Round the Dial
Wednesday 03 July @ 10:06:23
by Tom Hallett
TOO LATE THE HERO—RIP: Who bassist John Alec Entwistle, 1944- 2002
I can’t believe I’m interrupting Round The Dial’s look at local label Susstones once again (I’m really, really sorry, Ed Ackerson!) to pay tribute to a fallen rock hero. It was just a few short weeks ago that we mourned the passing of former Ramones bassist Dee Dee, and this week it’s late, great Who bassist John “The Ox” Entwistle, who was found dead of an apparent heart attack in a Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas last week on the eve of a U.S. reunion tour. There aren’t a whole helluva lot of bass players who’ve really stood out above the pack over the years, and we’ve just lost two of the coolest. My advice to local bands? Hug your bass players and tuck ‘em in personally tonight.
Entwistle was, hands-down, the first rock bassist to receive respect and garner fans all his own solely on the strength of his playing. Born in Chiswick, London, England, near the end of the second World War, The Ox was classically trained on piano and French horn. In grade school, he and chum Pete Townshend formed a skiffle group called the Confederates. Later, a local singer/guitarist named Roger Daltrey stole Entwistle from Townshend’s band, recruiting him for an early incarnation of the more R&B-influenced High Numbers. Townshend was eventually asked aboard, and with the addition of drummer Keith Moon, The Who was born.
The band was at the forefront of the British Second Wave, and though they never reached the chart heights of fellow UK invaders like The Rolling Stones, they managed to influence three generations of music fans, write and perform some of the first rock operas, and score a place in the Guiness Book Of World Records as The World’s Loudest Rock Band. Entwistle contributed some of the most complex and intricate bass playing the genre has ever known, basically taking over rhythm guitar duties on his four-string thunderstick after Daltrey decided (thankfully!) to stick to a microphone. He contributed a wry, macabre sense of humor to the group; his stoic, deadpan delivery combined with a near-motionless stage stance was a refreshing contrast to Townshend’s angry, uber-rock antics, Daltrey’s vain front man posing, and Moon’s animated, drunken drum barrage.
The Ox wore a glow-in-the-dark skeleton suit (check out The Who’s appearance on Fox-TV’s The Simpsons for a recent bone-blast) and wrote dark, funny tunes like “Boris The Spider,” “My Wife,” “Jekyll And Hyde,” and “Success Story” for The Who. When original drummer Keith Moon passed away in 1978, Entwistle refused to ever call the band by their proper name again, saying that without his friend, it just wasn’t right. He called ‘em TED—Townshend, Entwistle, Daltrey—and liked to joke that it sounded better than DET.
The wily bassist released nine solo albums, beginning with 1971’s Smash Your Head Against The Wall. Other tongue-in-cheek titles over the years included Rigor Mortis Sets In, Whistle Rhymes, and Too Late The Hero. And though The Who lumbered on, milking the reunion tour circuit decade after decade for all it was worth, he made it clear in interviews that he was in it to raise money for solo tours with his trio, The John Entwistle Band. He released several albums under that monicker, and toured frequently.
John made a name for himself as a producer and session player, as well, performing the former duties for The Fabulous Poodles and The Sharks, among others, and the latter for five solo Daltrey albums, Susanna Hoffs, the Faces, and Government Mule. In 1995, he went on the road with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, where he put his patented Who technique to work on the songs of BTO (“very easy,” he quipped in an interview a year later), The Young Rascals, and Grand Funk Railroad, not to mention Ringo’s solo and Beatles material. In 1996, Rhino Records released an excellent overview of The Ox’s solo material called Thunderfingers: The Best Of John Entwistle.
But music was hardly John’s only interest. He was an accomplished caricature artist, having crafted the superb cartoon cover of The Who’s 1975 By Numbers album, and was working on a comprehensive comic history of The Who when he passed away. He also enjoyed writing, poetry, deep-sea fishing, shooting clay pigeons (“I don’t like killing things,” he once said), and raising animals—he owned exotic chickens and had six dogs. His biggest obsession outside of playing music, however, was collecting various items. He had huge displays of porcelain, Star Trek memorabilia, brass instruments, guitars, and ancient synthesizers, as well as over 280 stuffed fish. He loved to freak guests out with his collections, and once claimed that it would take several hours to list them all.
Pete Townshend, speaking to the public through his official Web site, (http://www.petetownshend.co.uk) has announced that The Who tour will go on. The Who's U.S. tour will kick off on schedule, with Townshend chum Pino Palladino (Joan Armatrading, Erykah Badu, Richard Ashcroft) filling in on bass duties. Pete says, We do not expect him to attempt to emulate, parody, or copy John Entwistle in any way. Pino is a master in his own way...the one request I made was that—at first—he play as loud as he can bear!
