Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Who

Tommy Artwork autographed
 by Daltrey
It all happened between 1969 and 1971 for me. Tommy, Woodstock, Live at Leeds, Meaty, Beaty Big And Bouncy and Who’s Next. What a 3 three year run for any band. Starting with Tommy-the first rock opera. Big, bold, pretentious, full of incredible music. As an eleven-year-old I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but it sure seemed like Pete Townshend was the most ambitious, thoughtful guy in rock. Seeing Woodstock in the theatre was a formative experience in a number of ways, but The Who proved to be the most electrifying part of the movie for me. Townshend’s true-believer energy was just off the hook, John Entwhistle’s stoic reserve and lightning bass runs were the definition of cool, Keith Moon’s manic energy was thrilling and Roger Daltrey’s washboard stomach, golden locks and crystal blue eyes were all things I would never have, but badly wanted. Their music was thrilling and energetic, their lyrics were thought-provoking and searching and physically they were unbeatable. They were the distilled, idealized perfection of the pre-teen “me.” The scared me that I was, and the brash me that I wanted to be.

They followed up Woodstock with Live at Leeds a live set just as incendiary as Woodstock but all housed in an incredible gatefold sleeve filled with pictures, posters and paperwork-a pirate’s ransom of clues to who these guys were. I obsessed over that album like few others. The poster and pictures adorned my walls, I memorized every detail of the contracts and memos, and the songs lived on my turntable non-stop. Their version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” was a pounding masterpiece. Shit, the whole album rocked like nothing I’d ever heard. The long, jammed-out “My Generation” that anchored side two covered so much ground. I wanted to see this band live (it wouldn’t happen until Keith Moon’s final tour in 1975-but well worth the wait).

When The Who By Numbers was released in 1975, Budget Tapes and Records on Colorado Boulevard ran a promotion whereby you could color in a copy of the cover and enter it into a contest. For some reason, I never turned it in, and kept it all these years. Years later, when I got a promotional poster that advertised the very same promotion, I framed it along with my colored-in entry.

For my 12th birthday, my brother gave me Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, a collection of their early singles, and again the wonderful music within was more than matched by the incredible cover. Showing a group of English youth hanging out on a grimy stoop with the adult Who wistfully looking at them out a window, you turned it over and they had morphed into the adult band on the stoop, looking cooler than you can imagine, with the kids now looking out the window. It spoke to both the youth and the young man in me. It remains one of my favorite album covers.

Pete Townshend at Denver’s Mammoth Gardens (now the Fillmore) 1969.
Photo by the great Denver rock photographer Dan Fong

The final piece of my obsession came into view as four English millionaires pissed on a stone monolith on the cover of their masterpiece Who’s Next. It still remains one of the most mature and far-reaching albums of the era. When they sang “Black ash from the foundry/hangs like a hood, But the air is perfumed by the burning fire wood” on Love Ain’t For Keeping I understood that rock lyrics could reach for more than a teenage crush-this was poetry.

Pete Townshend in Chicago 1969-Giant reproduction hanging in Twist and Shout-also taken by Dan Fong

Pete Townshend remains the gold-standard of thoughtful rock stars. He has publicly struggled with the meaning of rock and roll to a functioning adult. He continued to search, but never quite matched that magic period at the dawn of a new decade when he and his band flew the flag for rock music that spoke to the brain as much as the hips.

Paul Epstein

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