Growing Old In Public: The Rolling Stones & The Who By The Numbers

Columns My Back Pages

As a 21 year old in 1965, Roger Daltrey once sang the defiant words of Pete Townshend “I hope I die before I get old.” And when asked by an interviewer if he could see himself singing “Satisfaction” at age 40, Mick Jagger, not yet thirty, said “I hope not.”

But here it is five decades later and The Rolling Stones and The Who have some of the biggest tours of 2019 long after anyone (let alone themselves) thought they would be performing or perhaps even still be alive.

In her infinite wisdom, my grandmother used to say that you’re only as old as you feel and this summer watching the Rolling Stones and the Who aging in public, perhaps age is only a number. The Who seemed cranky, the Stones loose and limber and more light-hearted, but both were rocking beyond expectations.

“It’s good to be here.” Keith Richards told a Washington DC audience on the eve of the Fourth of July. Richards still delights in delivering his signature line,  pausing and deadpanning like he is the Dean Martin of rock and roll: “It’s good to be anywhere.”

When the Stones set foot on FedEx Field it was exactly fifty years to the date guitarist and founder Brian Jones was found drowned in a swimming pool. They were also missing their late sax player Bobby Keys. For The Who, who closed out the traditional end of summer the night before Labor Day, they’ve long been without drummer Keith Moon and bass player John Entwistle, the one they called “The Ox.” 

In a streaming series of images that played on video screens before Daltrey and Townshend took the stage, the presence of Moon and Entwistle could still be felt in a building they’d played many times. For their part the Rolling Stones acknowledged little of their former members. But in a nod to the late DC native songwriter Don Covay, they covered “Mercy Mercy” which first appeared on Out of Our Heads and a song they hadn’t played since their tribute to Jones at Hyde Park three days after he passed.

The Who is billing this tour as “Moving On” hinting at a goodbye but still leaving the door open. They have a terrible track record going back to 1982 when they stood on the cover of Rolling Stone in a sanguine pose emblazoned with the words “The Farewell.” Then there was Who’s Last album and, as a friend asked me: “Which farewell tour was your favorite?”

As Mick Jagger once said, “We never said it was the last time.”

Pete Townshend used growing old as self-motivation and a foil to rile a response from the audience and his lifelong musical partner. 

When Daltrey complained he couldn’t hear, Townshend shot back to his partner, “It’s old age,” his British accent accentuating and harking on the last word. But he snapped back defiantly to clarify his feelings on the subject:  “I don’t give a fuck.” 

The subject of age prompted banter between the two frontmen who were experiencing audio problems. The comic relief also offered a new target for late-life defiance.  

Daltrey joined in on discussing mortality. “It might happen tomorrow, he quipped. “Who gives a fuck.” Coming out of “Eminence Front,” Townshend replaced its signature last line “dress yourself to kill” with a new one:  “Croak yourself to kill.” 

At one point Townshend was complaining about having just broken a nail. 

“Take some drugs,” someone shouted in response. 

The noticeably hoarse Townshend forgot his lines during “I Am One” but hit stride again when brother Simon Townshend called out one of the lines from across the stage. 

“I got a Gibson,” Townshend began singing and suddenly he was back in the moment. “I got it!” 

Townshend apologized for the melee, one of many to come and its effect on his band and the classical musicians all around him. “When I fuck up the orchestra has to bonk out.”

But when you’ve got an orchestra to run and your rotator cuff still allows you to do guitar windmills, old age is just a nuisance. 

The first part of the show was devoted to Tommy, the rock opera scripted by Townshend, the winner of the George and Ira Gershwin Award for Lifetime Musical Achievement and a reminder of Townshend’s place as one of the great composers of the 20th century. 

When the orchestra left, Townshend seemed ready to rock and roll.

“This song is from nineteen fucking sixty-five,” launching into “Substitute” and slashing out dense guitar chords, empowered further by drummer Zak Starkey who hovered all night over his kit, his blond curls dangling and blurring into his yellow Peter Tosh shirt.

