Back before it was how you looked. Back when what came out of a speaker could save your life. There was a song on the radio that appeared infrequently, but riveted your attention every time it came on.
There was an acoustic guitar. Which started off slowly, and then the player started to STRUM! And suddenly, there came a blast, from over the horizon, like a SHOFAR! Calling you to worship at the altar of rock and roll.
That song was "Pinball Wizard".
I'd become addicted with "I Can See For Miles". Emanating from the jukebox in the corner of the Bromley base lodge. Amongst "Neon Rainbow" and "Judy In Disguise", "I Can See For Miles" stood out. With an energy, a distance. "I Can See For Miles" wasn't from this world. It had an intensity. These guys MEANT IT!
I bought a single, but not the album. No, my first Who album was "Tommy". I needed it because of "Pinball Wizard".
It was months from the moment the single hit the chart and faded that the double album finally was released. I'd like to tell you there was hoopla, but there wasn't. That really didn't come until fully a year later, when the "Woodstock" movie finally came out, and the whole world saw Pete windmilling.
I went up to E. J. Korvette to buy the package released by Decca, home of no other hit rock band, on the day the record came out. And when I dropped the needle, I was taken on an amazing journey, one built just for me. One that decreased my alienation. After all, these guys were on my page. Albeit much closer to the top!
And that fall I went to the Fillmore East to see them perform the whole rock opera, from start to finish. They left out "Underture" and one or two other numbers, and played a bunch of soon to be classic catalog numbers thereafter, but what was played was ultimately secondary to HOW it was played.
There was Keith. Appendages moving so fast he appeared to have as many arms as appeared on the cover of "Axis: Bold As Love". And the way his pedals pounded the two bass drums eclipsed the fury and the power of the anointed Ginger Baker, whom I'd seen two times the year before.
Then there was Entwistle. Who moved not a whit, but played his bass like Clapton played his Strat. He wasn't just holding down the bottom, he was DANCING in the depths. Employing melody in the lower register.
And finally there was Pete. Windmilling. Lest we be fooled again. This wasn't a guy yearning to be felt, yearning to be touched, he was yearning to be ACCEPTED! This gangly, big-nosed guy had something to PROVE! That what emanated from his axe could change your life.
Sure, Roger sang. And he was very good. Twirling the mic. But even though he fronted the act, the players made it work. We came for the instrumental ASSAULT!
There's never been another Moon. You know this if you saw him. His reputation as a loon undercuts the legend of his playing. This guy was not the bombastic Bonham, he wasn't about brute force, there was a subtlety within his sound, it had CHARACTER! Akin to a Jackson Pollock drip painting, initially it was hard to comprehend, but it all made SENSE!
Ditto on Entwistle. Just listen to "Quadrophenia". Especially the remixed soundtrack to the movie. Positively LYRICAL!
So on one hand the band's not the same. It's like a class reunion minus half your friends. But we go. Because of Pete.
Take the curious case of Yngwie Malmsteen. Or Frank Marino. The landscape is littered with players with great technique, but no soul. People with the skills, but without the inspiration. People who know how to hit the notes, but what they play leaves you empty, unfulfilled.
Like the guitarist in the opening act.
Everybody else does an "Evening With". Attendees only want to see the headliner. To be subjected to an opening act is an insult. Especially at this late date, for this audience, paying up to FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS to see the band. It's like going for dinner at a three star Michelin and being served Ripple. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
And the ad for the recording of the show. Flashing on the big screen. Complete with Who numbers. That was positively cheesy.
But when the break ended and the band hit the stage with a zillion dollars of production, flashing screens and lights, we forgot about what had come before. They reached all the way back to the sixties for "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere", but the concert took hold shortly thereafter with "The Seeker".
"I asked Bobby Dylan
I asked the Beatles
I asked Timothy Leary
But he couldn't help me either"
Nobody's looking anymore. They've found it. You do what you must to get the money. Whether legal or illegal. You need a nice ride, a crib in a gated community. Flowing champagne. We're not all in it together, everybody's about pulling AHEAD! Leaving the general public BEHIND!
And once you make it it's all about lifestyle. Supposed heroes like Paris Hilton claim they're dumb. When did stupidity become revered? Intelligence radiated from the Who records like brain waves from Einstein, and that was part of the band's appeal. Then again, what really got to us was the power, of PETE'S GUITAR!
This sixty one year old with the close-cropped silver gray hair, with a body that will never appear in "Fitness" magazine, was working out on his red Fender, he was MANIPULATING IT, he was extracting sounds from it nobody else can. It wasn't about technique, but STYLE! Anybody can learn how to play, but it's HOW you play that matters. It's not that his left hand is moving so quickly. Or he's got the right hand dexterity of Jeff Beck. It's like he's at a playground, working out on the equipment, kicking up some dust, making the park HIS OWN!
