The Who were the first big rock-‘n-roll band I ever saw in concert, in November, 1973 at the Lyceum in London. Of all the concerts I’ve attended since, they’re still the band who are the most successful at making the audience feel part of the event, not merely spectators. There comes the moment in just about every Who concert when they perform “See Me, Feel Me (Touch Me, Heal Me)” from Tommy; they turn the lights on the crowd, and band and fans sing to each other, a cappella:
Listening to you, I get the music/ Gazing at you, I get the heat
Following you, I climb the mountain/ I get excitement at your feet
Right behind you, I see the millions/ On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions/ From you, I get the story
I’ve seen the Who twice more, maybe three times, since then, but every time this moment is magical. We, the fans, feel that the band belongs to us and that the inspiration they give us is truly reciprocal. It is because they are a part of us that they can give voice to our experience so well. At the same time, anyone who has listened to Tommy, the first rock opera, knows that the song is an exploration and a critique of the phenomenon of fan-dom, of giving up one’s own glory to someone else, whether it is a rock idol or a guru.
The double-album Tommy was my favorite Christmas present in 1970, our first Christmas in the United States. (The year before, while we were still in London, a girl had given a very avant-garde solo dance performance choreographed to Tommy’s “It’s a Boy” at Parliament Hill School’s holiday talent show. I had attended Parliament Hill, my mother’s secondary school in the late 1930s-mid-40s and my cousin Sue’s in the late 1950s-early 60s, for just five months in 1969-70 before our immigration visas came through). I remember spending the school holidays playing the whole thing over and over again with my Brookline High friends, trying to work out the meaning of it all and discussing our interpretations at length. Does anybody know what on earth happens at the end?
Sometime in the 1970s I remember standing up and singing along at a huge Who concert in Boston. I must have been in my twenties by then, and no longer thought of myself as young. There were two teenage boys standing next to us and I remember looking over at one of them at one point and noticing that he too was singing his heart out, and that both of us were grinning from ear to ear. Young as he was, that boy knew every single word of the song, as if he had written it himself.
Inside outside/ Leave me alone.
Inside outside/ Nowhere is home.
(“5:15”, Quadrophenia, 1973)
The dates of Who concerts and album releases, and the lyrics of Who songs punctuate my youth.
In March of 1976, Michael and Dan were due to drive out West—Michael back to Albuquerque, Dan to San Francisco—immediately after attending a Who concert at the Boston Garden, but when drummer Keith Moon collapsed just a few minutes into the show, Roger Daltrey told everyone to hold on to their ticket stubs and promised that they would return for a repeat performance. On April 1st they amply fulfilled their promise, and Dan and Michael, who had postponed their departure, went mobile immediately after the show.
I’m going home
And when I want to go home, I’m going mobile
Well I’m gonna find a home on wheels, see how it feels,
Keep me movin’
(“Going Mobile”, Who’s Next, 1971)
Back from New Mexico in the Summer of 1979, living in a barn at Sky Meadow, Concord, we sang, as we hoed the rows of tomatoes and eggplants in Andrew’s large garden:
Now I’m a farmer/And I’m diggin’ diggin’ diggin’ diggin’ diggin’
(“Now I’m a Farmer”, Odds and Sods, 1974)
In the late 1970s, living the simple life at White Pond in Concord, heating with wood and sure that the end of the world was nigh, we played Pete Townshend:
River’s getting higher/ No wood for the fire
They saw the messiah/ But I guess I missed him again
That brings my score to a hundred and ten
Keep me turning (I’m hanging on)
Stop me yearning (I’ve had enough)
Keep me turning
While I hand in my backstage pass
(“Keep Me Turning”, Rough Mix, 1977)
Still active in the environmental movement in the early 1980s, we cut-and-pasted issues of No Nuclear News as Pete sang:
Don’t care if they say we are a dying race/ I’d rather be here than any other place
Keep on working, keep on working
(“Keep on Working”, Empty Glass, 1980)
As The Who’s front men, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend made a perfect pair. With his pretty face and rippling muscles (not to mention his strong singing voice), Roger was the perfect vehicle for Pete’s songs. But as the songwriter, Pete Townshend has always been my favorite. Into the 1980s I also followed Pete’s musical explorations outside of The Who, in albums like Rough Mix (with Ronnie Lane) and Empty Glass. If I had a top ten list for the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century, Pete Townshend would most certainly be on it. As writer, musician, and spokesman for our generation, he will always be one of my heroes.
They call me The Seeker/I’ve been searching low and high
I won’t get to get what I’m after/ Until the day I die.
(“The Seeker”, Who’s Next, 1971)
Not everyone idolizes The Who. My cousin Sue, who is a few years older than me, met them once, before they were famous, in a dance club in Camden Town; it can’t have been later than 1964 or 1965, since it was still the era of the Mods and the Rockers. Sue, who has always had a weakness for motorcycles and leather jackets, had a biker boyfriend at the time, so she was a Rocker, while The Who were turned out as Mods—mostly, as Roger Daltrey tells it now, because their manager had told them to cultivate that clean-cut, Ivy League look. “We were just four yobs from Shepherd’s Bush” (The Mod Generation). In those days and venues, there wasn’t much of a separation between the fans and the bands, and the performers used to mingle with the crowd between sets. Apparently Roger called out to her, “Hey, Ginger (Sue was a redhead)—wanna dance?”
Would you believe it—she turned him down.