A Sad Night in Brooklyn

I’ve been affected in many ways by the thousand-plus rock concerts I’ve attended over the years. Not all of my reactions have been pleasant, and some have strayed mightily from what I took to be the artist’s likely intentions. So when I say that Wednesday night’s performance of Quadrophenia by the Townshend-Daltrey band was the saddest concert I’ve ever seen, you will be sorely tempted — but wrong — to hear the sound of yet another diehard Who traditionalist disappointed at the sight of two men nearing 70, pounding stages like superannuated clowns. I won’t deny the element of truth in that, but that was not, in fact, the source of my sadness. Nor was it the transubstantiation of Quadrophenia to a formalized stage presentation as another outgrowth of Townshend’s abiding and to me inexplicable enthusiasm for the rock-negating artifice of musical theater. It wasn’t bad, just a little smooth around the edges.

No matter how hard they try, and how capable they remain of making a competent noise, all of rock’s surviving dinosaurs are, ultimately, ghostly simulations, cover bands and nostalgic flag-carriers attempting to negate the reality of les temps perdu. Obliged by fate to carry on with only two of the four irreplaceable cornerstones of their band, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey have chosen — as have the Beach Boys and Queen — to bring their fallen colleagues back to life onstage, using films to put Keith Moon and John Entwistle literally back in the mix. It crossed my mind, watching this quixotic revival of Quadrophenia, that when the Who first attempted to play the album live, nearly 40 years ago, they could barely coordinate themselves — through Keith Moon’s gaffer-taped headphones — with the analog audio tapes Bob Pridden was cuing up to reproduce the synths, ambient sounds and horns of the studio album. Now they can throw up a video clip and synch so seamlessly to it in real time that the idea of artificial A/V rock – a full band of filmed images — seems thoroughly within reach.

But that was just the start of my dolorousness. Moon was the first, and to date close to the only, rock star whose death left me bereft. I have never forgotten the shocking morning call from my London journalist friend Pete Silverton informing me of the news. The other night, the sight of Keith grandly declaiming his part of “Bell Boy” through a toothy grin, took me right back to that miserable moment in 1978. So did the amazing Zak Starkey, who — from the day in 1996 that he began repairing the damage of Pete’s short-sighted selection of Kenney Jones — has reliably made himself the second best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world. His playing, while paradoxically controlled in its credible replication of Moon’s dizzying chaos, makes Moon’s absence even more pungent: you don’t need to remember or imagine what’s missing, Zak makes it manifest.

The tribute to Entwistle, whose death a decade ago led Pete to make the most hideous and indefensible decision of his professional existence, was even more ambitious and effective. During “5:15,” an old clip that isolated both the sight and sound of his bass playing on the song, went up on the video monitors, but it took me a moment to realize that Pino Palladino had stopped playing and had been supplanted, temporarily, by the audio from Entwistle’s dazzling demonstration of electric bass technique from the afterlife, trailed gamely in this world by Zak.

Entwistle was always the oddest man out in the Who, the one who relied the least on Townshend’s creativity. In the film, playing “5:15,” John is entirely in his own world, entertaining himself with what looks convincingly like “I wonder what it would sound like if I tried this” excursions that stray miles from anything that could be mistaken for a standard bass accompaniment to a song (yet which, in the band dynamic, always filled that role completely). His own songs likewise had nothing in common with Pete’s, but provided a distinct, and again strangely complementary, component to the Who catalog. His death destroyed the Who’s musical underpinning forever, but did less damage to its soul and spirit than Moon’s departure did.

But John was too dry and sardonic a character for real sadness. No, seeing him scattering notes like marbles didn’t push me to tears. What did that, and left me shaking in my seat, arrived out of the baffling blue: a newsreel recap of the world’s post-World War 2 tragedies to accompany Quadrophenia‘s penultimate track, the rousing but ruminative instrumental “The Rock.” Whatever part of the Jimmy-goes-to-Brighton narrative it was meant to convey (and, while I do get that he ends up stranded on a rock in the ocean, I hereby admit that, despite its strained explication in songs, pictures and booklet text, I have never fully understood — or actually given a shit about — the album’s plot), I don’t see how the murder of John Lennon, the election of George Bush and the destruction of the World Trade Center fits in with that. So, while it felt wholly unnecessary to be reminded — while a skilled group of musicians, including Pete’s capable kid brother Simon, provided a soundtrack — just how much suffering, injustice, destruction and fear we baby boomers have lived through in our long lives, it was no less effective for being utterly gratuitous. My sensitive wife and her callous husband wept openly.

