The Who: Last Time Around

The Who say goodbye before they get old, and hello to a very uncertain future

The Who, Issue 382
Annie Leibovitz
The Who
By |

For nearly three years, Roger Daltrey watched Pete Townshend slowly killing himself with drugs and alcohol. It was almost a parody of rock-star decadence: Pete moved out on his wife and children and started making the rounds of trendy London clubs, slugging back brandy all night till he was nearly comatose, snorting cocaine to keep up the pace, dabbling in heroin and God knows what else. After twenty years together in a band that ultimately attained the heights of rock celebrity as the Who, Daltrey saw Townshend throwing away a life that apparently had come to mean more to Who fans than it did to Townshend himself. Finally, late last year, the tormented guitarist hit bottom. After a night of furious dissipation at London's Club for Heroes, Townshend suddenly turned blue and collapsed, and had to be rushed to the nearest hospital.

Daltrey couldn't take it anymore. Something drastic had to be done, and he knew, at last, what it was. One night during Townshend's extended convalescence, the Who held a meeting at their manager's house, and Daltrey dropped the bomb: "I don't want to tour anymore."

For a man who still loved the Who as passionately as he ever had in his teens – maybe more – those were the saddest words in the world. But if Townshend were to be stopped from following Who drummer Keith Moon into an early grave, Daltrey felt he had no other choice.

"See, Pete didn't want to tour for years there before Moonie died," he explains. "I was the instigator – I was responsible for getting him back on the road after 1978. And after three tours of America, he was a bloody junkie. I felt responsible for that. It was really hard to live with, and I just don't want to do it anymore. I mean, I think the world of that guy. I think enough of him to stop the Who."

Not stop it cold, of course. They could do one last world tour – as long as they called it that, and knew it was fini, they could deal with it. "I want to end the group in the right way," says Daltrey. "On top, before we become parodies of ourselves. Then we can give Pete some freedom, because he deserves it."

Townshend is still struck by Daltrey's selfless and loving gesture. The two have had many a well-publicized row over the years, and yet, says Pete, "Roger was the most vociferous member of the group in saying that he would do anything, give up anything – even give up the group – if it would make me happy, you know? If it would get me happiness."

The question now, of course, is: will it?

One week into the Who's last full-scale tour, all is quiet. Frankly, it's a little weird. Fifteen years ago, when Keith Moon was alive and destroying drum kits and hotel rooms with equal abandon, the Who's celebrated road antics earned them a lifetime ban from the Holiday Inns of America. But this afternoon, up on the sixth floor of the Greentree Marriott, near downtown Pittsburgh, a librarial silence prevails – you can almost hear the twiddling of thumbs behind each closed door. Can this be the same crazed band that exploded out of London's heady Mod scene in 1965?

No, of course not. One understands. This is the Who that survived into the Eighties, and its members, dispersed in their various suites, are conserving their no-longer-boundless energy for tonight's show at the 17,500-seat Civic Arena. There are eight tough weeks to go on this farewell tour, and looning takes a low priority.

Townshend has already caught a cold, which may explain the two sweaters he's wearing, if not the faded pink handkerchief that's knotted around his wrist. A copy of Nostromo, the Joseph Conrad novel, lies on a table near the sofa where he's sitting, and a stack of portable recording equipment – an adjunct to on-the-road songwriting – stands against a far wall. One year after nearly cashing in his chips, Townshend looks a little ragged, but he's obviously sober and straight. His only remaining vice is a penchant for miniature Indian cigarettes, which he smokes steadily.

"I do miss a drink before going onstage," he admits, raking a hand through his disheveled hair. "Even just a small brandy would always stop me from feeling nervous. But once I get on the stage now, I'm okay. I don't miss it," he says, waving the bad old days away. "I don't miss any of it."

And the days of big tours, big money, big roaring crowds – will he miss any of that? He stubs out a tiny butt and sighs. "I think there's a certain amount of relief about the fact that it's the last tour. There's a tremendous amount of sadness, though, as well, because I know it's not what everybody wants." Bassist John Entwistle, for example, loves being on the road more than any other aspect of his involvement in the Who. Therefore, Pete says, "I think John is probably . . . more than sad. He's not at all vocal, and that makes it very difficult, because he's actually sittin' and tryin' to work out how he feels half the time. But I think I know him well enough to know that he will probably mourn the Who more than anybody in the world. He's losing a vehicle for his talent and passion that he knows he'll never be able to find anywhere else."

