11 Jul 2012
Reflections on John Entwistle
Written by Chris Charlesworth for Bass Guitar Magazine.
Many thanks, Chris.
It is a cliché that celebrities tend to be shorter in real life than they appear on stage and John Entwistle, who often wore brightly-coloured Cuban-heeled boots to raise his profile when he was out and about, was no exception to this. But in every other way John was bigger in real life: louder, funnier, weirder, more outspoken, more whimsical, more macabre and certainly more scornful than most of the industry in which he worked for most of his 57 years.
John was an enigma. That he was the best bass guitarist of his generation is not in dispute, but because of the peculiar demands placed upon him by The Who he wasn’t a bass player in the accepted sense of the term because he didn’t play bass like anyone else, any more than Keith Moon played the drums like anyone else or, for that matter, Pete Townshend the guitar. “His playing was so dextrous and inventive that he was often indistinguishable from a second guitar,” was the astute observation of former Who PR Keith Altham in an appreciation of John posted on the website Rock’s Back Pages. Audiences certainly heard John but many thought that what they heard was being played by Townshend. When John first took his own band on the road in 1974 it sounded a lot like The Who because John’s style of playing and the sound he got from his equipment was unique, so only then did fans realise the full extent of his contribution to The Who. Conversely, when after his death in 2002 The Who replaced John with Pino Palladino seasoned observers noted John’s absence not just because his physical presence was missing stage left but because the actual sound of The Who was no longer the same; it lacked his musical input, that huge and inimitable bass and mid-range harmonic, the Entwistle signature. John wrote a song entitled ‘The Quiet One’ because that was the way he thought he was perceived by fans, but in reality he was as loud as they come, certainly as loud as anyone else in this spectacularly loud group.
More than anything else, John loved to play, to perform, to see and hear the crowds, yet he didn’t appear as if he was enjoying himself up there. He rarely smiled on stage and, indeed, often looked bored to tears. He just stood there motionless, his fingers a blur as he plucked his bass strings with supreme skill and casual panache, except when he was called upon to sing one of his own Who songs, ‘Boris The Spider’, ‘Heaven And Hell’ or ‘My Wife’, to contribute backing vocals, or step forward to rattle off a stunning solo bass part in ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ or ‘5.15’; and afterwards, as the crowds cheered him, he’d simply mumble a quick ‘Thank you’ into the mike in his deep, crusty voice, then step back again into the hinterland of his immense speaker cabinets, and resume his seen-it-all-before demeanour.
He could be secretive but at the same time very revealing. Pete Townshend didn’t discover that John had been a Freemason for most of his life until the day of John’s funeral. At that funeral the eulogy was given by a local innkeeper who never once mentioned the bass guitar or even The Who. He did mention that John had bought a new roof for the Stow-on-the-Wold cricket pavilion, and that he was a valued customer at the town’s many pubs and antique shops – but it seemed to this attendee as if John’s life as a rock musician was not something that was widely discussed in the town where he made his home.
Interviewed by Tony Fletcher for his Keith Moon biography Dear Boy, however, John let fly with some home truths about his working life that were as revealing as any interview anyone in The Who ever gave, and candour was one of their many virtues. “I wasted my whole fucking career on The Who,” he said between gulps of Remy Martin brandy, his favourite tipple. “Complete fucking waste of time. I should be a multi-millionaire. I should be retired by now. I’ll be known as an innovative bass player. But that doesn’t help get my swimming pool rebuilt and let me sit on my arse watching TV all day. I wouldn’t want to, but I’d like the chance to be able to.”
This interview took place in the mid-nineties, at a time when John’s frustration at The Who’s post-Moon stop-start career, itself a product of Townshend’s need to find creative fulfilment elsewhere, was at its worst. There was also the gut-wrenching realisation that because of catastrophic business moves in the mid-sixties The Who would never make anything like as much as they deserved in royalties from the sales of their records. It is not hard to imagine John brooding over the rock star names in the Sunday Times Rich List, the individual Beatles, Stones, Floyds, Zeppelins and Queens, and, brandy bottle to hand, cursing his luck that he wasn’t amongst them.
Time was, though, when the pride he took in his work was all the motivation he required, and woe betide anyone who might so much as think about usurping his position. Mountain guitarist Leslie West has recalled how John bristled when Felix Pappalardi turned up with his bass amps to the aborted New York sessions for Who’s Next in early 1971. “John came in and said, ‘What’s this?’” West told US writer Richie Unterberger. “Felix said, ‘My bass amps.’ John said, ‘I’m the bass player in the fucking Who.’ It got a little heated and he [Pappalardi] left.”
John was a rocker at heart, inspired by the twangy guitar of Duane Eddy, yet he was in a band that surfed the mod craze of the early sixties, though to be fair so was Roger Daltrey. The songs on his solo albums reflect his love of fifties rock’n’roll, and also his well-known – but often tongue-in-cheek – black sense of humour. ‘Do The Dangle’ is a meditation on suicide by self-hanging, set to a 12-bar beat that would fit snugly alongside any of the daft American dance crazes of the era, while anyone privy to the way John’s dark mind worked would know from the titles alone that ‘Roller Skate Kate’ and ‘Peg Leg Peggy’ were destined for a sticky end. Like many of his elite contemporaries in the bass trade – McCartney, Bruce, Jones – John came from a musical family and had some formal training as a musician. Until the endless cigarettes and other intoxicants ravaged his voice, he could sing from falsetto down to basso-profondo; “I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote,” his low register set-piece in ‘Summertime Blues’, was always a joy to hear.
