Remembering the late Who bassist on a landmark birthday in Rock & Roll Heaven
The Who’s John Entwistle – arguably the most prominent bassist in rock history – would have turned 75 today.
He died in 2002 in Las Vegas. The legend has been that Entwistle, after kicking a cocaine habit, said, “Aw one more snort for old time’s sake” before a Who tour was to start and that did him in.
Or as Paul Rees quotes John’s son Christopher as saying in his 2020 biography The Ox: “Dad was no angel … Dad partied with some friends, did a line of coke, had sex with someone he knew, an exotic dancer and never woke up. It wasn’t the worst way to go.”
Well, at the least, it certainly hits the sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trifecta.
It was no secret, but as Rees details, Entwistle made a ton of money and spent a ton of money (and had some heavy alimony payments). Hence, he always needed money. He didn’t get Pete Townshend-like publishing money; The Who hadn’t made an album since 1982; and they were kaput – at least as far as he knew.
AUDIO: The John Entwistle Band Live at Tramps NYC 1/31/96
So, he had a side band and used to do blues/rock club gigs. I caught a few of those in Boston clubs over the years. There was a kick about doing that – seeing a member of a superstar band playing your local club. Loudly. Very loudly.
In 1996, Entwistle and company were at a club called Mama Kin, part-owned by Aerosmith, on Boston’s Lansdowne Street. I ran into Ken Jones, who I’d first gotten to know when he was road manager for the Kinks. He was performing the same duty for his pal, Entwistle. I spotted Jones in a hallway bridging the two rooms at Mama Kin, sheltered from the hurricane raging onstage. Ken was a wise man. “It seems John’s turned it up a bit,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t listen.”
Oh, yes. Entwistle – nicknamed The Ox and sometimes Thunderfingers – was hearing-impaired, and he played at a cochlea-crushing volume that threatened to make the audience one with him in that respect. You know the cliché/joke: I suffered for his art, now it’s your turn.
“My hearing was perfect until the end of The Who’s career,” Entwistle told me, improbably enough, after the set. “But the muscles close to my ears are dead. I’ve lost about three or four dB.”
Onstage, he actually asked of us: “Can you hear?”
Hear what? The music? People talking? Anything ever again? I’m not sure if he was being ironic, inquisitive or just killing time with idle between-song chat. But, you know, heh-heh. Answer to question: Ask us tomorrow, next week, next month and next year.
To look at him, the middle-aged Entwistle, you’d say he was rock’s eminence grise. The gray beard, the noble mien. But also a working man. With The Who in tatters — “No chance in hell of a reunion,” he said (wrongly) in ‘96 — the debonair bass man was touring with a replicant Who consisting of keyboardist-singer Alan St. Jon, who played with Billy Squier for years, guitarist-singer Godfrey Townsend (yes, that’s his real name, no “h” and no relation to the other Townshends) and drummer Steve Luongo. They began playing together in 1987. You could have called it Slummin’ Along with John. It wasn’t The Who, but it’ was fun, and Entwistle’s mordant wit and deft bass work carried the night.
They played The Who’s “Heaven and Hell,” “Had Enough,” “The Real Me,” “Trick of the Light” and “Long Live Rock.” Of course, he sang his most notable Who tracks, “Boris the Spider” and “My Wife.” There were a few cheery new numbers like “Love Doesn’t Last” and “Is There Life After Love?” And it closed with massive jams on the Who-identified chestnuts, “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over.” You could shut your eyes and think you were where The Who were when they did Live at Leeds. (I guess that would be Leeds.) He didn’t do anything (I don’t think) from his six solo albums.
I talked to Entwistle a few times over the years, generally right after shows. Ears ringing (for us both, I’m sure). Congenial bloke, he was. His first response to most every question was indeed, “What?” Not in a belligerent way, mind you. It helped to hear the question a second time, after you’d gotten a rough idea of what it might be. (When I interviewed Ginger Baker many years later that was his initial reply, too. He was not a congenial bloke.)