I'm not sure it translates. If you're old and near death. Or used to rappers and popsters. But this is OUR sound. I don't think most in attendance came aboard early, but no one came extremely late, because of "Who's Next".
Name a better album than "Who's Next". You can't. When the synth strains of "Baba O'Riley" blasted over the assembled multitude early in the set we were brought right back to '71. Hell, the ENTIRE seventies. You see not only was this track a staple when the album was released, it survived on radio the ENTIRE DECADE! It was the soundtrack to Friday night. Getting the weekend started.
And "Won't Get Fooled Again" was Saturday night. Pure celebration. When those notes poured out of the speakers we were reminded of a time when we questioned. When we didn't believe what the politicians said. When burned out on the bullshit we retreated, into ourselves.
Meet the new boss. He IS the same as the old boss. Because despite what you might think, the newbies have got nothing on the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs RULE!
This was not a calcified show. It was pure seventies. A full third was new material. Fuck the johnny-come-latelies. If you didn't buy the album in advance of the show, playing it enough to know the new numbers, then FUCK YOU!
That was what was stunning. The show was not pure nostalgia. They neither apologized for the new material nor rushed it. They played all of "Endless Wire" and even closed with a new number. They were not playing by the rules.
But the show really came alive with "Eminence Front".
One can argue strongly it was all over with "Quadrophenia". If you want the good stuff thereafter, listen to Pete's solo albums. "Rough Mix". "All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes". Especially the record that came out just before the mods and rockers saga, "Who Came First". Not having to replicate the Who's sound, not needing any bombast, Pete became intimate, and truly touched us. Whereas the Who records weren't exactly by numbers, but they had the sound without the heft, without the hooks. But the final studio record, until now, 1982's "It's Hard", it contained the last hurrah, "Eminence Front".
The lyrics? They've aged well. But it was never about the lyrics. It was about the sound. The HYPNOTIC groove.
It was at this point that the audience levitated. Higher than a bunch of twentysomethings fucked up on Ecstasy at a dance club. Do you want to throw off the trappings? Be who you used to be? Before you decided to play the game, to sell out? The music brought you there. Released you from not only the bullshit, but your self-consciousness.
And then, when it appeared it was all over, Pete slung an ELECTRIC over his head and started strumming those chords. The sound flew out of FENDER amps, not HiWatts. Still, it was clear. This was what we were all about.
Pete's manhandling the guitar, playing faster and faster. Then Pino Palladino throws in the flourish that came out of the left hand speaker of our newly-purchased stereos. And Roger started to sing.
"Ever since I was a young boy
I played the silver ball"
I'd like to tell you it brought me all the way back to 1969, but the number positively lived in the present. With all the energy we once had finally returned. And when the band slid into "Amazing Journey" it was transcendent.
"Deaf dumb and blind boy
He's in a quiet vibration land"
Pete's going ON! And suddenly Zak starts to shine. He's throwing in those fills. The thunder that addicted Wayne and Garth and every teenage boy from back yonder.
And when we hit "Sparks", Pete's starting to WAIL! He's soloing, but not noodling. It's like the guitar's his dick, and he's playing with it. Slapping it. Stroking it. Rubbing it up against the mic stand. Getting it hot, and big. We're excited, we're in the throes, we've begun the march towards ecstasy, fulfillment.
And this is no wham bam thank you mam. Pete's playing longer than the record. You're on top, then you're on the bottom. You're behind. Then on top again. It's a full sexual experience, but it's coming from the music. Remember when you wouldn't think of fucking unless an album was on? This music was truly the soundtrack to our lives.
And then comes the release.
Welcome to the camp, I guess you all know why we're here.
Because we remember. When music was THE most important thing. When it wasn't the just the grease, but the engine.
Most of the dinosaurs touring, they've given up. It's just about satiating the audience, grabbing the bucks. It's not about music, it's about BUSINESS!
And I thought it would be the same with the Who. Especially at these prices.
But two-thirds of the way through the show, Pete said he wasn't doing it for the money. That TV had been very very good to him.
And he played like it.
I don't know if he'll ever come up with anything as classic as he once wrote. But he's not giving up, he's still trying.
I think most of the audience had given up. It's the nature of aging. You struggle to establish a position, and then coast. Risk is out of the question. Why test the limits when you've got so much to lose.
We used to look to musicians for direction.
We can again. By playing his heart out, by not just replicating what was on the albums, by doing a ton of new material, Pete Townshend was serving notice that he was not done yet. We should embrace this message.
And if tickets were fifteen or twenty bucks, if only the younger generation could see a show like this, they might believe too. Pricing has made this the Bentley of rock tours. It's exclusive when the music of yore was INCLUSIVE!
You can debate ad infinitum whether music can change the world.
But I'll tell you one thing for sure, music can change the individual. Can inspire him. Can instruct him. Can change the direction of his life.
That's what it used to do. That's why it's so powerful. That's why they call it classic rock.