For a band that started out to create the future, the Who has always had a soft spot for its past. When it was released in 1973, Quadrophenia offered the band’s real fans (not the Tommy the Who crowd, or the Teenage Wasteland doofi) a secret handshake. The Who acknowledged that they knew what we knew, that we would understand the references to zoot suits, faces, numbers (high and otherwise), would hear the faint strains of “Kids Are Alright,” would care about the band’s four personae. The Who relied on us to bear witness to the validity of their journey through the past. The Who were never really mods, but that was the shared understanding of who they wanted us to think they were in 1966, and it was an illusion worth preserving.

I’ve been reading Pete’s book. It’s kind of what I expected, only a lot more so, a rough mix of arrogance, self-loathing, self-righteousness, revelations, insights, blind spots and dubiously credible delusions. But it provides excellent contextual preparation for seeing him perform. I recommend it for that if nothing else.

A couple of hundred pages in, I no longer believe, as I once did, that he and his audience have much common ground. I thought the Who and its fans were joined through the band’s music; certainly the adolescent angst he put in the band’s records found ready receptors among the angsty adolescents who bought them. But was that a real connection? From my reading, what mattered to the writer of Who I Am is nothing like what mattered to his fans. I wanted the Who’s music to rip me apart; he needed it to make himself whole. No doubt he is knowledgeable about and sympathetic to fans (and the critics he engaged): many of us cherish handwritten letters from him that read like a concerned friend, not a high and mighty celebrity doing mandatory goodwill for the peons. But a king and his subjects will always be divided by a moat.

Once you’ve swallowed the ocean of doubt, self-consciousness, guilt, grandiosity and genuine creative effort spewed in the book, nothing that Townshend does onstage feels simple or obvious. It’s like suddenly noticing the strings and realizing that the arm motions do not begin with the puppet but are the result of more complicated planning and intentions. I don’t mean to suggest that I underestimated Pete all these years, that everything he does onstage is premeditated or that the forces that guide him in any way lack artistic legitimacy, but it’s a bracing realization to see, with a tiny bit of insight, the gears turning behind the shades. It’s also unsettling to learn how much human desperation can be covered by the confident armor of stardom.

Townshend, as Robert Christgau noted recently in the New York Times Book Review, is one of rock’s most voluble, articulate and intellectual figures, but those of us who’ve followed him closely over the years know well how maddeningly inconsistent (when not downright contradictory) he can be. So I am reading the book with a large bottle of sodium chloride, knowing how differently he’s portrayed some of the topics in it before. I have to believe that even his most abject self-excoriation may be colored more by self-image than self-awareness. (Other than that, I’ll keep my unsubstantiable theories about his psyche to myself.)

That leaves Roger. Rock’s most valiant crusader, a commoner who sings his exalted partner’s creations with even more conviction than their author can manage, is unique among his kind. Maturity softened the atavistic rough boy who gave the young Who its surprising hardness; time erased the preening bravado that suited the golden god of Woodstock. What remains is, I’d wager, who he always was: a true self-believer, a confident but humble man who knows himself and knows his place. He is a man for whom stardom was never the goal, but rather the agency to grant him the role he prizes, a proud teller of musical tales. No one ever believed in Tommy the way Roger did (especially after playing the title role in Ken Russell’s appalling masterpiece), and he has carried that ferocious sincerity ever since, fulfilling the awkward mission of embodying Townshend’s highly personal lyrics as manfully as his aging voice and body will allow. I have always imagined his subordinate’s role a poignant place to inhabit. With the inevitable melodic revisions to avoid the unreachable, what I think were new delegation of vocal parts to Pete (and, in the case of “The Dirty Jobs,” to Simon) and a couple of painful weak spots, Roger acquitted himself decently, certainly better than I’ve heard him do at other times. For his part, Pete – whose high, sweet voice, never the equal of Roger’s roar but always its vulnerable companion — sang with a disturbing growl. Not a ruined Bob Dylan rasp, but an affect he has employed in the past to indicate extra emotional thrust. He should have done it a lot less.

For the finale, after a half-hour of what currently passes for the Who’s greatest hits (“Who Are You,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” a desultory “Pinball Wizard,” a colorfully illustrated “Baba O’Riley,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” with bonus guitar jizz), the sidemen departed for the night, Pete provided shapeless accompaniment on acoustic guitar as Roger hoisted a mug and crooned “Tea and Theatre.” This wet and tepid (note the clever tea metaphors?) curtain-dropper from 2006’s Endless Wire album reads like a fraternal declaration of endurance but, in the wake of the show’s occasional flashes of excitement and real energy, felt more like a defeated fade. “All of us sad, all of us free, before we walk from the stage, two of us, will you have some tea?” At the end, Roger wiped away a tear and seemed a little undone as he thanked the crowd.