It would, of course, be possible to accommodate Entwistle – keep the band in shape, maybe perform on some sort of reduced but semiregular annual schedule. Townshend stares down at his sizable feet, which are nestled in black velvet slippers with inscrutable golden crests, and he cradles his famous nose in a clump of Kleenex. "I very much doubt that will happen," he says with a soft honk.

Rock & roll glamour is in similarly short supply in each of the other band members' rooms. Entwistle, the stolid bassist, is in the grip of a backache that won't give up. Kenney Jones, the drummer – who is weathering a divorce and has kicked a debilitating booze habit – fidgets away the offstage hours compulsively gulping Perrier. Daltrey, a fitness buff, has beaten back the gout that plagued him on previous tours but is still pained by a back injury he sustained while filming Tommy eight years ago. Only Tim Gorman, the affable, conservatory-trained Californian who's playing keyboards on this tour, seems unscarred by his calling, happily munching cheese and crudités from a vast room-service platter as he waits for show-time.

Is this how it all ends – in a whimper of cheese and Perrier? Not exactly; Who fans needn't wear out their arms waving goodbye. Because, although it's billed as their U.S. swan song, this latest excursion (which kicked off September 22nd near Washington D.C.) is also the longest tour the Who have mounted in twelve years; given the group's well-known volatility, anything might happen between now and mid-December, when the tour concludes. And they do have a future, however ambiguous: The band will tour Britain and Europe in the new year, then Australia, and for the first time, Japan. And Bill Curbishley, the group's enterprising manager, is already talking about the possibility of playing a quick cluster of dates sometime in 1984 and perhaps fulfilling the Who's longstanding plan to play Eastern Europe – maybe even doing Tommy at Moscow's opera house. As Kenney Jones says: "Little and often is the word – one-off concerts, or three or four days somewhere."

So there is a master plan, of sorts: the Who will leave the road because it's killing them – or, more precisely, because it was killing Townshend – and in the future will congregate only to record albums and perhaps perform the occasional brief burst of concerts. They've had it all, and now the three original members – Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle – are crowding forty. Their generation – the pill-head Mods and flower kids of the Sixties – is just another blip in the cultural memory bank. Hanging on to traipse on stages for yet another new wave of fans, they would run an increasing risk of becoming ridiculous. Or worse, boring. As Daltrey says one evening, squinting into the setting sun outside his hotel-room window: "I can't see the Who without its energy. If I go downhill, and if Pete gets slower . . . well, like it or not, the arm swingin' and the mike twirlin' are important to the Who. I mean, could you see us just standin' onstage, just playin'?" Daltrey's brow bunches up over his pale blue eyes, twin reflections of Townshend's own azure orbs. "Do you really want to see the Who like that?" he asks.

On this tour, at least, no one has seen the Who like that. Buoyed by what they conceive as a sprint toward some sort of final curtain, they have been burning through their two-hour-plus sets, lashing out the songs from their new album, It's Hard, with all the fire of their great, anthemic hits. So far, it seems like a great way to go out – on top, as Roger says. Even Mick Jagger, who turned up with his daughter, Jade, for the Who's second concert, at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, was suitably impressed – and not just because his old pals had set a house ticket-sales record at the same stadium where the Rolling Stones had played one year earlier.

"Mick was up on the side of the stage," Daltrey recalls, "and afterward, I said, 'Are you waitin' to go out and do it again?' And I think, suddenly, he really might have looked out at that crowd and saw what we were doin', and thought, 'Maybe we should have called that our last tour, too.'"

The Who and the Stones go way back, but Pete is still bemused by Mick's tough business head. They spoke briefly in Philadelphia. "He was saying to me, 'Well, we started off in Philly, and then we went to Buffalo – it's 400 miles, you know, a very heavy thing for the trucks.'" Pete cackles appreciatively. "I don't give a shit how far it is for the trucks. I just play."

