Rock 'n' roll stars never really die: they wind up with their faces plastered on the back or front of tacky T-shirts, along with a maudlin slogan like REST EASY KEITH. The T-shirts were selling for five and six bucks apiece on New York’s Seventh Avenue last month, and they had a gluey smell to them. But who’s going to quarrel with immortalization in whatever banal form it presents itself? And whether or not Keith Moon, the late, spectacularly crazy drummer of The Who, was actually resting in peace after taking the overdose express a year ago will have to remain a mystery. Sentimentalists could conjecture, however, that this September he was tapping his heavenly drumsticks in frenzied delight as the surviving members of what is reputed to be one of the world’s greatest rock bands—Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle, with new drummer Kenny Jones—returned to Madison Square Garden, playing five sold-out concerts to crowds of 20,000 each night, whipping kids half their age into a froth of raised fists and shouts of recognition. They stood on their chairs to shout along with My Generation, The Who’s most famous song. One long, loud snarl against older folks, it was written 15 years ago when the band members themselves were punk kids out on the street instead of 34-year-old millionaires who can afford the very best in brocade jackets.
With the lyrics, Why don't you all fufu-fade away/Don't try to dig what we all say, My Generation still stands as
the anthem of any 18-year-old, handed down like a torch through the ages. The ages? In rock history, shot through with manufactured significance and belabored profundity, a decade is equivalent to a century. The Who, having survived 15 years, are virtually ready for bronzing. Nevertheless, Pete Townshend still believes, “you paid me to do the dancin’.” It appears to be a contract with no escape clause.
Before Moon’s accidental death, the members of the band, who had blithely sung a thousand times Hope I die before I get old, had agreed that if anything happened to any one of them—either death or departure on a less final note— there would be no going on. But it didn’t work out that way. In honor of the cherubic-faced court jester who, after years of alcoholism, had become a bloated, decaying parody of himself, the three survivors sent a wreath designed as a champagne bottle smashing through a television set. It was an exquisitely apt gesture, for Moon had been the inspired perpetrator of more violence against innocent hotel-room furnishings than any musician of his time.
Then they kept on going because, as bass guitarist Entwistle said, “we had to prove we were still alive.” Hiring drummer Jones, formerly of The Faces and a good friend of Moon’s, The Who set off to “keep the legend up” with several performances in Britain and Europe, followed by the string of New York concerts. In more practical terms, they were promoting The Kids Are Alright, the just-released retrospective documentary of their 15 years in rock.
The movie, for which the band put up
$2 million, has no story line—not even a chronological order—as it flips through film clip after film clip of The Who’s greatest performances and silliest TV interviews. It is essentially a fan’s movie, directed by Jeff Stein, who met the band because he was such a rabid devotee. Ironically, although The Kids Are Alright becomes almost self-important in stressing The Who’s significance, Stein is no longer welcome in their dressing rooms: “I’d like to poke him in the eye,” mused Entwistle backstage in New York. He feels the movie, completed before Moon’s death, is a little lopsided: “Keith got the funny parts, Pete did the interviews, and the rest of us suffered.”
Internecine jealousies aside, the movie does convey in a compelling way why The Who, after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, are the most famous British rock group in the world. They have produced a respectable body of work, including the rock opera Tommy, but essentially The Who made their reputation by performing. Originally from the tough, working-class London district of Shepherd’s Bush, they became the ultimate prole band, offering hard-driving, painfully loud rock. With an added fillip that earmarks them today as the founding fathers of punk: Pete Townshend, lead guitarist, songwriter and possessor of one of the most intelligent faces in rock, took to smashing his guitar up after every performance. Gradually the violence escalated until the end of the show resembled a
choreographed temper tantrum, with guitars being whomped into amplifiers, Moon falling off his drum kit, kicking the smithereens out of it and then tossing it into the crowds. During a seven-day New York appearance in 1967, they went through 24 microphones, five guitars, a 16-piece drum kit and several speaker cabinets. Townshend, who always seems to be bleeding one way or another on stage, also hit himself on the head with his own guitar and required several stitches. While this seems in the telling a bit senseless, it had its own eerie power: “Damage, damage, damage,” wrote Townshend. “It’s a great way to shake society’s value system. It makes mothers disown their children. It makes schoolteachers puke.” Not a bad definition of rock music itself.
