I can’t shake this image of a CBS board meeting in which the discussion turns to entertainment for the Super Bowl Half Time show. Some smart alec suggests CBS find a way to shamelessly plug their shows. Everyone shifts in their chairs uncomfortably, feigning disgust while wiping the spittle from the corners of their lips as they salivate at the thought. Some genius quickly notes, “well, all three of our CSI shows use theme songs by The Who,” followed by the observation that in recent years the NFL has shown a distinct fondness for what we’ll politely call “heritage acts.” (Personal note: I’d much rather watch The Who or Springsteen or The Stones than Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus, but I don’t represent the younger audience typically coveted by the Boob Tube).
Ta-dah! Someone’s on the phone to the management of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey and their who-the-heck-are-they fill-ins for drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle. At this point, Who critics launch into well-rehearsed arguments that the band shoulda hung it up three decades ago when a drug overdose sent Moon to the great rock and roll beyond. When illegal substances also took out Entwistle nearly a quarter century later, Townshend and Daltrey should have happily taken their senior discounts at the local multiplex and started hitting local diners for the early bird specials.
This is the kind of rallying argument that is roughly like supporting the fight against poverty or homelessness. There isn’t really anyone arguing FOR poverty or homelessness, is there? Similarly, rock music fans don’t argue in favor of, ahem, “heritage acts” milking their catalogs for every ounce of profit even if it means the star who leapt off speaker towers forty years ago is now breaking a hip when he slips off the stage.
The naysayers can whine about how good the Who were back in ’64 when they first started out, but I say, at age 64 if Townshend still wants to flail his arm around in that iconic windmill pose, then damned be the retirement home. Rock musicians are strangely held to a different standard than musicians from other genres. To my knowledge, the blues world hasn’t called for B.B. King to quietly put Lucille in her guitar case and back away. I’m not aware of anyone crying foul that Willie Nelson still trots out on stage night after night in his bandana and braided ponytails. Yet people cringe when an old fogie (are there young fogies?) who once wrote “hope I die before I get old,” uh, well, doesn’t.
The problem is how rock and roll was born out of the celebration of youth. The Beatles broke up before any of them hit their thirties. Jimi Hendrix is permanently frozen in time at age 27. Buddy Holly was tragically taken before his time because, well, the rock and roll legend-making machine said it was his time.
Let’s be real here, though. Rock and roll has also always been about making money and – believe it or not – making music. There's also the whole sex and drugs thing, but that's another blog entry. Why should anyone be faulted for doing what they know how to do and taking home a paycheck because of it? I say let the Pete Townshends of the world still perform, even when they need a walker to get on stage and a teleprompter to remember words they’ve belted out thousands of times before. I’d rather The King didn’t take his final breath on the toilet at 42. I’d prefer that the looney bin got a hold of Mark David Chapman pre-December 8, 1980. I wish the Lizard King hadn’t drowned in his bathtub, that “Me and Bobby McGee” hadn’t been a posthumous #1, and that Neil Young’s lyric “better to burn out than to fade away” wouldn’t evoke the image of a grunge god and a shotgun.
Rock and roll is littered with too many casualties whose untimely deaths were investigated by real CSI units. If the Who want to sing the CSI theme song for a possible audience of 100 million, then more power to them. Here’s hoping that all our living rock legends get a chance to milk the line “hope I die before I get old” for every last ounce of irony.
Also check out Dave's Music Database on Facebook, where a top 10 best songs of the Who list has been posted.