“Our music was a kind of energized anarchy. Against all the odds, it all kind of worked.” — Roger Daltrey, The Who
We don’t know if The Who’s Sunday concert in downtown Denver will be the last Colorado performance by this complicated, iconic, baffling and inspiring band.
We do know performances by The Who eventually will stop, because Pete Townsend is 74 and Roger Daltrey is 75.
They are not alone. In recent years, I’ve twice watched Brian Wilson perform on Colorado stages. It was strange — beyond strange, really — to see this master with his dyed hair and big gut sing exquisite rhapsodies to the joys of youth.
Wilson, the core of The Beach Boys, is 77, part of rock’s old-age brigade. The Glitter Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are 77 and 76. Paul McCartney is 78. Van Morrison, the growling lion of rock, is 73. Bob Dylan, whose tour without end brings him to Denver in October, is 78.
Paul Montville, 69, has lived in Manitou Springs for decades. In 1969, when he was a student at the University of Toledo, he drove to Detroit to see The Who perform. Fifty years later, the show still jumps in his mind.
“It was great,” Montville says. “It was The Who! I had always been a big fan. Townsend was out of his mind. I don’t know how he did it. I had seen the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger dancing around, but nothing like Townsend. It was the perfect blend, and it was a band in every sense of the word.”
Montville is fine when he examines current photos of Daltrey and Townsend. It doesn’t torment him to see his heroes with less hair and more gut.
“No,” he says, “it really doesn’t because I grew up with those guys. You know, we’re all getting old, and that’s just the way it is.”
For decades, we’ve nonchalantly shrugged when rock greats arrived in our state. Oh, the old guys are visiting again.
Then we fall into intense mass mourning when those greats die. Ric Ocasek, the soul behind The Cars, died this month, transporting many of us back to the first time we heard his moody masterpiece “Just What I Needed,” a song that may or not be about love.
We’ll often fall into that intense mourning over the next decade.
Townsend has a knack for saying and writing words that come back to attack him.
“Hope I die before I get old,” Townsend announced in 1965, when he was a mere 20. The Who’s wild-deluxe drummer, Keith Moon, lived Townsend’s wish. Moon died in 1978, two weeks after his 32nd birthday, of an accidental overdose.
“Rock is very, very important and very, very ridiculous,” Townsend proclaimed in 1994 when The Who busted into pieces and he was disillusioned with the music he once championed.
He spoke truth, on both counts. The Who were four kids from West London who, like The Beatles of Liverpool, somehow found each other and a mysterious blend of magic, diligent labor and chemistry. They created loud and mighty music that was direct without sinking to simple.
If you can listen to Townsend’s masterpiece, “Love Reign o’er Me” and not be moved, then I wonder if you can be moved. It’s a rock symphony, crafted at the peak of The Who’s considerable powers. It sounded magnificent upon arrival in 1973 when my parents were upstairs yelling at me for playing it too loud. It sounds even better — at high volume, of course — 46 years later.
But Townsend was right about the ridiculous part, too. Rock heroes were walking, howling advertisements for death-defying excess, and the defying part failed for Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Boulder’s Tommy Bolin. None saw their 30th birthday.
So let’s celebrate the greats still with us. Daltrey and Townsend are lively dinosaurs from an era when rock ruled the marketplace. By 1977 or so, rock had conquered all other forms of music in America, and who could have suspected that its long retreat already had begun?
On Sunday, two old men will seek to transport themselves, and a cast of thousands, on a glorious ride back in time.