For The Rolling Stones, age wasn’t acknowledged Keith Richards, who turns 76 in December, and Ron Wood, 72, let their guitars do the talking from the moment they set foot onstage and launched into “Jumping Jack Flash.” The sheer force of their intertwined guitar play never gets old and the panoramic stadium sound was engulfed by the thick chords that power the Stones.

Mick Jagger, retooled after open heart surgery, remained as loose and limber as ever at the age of 76. He It was simply riveting watching him move from side to side of the enormous stage and runway that extended deep into the audience.

“Charlie’s pretty good tonight,” a fan yelled out after “Rocks Off.” “Get down tonight Charlie!” Delighted all night was drummer Charlie Watts, the stoic gray-haired drummer who always looked ancient but lit up when he was occasionally caught smiling. And keyboardist Chuck Leavell who, after 37 years in the band, seems like the guy who just won the lottery. Leavell, who has become the musical director and resident historian, counts out the beats and delights in pounding out the keys nightly during “Honky Tonk Woman.” Wood went to town on lap steel during “Let It Bleed” when the four original members ventured out on the small stage. Later Jagger delivered “Gimme Shelter” with the stunning vocal performance of duet partner Sasha Allen.

Jagger’s wry humor and subtle sarcasm stood in contrast to Townshend’s orneriness. When a list of fan requests scrolled on the giant video screen, Jagger professed to not knowing any of them. At one point he started naming local cities to drummer Charlie Watts’ drum rolls before getting bored by the exercise, turning to the drummer saying “Thats’s enough towns Charlie.”  He took a poke at the president’s display of military might on the holiday. “We used to have fireworks now we’ve got tanks on the mall.” A few weeks later the one time student at the London School of Economics railed against climate change.

Townshend’s late life rebellion would merely be cantankerous on its own merit. At one point before introducing a new song he admonished people not to sit before working himself up into a bit of a fit, barking out they had paid and could do whatever they wanted, including falling asleep.

“You can dance, you can go to sleep…. I don’t give fuck. You bought the ticket. It’s done. It’s a done deal.”

Townshend’s bluster has a fiery history. There was that period of The Who’s mid-career crisis when Townshend publicly complained of his hearing loss. In what he portrayed as a virtuous act, he put down his electric guitar to announce he was going acoustic.

But here was Townshend at 74, still doing windmills and playing new songs. He posited that with new music coming in November, maybe by next year they could be among the Who’s greatest hits. When they played a new single Townshend called “Big Cigars” (officially released as “Ball and Chain”) a sarcastic song about the dark saga of Guantanamo Bay, Daltrey snarled and came out barking like our collective conscience. 

In a reflective moment, Daltrey, now 75, admitted that one of his favorite albums was The Who By Numbers released back in 1975. It was Townshend’s real-life opera of self-doubt. It prompted Daltrey to reflect on his own life.

“You start at 31, 32 and all of a sudden you’re at 35,” Daltrey mused about an age that now seemed so much more youthful. 

But Daltrey held his own, still holding center stage filling up the Garden with his voice in the climactic moments and culmination of Quadrophenia’s  “Love Reign Over Me.” 

Townshend later offered his personal apologies for the band’s performance. 

“I sincerely wish we could have been sharper tonight,” he confessed. “We were not in top form.You’ve shown so much love.”

Daltrey turned and looked askance. “Really?” the stare in his eyes seemed to be saying. Years ago it might have brought out fists. Townshend was the guy who used to taunt Daltrey in the press saying he’d given Roger a job and had to write so he could work again.  

That was all in the past. But I did think of a moment in the Stones set when Jagger went back to the main stage before the song’s climactic bridge. Richards was riffing when Jagger came up to him and put his hand on his shoulder. It was recognition and a show of deep affection for a lifetime partner. The feuds of years past seemed distant. They now stood shoulder to shoulder, the once former school kids who had met at a train stop when Jagger was carrying Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters records.

Jagger and Richards. Townshend and Daltrey. Who would have thought they’d be part of the conversation in 2019?

“Moving on,” I heard someone say near me when we looked up at the marquee above. 

“Well,” he said, “we’ll see.”  

Leave a Reply!