Minutes before leaving the Desert Trips Stage, Pete Townshend eulogized the dead. "Eulogize" might actually be a little too polite. This was halfway between slander and halfhearted séance. In summoning the spirit of Who bassist, John Entwhistle, Townshend reminded the world that he "died in Las Vegas in 2002, due to complicated drug and sex problems…but at least it was in a blaze of glory."
Last night, Entwhistle would've turned 72, a fact that the Who's lead guitarist and chief songwriter acknowledged with some uncertainty: "I think it's his birthday? Well…whenever it is, have a line for me."
I haven't seen people laugh so uneasily since Eric Andre at the Republican convention. If most offer posthumous lionization, Townshend reminded the world that Entwhistle died in a room at the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel after allegedly doing mountains of coke with a stripper. If you're keeping score, this is the greatest cliché death in rock n' roll history. It only could've been topped if John Bonham had expired mid-coitus with a groupie and a red snapper.
Before introducing the band's drummer, Townshend memorialized Keith Moon, describing him as the "great…fantastic wanker." The new drummer had apparently studied under the original wanker's kit. It was awkward and unsettling. Decades later, Townshend remained embittered that his old bandmates abandoned him and Roger Daltrey to finish what they'd all started.
So "The Two" were left, still offering windmill guitar licks and swinging microphone cords well into the 21st century. Out of the Oldchella lineup, history has been the least kind to The Who—a fact that Townshend spitefully noted. He fired shots at radio programmers for playing Led Zeppelin more than The Who after 1980. Which might be true, but is also an insane proposition to complain about, because American classic radio drills every word to "Baba O' Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" into your brain to where more people know them than New Testament verses.
In its own way, there was something inspiring to Townshend's pettiness. It was almost Kanye-level, and allowed you to understand how these slights fueled his band's rise to become the official Mod band of the 60s, pioneers of the rock opera, and the creators of the best song ever written about pinball. That's the thing about watching The Who in 2016: It's unmistakably dated. There's something depressing about watching a 72-year old man shamble and shadow box, swing his mic cord like a lariat or fake inject himself with heroin to "The Kids Are Alright." Or stutter on "My Generation." "Pinball Wizard" might be a good song, but I just had to Google whether they still make pinball machines. (*Extremely Michael Bluth voice* They do). Barely.
Townshend tells the crowd about the 60s: "We were like Adele or Justin Bieber or Rihanna…we were hip and hot and it was fab, fab fab on the charts." There's a sardonic bite in his voice, as though he wishes he could do it again and wasn't reduced to playing these FM radio anthems until he tilts his last windmill. As for Daltrey, he's lost the lithe feral quality of his youth. He's wearing those blue-tinted "old man trying to be cool" shades and his shirt perilously continues to come unbuttoned, presumably to thrill the 57-year old woman with whom I once worked at the San Fernando Valley Business Journal who repeatedly told me against my will that "Daltrey was the definition of sex." Townshend's gone gray, stayed bald, and currently looks like former Letterman bandleader, Paul Schaeffer.
But there are enough undeniable moments for redemption. Daltrey's retained his anthemic boom. Townshend can still shred. And save for a dreary middle portion with a Time-Life montage of the major geopolitical moments of the 20th century, The Who put on a show that would still shame 99.8 percent of rock bands under 30.
Maybe they aren't indestructible debaucherous freaks like The Stones or timelessly raw and authentic as like Neil Young. They lack the doomed prophecy of Dylan. But The Who merely remain a very good rock n' roll band, slightly slower and stiff, sweating hard but intractable and powerful enough.
During the set, I couldn't help but think about Kurt Cobain's heroin letter—the one where he said, "I hope I die before I become Pete Townshend. " It's one of the best disses ever written, but there's something more difficult in learning to survive, doing the best that you can even if it's slightly diminished. Or as Townshend noted another benefit of being able to still stand on-stage: "You can speak all the ill of the dead that you want…they can't answer back."
Even though Townshend spoke most of the night, they left it to Daltrey to offer the final blessing. He thanked Pete Townshend, "the maestro." He thanked the rest of the band and then the crowd, offering one last imprecation: "May you all be happy, may you all be healthy, and may you all have the benefit of being extra lucky."
In those syllables, there was a ghoulish almost manic curve to Daltrey's voice. He didn't need to elaborate. It was clear what he meant. A reversal of the words on "My Generation." That's the song you write when you haven't seen how the story unfolds. These are the words you say when you understand the consequences—the hope that you get old before you die.
The Who Setlist:
I Can't Explain
Who Are You
The Kids Are Alright
I Can See for Miles
Behind Blue Eyes
You Better You Bet
Love, Reign O'er Me
The Acid Queen
See Me, Feel Me
Won't Get Fooled Again
Follow Jeff Weiss on Twitter.