22 Jun 2012
John Entwistle. It’s ten years since his shocking death in Las Vegas. I have to say that this is not a particularly special time for me because I remember John every day. There is always something to trigger a fond memory. What does make the time just after John’s death in 2002 worth remembering and processing were the massive changes that happened because – suddenly – he was gone, and we had a tour to do, or perhaps not to do. Musically I knew everything would be different on stage. Not better, just different.
Let me speak first then about John the musician.
John’s sound was harmonically rich and filled an enormous part of the audio spectrum. There really is no one who can do what he did. Other bass players can copy his sound, and try to emulate his fingering, but at the heart of John’s playing was a contradiction. His laid back character disguised a powerful musical ego, supported by immense musical talent. His playing was complex and fast, but there are few players alive who could combine such speed and eloquence on the bass with such good taste musically speaking. Like Keith Moon, he really is irreplaceable. His sound can be emulated, and I sometimes hear players who can approach John’s musicianship, but John really was unique, a complete one-off, an innovator who never stopped experimenting.
As a person, as an old friend from my school days, I think my side of the street is reasonably clean. I always felt a strong sense of loving friendship from John, and I think I will cling on to that memory even though Queenie, his late mother, once got angry with me for being angry with John about the way he died and told me that John had never loved me at all. In fact a couple of times John had actually told me he loved me. We were usually alone, and he might have been a bit drunk, but sometimes when we’re drunk we tell the truth. I accept that sometimes we stretch it, so I reserve the right to stretch it and believe that John was not stretching it.
When we speak about loving someone, there is always something unsaid. We love people we do not like. We like people we can never love. We might even marry or go into business with someone we neither like nor love and have a wonderful life or career with them. This is especially true for bands. It isn’t always easy to know what is the truth, and of course – if Queenie is to be believed – feelings between two friends can be intense but not necessarily equal. For me, with John, the situation is clear cut. There are no difficulties, no blurred images. I loved John, I liked him, I respected him, and I miss him. I don’t think he ever put a foot wrong in our relationship. He never said or did anything that I can look back on and fan embers of even the smallest resentment towards him.
On stage with the Who I often look across and expect to see John standing there scratching the side of his nose and take a resigned deep breath in that characteristically thoughtful way that often presaged a funny story or a blistering bass passage. There has always been talk about how loud we all were, and in particular how John’s massive sound caused problems for us on stage. John was louder than most bass players, there is no question of that. If there were problems it was because both John and Keith competed with Roger for the role of vocalist. I don’t mean that they wanted to be the singer, but rather that they performed like members of an anarchic choir, a street corner singing group, rather than accompanists.
Over on my side of the stage, when Keith was alive, my musical relationship with John was straightforward. I accompanied him. I accompanied (or rather provided a solid rhythmic backbone) for Keith. I hope I accompanied Roger sometimes. It was only when suddenly, ten years ago, John was gone, that I realised that I had inherited a new job on stage with the Who: to play decorative passages, to fill the gaps, to make long sequences of so-called ‘solos’ musically interesting – because that is what John had done for years, so I had never had to bother. So despite the fact that Pino Palladino is one of my favourite musicians on the planet, and I don’t want John’s sound to return so that I am re-graded again to a mere rhythm guitar player who gets to play an occasional lead line, when I am on stage playing Who music, and Roger is with me, I am always aware of how different our ‘band’ is today. It sounds different, and it feels different. Not better or worse, but very different. We just happen to play the same songs.
Some people are utterly without peer. When they are gone they leave an immense vacuum. So it is with John: When he died he left a void that can only be filled with good memories, affectionate recollections, and some healthy and critical review of his occasionally crazy behaviour and extraordinary sense of humour. We met at school, but although we were only twelve years old, John was almost a man by then, while I would remain a little boy for many years to come; we’ve all known such friendships in our school days. I sometimes say that when we met I was eleven years old because that’s how it felt; John was like a fifteen or sixteen year old to me. What is extraordinary is that John took me under his wing so kindly when we first met, and was always a supporter of mine even when I goofed. He was never patronising. I never felt he had to work at it, his support came naturally, and didn’t seem to be a part of any agenda. By the way, Queenie was always kind to me too when I was a teenager.
I could go on for pages and pages. But I’m not the only one to be in a position to speak for John. He was the one of us who stayed closest to our most obsessively loyal fans, propping up the bar before and after shows, and enjoying their affection and interest. I’m sure there a hundred stories out there. It would be good to hear some of them.