John Entwhistle (1944-2002)
He was the Ox. Thunderfingers. The voice of “Boris The Spider” and the nimble avalanche of incredible lead bass. John Entwistle was the stoic, almost placid looking gent on the other side of the stage from windmilling Pete Townshend or the hyperactive Keith Moon. He was the anchor of one of rock’s elite, and at age 57, he laid down to sleep in Las Vegas and woke up somewhere else, of an apparent heart attack.
There is no need, at this juncture, to recount the history of The Who. They were one of rock’s top-drawer acts, as cerebral as anything by Bob Dylan or The Beatles, as poppy as the best of the British Invasion, and they rocked harder than anyone else from the UK. Three-chord social commentary, hard rock with a brain, and the legendary off-stage antics that are integral chapters of rock and roll’s Babylon
But Entwistle wasn’t known for driving cars into swimming pools, or wrecking hotel rooms. He was a quiet man, an artist. It’s his drawings that adorn Who album covers, such as the wry sketch for The Who By Numbers. It was his driving bass lines that propelled countless of us to bleeding fingers trying to copy the riff for “My Generation” — he played so damn fast, and so cleanly, that you would almost swear it was a studio trick, until you saw him live. Live, he just stood there, amidst all the noise and lights, his fingers a blur, occasionally sipping from a biker’s water bottle mounted on his mic stand. He would sometimes look at a particularly odd Roger Daltrey move or a moment of Pete posing and smile, and then return to his job. He did his job well — one of the best who ever tried it. But beneath his calm demeanor lived one of the most recognizable and imitated bassists in the history of rock.
A few years ago I went to see an exhibit of his artwork. The drawing card was not so much the pictures, but more a chance to see him in person. The gallery was in a rinky-dink strip mall, and when he arrived in a limo, it was startling to see how small a man he was. Somehow, on stage, he appeared larger. Larger than life, with a sound too enormous to believe. Now he’s gone. Long live rock. Long live Thunderfingers. Goodbye, Ox.
Editor’s note: Several Ink 19 staffers had thoughts they wanted to share about the great John Entwistle. Those tributes follow.
There are moments in as a child when you begin to realize that adulthood just isn’t all what it is cracked up to be. Maybe it was that time your older brother wrecked his car, maybe it was that time your father tried to tell you the facts of life, or maybe it was a song. For me, it was definitely a song. The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” was the quintessential eye-opener. Long before I learned the joys of punk rock, “Behind Blue Eyes” was my first tantalizing clue that something was amiss in the land of adulthood.
You have to give credit where credit is due. While Pete Townshend wrote the majority of the songs, John Entwistle was the rock and foundation for the band. Daltrey, for all intents and purposes, acted like he couldn’t care less. Townshend was out of his mind half of the time, and Keith Moon… Moon, for Chrissakes, was always out of his mind. Entwistle was the stiff upper lip, the British presence, the man behind the rest. While there may have been a hurricane blowing across the stage as Moon dynamited his drums, Townsend smashed his guitar, and Daltrey tried to catch his microphone, Entwistle retained his stoic grace. The man was a friggin rock. The only thing that moved was his hands. The rest of him was a statue. The picture of poise.
The Who never had The Beatles’ popularity or cute appeal. They never had The Rolling Stones’ “bad boys” appeal. Unlike either one of those, they were too ugly and too damn real. No one would ever mistake Quadrophenia for Sgt. Pepper’s. What they lacked in appeal or mythic status they made up for in volume. If you can’t be the most popular band, then by God be the loudest.
John Entwistle was an unmistakable ingredient in this equation. His presence defined The Who as much Townshend’s theatrics did. Unmistakably the center of gravity, Entwistle’s playing and sheer personality had as much to do with shaping The Who’s career as any of the other band members.
All sitcoms need a calm center — a Jeb Clampett or Bob Newhart for all the lunatics to bounce off of. In the carnival that was The Who, that was Entwistle’s roll. He was the calm, cool, nearly static bass player, a man who neatly stepped aside when Keith Moon dumped his drum kit or Daltry committed mayhem on a microphone. Lead singers get the glory, keyboardists are the intellectuals, and drummers die bizarre and mysterious deaths, but it’s the bass player who gets the cool. He was the coolest.
I was born well after The Who changed the world, and it took me a while to understand what it was all about. While they were, in a sense, a basic and to the point rock n’ roll band, The Who was never going to make it easy on the kids. You had to focus to get it, you had to be with them, you had to to listen and you had to move.
I was well into my teens before I got it, before I understood that what made The Who revolutionary and beautiful was the fact that they were so uncompromising, so intensely personal yet so compassionate. The Who played rock n’ roll for the people, and they never felt above the listener. They didn’t try and hide their cleverness away in rock n’ roll, it was the other way around. It took rock n’ roll to understand, that’s how it was.
John Entwistle was the one who held it all together. Without John, all that would be left would be flourishes, fills, screams and abandonment. It was John who brought a steady rhythm to The Who, it was he who turned their music into chaos with a beat, a revolution you could dance to, could feel to. John — by his mere precision, by his refusal to ever take the easy way, and by his refusal to compromise his musicianship and his personality in music — was so much more than a bass player only. As a quarter of one of the best, most important rock bands of all time, John instilled in an entire generation, and in all those who followed, a sense of pride and of worth.
He will be sorely missed. John Entwistle R.I.P.
