The Who played thousands of concerts during an illustrious career beginning in the early Sixties. My wife Sue and I managed to see just one, but it was a magnificent show indeed.
In their heyday, the Who were the epitome of rock 'n' roll. You heard their essence in records like "My Generation," "Magic Bus," "I Can See for Miles," "The Seeker" and dozens more.
But for me their spirit was captured visually in a photograph I saw in downtown Cleveland during a visit to Ohio for the grand opening of the Rock 'N' Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. The photographer snapped the shutter just as a frantic Keith Moon hurled his drum kit into the crowd of screaming teenagers. Moon's antics weren't premeditated, he was just caught up in the frenzy.
Keith's energy couldn't be contained by a rock 'n' roll show or by life itself. Unfortunately, this wild side led to his death in 1978 from an overdose of prescription drugs.
Although the group pressed on with the release of the "Who Are You" album, misfortune still trailed them. In a rush to get the best seats, 11 concert-goers were suffocated in a stampede at a Who show on Dec. 3, 1979. The tragedy happened just a few miles down the road at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. The band was faultless in the accident, but it still weighed upon them.
By 1982, the Who undertook a "farewell" tour and issued "Who's Last," which I gratefully received as a Christmas gift.
But, the Who wasn't finished.
As the years passed, lead guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend decided it was time for his group to to play "Quadrophenia,"-- their two disc masterpiece from 1973--live for the first time. For those not familiar with the work, Quadrophenia is the story of mod rocker "Jimmy," who has four personalities. It is paired in the Who's discography with "Tommy," another acclaimed rock opera.
After rehearsals with drummer Zak Starkey (Ringo's son), the Who set out on the road.
Our paths finally intersected when Sue and I saw the iconic band perform at Milwaukee's Marcus Amphitheatre on July 23, 1997.
The audience at the outdoor venue was treated to a multi-media performance of the complete "Quadrophenia" program, during a warm summer evening. Not unexpectedly, the crowd was enthralled by the performance, seeing a classic rock 'n' roll story come to life before their eyes for the first time. Watching the spectacle offered me a respite from mourning the passing of my mother, Jean Seymour, who had died a few months before.
On stage, the explosive Starkey propelled the the rhythm section, which also included the rock steady bass licks of a typically stoic John Entwistle. Also appearing were numerous guest singers and musicians, including P. J. Proby and guitarist Simon Townshend, Pete's brother.
Singer Roger Daltrey had his vocal chords tested during a closing hits segment which included "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Substitute," "I Can't Explain," and "Who Are You."
The Who demonstrated their enviable talents for the Milwaukee crowd, playing part of the Who canon never before performed live. The show was a gutsy move for a trio of aging rock 'n' rollers.
A testament of the band's prowess is being released this week when Rhino issues the DVD souvenir of the tour, "Quadrophenia Live."
Only five years after the Milwaukee show, John Entwistle followed Moon into the rock 'n' roll hereafter when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Las Vegas, just a day before a Who tour was scheduled to start.
Now, Townshend and Daltrey have announced the band will launch a 2006 world tour by recreating their legendary Leeds University gig on June 17, exactly 36 years after the original performance. The resulting 1970 LP is still considered one of the best-ever live albums.
Whether Sue and I will ever get to see the Who ever perform again isn't clear. If we do, they're bound to surprise us again. If not, we can look back on their Wisconsin performance knowing one of rock's greatest live groups took the challenge to play a complicated rarely-performed long-form masterpiece, rather than simply knock out the hits.