its R&B roots and moved into a modern era. We lost him too soon, but John Entwistle died doing what he loved. The rest of us should be so lucky.