I didn’t leap at the chance to see The Who here in Detroit. I’m not a big concert-goer—crowds, decibels, cost, and opening bands all make me think “Nah, I’ll just listen to the album instead.” I’m not proud to say that I often get bored at even good shows, and as my mind wanders I wonder when it’s going to end and please, I’m tired and I have to work tomorrow so I want to go home now so no encore.
There are exceptions, and performers who meant a lot to me during certain periods of my life, but that’s mostly true of solo artists like Lyle Lovett and Aimee Mann. Arena rock, though? It only took a few shows (the Police and U2 back in the day) to make me sure I didn’t need that sort of thing in my life any more.
But…The Who. I started listening to them in the 1970s, via WLS, 89 on your AM dial all night long. I’ve never stopped. But, these days Daltrey and Townshend are all that’s left and is that enough? And they’re…well, they’re old. And because I now know more than John “Records truly is my middle name” Landecker ever told me through my transistor radio about their complicated relationship to each other and touring, that makes them less like the monolithic presence they were to me when I was a kid. (Yes, that was a “Who’s Next” joke.)
So when I saw they were coming to Detroit I said, out loud, to my wife. “Not interested. What’s the point?”
And then I thought about it some more, and read more about the show and how they were working with a symphony orchestra and that this might be the we-really-mean-it-this-time last tour together and I thought about Douglas Adams’ best book, Last Chance to See. And I realized this was probably it for me, and if I didn’t I’d regret it as much as my wife regrets skipping a chance to see Zappa, her favorite artist, when she had a chance.
Long story short, I went. K came with me, even though she’s emphatically not a fan, and neither of us were bored for a moment. Daltrey and Townshend were technically superb, both musically and in the way they put together a show that played to their strengths and mitigated any weaknesses age might have dealt their voices or bodies. When the music demanded their youthful power Daltrey could still deliver a full-volumed and anguished prayer and Townshend could still deliver a series of chords that started and ended with his arm straight above his head. The hair stood up on my arms and neck during more than one number. It was emotional and inspiring in ways the disaffected youths that we all were—or in my case, pretended to be—would have scoffed at as a teen. This is not going gentle into that good night. As Townshend said at one point, “I fucking hate this. But I’m really good at it.” Maybe that’s about playing live and touring or how he and Daltrey don’t communicate well. Maybe they don’t, sort of, in some contexts…but it’s obvious they like being good together. And they were very good together in Detroit.
They didn’t play an encore, and I wanted one.