No, I'm not talking about my poker career, though that's probably on advanced life support at the moment. No, I'm talking about musical acts, in particular my favorite one, The Who.
Last night's performance at the Super Bowl was just flat out embarrassing. The performance wasn't bad as taken by itself. It was just that they are so clearly a pale version of their former greatness that seeing them whore themselves out with a medley was cringe inducing. Medleys are the musical equivalent of a tv show's highlights episode where, instead of producing another show, they cobble together clips from past shows as if to say, "look how great we can be". Yes, you *can* be great, but you're not now. If you were, you wouldn't be doing a clip show, or a medley. Roger Daltrey can't hit the notes or the primal screams that made his voice legendary. Pete Townshend, while still a great guitarist, looks like an old man trying to regain his former youth when his shirt comes undone and his 64 year old belly comes flying out during his windmill strumming. And the other two are dead; Keith Moon at age 32 from a prescription drug overdose and John Entwhistle at 57 from a non-prescription drug overdose. Hey, I want to make a buck just like the next guy, but at least have the artistic integrity to know when enough is enough. Prince, who's been a major recording artist since right around the time Keith Moon kicked it, absolutely KILLED at his Superbowl half time show. The Who only killed their image. Even The Rolling Stones have taken it easy, and they still have the chops to perform at a high level, I think. I'll never know because I don't think Mick Jagger would sully his reputation by playing at a gig where he wasn't giving 110% or more.
Understand that The Who is my absolute favorite band of all time. I've seen The Who in 3 live concerts in my lifetime and the first two shows were amazing. The first was The Who performing at Giants Stadium in 1990. They did the entire 'Tommy' album from start to finish and then took a 15 minute break. I thought the concert was over, but then they came back and did a 2 1/2 hour Greatest Hits set. The power, precision and musicianship on display were mind-blowing. There did a cover of "I'm a Man" by Bo Diddley in which Daltrey got the entire audience to do a primal scream in unison. It was incredible and the live version made it onto the '30 Years of Maximum R&B' box set.
The next time I saw them was in the mid '90's when they toured behind 'Quadrophenia'. I saw it in Madison Square Garden and when the band started up '5:15', the lights flashed to fill up the audience and 40,000 people screamed out the song. It was another very powerful performance and they rocked harder than any metal band I'd ever seen.
The 3rd time I saw them was a few years ago to promote their first studio album in 15 or so years, 'Endless Wire'. What a difference a decade made! Daltrey came out and performed the entire set with a cup of tea in his hand! No joke. The songs just weren't as powerful as the old ones, which is ok because old men shouldn't be angry and rock hard. They can't write that stuff (unless they're Neil Young). The songs were softer and more wistful and I was OK with that. But when the inevitable old songs came around on the set list, Daltrey wouldn't put that damn cup of tea down and he looked exactly like what he sounded like; a grandfather singing 40 year old songs that he can't quite sing anymore. Townshends old man jowls were on prominent display and I felt sad for them a little bit. The only thing making the concert memorable was the fact that I saw it in a private box in MSG, with $150 bottles of wine and gourmet steak for dinner.
As far as the big 60's bands are concerned, there has always, in my mind, been the big 4. Most people will list 3, but I will include one more because it's my mind, not the popular thought. My four "big" bands of the 60's are: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Beach Boys. I bet you thought I was going to say The Doors, right? I fucking hate The Doors. All 4 of those bands solidify something in the emergence of popular rock music. The Beatles were the songwriters, by far the best at it and possibly the best writers of popular music in the history of music. The Rolling Stones were the bad boys. They were genuinely dangerous and wrote about straight up sex, drugs and rock n' roll. When others tried to tiptoe around the subject, the Stones were writing about worshipping Satan, feeding drugs to your mother and starting revolutions. The Beach Boys were the artistes and recording geniuses. They propelled the medium by expanding the palette and experimenting with new techniques, electronic and musical. Their harmonies were unconventional, their sound was unheard of and they pushed everyone else to keep up. The who were the virtuosos. They were the best at their instruments among all the groups and their chemistry was sonically powerful. Roger Daltrey is the best vocalist of his generation, Townshend the best rhythm guitarist, Moon the best drummer (by FAR) and Entwhistle the most entertaining and propulsive bassist. Each one of them would have been the star in whatever band they had joined, like Clapton was when he joined John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, but the combination of them together was unstoppable. It was pure luck that Townshend proved to be a good enough songwriter to showcase their talents.
