Friday, February 19, 2010

Who's Left?

When I heard that "The Who" would play halftime at the Super Bowl, I cringed. Jeez, I thought, do people really want to see two old guys from a once great band that had its last hit 30 years ago? Why would they be invited? Why would they do it, except for the money? Do they really need it?

I was tempted to not even watch, but I couldn't help myself... and it was worse than I had hoped. I knew Daltrey couldn't hit those notes anymore, but Townshend seemed to be having problems with his guitar too... and the attempt to cram 6 songs into 12 minutes was pathetic. I mean, they used to take a 2 minute song like My Generation and jam on it for 12 minutes. I would have felt bad for them, but hey, nobody forced them to do it. I reminded me why I've avoided going to see my rock heroes now that they're old.

For years, I avoided going to see the Who. I got my copy of "Tommy" when I was 13 and had no way to get to concerts. By the time I was going to concerts, Keith Moon was in bad shape, the Who weren't touring that much (and they really sounded pretty bad - I listened to a recording from 1977 today, and Moon was horrible.) I wanted to hold on to the sound I loved, from the raw energy of "I Can't Explain" to the humor of "The Who Sell Out"; the wonderful "Tommy", the awesome "Live at Leeds", and my all-time favorite, "Quadrophenia". I loved the sound of the Who, Pete Townshend's guitar moves, Daltrey's intense energy, Entwistle's melodic driving bass and Keith Moon's manic brilliant drumming. To me, the Who from about 1968 to 1973 were everything a band could be.

I could have gone to see them in the 80's or 90's, but I always wanted to remember how the original band with Keith Moon sounded - to me it just didn't seem like it could be the Who without him. Then Entwistle blew his heart out with cocaine, and I figured that was it, they were done. I would never go see Townshend and Daltrey - I called them the "Who's Left".

But when my 16 year old son told me about the VH-1 Rock Honors the Who concert at UCLA Pauley Pavilion in June 2008 and asked if I wanted to go, what could I say? My son wants to see the Who? I can't pass that up. And it sounded cool, a bunch of bands playing Who covers followed by a set from the Who. The good seats were $500, but I got a couple of nosebleeds at $25 and we went.

Through a couple of lucky breaks, we were able to "trade up" our seats and we moved from the second-to-last row, where you really could just about touch the ceiling of the basketball arena, down to seats 20 rows from the stage on the right. The first half of the show was fun but not really great - Foo Fighters did a decent job with Young Man Blues, Incubus played a nice set. But the Flaming Lips were terrible - I mean, if you are going to play a medley from Tommy for a live and TV audience, you don't have time to learn the words and chords? And Jack Black singing? Yeah, I get it, he loves the Who but so do I and I'm not up there embarrassing myself. Give me a break. But an amazing rock and roll moment was yet to come.

We got to our good seats just in time to see Sean Penn introduce (with a snarky swipe at MTV) Pearl Jam. And oh-my-god they were amazing. You can see it here and please do! Eddie Vedder made the entire audience feel like he was born and lived his entire life just to perform "Love Reign O'er Me" and "The Real Me" from Quadrophenia. This was true, transcendent, ecstatic rock and roll. My son and I were transfixed and transformed by two songs that seemed to last forever and be over in a moment. This was everything that was great about The Who, and Rock and Roll, and Pearl Jam, all in 9 minutes. I've had a few amazing concert experiences, and this was certainly one of them.

At the end of "The Real Me", Pearl Jam's guitarist tossed his Les Paul in the air and let it fall to the floor. It seemed totally appropriate, spontaneous, real. I saw in the YouTube comments some complaints about destroying a beautiful guitar. C'mon, this was a WHO tribute - someone had to do it, and Pearl Jam earned the right. Yeah it was sad and painful and violent. I loved it.

And then... The Who... Pete Townshend looked like an old college math professor, Daltrey like a botoxed tennis instructor trying to look under 40 so he could try to pick up college girls. Townshend was grumpy and angry and really, kind of cool. At one point he stopped a song in the middle, cursing and stomping about the sound, and started over. It wasn't great rock and roll, but it was fun, and Townshend played pretty damn well, a lot better than at the Super Bowl this year.

Sometimes the best rock moments come at 2 in the morning at a club with a band that you've never heard of and never will hear of again. Sometimes it's just a lick or a scream or the way the drum and the bass get in the pocket and drive the beat. It's almost never where you expect it.

When I heard the Daltrey sing "hope I did before I get old" in 2008, it didn't seem ironic; it seemed like a desperate plea to the rock gods that he could still bring it, that he could still rock. And there were moments when they still could. And when they sang "nobody bites back as hard on his anger", I could feel the anger and the pain and the frustration that Townshend expressed so well when he was 20 - and he's still sad and angry and frustrated, just a different set of frustrations. I'm glad I saw them.

But Pearl Jam - that was Rock. I wish they could play the Super Bowl now, not in 2035...

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