Yesterday and Today

What the years have done to the Who.

Then: I first saw the Who in 1979, when I was in high school. Drummer Keith Moon had died the year before--in an unintended satire of the kick-the-habit movement, he overdosed on medication designed to help him kick his alcohol addiction. But rather than putting a knife to the band, core members Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle added drummer Kenny Jones, late of the Faces, and keyboard player John "Rabbit" Bundrick to the lineup and announced a tour that was meant to re-establish the act's vitality. In order to ensure myself a seat for the group's show at McNichols Arena, I drove from my hometown, Grand Junction, to Boulder with three friends on the eve of the date when tickets were scheduled to go on sale. We spent the night on the floor outside the ticket office in the student center at the University of Colorado in order to be among the first to purchase seats --but when we got our chance the next morning, the only tickets left were stamped "obstructed view." We didn't mind. We bought them anyhow.

Now: The Who's last major tour took place in 1982, following the release of the mistitled platter It's Hard. Because it was advertised as a farewell trek and carried a high-profile sponsorship from Schlitz beer, perhaps the most repulsive beverage ever concocted, critics called foul--and they were right to do so. Such greedy behavior would have been expected from most pop outfits, but not from the Who, a unit renowned for its insistence on integrity and artistic credibility. This unparalleled money grab sullied the reputation of the participants, sending a great band out on a sour note.

Given the sense of distrust the excursion engendered, it was no surprise when Town-shend, Daltrey and Entwistle reunited earlier this year for a performance of material from the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia that was taped for cable television. Nor were observers startled when the threesome decided to take the show on the road. What was unanticipated, though, were the soft sales for the October 29 McNichols Arena stopover, underwritten by local radio outlet KKHK-FM/99.5 (the Hawk). Despite a constant stream of hype from the station and a raft of television ads, the date was notably short of a sellout. If you had a spare $70 or so lying around, you could have purchased a seat the night of the show. No sleeping on floors required.

Then: I don't have a vivid memory of what my buddies and I did prior to the 1979 concert--which undoubtedly means we were drinking. This was near the end of my hard-liquor period, so I imagine we conned some older delinquent into purchasing for us bottles of Seagram's and Cutty Sark whiskey that we later mixed inside half-drained cans of 7-Up or Coke. (That way, it tasted great going down and coming back up.) I remember the crowd as roughly split between youngsters of my vintage and folks between their mid-twenties and mid-thirties. Most of those in the latter category were rock veterans, with yards of flowing hair and Who, Zeppelin or Sabbath T-shirts stretched across their burly frames. They could have crushed me like a cricket had they been so inclined.

Now: The young people at this year's concert were really young--mostly elementary-schoolers on a night out with Dad. Otherwise, the crowd was overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly middle-aged, overwhelmingly white-collar and (yes) overwhelmingly white. As befits this demographic, my wife and I overheard several different clusters of people discussing the city's finest restaurants. Later, a guy behind me mentioned Pantera--and thinking he was talking about the extremely abrasive band of the same name, my ears perked up. I soon discovered, however, that he was discussing a make of sports car. He subsequently noted his fondness for Jethro Tull while describing a woman of his acquaintance as "thick as a brick."

Then: I'll bet there was an opening act on the 1979 bill, but I don't recall it. Must've sucked.

Now: A conglomeration called the Hypocrites went on before the Who this time around. By next week, I won't remember a thing about them other than that they definitely sucked. A month down the line, even that observation will have slipped my mind.

Then: The obstructed-view seats, located on the right side of the arena, didn't turn out to be too bad; the only person we couldn't see well (due to a hanging speaker) was keyboardist Bundrick--hardly the most scintillating visual presence in the room. Jones wasn't much to look at, either: A workmanlike timekeeper, he did his job efficiently and without much fuss. But the rest of the musicians, who hit the stage with a thrillingly deafening crash, more than made up for these deficiencies. Entwistle didn't appear to be doing much, but his presence was magnetic nonetheless. His bass lines were prominent, fluid, elastic and thoroughly impressive. As for Daltrey, he looked every inch the Dionysian music god, thanks to his tumbling locks, broad chest and impossibly tight trousers. His throaty roar of a voice easily trebled the considerable ferocity it displayed on vinyl, and his skill at twirling microphones was positively astounding. At times, he let out so much of the mike's chord that the device came within inches of his fellow musicians. The suspense, as a result, was terrific. Townshend, meanwhile, seemed every bit as feverish and aggressive as he'd appeared in the films I'd seen of his Sixties and early-Seventies performances. If time had taken a toll on his wild guitar chording, spontaneous vocalizing and general sense of intensity, I didn't perceive it.

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