Whether it was the violence, the fabled excesses on the road or the music itself, The Who has developed a slavish following, the current crop being no exception. One of them, a hot-eyed little 18-year-old with masses of black curly hair, was found lurking near the entrance of the tony Navarro Hotel on Central Park South. She was giving the doorman a run for his money as she strained to catch a glimpse of her heroes, who had recorded their first hit single when she was 4. “But I got into them when I was 5,” she insisted, adding, “Will ya write that Pete Townshend is the greatest man in the world?”
The “greatest man, etc.” has his own sentimental view of his fans. In an article he wrote for Rolling Stone he told of the time in 1975 when The Who felt finished—trapped in its own mythology and ravaged by internal conflicts and eternal boozing. Onstage at Madison Square Garden, he wrote, “When my drunken legs gave way under me as I tried to do a basic cliché leap and shuffle, a few loving fans got up a chant. ‘Jump! Jump! Jump!’ Brings tears to your eyes doesn’t it? It did mine anyway.”
On this latest trip, there was no need for loyal fans to act as cheerleaders. The
group thought it was playing, said Entwistle, “better than we have in years.” In some ways, the death of its most erratic, least reliable member freed The Who to make the changes that allowed them to go on. A band that draws its very lifeblood from live performances— “when there is an audience, there is salvation,” says Townshend - it had been off the road for two years, partly because of Moon’s unpredictability.
The other problem was Townshend, who is the spirit of the group. Daltrey— with his blonde curls (recently clipped) and stylized movements—is pure show; Entwistle wryly describes himself as a “hole-filler”; and newcomer Kenny Jones looks as benign as his drumming.
But Townshend agonizes, oh how he agonizes. Like the conductor on a notso-magic bus, in 1975 he took The Who on a gloomy little tour of his own, precipitating a mid-life crisis for the band. Fear of being irrelevant, fear of dissolving physically (he is actually going deaf from his own music), fear of becoming corrupt spiritually, propelled Townshend into a wasteland. One night in London, drunkenly encountering two members of a punk rock band who had been ridiculing the holdover bands from the ’60s, the self-described “aging daddy of punk rock” unburdened himself and told them The Who was all washed up. Of punk he had once plaintively said, “I’m sure I invented it and yet it’s passed me by,” but he was amazed to discover the new boys had no ideals about their own music; they were just brash Cockney kids who wanted to travel the world and score with girls. Afterward, Townshend wrote the title song for the latest album, Who Are You, a taunt to the new boys.
In The Kids Are Alright, Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon are shown in the studio the first time they tried the new song; the look on their faces is pure transportment. That, and the energy they’re infused with during and
after a performance, are two of the nonmonetary rewards of a 15-year commitment to rock. The cost of that commitment varies with the individual. Apart from Moon, who was less committed than committable, Townshend looks the most physically ravaged, a man who dances swell onstage but looks at times like a hollow mechanical man, the ghost of rhythm past. After one of the New York shows, a fan shook his head: “I think Pete’ll be the next to go.” Along with morbid fans there are the critics who want to write a funeral dirge every time the band comes back to town. During the disastrous 1975 tour, one writer
said goodbye to Townshend with the line, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my jumpsuit rolled.”
But The Who, relics of the ’70s, are refusing to go quietly into the ’80s. Their projects continue: Quadrophenia, a film produced and scored by the band, is ready for release. It is a tough look at alienation and rock that, say some, makes Saturday Night Fever look like Mary Poppins. There is an album in the works, and tours tentatively scheduled next year for the U.S. (an eastern one beginning in December) and Canada. Still, when asked what has been the band’s greatest achievement, those close to The Who answer automatically, “staying together, surviving,” which is not exactly a recipe for creativity or innovation.
The ostracized movie director Stein speculated recently that perhaps Townshend is “ashamed he didn’t die” after telling the world he hoped he would. When Townshend is asked during the film what happened to the desperate young men of the early Who, a sheepish look traverses his face before he surfaces with a quick answer: “We’re desperate old farts.” Then he smiles— “We’re not boring, though!” At least there’s that.
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