Eddie Vedder on How the Who Blew His Mind as a Kid, Changed His Life
“I was around nine when a babysitter snuck ‘Who’s Next’ onto the turntable. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling”
The Who are currently trekking across North America on their “The Who Hits 50!” tour, which Roger Daltrey has described as the beginning of the group’s “long goodbye.” The band has influenced countless musicians who have followed in its footsteps, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who shares his love for the Who below.
The Who began as spectacle. They became spectacular. Early on, the band was in pure demolition mode; later, on albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia, it coupled that raw energy with precision and desire to complete musical experiments on a grand scale. They asked, “What were the limits of rock & roll? Could the power of music actually change the way you feel?” Pete Townshend demanded that there be spiritual value in music. They were an incredible band whose main songwriter happened to be on a quest for reason and harmony in his life. He shared that journey with the listener, becoming an inspiration for others to seek out their own path. They did all this while also being in theÂ Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest band.
I was around nine when a babysitter snuck Who’s Next onto the turntable. The parents were gone. The windows shook. The shelves were rattling. Rock & roll. That began an exploration into music that had soul, rebellion, aggression, affection. Destruction. And this was all Who music. There was the mid-Sixties maximum-R&B period, mini-operas, Woodstock, solo records. Imagine, as a kid, stumbling upon the locomotive that is Live at Leeds. “Hi, my name is Eddie. I’m 10 years old and I’m getting my fucking mind blown!” The Who on record were dynamic. Roger Daltrey’s delivery allowed vulnerability without weakness; doubt and confusion, but no plea for sympathy. (You should hear Roger’s vocal on a song called “Lubie [Come Back Home],” a bonus track from the reissue of their first album, The Who Sings My Generation. It’s top-gear.)
The Who quite possibly remain the greatest live band ever. Even the list-driven punk legend and music historian Johnny Ramone agreed with me on this. You can’t explain Keith Moon or his playing. John Entwistle was an enigma unto himself, another virtuoso musical oddity. Roger turned his mic into a weapon, seemingly in self-defense. All the while, Pete was leaping into the rafters wielding a Seventies Gibson Les Paul, which happens to be a stunningly heavy guitar. As a live group, they created momentum, and they seemed to be released by the ritual of their playing. (Check out “A Quick One While He’s Away,” from the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus.)
A few years ago in Chicago, I saw Pete wring notes out of his guitar like a mechanic squeezing oil from a rag. I watched as the guitar became a living being, one getting its body bashed and its neck strangled. As Pete set it down, I swear I sensed relief coming from that guitar. A Stratocaster with sweat on it. The guitar’s sweat.
John and Keith made the Who what they were. Roger was the rock. And at this point, Pete has been through and survived more than anyone in rock royalty. Perhaps even beyond Keith Richards, who was actually guilty of most things he was accused of.
The songwriter-listener relationship grows deeper after all the years. Pete saw that a celebrity in rock is charged by the audience with a function, like, “You stand there and we will know ourselves.” Not “You stand there and we will pay you loads of money to keep us entertained as we eat our oysters.” He saw the connection could be profound. He also realized the audience may say, “When we’re finished with you, we’ll replace you with somebody else.” For myself and so many others (including shopkeepers, foremen, professionals, bellboys, gravediggers, directors, musicians), they won’t be replaced. Yes, Pete, it’s true, music can change you.