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Who are we?

By Lawrence Henry
web posted October 29, 2001

Back in the 1970s, I went with my friends Rusty and David to see the Who's concert movie, The Kids Are All Right, when it opened at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It was a weekday afternoon, and the cavernous theater held perhaps 35 men of about our age - about 30.

The lights went down, the film came up, and we waited for half a minute or so. Then, all together, all 35 of us shouted, "Louder!"

The Dome's management obediently turned up the volume.

Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend during the concert
Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend during the concert

At the recent Concert for NYC, when the Who took the stage, I felt both excited and apprehensive - even watching on TV. Despite the utter suitability to the occasion of the Who's slamming, power-chord music, I wondered how their songs would go over with New York's firemen and policemen jamming the arena floor up front. When the band opened with "Who Are You?" I worried. The song, a bitter, wrenching reminiscence of Pete Townshend hitting his alcoholic bottom, opens with the line, "I woke up in a Soho doorway, a policeman knew my name…"

Somehow I couldn't believe it as a mounting roar rose from the audience. These guys were mourning, weren't they? This concert was a memorial, wasn't it?

The cameras panned the crowd, showing the cops and firefighters rocking in place, flailing their arms, playing Townshend-style air guitar. By the second song, "Baba O'Riley," as Townshend stepped to the mike to sign the signature lines, the audience identification was obvious. Everybody, everybody was singing, "It's only teenage wasteland!"

They knew all the words. These tough, wounded, heartbroken New York City dudes knew all the words. The band hit the opening notes of "Behind Blue Eyes." "Oh, no, they can't play that," I thought. But the cops and firefighters were still singing. They knew all the words. And the tears came.

No one knows what it's like to be the bad man
To be the sad man behind blue eyes…
But my dreams, they aren't as empty
As my conscience seems to be
I have hours, only lonely
My love is vengeance that's never free…
No one bites back so hard on his anger like I do
And I blame you

They sang along. They knew all the words.

And no, the Who couldn't possibly end their set with "Won't Get Fooled Again," that blistering, cynical indictment of politics. But they did. And by that time the audience's roar was overwhelming even the band, and could not be contained.

I'm an old rock and roller, a musician and former rock journalist, and I've been to a lot of shows, but I've never seen anything like it.

Who were these guys in the crowd? And why did they react as they did to songs which were not about patriotism, not about heroism, not about exemplary emotions? Because Peter Townshend has always written about the contradictions and the grief of simply being a mortal man, of doing what mortal men do, no matter what: "Pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday…" Townshend has made all the mistakes that men make. He has never bent himself into moral contortions to pat himself on the back for having made them. Instead, he has simply put them out front, the way they are: "I remember throwing punches around and preaching from my chair…"

It's not too much to suppose that those tough guys in the crowd have made every mistake Townshend has made, and then some. The Who are a man's band, in short. They've never been heartthrobs, never mind Roger Daltrey's buff swagger. They've never betrayed the least inclination to glitzy mainstream show biz.

If cops and firefighters played rock and roll (and you can bet some of them do), they'd play rock and roll like the Who. Firefighter Mike Moran took the stage to utter the night's most memorable line: "Osama bin Laden, you can kiss my royal Irish ass!" The roof nearly caved in at the applause. By contrast, Hillary Clinton poked her snooty nose in where she wasn't wanted, and got hooted off the stage. Interviewed by Rush Limbaugh the following week, Moran said, of Clinton's reception, "Serious men at that time did not want to hear that babble."

Serious men at that time knew what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear the Who.

And they sure did.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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