Went to see The Who again a couple of weeks ago. Last time? Dunno. They seem to keep coming back, “hitting back” according to the slogans of their latest tour, long, so long after I thought they’d retire. Hitting back on what? I mean, when their tour was announced I thought, really? What’s this about? Money? All those stray musicians needing gigs, plus all that equipment languishing in a warehouse in West London? Legacy? Not wanting the pandemic to end your career for you? Well, I’ll say this: it’s not just a sad, aging cabaret act, which is what I’d feared they’d become once upon a time. Pete Townshend is playing at least as well as he did in 16’ and 17’, the last time(s) I saw them. They were about as good on this night as they were in 04’, the previous outing I’d seen before that—backing orchestra or no backing orchestra. He, Townshend, was already sporting a late-middle age demeanor on that prior occasion: a curmudgeonly genius, then reeling from a child-porn viewing scandal that has tainted him with some—and surely blown his chance at get a knighthood—but it seems to have blown over with most fans. Why? Well, for one thing, because he’s everything his eternal advocate, Roger Daltrey, keeps saying of him: he’s brilliant, ageless, and sturdier than most ever thought he was.
Daltrey’s even sturdier, having taken better care of himself than Townshend ever did—perhaps better than any septarian ever did. He always ate right, drank little, exercised well, and has had lots of sex**. Are they as good as ever? Of course not, though at 77 and 78 respectively, Townshend and Daltrey are a model for any aging performer, especially those of the R n R variety. But lest anyone get lost in delusion, they have long since dispensed with the acrobatics, the insane volume, or the anarchic sub-professional habits and attitudes that once brought them fame but also threatened their careers and lives. As any fan of theirs knows, their original drummer, Keith Moon, rode his talent and reckless personality into the ground over forty years ago, succumbing in the late seventies while the band was in its prime. John Entwistle, the prematurely aged yet venerable bassist, passed twenty plus years later after a similarly drug-induced misadventure, and while the Ox (or “quiet one”, as he was affectionately known) was not quite the hellish desperado that Moon was, his demise was also an indictment of The Who’s original image and ways. The twosome that soldier on since then exudes a much cleaned up relinquishing of their halcyon decadence. Brandy and hellraising have been displaced by purely hydrated water and yoga, probably. Hotel violence disappeared not that long after the guitar smashing, around about the time bell-bottoms went out of style. When they first “retired” back in 82’ and performed a so-called farewell tour, one of their opening acts, The Clash, will already have thought them old-fashioned.
Back then, no one thought rock stars had lengthy careers, so stars that were pushing forty (at that time, that only meant them, The Stones, and maybe The Kinks), still touring and recording hits, were a novelty. Rock and professionalism of the kind that sustains careers over decades were not words that went together in the classic rock era. So, as rock critic Dave Marsh wrote as early as 1980, how have they lasted this long, really? Well, they haven’t, really, at least not constantly. They’ve had many spells on the sidelines, nursing tour wounds and pop biz jadedness. But enough of that stuff. I’ve written about or summarized The Who before in this blog. I even wrote a book about them. Check it out if you like; it’s pretty good, I think. It isn’t popular, doesn’t even have a cult following, unlike The Who in their early days, when “I Can’t Explain” would get to, like, #93 on the charts. Or, maybe that was just in Detroit. I forget. I should’ve researched things like that more rigorously; that way, the book would have been better: its moment in the Kirkus sunshine, on the Facebook afterglow, might have been a tad longer.
Now that I think of it, how do I last? I mean, in what I do for a living, not this writing thing on the side, and even in what I assign to this legendary band whose day-to-day life, as I imagine it, now reminds me of my own, which is an absurd thing to write though it may make sense by the end of this entry. I sort of promise this. But I must preface the parallels with an inventory of my fandom, by which I mean the music side of things, not the folklore: I haven’t stopped listening to Live at Leeds, having sampled all four versions of it by now, for not quite the same length of time as they’ve been available. Meanwhile, that album has almost been superseded in my affections by Live at Filmore 68’, which features, among many gems, a sprawling, insanely noisy, indecently long, chaotic and therefore glorious version of “My Generation”, which they don’t appear to play anymore, perhaps because the tired irony of their singing the line, “Hope I die before I get old”, has at last been laid to rest. As I ponder the catalogue of The Who, which I will do at least one more time before I write something of myself, I’ll declare that I listen to Quadrophenia more than I do Who’s Next—clearly, their best two albums, time now decrees; that Tommy has had a revival in my mind, and so has Who Sell Out, and Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy, but…okay, I hardly listen anymore to the unfortunately titled, It’s Hard. It’s hard to listen to, actually, and I can’t believe more fans don’t tell that joke. Face Dances is under-rated, and so is Who By Numbers, but they’re little more than time-capsuled curiosities these days, so is Who Are You. These albums get a few spins from time to time, but ultimately, each are a bit too flaccid to sustain a presence on the playlist.
