AN APOLOGY TO DR. JIMMY AND KEITH MOON WITH THANKS TO 1975
Howi Vinni gave me a DVD of The Who live in concert at The Summit in Houston from November 1975. It’s
the By Numbers tour, the four of them, Pete, Roger, John and Keith Moon, and it is a revelation to see and hear: Roger
Daltrey in peak voice and peak look, capable of anything vocally, marching in place like the character in “Baba O’Riley”
traveling south, cross land, a triumphant foot soldier of Rock and Roll; John Entwistle inventing modern progressive rock
bass playing in the moment, still with jet black hair, the two water bottles attached to his mic stand, the growling ominous
voice of “Boris The Spider”; The maestro Pete Townshend, long and lean, a beauty to behold, channeling his fear
and anger into something transcendent and life-saving, his muscular arms wrestling and shaping the guitar hung around his
body to his every creative whim, showering the faithful with some of the best electric rock playing ever, one of the true
greats, parading this amazing music he actually wrote in a room somewhere, dreaming of Dylan and Wagner and Jimi Hendrix and
freedom from ugliness and self-loathing. Like watching a miracle happen. Soul-scraping exorcism disguised as something as
trivial as “entertainment.” Who could imagine?
But more than anyone on that stage, it was Keith Moon who turned my head and gave me back my youth. A few
years ago, I wrote a piece on The Who called The Who Broke His Heart, in which I criticized Moon for his errant behavior concerning
the protean offerings of Pete Townshend in the years of Moon’s failing health from 1973 to his death in 1978. I decried
what I thought to be relatively sub-par performances by Moon on three of the most important Who albums, Quadrophenia,
By Numbers and Who Are You, because of all the drug use and the craziness. I had been listening to The Genuine
Scoop, an awesome 6 CD compendium of PT’s demos given me by Howi Vinni in which it became clear that The Who, while
obviously one of the great Rock bands, were basically just a four-headed outgrowth and physical embodiment of Pete Townshend’s
creative vision, each member taking directly from those demos to re-create the songs in the studio as The Who. At many moments,
especially on the material that constitutes those three albums, it seemed Townshend’s drumming, bass playing and singing
were as good if not better than what was ultimately recorded by the band. Thus my criticism of Moon, who has always been the
personification of everything great and magical about The Who in the first place. His playing and persona from the historic
first singles of ‘65 through the manifestos of The Who Sell Out, Tommy and the quantum Who’s
Next in 1971 define the band’s mission statement and everlasting allure. He just started to give out with Quadrophenia
and it got worse from there.
But watching this live performance from ’75, something else became clear. These were world-straddling
titans, building eternal legends and casting long shadows for anyone interested in such things. The mania of Keith Moon is
evident, but also is his complete mastery of drumming, his total commitment to the material, and his absolute brilliance
as an entertainer and comedian. The Who had three front men, the most wowing of which was most certainly their first (and
best) drummer. When given the mic to address the crowd, it’s easy to see why they all loved him so. Sticks twirling,
head bobbing, smile infecting, charisma exploding, innuendo winking, Keith Moon was a true Rock and Roll Original, and the
best and most inspired drummer of his time. Only John Bonham could match him.
So I went back to The Genuine Scoop and the three major albums between ’73 and ’78 and
this is my conclusion: Yes, the performances have slipped from the Olympian heights of “I Can’t Explain,”
“My Generation,” “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See For Miles,” Tommy and Who’s
Next. But only a fraction. The difference between Pete’s drumming on the demos and Keith’s on the recordings
is one of personality and dramatic extrapolation. There is much comedy injected into what Moon commits to vinyl, and much
pathos. He was an incredibly dramatic musician, almost desperate, constantly driving, overwhelmingly emotional and in touch
with the songs he was playing. An amazing gift, it should be noted, that all three of Pete Townshend’s bandmates possessed
when interpreting their leader’s material. Perhaps that’s why he stayed around so long. Perhaps that’s why
he still performs as “The Who.”
Of the three albums, only '78's Who Are You shows the total fatigue on the part of Moon I complained
about, and even then, there is no one else who could have played the dazzling hi-hat figure on “Who Are You” with
the same intensity, no one else who could have hit that snazzy China cymbal running through “New Song” and “Sister
Disco” with the same panache. The emotion remains high in “Love Is Coming Down” and the peacock strut shines
bright on “New Song.” Yes, he’s behind the band a bit, he’s tired, clearly. But still great. Still
one of a kind.
When looking at 1975's The Who By Numbers, the impression is that of a master going through his
paces, fatiguing, but still full of vigor and hunger. The performances of “However Much I Booze,” “Dreaming
From The Waist,” “They Are All In Love,” and “How Many Friends” actually all rank among his
best. It’s as if his heart was taking over and making up for the slight slip in his dexterity and energy. And a huge
heart it was. There’s a lot of love coming from Keith Moon. He was mad as a hatter, but a lovely one. Probably the loveliest.
Ironically, my greatest disappointment with Moon concerns Quadrophenia, from 1973, because I
feel it is one of the three or four greatest albums in the history of Rock, containing some of the very best songs ever written,
and the drop in his playing from Who’s Next only a year and a half before is palpable. But listening again, Keith
more than shows up, much of his performance really quite brilliant in its composition and execution. Some of it is a
bit ramshackle, some of it behind the rest of the band instead of leading, a few sloppy stick clicks here and there,
but for the most part, it is amazing drumming. I guess I just wish he had been a little more coherent, a little more in control
of himself, given that a piece like Quadrophenia only happens every century or two. It's hard not to feel for
Pete Townshend. That’s why I thought The Who Broke His Heart.
But they did more than that. They gave their hearts. Whole and bursting, committed and inspired. Like few
other Rock and Roll bands before or since. Like few other anything before or since.
I’m sorry Keith. And I’m sorry Danny. Don’t ever, ever, ever doubt your hero. Certainly
not from something I said. He was everything you think he was. And more.