Which is not to say that Townshend is a complete dummy about the mechanics of taking a rock band on the road. There are several levels of touring, and the Who have been through them all. They started, of course, at the penniless-unknown level, in which aspiring rockers commandeer a friendly automobile, pile their pathetic equipment into it and drive off to spend the night in some forlorn pub, playing for free beer and change. If they're really penniless – as Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle were when they first came together as teenagers in a West London band called the Detours – they have to build their own instruments.

The next level is opening up for established acts. The Detours opened for the Rolling Stones before that band had even cut a record, and after Keith Moon joined the lineup in 1964, Townshend and company opened for the Beatles and the Kinks. In the days of package tours, they also played support for such briefly celebrated bands as Screaming Lord Sutch, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (whose guitarist, Mick Green, had developed a hybrid style of lead and rhythm playing that exerted a heavy influence on the young Townshend). Those shows were a lot of fun. Entwistle recalls a time the band played a package that included the Herd, a teen-pop band that featured Peter Frampton. For a laugh, he says, "I tied Frampton to a radiator by his scarf and wouldn't let him go onstage." No one took the music business too seriously in those days.

To attain the next rung on the ladder, a band needs a hit record. The Who's first single, "I'm the Face," released in 1964 during a period when they were briefly known as the High Numbers, was not a smash. But "I Can't Explain," released in January 1965 and credited to the Who, put them on a roll, and they had strong followups that same year with "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" and the epochal "My Generation." Hitmakers of such consistency become pop stars, and whole new worlds of indulgence open up: drugs (pills in the Who's case; pot, too, in Pete's), money, cars, girls. The Who rode their ever-cresting fame through the Sixties (Happy Jack, The Who Sell Out, Tommy) and into the Seventies (Live at Leeds, Who's Next, Quadrophenia).

Today, of course – despite the spottiness of such albums as Who Are You, their last with the doomed Moon, and the muddled 1981 LP Face Dances, which even the band didn't much like – the Who occupy a level of charismatic renown that's shared only by such survivors as the Rolling Stones. They've come out on the other end of the pipeline. Vulgar display is no longer necessary, but touring is still an enormously complex undertaking. In their early days, the Who would go on tour with two road managers and a light man; today, their traveling crew – swollen by ShowCo sound technicians and Tasco Light – numbers about ninety people. Ten trucks are required to cart their gear from gig to gig. And on the opening dates of their current tour, a 100-seat Boeing 707 was requisitioned–generally available at an estimated cost of about $5000 per hour – to fly the band and about a score of associates from city to city. When ninety people are eating and sleeping off a band's profits, some sort of compensation becomes essential. As the Rolling Stones did last year with Jovan fragrances, the Who have signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with Schlitz beer. In return for appearing in two thirty-second Schlitz commercials, allowing their music to be used in other Schlitz ads and permitting the Schlitz name to be used on concert tickets, the Who will receive a pot of money (described by a Schlitz spokesman as a seven-figure amount and "the biggest corporate-sponsored rock-music entertainment ever undertaken"). Then, there is merchandising – the sale of tour T-shirts and jerseys (ten to eighteen dollars apiece this year), tour programs (five dollars each) and, in an innovative move, an authorized biography called The Who: Maximum R & B, a four-color trade paperback that is being sold for fourteen dollars a copy. Every little bit helps.

So this is a big-money tour, but it is being carried off with a certain style. Townshend, a friend of the gentry back home in Twickenham, may take the stage in protopunk garb – black leather jacket and jeans – but when he steps off that chartered plane in the next city, he's likely as not to be wearing a tailored suit, silk tie and expensive two-toned wing tips. Meet the new boss.

Business smarts don't necessarily come with the bagfuls of money that accure to arriviste rockers, however. One day not too long ago, Townshend went to draw some funds from a group of Who-related companies clustered under the name EelPie – and discovered not only that the coffers were bare, but that he was in debt to the tune of some $1 million. He's since sold off some of the companies – the Magic Bus Bookshop and a P.A.-equipment rental company that kept the Who's stage equipment profitable when the group wasn't using it – and he doesn't sound particularly worried.

"It's not like it's my money," he says. "It's company money, money that I invested. Personally, I have got financial security. I've got a home, a car – I've got everything that I need."

But as the Who say their long goodbye to the big-time concert grind, there's another fly in the ointment – a real threat to the master plan of turning the Who into essentially a studio-only band. His name is John Entwistle.

