Posted July 14, 2002
ADIEU TO THE OX
John Alec Entwistle, the Who's stolid "Ox," left the planet on June 27, 2002, dead from a heart attack at age 57 in the very hotel where the Who were scheduled to start their latest American tour the very next day. "Looks like SOMEONE was tired of Who reunions," a friend wrote to say, and my first thought (I'm ashamed to say) was, "Now I don't have to decide whether or not I can afford to go see them when they swing through Dallas in September." (Within a couple of days, it was announced that the tour would go on, with Pino Palladino from Pete Townshend's solo band on bass, an unenviable position to say the least.) My ex-guitar partner was playing a gig that night, and he said that during all the breaks, the club played classic Whosongs from the expanded "Live At Leeds." The band he was playing with usually covers "I Can't Explain," and they played it twice that night. Even funnier, another guitarist I know was at a blues bar in Fort Worth that weekend, and the band THERE played "Won't Get Fooled Again," dedicated to the Ox. No doubt about it; he will be missed.
There just wasn't a better bassplayer in rock'n'roll than Entwistle. Classically trained on trumpet, French horn, and piano, he started out playing Dixieland jazz with the Confederates as a schoolboy, and earned a place in Roger Daltrey's band the Detours by walking down the street with a bass guitar he'd built under his arm. As the Detours evolved into the High Numbers and then the Who, he developed his style (extremely well-articulated lines played more loudly than you can imagine) from having to hold down the groove for a drummer who played everywhere BUT on the one, and provide melodic lines fill the space left by the least technically adept "name" guitarist to come out of the British rock boom.
His thunderous sound and extreme facility left other highly-rated players like Jack Bruce and Jack Casady in the dust. The roar that underlies the sound of "Live At Leeds," surely the most devastating rock'n'roll noise anyone had ever heard on record when it first appeared in the summer of 1970, is more than anything else the sound of Entwistle's bass. Over the years, he only got better; his parts on "Quadrophenia" (as overblown as some of the material is) are simply astonishing in their musicality and power - just listen to "The Real Me" or "Drowned." By the "reunion tour" era of the Who, he had graduated to purely phenomenal, playing more music with his left hand alone than most bassplayers can manage with two. Even on the crappy '89 "Tommy" revival tour, his solos on "Sparks" were jaw-droppers; on the last Who tour in 2000, he was nothing short of majestic, and his solo on "5:15" was a marvel.
I first saw the Ox with the Who at Forest Hills, Queens, in August 1971, a few weeks after "Who's Next" was released. His lines on "Baby Don't Do It" were SCARY, and after watching Townshend smash FOUR Gibson SGs, he atypically joined in and smashed his Thunderbird bass. I have fewer fond memories of the Who show I saw in '79, with Kenney Jones on drums. Townshend had injured his hand the previous night, and the whole band seemed strangely subdued. I actually walked out to take a piss and was rewarded when I came back with the closing notes of "Naked Eye," one of my favourite songs. Feh.
My ex-guitar partner and I actually saw Entwistle with his solo band in a small club, Fort Worth's late, lamented Caravan of Dreams, around 1999 or so. His band was composed of Long Island bar band hacks whom I remembered from a Genesis cover band called Rat Race Choir back in the seventies. Evidently, they'd taken to covering the entire "Live At Leeds" album, and he'd hired them after hearing them in a club one night. We were sitting right in front of his bass rig (he was inexplicably using Peavey equipment for that tour), and once they got started, we couldn't hear anything but bass anyway. In that small room (a 200-300 seater), he was playing loud enough to fill Texas Stadium. Hearing him playing "Young Man Blues" and "Shakin' All Over" was wish fulfillment at its best, but probably the best part of the show was watching him hang out next to his stacks of speaker cabinets, smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit with his roadie.
Afterward, we walked around back to look for the tour bus (my partner had some records he wanted to get autographed), which I'd watched being unloaded while I was on my lunch break that day (the Ox actually took his hounds on the road with him). No luck; the back gate was locked. As we walked back around the front of the club, we saw a couple of audience members with signed mementos. "He's signing stuff for EVERYBODY inside," they said, and sure enough, back in the club, there was the Ox, sitting down at a table, autographing the Who memorabilia that seemingly every member of the audience had brought to the show. (I got the Ox to sign a beer coaster, which I sent to a bro. in New York who'd grown up idolizing him.)
Like no one else in the Who, he lived for the stage, and perhaps that was part of his problem...he squandered loads of his treasure touring his own bands (Rigor Mortis, Ox, and the John Entwistle Band), playing in dumps for chump change. Not only did he join Daltrey on the demeaning "English Rock Orchestra" tour, he even did things like touring Japan with Neal Schon and a couple of other seventies arena-rock leftovers. After the first one, "Smash Your Head Against the Wall," his solo albums were really nothing special; in fact, they got progressively worse. Funny, that, because his songs were always highlights on Who albums (or as B-sides of singles) when they appeared. Forget "Boris the Spider" (which Hendrix supposedly said was his favourite Whosong, probably just to wind up Townshend); surely, "Heaven and Hell" must rank among the 'oo's very best.
Since hearing the announcement of his death, I've made it a point to watch (again) the videos of "The Kids Are Alright" and "30 Years of Maximum R&B." He was always one cool-dressing mothafucka, and his appearance actually hadn't changed much for the last 20 years or so (since he stopped dyeing his hair). For bassplayers, watching Entwistle on video must be a little like watching Hendrix or Stevie Vaughan for guitar players...a little intimidating, but you couldn't pick a better place to start to learn. I've also been listening to a bootleg tape from around '74 in the car. It's strange listening to his lines, knowing he's gone...all that strength and power; I'd just assumed he would live forever.