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 on the Cotton Bowl stage 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 and tinnitus-impaired 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 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, the silent and brilliant Ox still content to take a back seat to the bully boys who every now and then set aside their differences for a few extra mil on the farewell circuit. 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. It's the New Who Revue, coming right at you.Good-bye, farewell, good riddance--even if the 1989 version of The Who seemed more lifelike than the dreary It's Hard (to listen to, that is) version that hit the road facedown in 1983; if the '83 show was a funeral, in '89 it was more like a wake. 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, Townshend's pretentious attempt to bring rock to the "respectable" audiences -- into a smash stage production, no better than Cats and no less difficult to follow, even if it did win him a Tony before a Grammy (still lacking one of those). Townshend's recording output post-Who amounted to a bunch of concept albums whose sole concept was that they suck (I defy you to find one die-hard Who fan who owns copies of both Iron Man and Psychoderelict), so he cashed in and sold out like the real pro he always threatened to become. Now, Pete's even got his own Web site, where he's selling bootleg boxed sets and books he got out of the warehouse; the man knows how to unload the past, 60 bucks at a time. And last we saw of Roger, he was on the Bronco Bowl stage singing with a second-rate symphony, turning into a parody in front of the faithful dozens who felt embarrassed.
Since the farewell tours didn't take, here's the latest hello tour: Four years after the band toured Quadrophenia in the arenas, sounding better than they had since planting Keith Moon in the ground, the band once more rolls through town, promoting an Internet-only live album (the double-disc The Blues to the Bush, available through musicmaker.com) and promising another studio album if they can come up with material worthy of inclusion (given the last 20 years, chances are their standards have slipped low enough to find room for just about anything when they begin recording at Entwistle's house next year). The live album's dud enough to lower expectations--Daltrey, for the first time on disc, sounds like a man fighting middle age--but canny enough to excite the die-hards about the opportunity to hear the golden oldies one more time. The current tour--featuring a stripped-down lineup for the first time in decades, meaning it's just Daltrey and Townshend and Entwistle and drummer Zak "Son of Ringo" Starkey and longtime keyboardist John "Rabbit" Bundrick--features a set list that dates back to the long-ago days when Mod was mod: "I Can't Explain," "Substitute," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "The Kids Are Alright," and, no duh, "My Generation." Never mind the obvious punch line (apparently, they now hope they die before they get really old), because there's little that can dissuade the nostalgia rapist deep inside anyone raised on classic-rock radio that hearing old men play old songs will be anything other than thrilling.
When Reunion Arena's corners and crannies fill up with the rumbles of "Baba O'Riley" or "Won't Get Fooled Again" or "The Real Me" (maybe the best of all Who songs), it will be hard to pretend these are just vestigial echoes. The albums will live forever (OK, some will live longer than most), but a concert, even one performed by graying foxes picking your pocket for $75-$150 seats, is where rock and roll like The Who's becomes visceral, tangible, even a little messy. It may never sound like Live at Leeds again--a hurricane rumbling through your bedroom--but that was a long time ago. The new Who's not the same as the old Who, but it's still The Who nonetheless, which counts for something. Actually, about the time they get to "5:15" or some deep cut (recent shows have included the British-only single "I Don't Know Myself"), it may count for everything.
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