Tender, sure, but a far cry from what initially sold me on the Who: the slashing jabs of Pete’s guitar chords, echoed in Roger’s “My Generation” stammer and Keith’s explosive barrages. A lot of guitarists played hard and loud in those days, but few thought to complete the punctuation by silencing the strings just as forcefully.

(Oddly, I have no reliable recollection of my first introduction to the band’s music, which must have come in 1967, the year of The Who Sell Out. I do remember demonstrating air-guitar windmills to a girl I liked on the street in front of the apartment building we had recently moved to. What an idiot I was at 13. I saw them on The Smothers Brothers TV show that same year; by the time I attended a screening of the Monterey Pop film late in 1968, I had already seen them in the flesh at the Singer Bowl, opening for the Doors.)

The Who were in their prime when I saw them at the Fillmore in 1969. They made an enveloping storm of omnidirectional sound. The stuttering torture of Pete’s pickup switch and the sweeping majesty of his windmilled chords, synched and strengthened by Moon’s cymbal crashes and the merciless amplification (in those days, Pete controlled his guitar volume by turning on or off one or more of the three stacked amp heads onstage behind him), made me feel like the machine-gunned bodies in Bonnie and Clyde. The music punched, kicked and shook me, an invisible ballet of noise and aggression, and I loved it the way drug-users must relish relinquishing their senses and ceding control to unseen forces.

The Pete and Rog show, needless to say, didn’t do any of that. Who concerts stopped having that effect after Keith died, and I don’t believe anyone, including my trusted friends, who says otherwise. Townshend hasn’t left behind any serious portion of his instrumental skill or style, but at those rare moments when his excitement neared the possibility of liftoff, the loss of control which could carry him – and us — away, even for a minute, he pulled back, and resumed his dutiful role in the 10-man ensemble.

That, more than anything, divides this company from the four desperate young men who opened a world of possibilities for the teenaged me. First they gave me what I needed, then proved, by their onstage quest for what lay beyond what they already knew, that they didn’t have all the answers, either. Age has changed both participants in that exchange, but I suspect we’ve learned very different things along the way.

Quadrophenia hasn’t aged all that well — I hate to say it, but the Who really was a singles band. The intricacy of the music, using repeated motifs within divergent styles and complex arrangements, remains sterling proof of Pete’s artistic command, but I don’t think of listening to it as fun in the way The Who Sell Out and Happy Jack are. (Actually, let me reconsider that: I’m playing the album for the first time in years right now, and it’s definitely tighter, tougher and more stirring than the concert was.)

A masterful work that holds together as more than a collection of songs for 80 minutes on record (despite the absence of any between-song patter, and with only a few extended instrumental sections, including a bit of jazzy piano toodling to introduce “Love Reign O’er Me,” it took about 10 minutes longer than the record to play), Quadrophenia is well-suited to performance in toto by a company assembled for that purpose. When the Who first played Quadrophenia, which Townshend created expressly to put a fork in Tommy as the central attraction of their set, the vagueness of the plot, compounded by American unfamiliarity with the cultural milieu and era being limned, led Roger to futilely try and explain it to uncomprehending and impatient Who’s Next audiences. Songs were cut until the glorious goal of presenting a complete song cycle was reduced to just the rock tunes that went down well. Hence this tour is a vindication, proof that it can be – and could have been – done successfully with the right preparation and equipment. All the same, it’s a curious undertaking to revive a 40-year-old record focused on an earlier decade as a way of reinvigorating a band nearing the end of its practicable existence.

Jolly thoughts. So, one is obliged to ask, was the show any good?

In the realm of 21st century high-stakes concertizing, this was an ambitious and accomplished presentation. The lights, video and sound were all first-rate. I don’t go to a lot of arena shows any more, but I can safely assure you it was a lot more fun than Aerosmith. Or my most recent Stones experience (which, admittedly, was in a previous century). I doubt Train or Nickelback could mount anything that would deserve to be removed from the sole of Pete’s shoe. But that’s hardly the point, now is it? 

To their eternal credit, the Who set an impossible live standard, one they could not indefinitely maintain and which will forever be held against them. While others have brushed against such bewildering power (the Clash and the Replacements, to name two strong contenders), it has been a very long time – understandably, for all the obvious reasons — since the Who have had a shot, or possibly even a desire, to reach for the chaotic perfection of their youth.

