The Who, Madison Square Garden, September 1, 2019

Down at the Astoria / the scene was changing.

The Who, Madison Square Garden, September 1, 2019
long live rock.

When I was 15, I thought I liked the Who, and then I saw The Kids Are Alright, in the theater, during the initial theatrical release, and then I realized that I actually didn’t know anything about them. I resolved by the film’s end, my heart beating outside of my chest during that final scene shot at Shepperton, the first time hearing that initial pulse, like a heartbeat in the dark, 1, 2, 3, and then the explosion that is the intro to “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was one of those moments where your life changes forever. I would never be the same. I had to learn everything, I needed to hear everything, I needed to know everything. And so, a lifetime of Who fandom began.

There’s a sticky note on my computer in the place I log story ideas that says “TKAA is the perfect documentary.” It’s the perfect documentary to me because it doesn’t stop to explain anything. Jeff Stein just assumes if you’re there, you know, and he doesn’t much care if you don’t, it’s on you to figure it out. That describes how I feel about being a Who fan from the age of 15; there were these people in the world who liked Who’s Next and could name a handful of songs and would probably claim they were Who fans, and then there were the rest of us, who read every word Pete ever wrote or said and fought bitterly with our parents when we couldn’t understand WHY we couldn’t have our dad’s Army parka so we could scrawl a Who logo on the back, just like Jimmy in Quadrophenia. (They sell these now on I collected every possible note of music that existed -- I paid $50 for one of the Meher Baba albums with my freaking babysitting money when I was 16; I own every single one of John Entswistle’s solo albums.

This isn’t markedly different with other artists or bands, but where I think the Who are different is the outer facade of aggro and sturm und drang vs the grand attempts at something where Pete just fell on his face because he reached too far, tried too hard, but put it out ANYWAY, staged the tour anyway, brought the lasers anyway, went on the road with a horn section -- the imperfections were the things that the diehards leaned into and embraced. The intra-band squabbles. The poseurs just didn’t get it.

I last saw our boys on that 2002 tour where we lost Entwistle (TOWNSHEND WITH AN H, ENTWISTLE WITHOUT) and I wasn’t even going to that tour -- lawn seats were, like, $86, and not that I would have sat on the lawn, it was just so much money I couldn’t do it, but once John passed someone on Odds & Sods found me a ticket and instead of just picking people up at the airport I picked people up at the airport and drove them to the Gorge. I wound up in the front row. Roger gave me a piece of his tambourine because I was standing in front of Pino Palladino, my face a waterfall. I said my goodbyes. It wasn’t so much that I was done but that I needed more than Roger finding the perfect setlist and sticking with it forever. As much as I would complain about having to pretend to like something like Bridges to Babylon and I was almost grateful when the Stones stopped making us pretend we were interested in the new record, I thought Pete had more music in him if he would just, I dunno, let it out.

But at some point this summer I woke up one Saturday morning and by the end of the day had bought a ticket to see the Stones at MetLife and while poking around Ticketmaster, came up with the right mix of price and location to see the Who at the Garden. It was the Garden, not some awful outdoor venue. It was where things started for me, I might as well see the lads off.

So Sunday night, there I was, riding up the escalators one more time. I took my seat, “just over Bobby Pridden’s shoulder,” as I texted a friend, and once again familiarized myself with being in the general vicinity of dude Who fans who think they own this band. (I was pleased that there were two women near me in my row who were very, very clearly there for themselves and not there as seat-warmers.) I was looking forward to the show, but I had zero expectations, honestly. I mean, it was a Who show. It would be fun to see the guys again. I kind of knew there would be an orchestra; I thought, “It will be great to hear some of the Quadrophenia songs with horns.”

You have never seen someone so excited for the french horns to kick in during the “Overture” from Tommy. It wasn’t just “oh there are french horns and they are sitting six feet from me,” but rather that I knew exactly when the french horns would kick in (as did many people in the Garden, judging by the amount of amateur conductors waving their hands around). I am not a Tommy die hard by any means, but by the end of the first six songs of the set, going through “Amazing Journey” and “Sparks” and “Listening To You” with the full orchestral backing was a surreal, almost hallucinatory experience. It was huge and immersive and connected straight back to teenage Caryn sitting on the floor of her purple room on her purple carpet, headphones on, listening to the album with complete and total intensity and concentration. It felt like I was floating three feet off the ground. I cursed myself for bothering with eyeliner, it was gone within moments.

Roger’s voice was in decent shape; far better than it was on that solo outing in 2009 (which I wish I’d seen in a better venue than whatever that theater in Times Square is called these days). Pete’s voice, however, was not, and I wish someone had considered that when putting the setlist together. At one point he called for a throat lozenge or something similar, causing whoever was minding his guitars (RIP Alan Rogan) to go into a panic and start rooting through every drawer of his equipment bench (really, the sidestage seats at the Garden are an underrated treasure) while holding the guitar Pete needed for the next number, and not seeing Pete waving at him to stop it and just bring the guitar out already.

