Adolescence revisited: My lifelong journey with The Who

The Who across the generations

5 minute read
Starting out (1966): Why play into a sixth decade?
Starting out (1966): Why play into a sixth decade?
As the Super Bowl approaches, I'm fixating— again — on a favorite line in "5.15" from The Who's 1973 rock opera, Quadrophenia. It includes probably the greatest oxymoron in rock 'n roll history: "Sadly ecstatic that their heroes are news."

The legendary British band will play this year's Super Bowl halftime show— an invitation that's decades overdue. But I'm a life-long devotee. The Who and I entered the world more or less simultaneously: the band in England in 1964, and myself a year later, in Norristown. I've followed the band's ups and downs, retirements and reunions and deaths and resurrections, since I was a middle teen. That's an alarming 30 years ago.

Throughout those decades the lyrics of The Who's iconic lead-guitarist and songwriter, Pete Townsend, have often given me wings and steadied my flight when I've most needed confidence and balance. Those lyrics, as well as Roger Daltrey's voice, matured me and also cautioned me in my teens— a valuable service for anyone still struggling and searching for answers in an uncertain, unripe and often incomprehensible world.

"'I've looked under chairs'

Surely they were singing only to me in their opening to "The Seeker": "I've looked under chairs/ I've looked under tables/ I've tried to find the key/ To 50 million fables./ They call me The Seeker;/ I've been searching low and high/ I won't get to get what I'm after/ 'Til the day I die."

The Who and its members exerted such a personal impact on my life that I couldn't bear the thought of sharing their music with others. I was perpetually "sadly ecstatic" whenever The Who reunited and resurfaced. I thought somehow the result would tarnish the tantamount role it had already played in rock 'n roll history— in my history.

Maybe it was the still-raw reverberations of losing two of the band's four original members— drummer Keith Moon in 1978 (at age 32) and bassist John Entwistle in 2002 at 57 (and almost Townsend, too)— to drug- and alcohol-induced deaths. Talk about being "sadly ecstatic" that my heroes were news. Townsend now refers to Moon and Entwistle as "ghosts." "We don't create them, the audience does," he has said.

My parents' age

But after seeing Daltrey perform solo in his "Use It or Lose It" tour last November at the Borgata in Atlantic City ("I can't sit on the bloody sofa," he said), I finally reached a long-deferred epiphany: It's OK to share The Who. It's OK for The Who to play the Super Bowl. It's OK that these guys are just shy of my parents' ages and still touring, performing and producing new material.

As Daltrey himself put it in Atlantic City, just before breaking into "Behind Blue Eyes": "The thing about being old, and singing for the young comes when they think I'm doing the Limp Bizkit version of this next song."

As a teacher, I can attest that the problem with many young people today is that they haven't been anywhere, at least not yet. They don't transport themselves. They don't read, or listen, or pay attention, or show an interest in anything of substance. There's no connection to the classics, or even their elders' experiences or their country's patriotic past. They truly inhabit a "teenage wasteland."

Yet at the Daltrey solo gig, and the last three times I've seen the band since its latest surge, I've turned to others in the audience and noticed their age— about half mine, or younger. "What are you doing here?" I've asked. "You're too young to be here."

To a man, they've replied that there's no better rock 'n roll music today, or ever before.

Bonding with my students

I used to grimace when students in my classroom, decade after decade, said they liked The Who. Lately, I've reveled in their shared admiration. The band's own members, too, must sense the vibe from the stage, or why play into a sixth decade? Why not all become ghosts?

When these somehow-graciously-aged rockers play the Super Bowl on February 7, they'll undoubtedly have their largest audience yet. This worldwide stage will offer them an opportunity to attract even more disciples— new followers of Tommy, the "deaf, dumb and blind boy" at the center of the first rock opera. For these many years, I've "come on the amazing journey" to "learn all you should know." Why shouldn't others have that privilege, too?

Adolescent flashbacks

Each time you listen to The Who, it's a coming-of-age experience, a flashback, a renewal— and what could be more important than reviewing (maybe even revising) one's angst-filled teen years? "Pictures of Lily," for example, is "a song about your balls dropping (puberty)," Daltrey explained before singing it at the Borgata.

You can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. So I hope a sea of teenagers, along with all of us old-timers, too, will be watching and listening on February 7.

"The beach is a place where a man can feel/ He's the only soul in the world that's real," goes the line from Quadrophenia. Well, there and at a Who show.

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