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American Grandstand: Bang The Drum Loudly

Learning how to deal with Keith Moon’s death

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Keith Moon of The Who outside BBC Broadcasting House on July 11th, 1973 in London.

Michael Putland/Getty

The secret to me
isn’t flown like a flag
I carry it behind
this little badge
What says . . . Bell Boy

— “Bell Boy (Keith’s Theme)”

It’s almost impossible to properly mourn Keith Moon. He struck the best sort of deal with life, getting out of it as much as he put in, and considering that he put in so much, it was a splendid bargain. Long faces dishonor him, I think, although I won’t go so far as to say that an old Keith Moon was unimaginable. God knows it was unlikely, but not because of some death wish. Moon simply chose to ignore the grave in order to live completely. I quibble with his means, but his motives remain a curious beacon.

This hardly means that the implications of Moon’s death have no emotional consequences for me. In a way, this rock star’s death means more to me than any other’s. But my response to it is hard to categorize. In a way, it has amounted to an identity crisis. Like most of those who have felt that the Who is rock’s consummate experience, I identify in strong and often silly ways with that band. To see them this way, I feel lost. As John Swenson, who is as great a Who fan as any I know, told me, “When I heard the news I just felt . . . ‘Well, that’s it for me and rock.’ “

Keith Moon, 1947-1978

Swenson and I are pushing thirty, and perhaps it is about time we reached this crisis. The other afternoon I spent long minutes staring at the floor with my friend Wayne King, a Who fan so obsessed that he has devoted all his time for the past few months to researching everything written about the band, in hopes of putting together a book. King is twenty-three, which means he got the bug late. But he got it completely. “The one thing this has made me determined to do,” he told me, “is to get on paper what it’s meant to be a fan of that group.” It will be a major undertaking, because Who fans are a breed apart.

As Pete Townshend said a couple of issues back, the Who is an idealist band. It may be the last. As a result, there is something about Who fanaticism that goes beyond the usual obsessions with alternate takes and obscure 45s, or even the rock cultist’s common certainty of Revealed Truth on vinyl. Simply by holding on against the odds for so many years, the Who represented an intrinsic faith in rock’s basic values. Their brawls have always seemed more the clashing of archetypes – the eternal war between individualism and community – than any homelier spats. And because they so often made themselves ridiculous, they reminded us of the silliness of our own obsession.

Meeting another Who fan has always meant encountering someone with a special perception of what rock is all about. There was a bond of trust, not only between the band and its fans but among the fans themselves, that I have not encountered anywhere else. And for the potential loss of that. I grieve the most. For Who fans are the least likely to keep on mooning over an era that’s over.

So, though the Who will continue, which is appropriate, things can hardly be the same. Although the rest of the band may play better and tackle its difficulties more efficiently and maturely, Moon is truly irreplaceable. The Who’s glory was its balance, musical and personal. Without Keith Moon, I wonder not so much who will supply the musical kick, but who will kick Townshend in the pants when he grows too pompous, or bring listeners like me back to earth when our fantasies grow too flighty. As wild as he was, Keith Moon was also a sort of reality principle.

Keith Moon: The Different Drummer

Finally, I miss Keith Moon not for his musicianship, which was everything anyone had claimed it was, nor as great copy, though as a journalist I realize that is one more way in which we probably won’t see his like again. Maybe what I mean when I say it’s impossible to mourn him is that I can’t bring myself to do so publicly – this loss is personal. Without him, that song on the radio sounds positively eerie. There’s a million ways to ask the question, but this one is fundamental: Who are you?

There are as many variations of the answer, but the most concrete came at the very beginning. It is short and simple: I can’t explain. Neither could Moon, which is sad, but figures. After all, in some weird way, he was one of us. Or is it just that we are all, in secret, Bell Boys ourselves?

This story is from the November 2nd, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.


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