Random Thoughts on the passing of John Entwistle…
I was on the phone last night with my friend AJ, when the 11 o’clock news came on and a picture of Roger Daltrey flashed across the screen. I had the sound turned down so as not to distract me from the conversation with my friend, but my attention was snatched away when I saw the accompanying headline “ROCK DEATH.” I almost had a fucking heart attack. “Jesus, did Roger Daltrey die?” I blurted into the phone. AJ said no, it was John Entwistle who was dead. Fuck.
For me, from age five to my late teens, the three important bands were The Beatles, The Who, and Queen. That’s the order in which these bands entered and changed my life. I was twelve when Ken Russell’s over-the-top theatrical interpretation of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, hit theaters, and I instantly fell in love with the Rock-God-meets-Jesus image of Roger Daltrey. From there I collected every Who album and discovered music that spoke directly to my disenfranchised adolescent experience. “My dreams they aren’t as empty as my conscience seems to be.” That line from “Behind Blue Eyes” just said it all. I was fortunate to see The Who play live at Anaheim Stadium when I was 15. The ticket was $12. Keith Moon was in fine form and stayed with us for another year before he left for the other side. Now, John is gone. And I feel old.
John Entwistle and Chris Squire of Yes were the first rock bass players I knew of who played the bass like it was a lead instrument, and both are part of the reason I played rock bass in my twenties. John released a few solo albums while he was in The Who; the first, and arguably, best is called Smash Your Head Against the Wall. That’s probably the coolest title of any album ever in the Universe • and this was way, way, way before the phrase “head banging” entered the vernacular of every teenager on the planet. The cover of Smash Your Head• is a photo of John’s face as seen through the X-ray of a lung cancer patient, a cutting edge indication of his delightfully morose sense of humor, also evidenced by droll song titles like “Ted End” and “No. 29 (External Youth).” British comic/musician Neil Innes • who, with Eric Idle of Monty Python, later created the jaw-droppingly brilliant Beatles parody, The Rutles • also played some percussion on that record. See? John was just endlessly, untouchably cool.
In 1973, Entwistle released Rigor Mortis Sets In, another great album title that Trent Reznor or Morbid Angel surely wish they had thought of first.
Oh, and he recorded a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” more than twenty years before Type O Negative covered it! He was the quiet one, but he was a quiet god. He was an original, and he was one cool motherfucker.
It hurts to say goodbye to your heroes. Freddie Mercury died in 1991. We•ve lost half The Beatles, and now half of The Who is gone. And they just don’t make those Rock Heroes like they used to. God bless John Entwistle. God bless The Who.
As a life-long fan of the Who, I’ve often wondered why the band so often comes in third in the “Beatles-Stones-Who” rock-royalty roster. My best answer is that The Who were about anger, pain, loss, and determination — they were punk rock before that term was used to describe music. And punk rock… well, it’s never sold as well as “Yesterday” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to mom-and-pop America (or England, for that matter).
I write of the Who in the past tense because, with John Entwistle’s passing, they are a band of the past. Many fans and critics felt that The Who should have quit when Keith Moon left us; only in the past couple of years — with the addition of Zak Starkey, who captures Moon’s spirit and style marvelously — had the re-energized group begun to remind a forgetful populace of their power and genius.
I am shocked and dismayed to learn of Townshend’s and Daltrey’s decision to continue as The Who, to tour this summer as a “tribute” to Entwistle. Although they apparently have the blessing of the Entwistle family, I simply cannot be convinced that this “tribute” doesn’t also concern millions of dollars, not only to The Who but to the booking agents, promoters and venue operators who had a lot to lose if the surviving members had chosen to grieve in a more private fashion.
For the legions of Who fans and those novices whose curiosity is piqued by the death of John Entwistle — I offer a more heartfelt, personal and financially more feasible means of paying tribute to rock’s most influential — and, to the end, most inimitable — bassist: get out your Who records (if you don’t have any, for chrissakes buy some) and play them. Play Tommy, Quadrophenia, Who’s Next… but don’t forget the early stuff — “Substitute,” “Pictures Of Lily,” “I Can See For Miles”… Don’t listen in your car, or use Who classics as background music for a garden party. Sit in your bedroom, your den, your living room, pour yourself a drink, and play The Who as loud as possible. Sit back and imagine (or remember, if you’re lucky enough) hearing “My Generation” blaring out of an AM radio for the first time. Picture John Entwistle standing stoically in front of a furiously churning sea of fans, playing melodies and counter-melodies that were so complex and overwhelming, it sometimes seemed that he might not be playing the same song that his bandmates were. As you sit there reliving the peaks and pitfalls of your youth — for The Who represented youth like no other band — your arms might occasionally move in a Townshend windmill, your feet might try to keep pace with Moon’s frenetic beat, your lungs might attempt to match Daltrey’s delivery…but your whole body will reverberate with John Entwistle’s bass.
John, rock ‘n roll will spend years taking inventory of all that you have given it. R.I.P.
Finally, we received this message from a man who’s a bass legend in his own right, Mike Watt, and reprint it here with his kind permission:
dearly will miss your thunderfingers
rest easy, ox
always part of you
in the bassist part of me
on that ed sullivan show
when you did “my generation” right
w/that bass solo
focused on townshend
(the cameraman, not pete)
wow how he wowed me
don’t be afraid, watt
let your bass
your young man blues