Yesterday and Today

What the years have done to the Who.

Now: Hooray--my seat allowed me to see Rabbit Bundrick (as forgettable-looking a fellow as any who have trod the earth). Also before me were three video screens, a five-piece horn section, a percussionist surrounded by various gongs and chimes, a synthesist, singer-guitarist Simon "Younger Brother of Pete" Townshend and drummer Zak Starkey, who resembles Ewan McGregor, the star of Trainspotting, far more than he does his famous father (Ringo Starr). Townshend, for his part, didn't even resemble himself: With his receding hairline, hangdog expression and ill-fitting suit, he could have passed for a temporary worker at H&R Block. Entwistle cut a slightly more interesting figure (with his red jacket and white beard, he looked like a somewhat dour Father Christmas), but in reality, only Daltrey seemed to have aged well. The way his jeans and workshirt fit implied that he's been spending his free time (of which he's had plenty) on Nautilus equipment--and this impression was only amplified when he stripped down to a muscle T-shirt. At the sight of his rippling musculature, three women behind me gasped in unison, "Oh, my God!"

It was impossible to know if Daltrey's voice was in the same kind of shape: From where I was sitting, his singing was consistently buried in the instrumentation, as was Entwistle's bass playing. Worse, the guitar playing of the elder Townshend, who stuck to an acoustic for most of the set, was mainly a musical non-factor--and Simon's standard-issue leads didn't make up for this absence. Twenty-three years ago, when Quadrophenia initially hit the streets, the notion of a Who concert in which guitars hardly mattered would have been absurd, but not today. That's progress, I guess.

Then: One day in 1985, six years after the Who show, I was working at a Tower Records branch located on Los Angeles's Sunset Strip when Billy Idol walked in the door. Tower types knew he was in town--we'd heard that this then-famous personage was holed up in a nearby West Hollywood hotel and was shagging all comers. (The grapevine also reported that a particularly friendly clerk at the store had given Billy a knob job in the Tower employee restroom--a claim that was unsubstantiated but easy to believe.) As the singer moved toward the rear of the store, I mentioned to a fellow staffer, a hazy-eyed, hey-dude type named Todd, that I found Idol to be among the more worthless and ludicrous figures on the pop-music scene. Todd nodded and disappeared, returning moments later with Idol in tow. "Billy, this is Mike," he said. "He's one of your biggest fans, and he really wanted to meet you, but he was just too shy to ask." Idol grinned pleasantly and extended his hand--and when I shook it, I discovered that it was damp. No, not just damp: It was oily, greasy, covered with a kind of viscous, possibly disease-carrying film that immediately attached itself to my skin and refused to let go. As soon as I could, I scurried to the employee restroom--yes, that restroom--and began vigorously washing my mitt. Weeks passed before it felt clean again.

Now: Unexpectedly, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Idol, one of the Quadrophenia tour's special guests, for the first time since that long-ago day. Clad in a shiny suit and sneering for all he was worth, he was obviously overjoyed to be in the spotlight before so many people. Whereas Daltrey was content to pose (and Entwistle and Townshend often seemed to disappear into the wallpaper), Idol actually seemed eager to put on a show. To look at him was to laugh, but that didn't bother Billy. For him, being seen was enough--and if that meant putting on bellboy duds later in the show and doing some of the worst acting this side of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, so be it. Gary Glitter, who was hauled out to warble "The Punk and the Godfather," exhibited a similar enthusiasm, but the sight of him was, quite frankly, disturbing. He looked like a cross between Louie Anderson and Divine--with a little Rip Taylor sprinkled on top for good measure.

Then: No particular theme dominated the Who's 1979 turn. The band played material from a variety of albums and periods--lots of Who's Next, of course, but also early hits (I seem to recollect "I Can See for Miles" and "Summertime Blues") and some tunes I didn't recognize; in all likelihood, they wound up on Face Dances, the Who disc released the following year. What held this disparate fodder together was passion. With Moon on a slab, the Who survivors had something to prove, and they went out of their way to do it. People prepared to write them off were forced to reconsider their preconceptions. There appeared to be a lot of life in the old band yet.

Now: On the surface, playing a full version of Quadrophenia was as good an excuse for a Who comeback tour as any. Although this so-called rock opera wasn't any great shakes in the dramatic department (it was built around a rather familiar coming-of-age story line), it contained plenty of good songs--including "The Real Me," "I'm One" and "Love, Reign O'er Me"--that haven't been pounded into the ground by classic-rock radio to the degree that the cuts on the aforementioned Who's Next have. It also had a theatrical shape that could be presented as an "event" to the folks who hadn't caught the stage version of Tommy on Broadway. History also lent a hand: Because the band's attempt to perform Quadrophenia at the time of its original release was a legendary catastrophe (due mainly to the difficulty of synchronizing live music with tapes of background parts), publicists could portray the jaunt not as an opportunity to fatten wallets, but as a chance for Townshend to present the work as he'd always dreamed.

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