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The Who returns to Bethel

By MIKE EDISON
Posted 5/25/22

The spirit of rebellion that is baked into the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts—site of the original Woodstock festival—will be put to the test when The Who perform here on May 28, their …

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The Who returns to Bethel

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The spirit of rebellion that is baked into the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts—site of the original Woodstock festival—will be put to the test when The Who perform here on May 28, their first appearance in Bethel since the band’s storied performance in 1969. Back then, their slice of the “three days of peace and music” pie was marred by involuntary acid trips and an on-stage brawl with a prominent Yippie.

For those who don’t remember, a Yippie is sort of an angry, politically charged hippie, but with a sense of humor. These were the same people who tried to run a pig—an actual 145-pound pig named “Pigasus”—for President of the United States. Such were the times.

 In this case, it was the well-meaning but overzealous revolutionary Abbie Hoffman, who in a moment of pique stormed the stage to deliver a rebuttal to all of the good vibes that were going down. His comrade, White Panther Party leader John Sinclair, was doing a 10-year stretch for possessing a few dollars’ worth of pot. It earned Hoffman a guitar to the head from Who leader Pete Townshend, who, despite having been dosed with LSD, and being thoroughly miserable at having to play at 5 a.m., continued to lead his band through a blistering set, oozing with their own brand of countercultural revolution writ large.

Whether the Who, never a sentimental lot in the first place, make reference to that night beyond their current set list—which, as in 1969, leans heavily on their rock opera “Tommy,” albeit now with a very civilized symphony orchestra—is not the question.

Nor is it whether their most rebellious post-adolescent theme, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” is still relevant. Sadly, it very much is.

The question is if the crowd that comes to this sort of classic rock legacy show will even remember, or care, what the song is actually about.  

As it is, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is the centerpiece of the show, when for a moment they lose the orchestra that carries them through giant swaths of “Tommy” and their other major rock opera, “Quadrophenia,” and it’s just Roger Daltrey and Townshend on stage, Townshend slashing stupendously at his Gibson J-200, and Daltrey fully invested, even after singing it 10,000 times. This is the moment when even if you had reservations about seeing a couple of dyspeptic alter cockers reliving their past glory, you will no longer question that these guys are simply the best at what they do.

But is anyone actually listening?  Or is it just giddy, classic-rock fetishism?

Bethel’s brand might be tie-dyed, but we live in a very purple world. And for an audience that will be composed at least in part of unapologetic Trump supporters drinking beer alongside their equally passionate Democratic counterparts, the irony of everyone singing along with “Won’t Get Fooled Again” might be described as delicious. If in fact classic rock fans, as a group, understood irony.

More puzzling to me is the baby-boomer feeding frenzy that begins to boil during “Baba O’Riley,” percolating with the chorus of “teenage wasteland,” and fully erupting when Daltrey proclaims, “They are wasted!”—although I swear half the audience gleefully sings “We are wasted!” It feels a lot like a celebration, but the whole thing never fails to make me feel pretty vacant, the cri de coeur of another great British rock band, dismissed in their time by Who fans, the exact group who should have embraced them.

So, what, exactly what are we celebrating?

We’re celebrating our own survival and a certain common experience that, no matter what color flag you fly, has defined us. And maybe we’ll come away with something like an authentic experience, whatever that means.

For some, it means an idealized version of the summer of ‘69, or the entirety of the 1970s.

Sadly, for the corporate interests that back these things, it is, at its most base and cynical, late-stage capitalism, what Thomas Pynchon described as “a pyramid racket on a global scale… getting the suckers to believe it’s all gonna go on forever.” If you doubt that, just take a look at the legacy bands on tour this summer (and the sinister ticket prices), including Paul McCartney, whose incredibly good band has been together longer than Wings and the Beatles put together, the Rolling Stones (now down to two-and-a-half original members), Jethro Tull, Aerosmith, the Doobie Brothers, Mötley Crüe, the Hollies, the Eagles and Chicago, who have zero original members and claim this to be the very best version of the band, ever, which is very likely true. Of this class, only Bob Dylan has successfully managed to break free from the shackles of his own back catalogue.

But let’s live in the moment, shall we? In 2022, the Who, such as they are, can still throw down.

We’ve come a long way since my favorite Who milestones: the toggle switch solo on “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere;” their psychedelic, post-mod explosion at the Monterey Pop Festival; the weaponized drumscape of “I Can See for Miles;” the supercharged SG/Hiwatt era, best captured on “Live at Leeds;” and the overly enthusiastic performance of  “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at Shepperton Studios, filmed for the documentary “The Kids are Alright,” itself the Rosetta Stone for decoding the whole mess.

The Who in 2022 sound very much like The Who, or, for Pete Townshend, at least, an idealized version of it, twirling his baroque rock operas with orchestral accompaniment, punctuated with triumphant outbursts of electric guitar and actual rock music.

They seem determined to prove relevance by playing a few new numbers, namely “Ball and Chain,” a dated-but-worthy blues about Guantanamo from their most recent record, “Who” (2019), guaranteed to enrage Republicans (if they are actually listening), and flashing back to 1981 for their last discernable radio hit, the thoroughly inconsequential “You Better You Bet,” of which the best thing I can say is that it’s like Abbie Hoffman’s appearance at Woodstock—well meaning, but ultimately embarrassing for everyone involved.

But when they hit the big numbers, e.g. “Sparks,” “The Real Me,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and the lesser-known “Relay,” you can forgive them for pretty much anything, including the interminable version of “Eminence Front.”

It’s an odd act, but one that is very true to itself. Unlike any number of necrophiliac classic-rock superstars gravedigging in their past, The Who has achieved self-awareness. The first song on “Who,” “All this Music Must Fade,” spells it out: “I don’t care, I know you’re gonna hate this song.”

In terms of rock as rebellion, that ship sailed a long time ago. But if classic rock as unifier is what we are left with, then perhaps their 1972 hippie anthem “Join Together” (“There’s a million ways to laugh/Everyone’s on a path/Won’t you join together with the band”) should be the preeminent theme of the day?

Just remember that “Tommy” was about rebelling against a false messiah, and then take a look around. Even the outliers in this group, the unapologetic hippies and unrepentant Trumpers; the unevolved yuppies, jocks, and stoners; or the dentists and the lawyers—the only ones who can afford the best seats—are all wearing the same brand of cargo shorts.

Mike Edison is a writer and musician. His most recent book is “Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters.” He lives in Barryville, NY.

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