Rees’s bio is authorized, but unflinching, warts ‘n’ all. Entwistle had the public rep as “the quiet one” – taciturn and stoic on stage – but he could give Moon a run for his money in the party-down, live-to-the-hilt stakes after the music was over. And like Moon, he could be nice, and he could be nasty; he was both an Everyman and a Member of Rock Royalty and behaved accordingly.
Entwistle was The Who’s (distant) secondary writer, best known for “Boris the Spider,” the novelty-tune-cum-albatross that Entwistle quipped had become what “Yellow Submarine” was to Ringo Starr. But he always sported a prominent dangling spider piece of jewelry around his neck. Live, “Boris” even featured — I am not making this up — a classical interlude from Stravinsky and Mussorgsky.
Was Entwistle bitter that The Who finally seemed to have packed it in? (This ’96 club jaunt was called the Left for Dead tour.) The question prompted some backstage dissing of Tommy’s rich creator, so Entwistle added, “The comments about Townshend, they’re not . . .”
“Malicious?” interjected St. Jon.
“But they are,” finished Entwistle. But he wasn’t complaining – much. “I have fun and I make money,” he said. “It’s what I do best. I’m not a real studio musician. Studio work is like masturbation. The most fun I have is playing `Shakin’ All Over’ every night.”
VIDEO: The Who “Shakin’ All Over” Live in Kilburn 1977
Let’s skip ahead. Before he died in June of 2002, Entwistle was set to join surviving original members Townshend and Roger Daltrey, with Zak Starkey on drums, for the latest in a series of comeback tours of the United States. The band planned to begin recording in October its first studio album since 1982’s It’s Hard.
I’d seen The Who maybe half a dozen times, but alas never with Moon. (Kenney Jones, then Zak.) Those Quadrophenia-centric shows were among the best I’d ever seen, the music so powerful, the band so strong. On stage, Entwistle was the eye of the hurricane that was The Who. His bass lines not only held down songs’ rhythm, but often carried the melody as well. As Daltrey said. “John is really a lead guitarist playing the bass.” (It’s also been said that all four members played lead.) His bass solo in 1965’s “My Generation” was a rock ‘n’ roll landmark. Just where you’d expect the guitar, everything would drop out for John’s bass lead.
In 2019, Townshend told Rolling Stone, “John’s bass sound was like a Messiaen organ. Every note, every harmonic in the sky.”
Entwistle had a mordant sense of humor. One of his solo albums was titled Rigor Mortis Sets In, and he contributed two darkly comic songs, “Cousin Kevin” and “Fiddle About,” to Tommy. The main characteristic of his songs, he told me back in 1988, was “tongue-in-cheek with a stinging guitar.”
He talked about growing old. “The age side of this has never worried me,” he said. As to playing Who songs with his side band, he said, “I’ve tried to give myself a separate life but it’s difficult because people want The Who . . . But this reenergizes me and them. . . and I’m the center of attention.”
When The Who did reunite – after that club gig where Entwistle said they were done – Entwistle sighed and told me, “I feel a bit like Frank Sinatra. The Who Comeback Tour, The Who Goodbye Tour. But I guess [the fans] don’t want us to lay down.”
VIDEO: The Who at the Phillips Arena Atlanta, GA 9/28/2000
Entwistle was also an artist–he created The Who By Numbers album cover in 1975 (and got paid shit for it, Rees writes, and he had an exhibit at a Newbury Street gallery in Boston in the ’90s. He described his work with pen and ink thus: “Cartoons of rock stars. American tours. English tours. Recently started water-coloring them. They’re like Disney paintings with lines drawn around them.” And he was a memoirist. He had begun work on that when he died, and parts show up in Rees’s book.
Reviewing The Who in July of 2000, the last time the group played the Boston area with Entwistle in tow, I wrote that The Who had “arguably the best catalog of still-active rock ‘n’ roll bands. They make you smile and sweat and glad to be alive, and sad that drummer Keith Moon isn’t among us to have given it a go in his 50s as well.”
And then after 2002, sad that John wasn’t there sharing it all, too.
VIDEO: John Entwistle on Lifestyles Of The Rich & Famous in 1985