How do you grow old gracefully in an art form that is about never doing
anything gracefully? This has been a central preoccupation for all of the
baby boom's most revered rock icons, with the possible exception of Bob
Dylan, who just doesn't seem to care (and who aspired to be a 75-year-old
bluesman when he was still in his 20s). But it has been an even thornier
problem for the band that epitomized the exuberance of the youth-obsessed
mod movement, and which gave us its anthem with "My Generation" back in
1965, complete with the then-20-year-old Pete Townshend's famous
declaration, "I hope I die before I get old."
By 1982, when the Who released its first retirement album, "It's Hard,"
Townshend was playing a different tune. "Don't you get embarrassed when
you read the precious things you said?" he wrote and Roger Daltrey sang
in "Cry If You Want." Now, almost another quarter-century down the line, the
61-year-old guitarist and songwriter and the 62-year-old singer are once
again touring the arenas, and one of the most memorable moments comes when
they segue "My Generation" into "Cry If You Want."
"Hope I die," Townshend crooned in the connective passage between
the songs before a recent audience in New York. Then he added, "Hope I
die before I get old," followed by "I hope I get old." And
finally: "What am I gonna be when I grow up?"
Ever the seeker, the notion that Pete still doesn't know is one of his
most endearing traits. In recent years, while the Who was mostly on hiatus,
he has worked in publishing (serving as an editor with England's Faber &
Faber), an author (he has been penning an autobiography called Pete
Townshend: Who He for years now) and a solo artist, in addition to
making unwelcome headlines in 2003 when he was accused of collecting child
porn on his computer. (Townshend said he was doing research, and no charges
were ever filed.) In between, the fact that Pete kept coming back to his old
band has been a mixed blessing for all but the most unapologetic Who
There is simply no denying that the New Millennial Who isn't really the
Who at all. Drummer Keith Moon died of a drug overdose while fighting
alcoholism in 1978, while bassist John Entwistle came to a "sudden ending
with the line of coke and the hooker in Las Vegas" in 2002, to cite an
unsentimental quote from Daltrey in a recent interview with the British
In place of those legendary musicians are session bassist Pino Palladino
and Ringo Starr's son Zak Starkey on drums. With the current band completed
by Pete's brother Simon on second guitar and backing vocals and longtime
sideman John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards, it more accurately could be
called "the Whomever." (And before diehards attribute that crack to snotty
Gen-X irreverence, let me note that I borrowed it from former Sun-Times
classical music critic Wynne Delacoma.)
Chicago fans have been lucky to be treated to several exclusive, "to hell
with retirement and Pete's tinnitus" Who performances since the late '90s,
courtesy of Townshend's fund-raisers for Maryville Academy at the House of
Blues. Those gigs showed occasional flashes of inspiration, but you couldn't
help thinking that the Townshend/Daltrey/Entwistle/Moon lineup -- or even
the later version of the group with drummer Kenney Jones -- would have
handed us our heads on a platter in such an intimate setting. The New Who
just sort of cheerfully ambled along, riding the magic bus of nostalgia.
Townshend prefers to call the current band "Who2," according to a recent
interview with the Observer newspaper in the U.K.
"It's not a rejuvenation at all because we really don't have that in us,"
he said. "I think it is a rebranding, a recognition that the old Who brand
is inviolable. There's almost nothing you can do with it. This was my
problem in the '80s -- the brand was just so powerful. Who fans didn't like
the last couple of albums that we made, 'It's Hard' and 'Face Dances,'
[because] they just didn't fit the model of the brand. So I sensed that what
Roger and I should do was honor the brand, honor the history, honor the
classicism. We should respect the fact of what we did and accept our
And so Sir Pete and Sir Roger are once again hitting the boards,
performing all the old Who favorites in the arenas, as well as trotting out
a heaping sampling of songs from the first "new Who album" in 24 years.
Scheduled for release on Halloween, "Endless Wire" contains 19 tracks, 10 of
which comprise what Townshend calls "a full-length mini-opera" titled "Wire
& Glass" that tells the story of three kids forming a Motown-infused rock
band and scoring a hit.
The new songs include "In the Ether," an exploration of spiritual
awakening; "A Man in a Purple Dress," an angry attack on the hypocrisy of
organized religion (which Townshend wrote after seeing Mel Gibson's "The
Passion of the Christ"); "Black Widow's Eyes," about the Stockholm syndrome
among hostages, and "Mirror Door," which imagines an afterlife where
entertainment legends gather to discuss their work. Present at the party:
Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Howlin' Wolf ... and Doris Day, who's still with
us. "I was absolutely convinced she was dead," Townshend told England's
None of the themes in these songs is new territory for Townshend, nor,
according to critics who've heard them, is the music a departure: The new
ditty "Fragments" is even built upon the familiar synthesizer riff that
powers "Baba O'Riley."
But such is the state of the Who circa 2006. Meet the new boss, not quite
the same as the old boss, but dedicated nonetheless to keeping the brand
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison
Call: (312) 559-1212