To my surprise, “Who Are You” was the first song of The Who’s set at the Oakland Arena last Thursday night. I was taken aback. Having attended several of their concerts over the years, and observed numerous set-lists from different eras of their remarkable fifty-year history, I had expected the familiar choppy chords of “I Can’t Explain”, or maybe “Substitute”—two mid-sixties gems to warm up the crowd. “Who Are You”, with its thoughtful narrative, reflecting the bands mature, late seventies outlook, seemed misplaced as the opening number; a reminder of a once concert-climaxing provocation. According to legend, the lyric recounts the story of a lost night on the town by its writer, Pete Townshend. He wakes up in a Soho doorway, a policeman knows his name. He says “you” (Townshend) can go home (in lieu of being incarcerated), if he can get up and walk away. The Who of this late seventies period were addled, about to lose Keith Moon, and struggling to keep up appearances as dignified, veteran rockers competing with up-and-comers, the emerging punk rock tsunami. The song reflects upon aging, being jaded with fame; feeling broken and undeserving of love. Its refrain poses a question—Who Are You?—that seems a cousin of “Listening To You” from Tommy, written several years earlier, only this time the creator/performer is not so much celebrating the feedback of listeners as much as he is staring back, at once bewildered and knowing, appealing for answers amid spiritual crisis.
Last Thursday, the fierce, youthful eyes of The Who’s original line-up—Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon—gazed out at the arena audience from a giant screen montage of the band’s storied career. Their eyes could see for miles, as their first American hit proclaimed in 1967. Their four distinctive, rock-prototype personalities seemed to look out over time, holding in their minds the dreams and expectations of their audience. With druidic presence, they performed a brutal yet playful music that set them apart from others of their era. Yet despite their bravado and bonhomie, they were ever more frail than we, the audience, knew or could tolerate. Waywardness, collapse, and mortality were always close at hand with The Who. As early as forty years ago, just a decade into a career they once thought wouldn’t last a year, there was already a casualty list, and a mooted retirement just around the corner. At that tired, apparently mid-career stage they seemed to check their purpose, looking to the crowd, to people like me, asking, what the fuck do you want? In 2016, time is truly running out, finally. “Who Are You”, a now relatively callow musing of a thirty something, might as well be an opening number, however relevant it may still be. Half the original band is gone. The remaining Who or Two are in their seventies. There are no new albums, rock operas or not, on the horizon. No more hits. Now it’s about playing for a legacy, and manifesting old rhetoric about caring, having a social conscience: hence a robust, charitable infrastructure, especially for its teen cancer trust; The Who’s heartfelt commitment to serving the age-group they once observed so astutely.
I arrived at the arena last Thursday in a bad mood. I’d had a tough week. I was tired, also feeling jaded, and my once fanciful belief that rock and roll can save the day was waning. The Who came onstage sometime after 8:30 in the evening and played for two hours. Another surprise was the lack of encore, but in terms of song selection, the performance, there will have been few complaints. As The Who’s ensemble band (Daltrey and Townshend, plus about a half a dozen others) left the stage and the lights came on, fans started trudging towards the exits, still feeling the concert high. I moved against the stream of traffic, towards the stage, where a cabal of security guards presided. I’d decided upon this action just as Townshend launched into “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who’s traditional set-closer, and despite the surprises, my cue that the show was nearly over. You see, the concert wasn’t even the highlight of the evening. That was still to come, or so I thought. Three months earlier, six months since I’d sent a final draft of my Tommy paper to The Who’s management office in London, I received an e-mail from Pete Townshend’s personal assistant, saying he wanted to meet me. I’ve been alternately giddy and dissociative ever since, and that’s when I let myself think about it.
At eleven o’clock the moment arrived. Stoic security men directed me to the back of the arena, where the private room indicated on my pass was. This was the green room, or NIC room, whatever that stands for. Anyway, taking my wife’s hand, we moved with the crowd, exited the main floor, only to find ourselves in front of more security people, now herding most out the back passage while a few fans stood off to the side. This was the privileged group of visitors: special guest, VIPs. There was about two dozen of us shepherded down a second hallway to a pair of rooms, one inhabited by the band as a whole, the other—this ‘NIC’ room, off to the side—designated for Pete Townshend’s guests. Inside, the pleasant personal assistant named Nicola, with whom I’d exchanged e-mails earlier, welcomed my wife and I, gestured to a table of wine glasses, a fridge containing sodas, and invited us plus the ten or so other guests to relax, wait a few minutes, and Pete would soon be with us.
He appeared without fanfare, his back to me at first, his balding egg-shaped head unmistakable. Looking around at the assembly, gauging the energy, the quiet mood, I knew immediately that this meeting would not match my fantasy: it would last a minute, if that; it would feature a few words, platitudes about a great show (and it was), the years of pleasure and obsession stretching behind me—and a hand shake. The first people Pete spoke to seemed like music biz folk: those who worked on the road crew during the 1989 tour, or something like that. I felt out of place, being about as close to the music biz as an out of tune yodeler. He approached, looking weary, of course, and softly took my hand, saying ‘hi’ in a whisper. His personal assistant introduced us, as he didn’t know who I was. Who are you? I thought he might ask, and then ask it again, with attitude. In some ways it made sense, his torpor. He’d just finished a two-hour show, had given his all, as ever—the whole swinging arms, power chord all. He was, as my dad would say, knackered, and ten times more than myself, was not in the mood. Or, he wasn’t in the mood to talk about my paper, or Tommy, as he has done actually, repeatedly, for almost fifty years. But he asked to meet me, I can’t help thinking, also repeatedly. After a nice photo opportunity, a signature on my paper, a warm ‘good luck with that’, he turned and walked, ready to greet the next lucky fan. Have you ever met a celebrity, an idol—dreamed of such a moment, anticipated the moment as reality approached—and then experienced the aftermath: the point when you realize the moment is over?
I’m not sour. I’m not jaded. I have moods. I’m mildly disappointed, but I know what I’ve achieved and what I haven’t. I know who I am. I’m still hopeful. I still hope Pete reads my paper, because I don’t think he has. If you read this blog, I hope it moves you to buy my paper, give it a read. You might learn something about psychology, music, culture, rock and roll and what it, The Who, yourself, mean to people.
*Photo by William Snyder