At their best, the Who were an all-things-possible careening behemoth with a one-mind center of gravity that pounded out beauty, improvised astonishing digressions on the spot as if guided by an outside force and made music that was not just loud but huge and imposing, with emotional components and an undercurrent of frustration and rage that threatened violence at every broken string or sputtering amplifier. Pete understandably writes about guitar smashing with the disgust of an artist being ordered about by a selfish, demanding audience. But to witness a musician — balled into a frenzy of tension, incensed at the elusive perfection of his vast dreams, reaching the climax of his ear-splitting exertions — suddenly letting it all go with the sacrifice of his primary tool of creation was to be swept into the moment, into the band, into Pete’s head. Fuck the art-nonsense theories of Gustav Metzger, whatever they were: in totaling those Ricks, Strats, SGs and Pauls, Pete was showing us how to push back, how to set yourself free, how to do the unthinkable for all the unspoken but clearly understood reasons. While the Who played no real political role in the ‘60s (unless you count Pete clocking that imbecile Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock), those of us undaunted by the idea of violent rebellion saw what we needed in those splendid splinters. While John Lennon was content to say “count me out,” Pete Townshend smashed his way in. We all wished we could get worked up enough, and have the guts to follow suit, without worrying about the results. Rate it fraudulent sensationalism if you must, an expensive form of crass stagecraft — to me it was a most satisfying reward, far beyond anything ordinary groups (read that with a sneer) could deliver. Smashing guitars was absolutely not the thing that made the Who great, but it was emblematic of why loving this particular group at that particular time mattered so much. 

So, no, there was no reason to expect a transcendent rock experience from these well-traveled veterans and their skilled accompanists. There’s no shame in that. No one is at fault for growing old or losing their loved ones, and even elder statesmen are entitled to ply their trade if they still care to. I don’t need to go again, and I fear that some of my fellow audience members may have been too strongly influenced by the idea of seeing a “legend,” or what’s left of it, in the flesh. (Chuck Berry is a god among rock and rollers, and I hope he lives to be 200, but you couldn’t pay me to see him kick the gong around one more time in this neck of the woods. Same goes for Rolling Stones.)

There was a moment early in the set when I found myself focused on the cool band footage playing on the video screens and realized that the musicians onstage were being upstaged by black & white images of their younger selves. It also got me thinking about bands who haven’t given much away over long careers — Cheap Trick and the Dictators both held on to their high-octane vigor and natural gifts for a long time; Neil Young may be the only rocker to actually reverse the process — but let’s be honest, none of them was ever the Who.

So if the show couldn’t have been great, and it wasn’t in any real sense, then what was it? It’s not fair to say they were OK and leave it at that. That’s not a cultural transaction I can abide with a group that meant so much to me for so long. I won’t condescend to idols by allowing them to be unspectacular and pretending it’s all the same because, after all, we’re all getting on in years. For all his sophisticated pretensions, the balding English gentleman — who at the height of his tinnitus concerns all but de-bollocked the Who as a live band so that the stage volume wouldn’t cause him pain – still seemed to find some joy in making a big noise and breaking a healthy sweat while doing it. No, I won’t make excuses and lie to myself about what I saw. It was fine. They played the songs well, and showed some genuine enthusiasm. But it wasn’t great in any sense. It didn’t generate anywhere near the level of emotional response I need from art that moves me. I have seen concerts that I consider great art, and this wasn’t one of them. Nor do we have any reason to imagine it should have been. Let’s leave it at that.

I used to get good and indignant at concerts that didn’t cut it; I no longer feel that investment. My high horse has trotted off into the forest. I didn’t go to the Barclay Center to be rocked like a hurricane, I just wanted to be able to say that, for once in my life, I walked home from a Who concert. (Actually, that’s just a glib line I thought up as we were walking home from the Who concert.)

I went to see how some old friends were faring. Like a long-ago girlfriend with new kids and none of the old spark. Just checking. If Pete and Roger felt obliged to take Quadrophenia on the road to celebrate the 30th anniversary of what, back then, was already a belated farewell tour, and bring it to Brooklyn of all places, the least I could do was show up and gauge the results. I have. No joy, no embarrassment. Just a sorrowful set of memories.

I’m not blaming anyone for a show that was just OK, with a few moments that were better than that. Personally, I would have died and gone to heaven were this assortment of players somehow able to recreate even half of what I remember of the Who. I may not be a kid anymore, but I’m not afraid of being devastated by a rock concert: I would welcome it. (You know who put the old band together and revved it back up to 11, erasing a quarter-century of dwindling? Roxy Music in 2001.) Granted, it’s easy to ignore advancing age when you’re not the one playing a two-hour (to the second!) set in front of 20,000 people. But I am ready. Bowl me over. Knock me down. Just don’t make me sad.