Sunday, February 7, 2010

So Sad About Us

I bought tickets for a Herman’s Hermits concert solely because The Who were second on the bill (John Entwistle smashed his bass at the end, and I was there to see it!), and also for a White Front department store extravaganza at the Hollywood Bowl that included them. I sat through four interminable sets by Cannonball Adderley at San Francisco’s Winterland (The Who often skipped LA in those days) because the celebrated jazz saxophonist — whose music I didn’t get in the slightest — preceded them on one of those eclectic bills promoter Bill Graham thought was good for rock fans. I sat through the James Cotton Blues Band in a less-than-half-filled Santa Monica Civic Auditorium to see them, and continued to love them even though Keith Moon could barely sit upright that night.

There was a time when the thought of getting to see The Who perform would have thrilled me to the marrow. But this evening, when they star in the Super Bowl halftime show, I’m going to go upstairs to check my email or something.

It hasn’t a thing to do with Mr. Townshend’s alleged improprieties, but with countless tens of millions of younger viewers seeing two guys in their mid-60s and a bunch of unnamed sidemen, rather than the coolest, wackiest, scariest, most exciting rock and roll band ever and imagining they’re getting a pretty good idea of what those of us who worshipped them in their glorious 60s incarnation mean by The Who.

Will the close-cropped, balding, thickened Townshend look foolish as he slashes at his guitar as though sending semaphore signals? Count on it. There was a time when his antics conveyed a sense of inexorable determination, said, “Sure, I look like Walt Disney’s version of Ichabod Crane, but just try to keep me from transforming myself into something gorgeous and heroic in front of your eyes.”

At the Super Bowl, he will evoke a great old home run hitter, appearing at an Old Timer’s reunion; Old Ballplayer's stance and swing may be as similar as physiological deterioration allows, but instead of a screaming line drive, he manages what Vin Scully would call a little looper onto the edge of the outfield grass. Those who saw him in his prime clap in embarrassment. Those who didn’t think, “Old dude’s a joke!”

Will whoever Pete and Roger have hired to drum keep a much steadier beat than Keith Moon could have dreamed of keeping? Almost certainly. Will he be a tenth as much fun to watch? Almost certainly not. Will he be any fun at all to watch? Will Pino Palladino, the bass player, play with half of the departed Entwistle’s virtuosity, exude half The Ox’s ennui? Probably not. What countless tens of millions will be seeing is the superannuated half of a group that should have been dissolved the day the first of them died.

I’m not singling out The Who. When I saw Mick Jagger’s and Aretha Franklin’s performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, I was no less appalled than I’d have expected to be by The Who. Jagger’s still grotesquely skinny, and wizened, and has never been much of a singer, and his frantic gesticulating looks positively desperate. Aretha’s lost the top third of her range.

I’m 103 weeks younger than Pete Townshend. I’m well aware that I’m condemning not just The Who, but my whole generation, but how about a little self-recognition, brothers and sisters? It’s my impression that Joe DiMaggio, whatever his other shortcomings (and they were legion), never participated in one of those old timer events, except maybe to stand up and allow a chorus of adoration to rain down on him. He might have died a miserable old misanthrope, but a miserable old misanthrope with intact dignity. If only my heroes would have maintained some of their own.

Friend-of-a-friend Paul Flattery points out that the “celebratory vibe”-d medley Townshend has put together for the Super Bowl, to be broadcast by CBS, includes “Who Are You,” “Baba O’Riley”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, all used in the title sequences of CBS's CSI series. I think "So Sad About Us" might have been the more appropriate choice.


  1. I'm not plugged in enough to have known that The Who is performing tonight during Super Bowl half-time. You're right - it's going to be painful to see. I came of age with The Beatles, and I am mortified every time Paul McCarney takes the stage. He looks so old; he IS old. That means I'M old. Help! Shades of Miss Havisham.

    Hearing any track on Abbey Road or The White Album can whip me right back to a moment in my life when music fueled rebellion and protest, and lyrics guided thought. It must be so hard for a rock musician who enjoyed that power to leave the past in the past, but rock 'n roll carried a threat and created a promise for 1960's youth that cannot be recreated in 2010. It's a different youth and type of music now that has anything even remotely approaching that power.

    What a 60's rock musician to do in their 60's?
    If you don't walk away from the past - like Joe or Ted Williams did from baseball - and take up fly-fishing, what? What is the equivalent of managing, coaching, or trading on fame to run a successful business? Oh, I know - how about dedicating yourself to humanitarian causes around the world. If not around the world, then in those 7 or 8 countries where you have your designer homes featured in Architectural Digest?

    Whatever, I'm with you and will be checking my email at Half-Time.

  2. I couldn't help myself: I sat glued in my seat and watched half of The Who perform at Half Time. It was almost unbearable, but I kept my eyes on both men, as they tried to work up to a standard that they set almost 40 years ago. Was it my imagination, or could you almost sense the relief on both faces when they were finished? But, the good thing is that it reminded me of how I long to hear and wait for the scream in the original "Won't Get Fooled Again". No matter how old I am.

  3. Dear John,

    Thank you for this splash of ice water in the face. I was almost considering getting Radio Birdman back together, for a minute.

    Wonderful essay.

    Kind regards,