At one point I tweeted that the sound problems were starting to feel like the beginning of the 1974 Quadrophenia tour, a tour I feel the need to point out that I was not old enough to see or have experienced in anything like real time (I was TEN), but it’s just the kind of obnoxious thing that I would say to the general public and not care if they didn’t know what it meant. The people I was saying it for knew EXACTLY what I meant, just like telling Marisa I was sitting over Bobby Pridden’s shoulder and knowing she would be able to find me, just like the super obnoxious thing I used to do with friends walking into Who shows, where we would chant WE ARE THE MODS, WE ARE THE MODS, WE ARE, WE ARE, WE ARE THE MODS. We knew we were being obnoxious; we also did not fucking care.

“This is a song off of The Who By Numbers,” Roger shared. “HOWEVER MUCH I BOOZE,” yelled our section’s particular dickhead. I would tell you exactly what Roger said but the sound in our section was point blank terrible: you don’t sell sidestage seats and then not hang a speaker column in that direction. (Although on the way out I heard a young man complain how “The Real Me” has one of the best bass lines in the history of rock and you couldn’t hear it; he might have been sitting near me or the sound might just have been fucking awful.) “Imagine A Man,” coming in right after the TV segment of “Who Are You” and “Eminence Front,” both of which had significant technical difficulties -- Roger constantly taking his in-ear monitors out all night -- turned into the song at which half the Garden decided to go get a beer or hit the rest room. “Imagine A Man” goes into … a new song, which is exactly where you want to put a brand new song and if you are Pete Townshend, you’re going to preface it with a lengthy introduction and then tell us the person you’re dedicating to/wrote it with died this morning.

“This song is from nineteen sixty FUCKING six,” Mr. Peter Townshend snarled into the microphone before “Substitute,” during the non-orchestral interlude of the show. Roger had just held forth about being old, and about their voices not being exactly what they used to be. And, like, there is something just so… WHOVIAN about that whole thing, about how they’re out on what has to be, what, the fourth or fifth FAREWELL TOUR, and there was definitely a way to do that without taking out a full orchestra -- it’s a FULL ORCHESTRA. There are fucking TYMPANI -- they are not going out gracefully. They are not going out without a fight.

I am so sorry I did not go see them at Wembley.

Also very Who-like was the trainwreck segue from “The Seeker” into “You Better You Bet” which I know I can hold Roger Daltrey PERSONALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR, because for some fucking reason he LIKES YBYB. I look at the people in the crowd who are legitimately dancing around and think, there is no way you all bought a copy of Face Dances. (Which was my first real-time Who album, but you know, better than it being It’s Hard [the funny thing about that record is that it literally came out like two days before that tour started so none of us had actually heard the songs yet. So Who!]).

“A new song is next, and if you all sit down because it’s a new song, I will stop the show,” complains Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend, and then he backpedals a little bit, but then tells us there is new material and it is coming out in November, and of course he would write new material that would come out for the holidays but not tour behind it. This takes us into the Quadrophenia segment of the show -- Horns! HORNS ON 5:15! -- and no, we can’t hear the bass on “5:15,” but this is where Pete decides we need the traditional jam session in the middle of the song. It was clear that he was frustrated by all the technical difficulties and wanted to try to solo his way out of it but what this show did not need was an interval of noodling, mate.

Pete blanks out on the lyrics to “I’m One,” Simon trying to help him without losing pace but no, Pete needs to make sure we know he doesn’t remember the words -- I am literally sitting back in my seat cackling. Yes, I would have liked a lovely straight version of this song, but also, honestly, the Quad songs and their teenage hormonal angst have aged the least well, I think. “Drowned” fares a little better, and then it’s time for “The Rock,” the most successful of Pete’s symphonic attempts, I think, because it is supposed to be the rain and the sea and the rock and thunder and wind, there’s an outboard motor in there too, it’s reprising the four themes of the title, it is, truly, denouement. All I could think was, you beautiful genius, constantly trying for that which is always beyond your grasp. You do it anyway, and give it to us anyway, and try it again.

Roger raises both arms above his head, and a fellow a few seats over breathes, almost subconsciously: “This is it.” Because we all know what is next, no one needs to tell us what is next, and again, if you don’t know what is next, well, too bad; you’ll miss it. “Love Reign O’er Me” is always about catharsis and redemption, it’s inescapable, and it is the decades of our love for this band and this music, and it is holding our breath for whether or not Roger can hit that last scream; he steps back, he drinks water, he spits it out in a cloud of golden droplets in the spotlight and then he wraps his voice around that final chorus, he steps into that beautiful, dramatic exhortation with everything he has, and the crowd explodes out of sheer joy and gratitude.

We cheered them off that stage at the end with everything we had, despite the fuckups, despite the bum notes, despite the missed lyrics, because of all of it. They will get better; they will work out the glitches; but those shows will not be the last time at Madison Square Garden, because there is no place like Madison Square Garden and nothing like a MSG Who audience. It was everything, and there will never be anything like it again.