Riding Nostalgia's magic bus


September 25, 2006


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 fanatics.

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 press.

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 knighthood."

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 Sunday Express.

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 alive.


WITH moe.

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: United Center, 1901 W. Madison

Tickets: $50-$200

Call: (312) 559-1212