“The Ox has left the building,” he says. “We’ve lost another great friend. We are going on. Pray for us John, wherever you are.” At press-time, the band was still scheduled to play a show at the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul on September 24th, but tickets weren’t on sale yet. Check http://www.ticketmaster.com or Pete’s Web site for further updates.
Personally, I’m not sure if the band playing on is ghoulish or a final, special treat—either way, I’m betting it’s gonna be one emotional tour for Pete, Roger, and millions of grief-stricken fans. One thing’s for sure: even that deaf, dumb, blind kid can tell that there’s one less voice that matters in the world this week. A toast, then, to The Ox. Rock Is Dead, They Say—Long Live Rock. Rest In Peace, Thunderfingers. I’ll give the remainder of this space over to some fellow grieving Entwistle fans:
The only time I ever saw John Entwistle play l ive was at First Avenue. I’d snuck in as an under-ager. Looking at the stage, I saw a white-haired man, alone, with his bass throbbing. I instantly recognized who he was: The Who were the band that made me want to actually try to play somewhere other than my bedroom. Hell, for much of my life, I lived on their every word and every note they’d sang or played ten years before I was even born. Being younger, stupider, whatever—more willing to show my true emotions—I walked up to the stage and started shimmying and shaking to The Ox’s random doodles. He looked down at me and gave me a slight nod and smile. I got all giddy...I was pretty high on life, as the straight-lacers like to call it. This is as good as Rock and Roll has ever gotten for me.
I started crying tonight at the Guided By Voices show when someone handed a cocktail napkin with a request for “My Wife” to Bob Pollard and he announced that John had died. I’m still kind of holding back tears as I write this. This event may not have hit you as it did me, but I just want you all to remember that we’ve all been influenced by at least one person or another to get to where we are today. John Entwistle was one of my heroes and I would not have been the same without him.
—Mathew P. from Superhopper, Minneapolis
No other music helped me survive adolescence more than The Who. I read too much into the lyrics, found a way to relate to every tidbit Townshend had to offer. But the sheer musical power that band created was moving. And even though I knew nothing about playing an instrument, I knew that John Entwistle was amazing. Amazing to watch and amazing to hear. I only saw The Who once, on the 1997 “Quadrophenia” reunion tour. But I’ve seen Entwistle in small venues a few times, and to literally stand at his feet and watch him play the music I know so well made me 15 again. His death is a great loss. The Who has always been far more than just Daltrey singing and Townshend playing guitar.
Radio K’s Cosmic Slop
I loved John Entwistle’s wry sense of humor. Today I’ve been listening to “Success Story” off of The Who By Numbers over and over. Some of the lines in there are classic; especially “The big break better happen pretty soon cuz I’m pushin’ twenty-one,” and “I may go far if I smash my guitar.” But the song ends by declaring rock ‘n’ roll as religion—almost as if he’s directly responding to the despair in Pete Townshend’s songs on the rest of the album by using one of Pete’s favorite themes. And of course in “The Kids Are Alright” movie, this is the song playing while John shoots trap using his gold albums instead of clay pigeons. That part always cracks me up. We need more funny people like him around these days. It’s sad that he’s gone.
Editor, Exiled On Main Street
Entwistle was the classic low-key bass player that holds a band together. Dealing with maniac Keith Moon, pretty boy Daltrey, and surly, self-destructive genius Pete Townshend, “The OX” made perfect sense in the mix of THE WHO. When I saw the band in 1982 at the St. Paul Civic Center, (R.I.P. dear friend!) he stood in the background, barely moved, and with what seemed like no effort, made the noise into pure music. Yet not only was he the rock-solid bottom end, he was an innovator.
Ever since that rude and marvelous bass riff on “My Generation,” he gave The Who an aggressive edge that made them more subversive than The Beatles and less indulgent than The Rolling Stones. The Who represented a sort of sophisticated fury that knew no boundaries, took no prisoners, and lurked in all of our misfit teenage hearts. John Entwistle was a catalyst in this sonic juggernaut, and his contributions will not be forgotten.
—Paul D. Dickinson
of Frances Gumm, St. Paul
I feel untold grief over Entwistle’s passing mixed with disgust that the tour’s going to go on. I thought for sure they wouldn’t make that same mistake twice. John Entwistle can’t be replaced. With every passing of a great one we move a little farther from something I loved. The song says rock and roll is here to stay but it’s not. Money apparently is, though.
I was playing in this popular group called the Twisttones. We played all super-cool ‘60s covers. I was playing the bass guitar and I felt like I could mimic every bass player ever made with the exception of John Entwhistle. Sure, I could figure out the notes, but geez, no one could, can, or ever will be able to match his picking ability. Not even a machine could have such complete control. The Who may as well sell their song rights to karaoke. No one can even come close to playing at his level.
—John “Caveman” Knowles,
Next week (barring any more sudden rock deaths) we’ll finish off our series on the Susstones label and prepare for a fresh blast of het-up rock n’ roll from the Deep South’s Backburner label. Until then- make yer own damn news.