Aging rockers face a unique challenge, one to which the rest of us can only sort of relate: growing old with relevance under the cruel, critical gaze of the public eye.
Some survived the 1950s, like once brash young men Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and continue to soldier on well into their 80s. But it couldn't have been easy. Next-generation rockers, including the Rolling Stones and the two surviving Beatles, are also forced to contend with this trial into their 60s and beyond.
For the Who, the stakes are even higher. After all, this is a band whose crowning anthem declared early on: "I hope I die before I get old." Indeed, half their number — specifically, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle — confirmed there was truth in that mantra of mortality. Dying early, they left only the band's brooding composer/guitarist, Pete Townshend, and its defiant frontman, Roger Daltrey, to carry the brand forward.
Still, with a new tour launching right here in South Florida, the Who — or, as some refer to them now, the Two — are once again challenged to prove their mettle nearly 50 years after their initial assault on the musical firmament. Ironically, the vehicle that's inspiring this most recent comeback is a revisit of their classic Quadrophenia. They originally reveled in their roots as young mod champions of mid-'60s Britain with this album. Told from the perspective of a young wayward loner named Jimmy, it describes in stunning detail the era's social, musical, and psychological upheaval from a unique teenaged perspective.
That Daltrey and Townshend would attempt to tackle this opus is daunting enough. That they would do it so many decades removed seems an act immersed in irony. Townshend, after all, has always been obsessed with age and its relevance to rock. Nearly four decades ago, while still a young man entering his 30s, he shared his misgivings about maturing with journalist and future filmmaker Cameron Crowe in a Penthouse interview.
"I wasn't ready for how quickly I was going to get old," he recalled. "Rock 'n' roll doesn't just age you in time, it ages you quicker than time. I'm still a young man in a normal sense, but I'm constantly thinking about age... I'm constantly aware of how old I am and how fast I'm aging. Rock 'n' roll also ages you because it's extreme... There have always been a lot of people asking me about what I said in 'My Generation.' I suppose when I wrote that song, I was thinking more about genuine old age, being in your late 50s or 60s and adjusting to being an old person: worrying less, doing less, and feeling less. That was what I meant by old age. But then somebody comes up to you and says, 'You said you were gonna die before you got old.' All you can do is nervously laugh it off by saying, 'Oh, I was just a young kid when I said that; what did I know?' "
A new DVD, Live in Texas '75, dramatically delineates the differences between the Who of then and the Two of now. The version of the band we see captured in performance some 37 years ago soars on the strengths of its four original members, rather than two survivors and a bunch of hired hands. The energy is palpable, a nonstop whirlwind of kinetic motion, each man (save ever-reserved bassist John Entwistle, of course) spinning out of control in his own inimitable way: Townshend darting back and forth, legs askew, arms poised in his famous whirlwind sweep. Daltrey, the dramatic, perfectly poised rock god, tossing the microphone and retrieving it through outsized grand gestures. Moon, the mad dervish, bearing down on his drum arsenal with a fierce determination that belies his clownish persona.
Of course, 37 years is bound to create a contrast. There's the set list, for starters; here the band is introducing new material, songs from Who by Numbers, while today's Who is retreading an archival classic. The look is different (natch) — here's Townshend, with beard and a head full of hair, dressed in a white suit with bell-bottom trousers, and Daltrey, with regal poise, still bearing his trademark curls and physique-fitting leather jumper. Yet the biggest difference remains the determination; even ten years removed from its beginnings, the Who still had something to prove. Its brash, defiant performance retains more than a hint of its insurgent origins.
Nowadays, that emphatic connection to the audience is more or less a vague memory, and the original premise for Quadrophenia seems more a historical reboot than the essential experience once so vital to the band's seminal stance. Flash back to Townshend again, as quoted in that Penthouse interview:
"Trying to project into the future, what I think will hurt me about Quadrophenia when I'm old is its deliberate self-consciousness. But I felt it was time for the Who to be self-conscious. It's incredible how well it works on record and how badly it works onstage. I found it so embarrassing to have to explain the album in between numbers. It's a bloody admission of growing old, to stand up and talk about 'When I was 19...' Nineteen isn't too fucking young, and that was years ago. When I walk onstage, I feel time less. I feel abundantly athletic, free, and liberated and unfettered and complete unselfconscious. Well, it won't happen again, because another conscious aspect of Quadrophenia is that it's a rejection of that sort of work ever again. Or at least the adolescent obsession, the teenage frustration thing. I've got some lyrical growing up to do."
Considering the present motivation for the Who to tour, Townshend's comments could be considered ironic. Then again, the entire concept of a band that's achieved such respected status and still tours at such an advanced age seems, in itself, an unlikely distinction, especially for an outfit that started out in the rough-and-tumble realms of London's Shepherd's Bush environs.
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"The future is going to bring some changes," Townshend told Crowe. "I don't think we should have to assume any more attitudes or roles and play along with a game plan that we can't sincerely and honestly deal with. Even if one can get away with it, hypocrisy is not tolerable in something as intrinsically honest as rock 'n' roll. It's very hypocritical for a band like the Who to stand onstage and pretend that they're adolescents, when all they're really doing is reliving their adolescence. So the future, if nothing else, at least holds a challenge for the group to really see themselves as they are."
Still, despite those misgivings, the decision to tackle a long-ago classic of this magnitude may, in fact, go down as another milestone for a band whose collective career has been built on scaling one pinnacle after another. Along with the Stones, they're one of the few bands that managed to survive the 1960s and transition into the new millennium, however awkward it sometimes seemed.
Townshend said: "I think back now to the way I was when I wrote those songs and I like what I wrote, and I like the success I came up with... I had sharper edges. Those edges aren't quite so sharp now. So I wonder whether ten years from now I'll like what I've done today as much as I like what I did ten years ago now."
Forty years hence, he apparently believes both he and the album have aged rather well.