Even early on, songs like 'My Generation', 'The Kids Are Alright', 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere', and 'A Legal Matter' had a fierce urgency that heralded the beginnings of heavy metal, punk, power pop and any other genre featuring overdriven guitars, howling vocals and the "fuck you" attitude that makes popular music relevant to any time. As they got just a little older, Townshends songwriting pretensions took the band out of purely performance and into the realm of performance art. At this point, right around the album 'The Who Sell Out' (a completely ironic title), the band started to slip away from the safe road of greatness and trod instead on an uncharted path. They were equally great, but more divisive. By starting to put out themed material with songs that connected through a central storyline, they risked alienating their teen audiences. Some of their projects were enormous successes, like 'Tommy', others were great albums but not as good as a rock opera ('Quadrophenia') and one was a complete failure as a storyline but still became arguably their best album ('Lifehouse' which ended up becoming 'Who's Next'). Instead of concentrating on discrete constructions of pop music like their other colleagues, The Who went down the road of telling stories. That's ambitious, but dangerous. If the critics and audience don't like the story, do they pay attention to the chapters?
But the band rode through the tumult and uncertainty and produced some of the best musical moments since Elvis sang 'Hound Dog'. There was the Woodstock performance where Pete Townshend threw Abbie Hoffman off the stage after Hoffman rushed up in the middle of the set, high on LSD, to publicize the plight of John Sinclair, who had been given a 10 year jail sentence for giving (not selling) two joints to an undercover cop. Hoffman, upset at the hypocrisy of the suburban Woodstock crowd getting high and apathetic, grabbed the mic from Townshend and yelled, "I think this is a pile of shit, while John Sinclair rots in prison!" Townshend, who was there to play music and couldn't give a shit about politics, hit Hoffman in the head with the business end of his guitar and ran him off the stage yelling, "Fuck off my fucking stage!" This was a band of hooligans.
There was the time when they were performing on the 'Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour' TV show, in 1967, when Keith Moon had explosives packed into his drum kit. The Who was known for destroying their equipment after each gig and they were certainly going to do it on live TV. But Moon, ever the impish joker, decided to pack an extra punch. When the explosion destroyed his drum kit, even Moon was surprised by how intense it was and he ended up with a jagged piece of metal cymbal embedded in his arm.
And if you've ever heard the album 'Live at Leeds', considered by many rock critics to be the best live album ever recorded, there is no way you can listen to 'Shakin' All Over' and not feel the intensity of the performance. You feel like you're in the audience on that record, like you're swimming amidst a sea of college students who are drunk or high, or both, and are letting the waves of sound overload their ears like the drugs are overloading their brain. Just going numb and letting it all wash over you and hoping you can take something out of it when it's all over and there's nothing left but an empty echoing hall and paper cups strewn over the floor.
And what about Daltrey's soul scream at the break in 'Won't Get Fooled Again'? Or Entwhistle's bass, in nearly every song, which jumps and slithers like a cat in a barrel that you're throwing firecrackers into? And how about Townshend's impossibly simple, yet mysteriously complicated, power chord rhythms? And Moon's rattling drum fills which never seem to be in time and yet somehow always hit the cymbal on the downbeat?
Is there any band who was better at playing than The Who? Which is why their Superbowl performance is so upsetting. It's one thing to bring out a mediocre act who are still mediocre. I saw Crowded House perform 'Don't Dream It's Over' a few years ago at the Austin City Limits festival and it wasn't sad at all. They did a serviceable enough version of the only song that ever made it big in the U.S. That's all Crowded House ever was or will ever be. But watching Townshend and Daltrey pimp out their legacy in front of a billion viewers is like seeing an inebriated Salvador Dali scratching out a living in his elder years by drawing clown carciatures at bar mitzvahs.