By the time I finally saw the Who, it was already too late.
The Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend-fronted British Invasion band — who are playing Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia Saturday on their Moving On! tour — were my first favorite band.
Never mind the Beatles. The Fab Four and the 1960s were dead and gone, part of an irrevocable past by the time I was old enough to understand music was created by actual humans who might come to play a concert in Philadelphia that you could somehow hope to get to — even if you were growing up on the other end of the Atlantic City Expressway in Ventnor.
But the Who were a living, breathing, larger-than-life entity whose music weirdly pulled in my preadolescent self. Or maybe it wasn’t so weird: Townshend’s songs teemed with the tumult of youth, and Keith Moon and John Entwistle created a finely controlled chaos that mirrored the emotional maelstrom.
And Townshend didn’t bother writing the kind of silly love songs that I would have been too young to understand anyway. He wrote rock operas with stories you could track, including a parable about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy with a skill highly valued at the Jersey Shore — playing pinball!
So it was in 1973, when I was 11, that I remember getting my own copy of the Who’s new double LP Quadrophenia from the Columbia House mail order music club. (Or maybe it was my older brother Nick’s. I might have stolen it.)
I’d later understand that Quadrophenia was an ambitious opus about a 1960s Mod whose fractured self reflected the four members of the Who, written by a 28-year-old Townshend, looking back on the period when he famously declared “I hope I die before I get old” in “My Generation.”
But at the time, I was just swept up in the majesty of the music on what is still my favorite Who album. Between that and Tommy, and Jesus Christ Superstar, I had all the rock opera I needed. And I was on my way to a lifetime of frustrating Who fandom.
From the beginning, it was a misadventure. The baby boomer band released the final album of their classic period, Who Are You, in 1978. Three weeks after its release, the incomparable Moon swallowed 32 sleeping pills and died.
In 1979, I got my brother to drive us to the Tower Theater to see the Who rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. Great movie, but while skipping down the steps to the Tower’s subterranean bathroom I bashed my head and began bleeding profusely. (No stitches required.)
It reminded me of a 1977 Townshend quote from Rolling Stone pinned to my bedroom wall: “If it screams for truth rather than help, if it commits itself with a courage it can’t be sure it really has, if it stands up and admits something is wrong but doesn’t insist on blood, then it’s rock & roll. We shed our own blood. We don’t need to shed anyone else’s.” Rock-and-roll!
Later that year, the Who were set to play the Spectrum with new drummer, Kenny Jones. I slept out at the Ticketron outlet at Atlantic City Records & Tapes (ACRAT), but in the morning, tickets were gone before I got my foot in the door. Stymied! (A week before the band played Philly, 11 fans were crushed to death in Cincinnati.)
So the first time I actually got to see the Who in the flesh wasn’t until Sept. 25, 1982, when they headlined John F. Kennedy Stadium, playing to 90,000 people.
And by that time, things had gotten complicated. I had a new favorite British rock band — and along with Santana and The Hooters — they were also on the bill: the Clash. And it turned out classic rock Who fans were clueless about punk, and showered The Only Band That Matters with boos. For shame, Philadelphia! Joe Strummer stomped off stage.
Well, that sucked. Were the Who now the enemy? That’s a little harsh, but what seemed obvious from what I recall as a tepid performance was that they had indeed gotten old. Townshend and Daltrey were 37 and 38, for goodness sake, and frank in acknowledging their time was up.
That 1982 trek was billed as the band’s final tour, a claim that would make them a punchline, as they would get back together for Live Aid in London in 1985, and then again and again. They stopped creating new work. After It’s Hard in ’82, there wasn’t another Who album until 2006. (Townshend and Daltrey have recorded music this year, though, and a new album is due in the fall.)
This put me in a common predicament for fans of aging bands — whether they be heroes from your youth, or just an older band whose true greatness might have been achieved long before you were even born. (Yes, the Rolling Stones are coming to Lincoln Financial Field on July 23.)
Do you love the music so much that you feel compelled to see them for what might be the last time, even if you’re pretty sure the band will be a mere shadow of their former selves?
Time’s passage hasn’t been the only thorny issue for the Who. In the ’00s, there was the annoying presence of so many Who songs being heard in commercials — “Happy Jack,” for Hummer, for instance — not to mention a different song for every iteration of CSI.
And then there was the question of whether it was even ethical to be a Who fan. In 2003, news broke that Scotland Yard had investigated Townshend for buying child pornography on the internet, which he said he had done for research for a book. He was never charged with a crime and repeatedly asserted he is “not a pedophile.”
(When I interviewed Townshend in 2006, he wouldn’t discuss it but was feisty in defending licensing songs: “We have to do whatever we can to make sure that people hear the music,” he said, and dropped an unpublishable f-bomb at me to make clear what he thought of his critics.)
I’ve gone back to the Who again and again, part fan, part critic, part skeptic. I skipped the Vet in 1989, but saw them do Quadrophenia in Hyde Park in London in 1996.
That show, and the tour that followed, was weird: Townshend, who has suffered hearing loss, only played acoustic guitar, walling himself off in a plastic booth on stage. Rock-and-roll, it was not.
But a funny thing has happened with the Who shows I’ve seen since then: They’ve gotten better. Whether due to advancements in medical or acoustic technology, Townshend’s gotten back to playing electric guitar.
At the Tweeter Center in 2002 (which, with Pino Palladino on bass weeks after Entwistle’s cocaine overdose death, was the best Who show I ever saw), as well as in South Philadelphia in 2006 and 2012 Quadrophenia tour, Townshend was again dramatically attacking his instrument, windmilling with no regard for his rotator cuff.
Last year, I saw Daltrey at the Mann Center, touring in advance of the 50th anniversary of Tommy with Who helpers like Pete’s brother Simon Townshend on guitar. The now 75-year-old singer’s range is greatly diminished, but it was still a satisfying summer show, passionately and professionally rendered.
For Saturday, I’m guardedly optimistic. I’m told the reviews have been positive. The band, which includes bassist Jon Button and drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo Starr’s son), is more than capable. And, hopefully, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia classes things up without diminishing the music’s power.
But really, who am I kidding? All I really need is one good reason to be kind of excited to see the Who one more time. They’re still my first favorite band.