Entwistle seems to be a stoic type. Although he's in the final stages of a divorce, he and his longtime American girlfriend, a striking brunette named Max, are demonstratively happy, and he says he loves his life at home in England, where he collects vintage guitars, stuffed fish, antique armor and purebred chickens. But this "last tour" business with the Who, well, it really honks him off. Of all the times for Roger and Pete to discover something they can agree on.

"You know," Entwistle says one night in his hotel room as a TV set drones soothingly in the background, "I don't intend to get off the road. At the moment, Roger and Pete are both agreein' – about this bein' the final tour and about the whole way they want to structure the Who's career. But I completely disagree. I think the way it's gonna be structured, we're gonna be still playing, but playing extremely badly, and rustily. I mean, to do one concert, you still need to do four week's rehearsal. And I don't think it's worth rehearsin' four weeks for one concert."

He lights a cigarette. "There's not much I can do about it except hope they change their minds. They frequently do, but in this case, I don't think they will."

So if the Who stop touring, he doesn't want to be involved in just making records with them? "Um, no," Entwistle says. "I mean, from my point of view, I'm not prepared to just carry on doing albums. If the touring isn't there, then I'd rather get my own thing together, which involves touring as well."

Interesting.

Very interesting, actually. Especially to Townshend and Daltrey, who have heard nothing about Entwistle's decision to bail out if the band really quits the road.

"He told you that?" says Daltrey the next day in Indianapolis. He's a bit taken aback, but after all these years, obviously nothing that happens within the Who really surprises him anymore. But could the Who bring in another bassist and still call themselves the Who?

"I don't know," says Daltrey carefully. "We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. I mean, I'm pretty ruthless about keepin' the Who together, and if John doesn't want to do it, then . . ." He's really thinking this one over now. "You see," he suddenly says, "John never says anything. We have meetings, and John actually says absolutely nothing – never has, never will. If we have a meetin', it'll be Pete and me talkin' and the other two just sittin' there. I mean, you never really get to know what John feels. So, in the end, it's just really what Pete and I want to do . . . . I'm sure if Pete and I wanted to do it and still call it the Who, we could do it successfully."

Strange news travels fast. At the concert that night in Indianapolis, the Who cranked up a rather emphatic version of "Long Live Rock," and as Townshend charged into the guitar solo, thrashing and flailing at his long-suffering Telecaster, he also started leaping across the stage to where Entwistle was standing and pumping out bass. When he reached Entwistle's ear, he shouted – the mouthing was unmistakable from the side of the stage – "Fuck you!" But then he broke into this big, goofy grin, rolled his eyes up in his head like the village spaz and bopped his way back to his amps. Lord knows . . .

Backstage after the show, Townshend slumped on a dressing-room couch and considered Entwistle's dark mutterings. Was he serious?

"I think he's serious," Pete said. "I don't quite know . . . . It's one of the big question marks. You know, John's playin', the fulfillment he gets from the way that he plays, can only be experienced in a road situation – and possibly only with the Who. But I think when the band does stop workin', each member is gonna go through a different set of withdrawals, you know? If John feels that he couldn't even address himself to the prospect of doin' recording, then of course we've got a problem." Townshend cracks a sly grin. "He'll have to find about $1 million to give back to Warner Bros. He'll have to sell one of his 450 basses or something."

But if he leaves, could he be replaced? Would the resulting band still be the Who? After all, Roger thinks that as long as Daltrey and Townshend are up there, it still is the Who.

Pete shakes his head. "That is so mistaken," he says. "I mean, it would be Townshend and Daltrey – or Daltrey and Townshend." Another grin. "But, oh, it would not be the Who."

Well, what's the story with this band, then? This is the last U.S. tour because Pete Townshend is tired of the road – but then, according to the master plan, the group's apparently going to spend most of next year on the road. Will Entwistle leave the band? Will Townshend find a way to keep this show together?

Pete has a definite que será look in his eye. "I think the Who's relationships are more about need than desire," he says. "We don't necessarily want to be dependent on one another, but we are. So it doesn't matter whether you walk away from this relationship . . ." He spreads his palms, all-explaining. "It still remains."

This story is from the November 11th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 382: November 11, 1982
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