NEW YORK – Like prison guards readying for a riot, a security force of close to five hundred assembled and listened to a quick briefing before going into the cavernous Madison Square Garden for the first of the Who‘s four sellout concerts. Outside, before the doors were opened, the predominantly male crowd grew larger and the noise level increased proportionately until at seven o’clock a dungareed army of 21,000 ticket holders lurched through the gates and the dash for seats began.
There was tension in the air, a tingling sensation, similar to the rush of excitement that prefaced the Stones‘ concert and Dylan concerts at the Garden. The Who last played New York three years ago, and the day was marked by the fatal stabbing of a guard in front of the Forest Hills Stadium. (The appearances this time around were, in a sense, owed: The Who avoided New York during a 22-date U.S. tour last winter because they couldn’t arrange compatible dates.) In spite of violent incidents at many Who concerts, thousands of loyal followers believe that the group is one of the important chroniclers of our times, expressing the lustful rebellion of youth, and the nihilistic intermingling of love, God and country.
“I have been waiting since ten o’clock this morning,” one dark-haired, mustachioed youth said as he sat on the steps outside the Garden, equipped with a gallon bottle of Almaden Burgundy, two hero sandwiches and a box of Mallomars. It was serious business for Donald Letherby, 19, of Bethlehem, New Hampshire. It was a special occasion. “It wasn’t easy for me to get here,” he said with a tired grin. “I came about 370 miles to see the Who and it means a lot to me. The Who is one of the world’s most important rock bands.” He reached into a large brown paper bag by his right foot and pulled out the burgundy. “Take a drink of this,” he said. “It will make you feel real good.
“I have all the Who’s albums and I think Tommy is a work of art. The whole opera is fantastic. It is something I can relate to. I understand what Pete Townshend is doing. Townshend is extraordinary. His lyrics speak to me; the need for self-assertion, the aggression, the anger and beauty are all there. These are the reasons why I am here.
“I can get off physically and intellectually. That is what happens when I get a rush of energy and my mind is simultaneously absorbing the same material in a different way. That is what the Who does for me. I don’t get to see live performances that much. All I have are records and a radio. Like many people from small towns, seeing all these people having fun together, drinking and turning on is a rare event. Where I come from, a hundred people standing together in the same spot is a big crowd. Seeing a live band on a stage adds another whole dimension to the music.”
He slipped his hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out a smoke. He lit it, took a long lazy toke. “In the last few years,” he went on, “I have made it a point to see every important concert: the concert for Bangladesh, the Dylan concert, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and others. Each of these events were important in their own way and only those people who were there can really understand what it is all about.”
I followed him to his seat in the rear section of the orchestra. “There is an element of chance about a concert like this. You don’t know what is going to happen and how things are going to turn out.”
“But what is it about the Who that is so special?” I queried.
“The Who is probably the only rock group that is talking to an entire generation,” he answered. “The music and poetry is about us. It is for young people growing up today, who have to cope with everything around them. I have read everything by and about Pete Townshend. I feel I know him inside and out. But most important is that I sincerely think he is speaking to me about things I never understood. In Tommy he says we are complex and many-sided. We are violent, jealous, loving and lethal, all at the same time. A lot of people put Tommy down because they feel it is commercial. That is a lot of bullshit. They think it is fantasy, unreal, concocted nonsense and yet Townshend is putting everything in its proper perspective. Music has to speak, and it has to move you like one person moves another person.”
What turns on Letherby and the thousands of Who freaks who reared, sighed and empathized with every motion of the splenetic Pete Townshend? Paul Welten, 21, of Wayne, New Jersey, and others I talked to before the concert began, said sheer outrageousness has kept the Who in the hot lights since the mid-Sixties. The violence and tension generated by the group as it rockets through a performance is an essential rallying point. “Ya know, people don’t like to talk about the violence of a Who performance,” Welton explained. “But it is there and it is an important part of their act. They are expressing themselves. Maybe it is their nervousness or maybe they are just getting off on their own music, but it works. And the audience relates to it and can accept Townshend ripping up a stage faster than they can a passive rock group just standing onstage looking very hip. Seeing him smash guitars and jump about like a lunatic is quite moving. It also gets my adrenalin moving and stirs similar feelings in me. And I don’t think it has any negative effects on an audience.
“If I had to name one band that has really contributed to pop music over the last decade, I would say it was the Who. The Beatles were always more popular, in a very popular way, if ya know what I mean. But the Who echoed and communicated countercultural trends. Their anger, prose and cynical stage machinations go far beyond clowning. It goes into the very fabric of the culture of our day. And Townshend lives like a rock star should. He is outlandish, brilliant, and I can identify with him.”
A woman of 20, with a small knapsack on her back, said that the Who probably has a predominantly male following: “Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry carry a strong macho image, having stayed clear of glitter and rouge.”
As I inched my way to my seat the sounds around me were familiar: the screaming roar of thousands of voices shouting for a taste of the Who. From my viewing area, I noticed occasional sparklers splattering white light as they spiralled from the upper balconies to the orchestra level, and I watched tired middle-aged security guards clutch their flashlights as if they were night sticks. And as for the performance, time has not tempered the demonic spirit behind the Who’s music. They went about their business with the same cyclonic force demonstrated three years ago.
This story is from the July 18th, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.