Fifteen years ago today, the body of Who bassist John Entwistle was discovered in a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, just one day before the Who were scheduled to launch their 2002 tour at the mega casino. Entwistle was just 57 years old, but he was suffering from a heart condition after years of drug abuse. A coroners report noted that he took cocaine a few hours before his heart stopped.
Despite Entwistle’s stiff demeanor and reputation as “The Quiet One,” the bassist lived a wild, lavish lifestyle that put him into debt and aged him prematurely. His life situation grew very difficult when the Who stopped touring in 1982 and his income stream dried up, though the group did reform for periodic reunion tours that kept him somewhat afloat. “I never really quite got what John’s grief was,” Pete Townshend said in 2004. “I think John was in the wrong band. John wanted to be in, I dunno, Whitesnake. Really. But he loved me and he loved my writing and he loved playing the music, but I think he wanted there to be lines of coke in the dressing room and groupies on the end of his knob all the time. And when he was left to his own devices, that’s what he did and that’s how he died.”
His death put the Who in a horrific situation. If they cancelled the tour they’d put an enormous road crew out of work, disappoint countless fans and owe a fortune to promoters. Going on meant playing shows days after Entwistle’s shocking death. (They waited eight months to play again after Keith Moon died in 1978.) “At first Roger and I sat together in a hotel room in California, and I could see that Roger was not just bereft, but also incredibly shocked and unable to function,” Townshend told Rolling Stone in 2015. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to make this decision, whether it stops or whether it goes on.'”
He decided to carry on, and they played a show at the Hollywood Bowl in 2002 just four days after Entwistle died. “For fans that have followed us for many years, this is gonna be very difficult,” Townshend said to the crowd. “We understand. We’re not pretending that nothing’s happened.” Daltrey shared his thoughts earlier in the show. “I just wanted to say that tonight we play for John Entwistle,” Daltrey said. “He was the true spirit of rock & roll and he lives on in the music we play.”
Although Entwistle had some difficult years in the 1980s and 1990s when the Who were largely off the road, his life achieved some measure of stability once the band became a going concern again in 2000. On that tour they finally stripped back the band from the enormous “Who On Ice” spectacles of the Tommy run in 1989 and Quadrophenia revivals of 1996/97, playing with a mere five-man lineup that included the three founding members along with drummer Zak Starkey and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick.
They didn’t tour in 2001, but put on a blazing set at the Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden weeks after 9/11 that gave them so much momentum they booked another tour for 2002. They warmed up with a quick run of U.K. dates in January and February of 2002, and in June went into a rehearsal space to prepare for the American tour. Fortunately cameras were running and they captured John’s final moments playing with the band. Here’s video of them rehearsing “I Can See for Miles,” which hadn’t been part of their stage show since 1989. Notice how Entwistle is sitting on a stool. He would die just 14 days later. (Forgive the crappy video quality. It’s from an ancient web stream.)
The Who have toured heavily since Entwistle’s tragic death with Pino Palladino or Jon Button playing his parts. The recent shows have been incredible considering Daltrey and Townshend are now in their seventies, but it’s never quite been the same without Entwistle. His thunderous bass was always high in the mix, giving them a sound unlike any other group. Nobody will ever be able to replicate what he did.