From the mid-seventies until his death John’s main home was a gigantic hunting lodge called Quarwood on the outskirts of Stow, a 55-room pile set in 40 acres that always looked in need of a lick of paint. Suits of armour from medieval times greeted visitors who arrived by the front porch, an effigy of Quasimodo hung from a 40-foot bell rope in the hall, a human skeleton reclined gracefully in a Regency chair, and the walls of the downstairs loo were covered from floor to ceiling in gold discs. In the rarely-used kitchen – the household ate out a lot or ordered takeaways – were three huge birdcages that housed exotic and noisy parrots; from the ceiling of the much-used bar – the household drank in a lot and ordered bottles by the case – dangled scores of embalmed marlin, the crème de la crème of game fish; and tarantulas frolicked in a glass case in the living room. A bass rig designed for outdoor stadium use sat next to the bar and when John plugged in the din was such that my daughter, then six, ran screaming from the room. His pianola, too, was set at 11. John, of course, was well nigh stone deaf by the nineties.
That particular visit to Quarwood was in order to discuss liner notes for a JAE ‘best-of’ album which John had asked me to write. I had proposed that my wife design the sleeve and John acquiesced, so a family visit was in order. John’s mum, Queenie, was quite taken with our infant son, and before I settled down with the master of the house in the recording studio to talk business he kindly offered to play a video of Snow White & The Seven Dwarves for my daughter, but accidentally inserted into his player a pornographic version of the age-old fairy tale. Fortunately his girlfriend Lisa was on hand to hit the stop button when she realised John’s error.
Come to think of it, the first video player/recorder I ever saw was at John’s house in Ealing in 1971. He loved gadgets and was happy to demonstrate it for me. It was enormous by modern day standards, a big grey contraption made by Philips, and the early cassettes were the size of cigar boxes. He told me it had cost him £800, no mean sum in the early seventies. Outside in the drive was a black Cadillac stretch limousine, probably the only one in Britain. He’d taken a shine to them in America and had one shipped over. At Quarwood he had a green Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that had been specially converted into a station wagon so that it could transport his pack of Irish wolfhounds.
John was an honourable man. When I invoiced him for the work I’d done on that CD sleeve a cheque arrived by return post. When I invoiced Universal Music for work I’d done on other Who-related repackaging I was still waiting for my money three months later. Then again, it did not pay to cross him. Who manager Bill Curbishley tells a wonderful tale of how Keith Moon, drunk as a skunk after a gig, entered John’s luxurious Paris hotel suite where he and his first wife Alison were about to enjoy an intimate, candlelit meal. Moon bit a chunk out of John’s steak, quaffed the vintage claret straight from the bottle, then staggered over to a corner to relieve himself on the carpet before collapsing, sparko, on the floor. John sat there impassively for a moment, then dragged Moon’s collapsed carcass back to his own suite. Once inside John smashed all the furniture to smithereens, shutting the door behind him. When Moon came to he thought he’d done the damage and meekly paid up. Curbishley never told him the truth.
On another occasion, in Houston, Daltrey, eternally complaining about John’s bass level, reprimanded him onstage by demanding that he “turn the fuck down”. John countered with, “Well, you play the fucking thing then”. The normally unflappable bassist then locked himself in the dressing room and refused to return for the encore. Curbishley tried in vain to persuade him otherwise but John was livid and would not be assuaged. Curbishley finally pleaded through the door, “If you won’t come back because of Roger, would you at least consider coming back for the 10,000 people outside that are cheering for you?” There was a silence and then a casual but gruff, “Yeah, I suppose I could do it for them.”
Indeed, John’s allegiance to Who fans has been noted in fan forums the world over. While after concerts Pete would retire to muse on his avatar, Roger to squire the prettiest girl lingering backstage and Keith to get up to all kinds of carefree mischief, John would remain behind and commune with Who fans, happy to answer questions about the group and sign autographs for one and all. I cannot think of any other rock star of his stature who was more gracious to fans, the lifeblood of the music industry after all, than John, nor fans who appreciated this princely attitude so much.
John took great care of his appearance and I never once saw him looking scruffy, on stage or off. He generally rose in the late afternoon, immaculately dressed, and consumed a ‘full English’. He was gregarious, sociable, especially – as noted – to genuine Who fans, and, like Keith Moon, a first-rate host. The bar at Quarwood was the setting for many memorable parties. He was generous to his friends but, unlike Moon, wary of freeloaders. John was also a ladies man, courteous and worldly. He was married twice, fathered one son, Christopher, from his first marriage, and for the last 12 or so years of his life lived at Quarwood with an American girl called Lisa Pritchard-Johnson, a former beau of his great friend Joe Walsh. That in the remaining year of her own life Lisa would create a minor local scandal by becoming romantically linked with the married Vicar of Stow, the same cleric who conducted his funeral service, would no doubt have caused John to collapse in gales of laughter.
John Entwistle died in bed in the arms of a good-time girl on June 27, 2002, in hotel room 658 at the Hard Rock Café & Casino in Las Vegas on the eve of a US tour by The Who that Townshend had agreed to do in order to shore up John’s finances. An inquest decided that death was due to a heart attack induced by cocaine. “Sad though it is,” said Roger Daltrey, “if he could have written an ending for himself it would have been very similar to the one he had.” Few who had known John would disagree.