The truth of what fans want was in the playlist of the concert. The early stuff is out—they played nothing pre-Tommy, I’m sad to report. “Eminence Front” is apparently popular, and does indeed have a seductive riff to it. But I’d rather hear “Substitute” or “Magic Bus”, or…I don’t know…, “A Quick One While He’s Away”, to give a few examples. I know. Where do I come in? You promised, sort of, you’re thinking. Well, I compare myself. Now that I’m middle-aged, somewhat curmudgeonly, and perhaps stuck with an analogous playlist of my own, I hit pause on my judgements, feeling an uneasy affinity with my once aging and now aged heroes. They have their routines, and so do I. They have their inspirational flourishes, and I suppose I do as well. But as I travel day-to-day from home to office, think of exchanges, bouts of heavy listening interspersed with reflective thought, I think my chops are polished, and my pacing is indeed sturdy, but…what else? Are there any surprises in the mix? There are plenty, actually, and they do sustain me, just about, alongside copious doses of hydrated water. I just can’t tell you much about them. My playlist, as in my repertoire of everything from gimmicks to moments of inspiration, is a private one, this 300 plus-deep catalogue of essays notwithstanding.
Towards the end of a concert, fans start to get a bit tense, I notice. A rumbling tally occurs of what songs have been played and which haven’t. Suspense rises as the music builds to a climax. What will close the set? Will there be an encore? On the night in question, a supposed curfew prevented the band playing on beyond 11pm, so it’s anyone’s guess what they might have done but for that obstacle. They didn’t hit back on the LA county rules. The Who aren’t like that anymore. Who are they? Yes, it’s a cheap and tired joke, but still worthy of a mention. Who are we? Who am I? it’s the corollary they’ve half-seriously spoken back, inviting fans to muse upon life in between songs. Well, they at least have gotten with their times, by which I mean they’re asking for help in their dotage. I mentioned an orchestra before. Yeah, they had one: a fifty-musician deep gathering that provided depth to their sound, filling in the spaces where only guitar solos used to go. At first, I didn’t like the sound of it. They seemed to drown out Pete’s guitar during the Tommy pieces, and only later did he seem to catch up; perhaps he remembered to turn up the volume on his amp.
For a finale, they brought out a ringer: a sleek, sexy violinist dressed in black leather to play the coda bars of “Baba O’Riley”, one the The Who’s undisputed classics. This bit of getting-with-the-times brought out my jaundiced side. I’ve written before (ya know, that aforementioned book) about The Who not employing the same gimmicks that some of their contemporaries have in the past—that of sexing up the show with glamorous women off to the side, swaying and swooning while in song, displaying for the younger set why we should all get down with the good old boys, Pete and Rog. Pink Floyd did that for a while, so did the Stones. Anyway, the violinist was an excellent musician as well as being requisitely hot, so the final run of notes in “Baba” were indeed thrilling. It was good, though it seemed like a moment lifted from a Hans Zimmer performance, not a rock concert. Speaking of obligation, sometime earlier in the show, just before playing a kind-of protest song called “The Seeker”, Pete played elder statesman, soap-boxing to the crowd a few comments about the social order of the day: we should spare a moment of thought for the homeless in all of their tent cities; we should reflect on how lucky we are to be gathered in a stadium, with most of us not wearing masks, having survived the pandemic. We should think about Ukraine. Then, like the old man at the holiday dinner table, he self-effacingly remarked that he was surprised anyone still listened to him. The audience returned a sympathetic moan, not hitting back, and then the rock and roll returned for a few more songs, replete with inclusivity, post-MeTwo sexiness, plus The Who’s enduring appeal to the pop-digital mediasphere: we still belong here, they proclaim.
**consensual sex between adults, of course, not what Townshend was accused of in 2003. The story that broke that year was initially shocking to fans, but I think most suspended judgement when it was revealed that Pete had accessed a child porn website with his credit card and was subsequently arrested and questioned by police. He claimed to be doing research, actually concerned with child porn distribution via Eastern Europe and seeking to expose pornographers, not to consume their product. He was also doing preliminary work on an autobiography that he completed years later, which featured reflections upon his own child abuse victimization. Pete’s accessing a child porn site was at least an act of naivite and probably hubris, though Townshend never downloaded any imagery. That said, he broke the law so ultimately police gave him a formal caution and, more damagingly, placed him on a sex offender registry for five years. For some, that eventuality stamped Townshend as a pedophile. Since my bias towards him and The Who is well known to my friends, but also because my work with sex offenders is known, I have on occasion been asked to give my admittedly biased and blunt opinion on all this: I don’t think Pete Townshend is a pedophile. I think what this and countless other media-inflated episodes have “exposed” is the widespread idiocy and hysteria that social media platforms.