The best Who shows I ever saw opened with a John Enwistle song called "Heaven and Hell," a cartoonish reduction of themes the band would take entire albums to explore into one explosive punch.
It's hard to overstate how important a figure John Entwistle was in rock & roll history. For a man who did almost nothing to promote himself, his accomplishments are monumental. In an industry where narcissism and self-involvement are tools of the trade, Entwistle was about as vain as St. Francis of Assisi. Nevertheless, he was one of rock's best dressers, known for his macabre Boris the Spider pendants and skeleton pattern outfits. His droll wit was a constant delight. He was a great illustrator. He was also a great producer, who recorded the first album of one of my favorite rock bands, the Fabulous Poodles.
He never took himself too seriously, but he always respected the importance of the music itself. He provided an incalculably valuable foil to the brow-furrowing earnestness of Pete Townshend's songwriting by giving The Who songs with a sense of humor.
Known as "The Ox" and "The Quiet One," Entwistle was celebrated for his stolidity in a chaotic band. While Townshend was smashing his guitar, Keith Moon was putting his foot through the bass drum and Roger Daltrey was using the microphone as a lethal weapon, Entwistle stood rooted to the left of the stage, looking unperturbed at his bandmates and standing absolutely still as he played. When the show was finally over he might fling the bass aside with calculated nonchalance, his tongue firmly in cheek.
But Entwistle was also the one dependable instrumentalist in the band, the fulcrum the others used to swing wildly away from. He kept the beat going, and he kept the wave rolling, the nonstop roar of sound that defined The Who. Townshend's chording and soloing were punctuations; and Moon played one wild, unpredictable solo throughout. Without Entwistle to peg it around, the whole thing would surely have flown apart.
The bass playing itself was the astonishing thing about Entwistle. He somehow overloaded bass and treble simultaneously, straining it to the breaking point, yet his notes had a serene articulation even at the highest speeds, and he never appeared to be exerting any effort as his fingers danced along the fretboard. Guess those Rotosound strings had something to do with it too.
Rock is the most copied music form in history. Townshend, a brilliant syncretist and innovator, has a million imitators. But although many copied elements of his style, nobody, nobody, ever played like Entwistle, no matter how hard they tried. His sound is absolutely unique, and it's the key to what The Who was all about on stage.
I never understood how much of The Who's sound was attributable to Entwistle until I saw him go on the road with his own group to promote his solo album "Smash Your Head Against the Wall." It was astonishing, a complete revelation. Entwistle filled the Palladium in New York with that glorious, Wagnerian wall of guitaristic vibration I had always attributed to Townshend. The revelation brought tears of recognition to my eyes. If you've never seen The Who perform, you probably think those glorious flourish chords that define "Pinball Wizard" are coming from Townshend's guitar. Well, if so I've got news for you. That's mostly Entwistle's bass you're hearing there.
One of the features of Entwistle's sound was that he could play at deafening volume without rumbling, droning and feeding back. Over the years both Townshend and Daltrey have attempted to back off the volume, but Entwistle never did. Just as he would impishly push the bass lines up in the mix whenever he got his hands on a Who remastering job, he always nudged the sound up as many decibels as he could get away with in live performance. It's interesting that in their remarks after his death, both Townshend and Daltrey vowed that The Who would play very loud music on this tour. Evidence from opening night at the Hollywood Bowl, however, suggests that they aren't.
Who fans have been through this before with the death of Keith Moon, but this time it's a different story altogether. Moon was failing in his ability to keep up the demanding musical role he set for himself in The Who toward the end of his life. Although his death was a shock at the time, he had been careening recklessly toward it for quite a while and it was clearly in retrospect only a matter of time before the reaper ran him down.
Ironically the hardcore Who supporters of the time didn't accept the post-Moon Who lineup with Kenney Jones, although I can personally attest to the fact that they actually improved over the final Moon performances I saw with Jones in the lineup. For one thing, Jones was a more determined timekeeper, and he played some wonderful dual exchanges with Townshend as well as freeing Entwistle from the responsibility of being the only member of the band keeping time.
Over the last 20 years The Who has basically been in retirement, hitting the road every so often to cash in on the unending demand for their hits. During this time Entwistle's occasional live forays with his own band were more Who-like than the Who reunion shows themselves.
Until last year, that is. The band had apparently regained its old aggressiveness last summer, and the performance at the Madison Square Garden Concert for the Heroes was astonishing, a true return to the band's glory days.
The band was reportedly in incredible form during rehearsals for this tour, and according to the Who's Web site it was all recorded. So even though he died before the tour officially began, Who fans will have a document of Entwistle playing with the band as it was about to recapture its title as the world's greatest rock band.