I'm at a Who concert at the Hollywood Bowl waiting in line for hot dogs. I'm waiting in line—a long line—behind two women who I will not call old but who I would not be surprised to discover enjoy telling their grandkids what it was like to actually be live at Leeds. So, I'm standing in line behind these two and the one tells the other that she is not looking forward to Thanksgiving this year because her friend's house is not conducive to buffet entertaining and the other says she's found a place where you can get embroidered towels "for cheaper than you can make yourself," and the first says she is just not "into" Target anymore and the other says, with a sly grin, that she and her family "are so into Dancing With the Stars."
A Who concert.
I'd gotten a whiff of something like this when, waiting to enter the Bowl, I listened to a heartfelt conversation between two friends in which one, after discussing the torment of having too many choices when it came to purchasing a luxury car, allowed that he was "just going to keep it simple and get the Bentley." I chalked it up to the usual off-kilter feeling that comes with seeing a rock concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the whole thing having a very barbarians at the gate feel to it. But then came the ladies in the hot dog line, the government cheese-like run on seat cushions, and the people around me who complained that the opening band played their guitars too loud.
Then the six members of the Who hit the stage and the crowd quickly came to its feet; then quickly sat back down again.
I had never seen the Who live and I'm still not sure I have. Maybe it was the age of the people around me, maybe it was my own age; maybe it was the fact that the six-member Who had always been a four-man outfit or that of the six members on stage now only two—Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend—were actually in the Who when the Who was THE WHO! (Present drummer Zak Starkey, whose pedigree includes being the drummer for Oasis and the first-born of Ringo Starr, was first born in 1965, a year after the band changed its name to the Who after playing mostly R&B as the Detours.)
The Who's two other original members, drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwistle, are dead, of course, but it was the death of Warren Zevon and Joe Strummer a few years ago that impressed upon me the importance of seeing the bands I had always loved as soon as I could since they were just a neglected bypass away from disappearing forever. True, death has always been part of the rock experience, but when I was a younger man, it was sudden and tragic and beautiful—once they wiped away the vomit—and rockers died of the usual poetic maladies: drug and alcohol abuse, air disaster, Courtney Love.
Now, my rock gods die of cardiac this and cancerous that and so I'm not waiting. I finally saw Aretha Franklin a couple years ago—she was magnificent, though plagued by aching feet—and have on my to-do list Van Morrison, Graham Parker, Boston (bite me), Smokey Robinson, the Sex Pistols (upon their likely reunion) and Husker Du (unlikely).
There was another reason I was at the bowl and that was my 13-year-old son. He was raised on punk—as a four-year-old he sang "I Wanna Be Sedated" incessantly—but had taken to classic rock while learning the guitar, having been introduced to Hendrix, Zeppelin, AC/DC and, yes, the Who.
He loves the Who not only for Townsend's power chords; he is also fascinated by Daltrey's final scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again," which he loves to tell his friends in professorial tones is "the most famous scream in rock history." I think he was the most excited person in our section to see the band, and I felt bad that I had to keep telling him to sit down because the people sitting behind him couldn't see.
"Awesome," he said when Townsend performed the first of many windmill swipes, and he asked me if I thought Pete would be pulling off a power-slide during the most famous scream in rock history as he famously did in The Kids Are Alright.
"Unlikely," I said of the 61-year-old Townsend, though he did do a lot more jumping around onstage than I expected (and though I wondered how much of that was spontaneous and how much was giving the people what they paid for). In fact, for me, much of the concert felt like the latter, like a tribute show, right down to the video screens that showed black-and-white concert footage and Mods on scooters, like something you'd see at Beatlemania.
The Who were actually on tour to support their latest album, Endless Wire, and played 10 songs from it which the crowd politely endured while waiting for what they had really come for; to say they heard for the first, or last, time some song or maneuver that had meant so much to them at some other point in history. We sang "But my dreams, they aren't as empty/As my conscience seems to be," but shouted "Hope I die before I get old," and there was a bit of me that wanted to scream "Too late!" but that seemed cruel and, anyway, it was said with such heartfelt passion, the kind I suppose that comes from the bitter self-awareness that just an hour before you'd been discussing embroidered towels.
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The concert ended after the most famous scream in rock history and a touching song about Entwistle that seemed, dare I say, sweet, and Townsend and Daltrey waved goodbye to the crowd with their arms around each other like an old couple bracing against the wind.
We walked from the bowl, my son and I, he asking me if I liked the concert and I telling him I enjoyed it very much though even then I was wondering exactly what I'd seen—enduring greatness or simply endurance?
"Best concert I've ever seen," said the boy who's already seen X and Bad Religion and Green Day and Queens of the Stone Age. "No doubt about it. Best ever!"
I still don't know if I've ever seen the Who, but he has, all six members.