By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Two years ago, they reunited for the final time, one more time, hauling out Quadrophenia for the arena circuit while digging up Gary Glitter and Billy Idol and Ringo's son Zak Starkey for a little jaunt down the greenback road. They stood on stage after stage in city after city and--gloriously! miraculously!--they were The Who once more, reunited 'cause it sounds so good 35 years after it all began in a small London club. There stood John Entwistle, the immovable ox with his white-man's funk and his stoic frown. Beside him was, as always, Pete Townshend, the respectable old man still aching to rock and roll despite his ringing ears. And there was Roger Daltrey, his hair still golden and his jacket still frilly and his voice still coming from his toes till it reverberated off the back of the stadium wall. Long live rock.
That they could still get it together and get it up after all those years was astonishing. The Who said good-bye in 1983, then again in 1989 with a stadium concert that barely escaped tarnishing the legend for good. There was Pete with his hand plastered and bandaged after having impaled himself on his guitar's whammy bar; most of the time he played acoustic anyway, the electric proving too painful for his near-deaf ears. There was Roger with his golden mane and fine-toned frame throwing his microphone into the air one more time, catching it as well as he should after decades of practice. There was John thumping and plucking and teasing his instrument as he had for so many unappreciated years as Rock and Roll's Best Bassist. And there were the dozens of extra musicians fleshing out the former quartet--two drummers to fill in for Keith Moon, all those goddamned horns and backup singers and other needless hacks turning what was once the world's greatest rock-and-roll band into the Late Show with David Letterman band.
Then came Tommy the Musical in London, New York, a dinner playhouse near you. Pete Townshend managed to turn The Who's worst album--an indecipherable parable about teen alienation, his pretentious attempt to bring rock to the "respectable" audiences--into a smash stage production, no better than Cats and just as difficult to follow. Townshend's recording output post-Who amounted to a bunch of concept albums whose sole concept was that they sucked, so he cashed in and sold out like the real pro he always threatened to be. Tommy on Ice premieres next year, doesn't it? No, wait--the stage production of Psychoderelict is next on his plate, that steaming pile of shit about an aging rock star who comes out of retirement to endure so much vilification at the hands of the media. Autobiography? You betcha.
And what about Roger? Was he much better? After all, in 1994, he assembled his own orchestra, signed on notable rock legends David Sanborn and Linda Perry, and hit the road on a tour called A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who; there's even a recorded document of it on some tiny label called Continuum Records--so much for MCA. It all seemed, of course, rather odd to find Daltrey making such a big stink about singing Townshend's songs--wasn't that, like, his whole career? Talk about having trouble reconciling your past and future. But how in the world could you accuse a band that titled its third album The Who Sell Out of, well, selling out?
"Americans never did understand irony," says Daltrey, who, once more, is on the road touring with an orchestra, singing Pete Townshend (and Beatles and Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and, gawd, Procol Harum) songs. That's right: While Entwistle's out there playing the clubs, having only just come through Caravan of Dreams, and Townshend's gearing up to play Woodstock once more on August 15 at the Day in the Garden festival, Daltrey's fronting the British Rock Symphony, a 75-piece orchestra performing 54 rock songs from the 1960s and '70s. And yes, even his closest friends want to know why in the hell he's doing it. But he has his reasons: There's the charity (VH1's Save the Music, which gives instruments to underprivileged children interested in music). There's the chance to perform with a bunch of young classically trained musicians who've never toured on such a grand scale. There's the opportunity to keep his voice in shape. And, well, there's the money.
"We came to America at the start of the hippie thing, and we found a lot of really rich people trying to pretend they were poor," Daltrey says. "And we were coming from post-war England, where we were all incredibly poor. We had just gotten rid of our ration books and couldn't believe what was going on over here, and all we wanted to do was be rich. We made no excuses about that, and no apologies. We wanted to be fair to our fans, fair to the people we worked with, but we wanted to be rich, and we wanted to be famous. If Americans could have understood what Europe was like after the war, I think they would have wanted the same things for themselves. In fact, I think most of them do and pretend they don't. They're the ones writing about how we sold out. How could we ever sell out? We were selling out from day one."