John Entwistle “stood out because he played without emotion,” according to the Associated Press wire story announcing his death. Anyone who has ever heard the Who is advised to remember that humans are primates and primates are mainly visual beasts. An arachnid, for instance, would never have made such a huge mistake as to confuse Entwistle’s onstage immobility with a lack of passion. Entwistle was the other great songwriter in the Who, author of songs like “Heaven and Hell,” “Cousin Kevin,” “Boris the Spider,” “My Wife,” and “905” (not to mention great commercial parodies for Heinz Baked Beans and a pimple cream called Medac). Unless humor has been eliminated from the range of human emotions, he was as emotional as everybody else in his band, just not as agile. Unless a sardonic vision of the beyond doesn’t count, his view of the cosmos was at least as curious as Pete Townshend’s.
When it came to musical humor, Entwistle probably stood as the funniest guy in the Who, which took some doing. He peppered his bass runs and brief solos with quotes and allusions and his lyric writing had the same dark, dodgy aspect that infests the writing of Stephen King, another 6′ 4″ behemoth whose saucier side the benighted often overlook. In interviews, his perspective came through the wry just like Townshend’s, albeit at its own angle. He began his solo career playing heavy metal, so I asked what other heavy metal he liked. “None of it,” Entwistle replied. “Can’t stand the stuff.” He pondered the contradiction, then gave a look somewhere between grin and grimace. “It’s like sniffing your own farts, I suppose.”
His bass-playing really made him important. John Entwistle was the first musician to figure out how to use the bass for carrying forward melody and weaving additional themes through a song, while still stabilizing the beat-that is, he figured a way to balance the extreme playing of Pete Townshend and Keith Moon simultaneously, a stupendous feat. In the Who’s greatest record, “My Generation,” it’s his ability to carry the tune that frees Pete Townshend’s guitar to clobber the hell out of it and create the ear-bleeding feedback solo. There wasn’t any precedent for what Entwistle did, and all bassists since-from Jaco Pastorious to Doug Wimbish and beyond-owe him their sense of freedom.
Entwistle’s bass attack forced the Who into its high-volume assaults. “We had only two melodic instruments, my bass and Pete’s guitar,” he explained. “So I devised a way of playing with a very trebly sound, as if my bass were a rhythm guitar.So when Pete was doing chord work, I could get in a melodic line from the bass side. But to do this we needed 100 watt amplifies with four cabinets each.” Entwistle became the first musician to play the high-powered amplifiers developed at Jim Marshall’s West London drum shop. Without this combination-excessively loud Marshall stacks turned up way past the point of distortion in competition with one another, and bass guitar offering a thundering melodic challenge to the six string variety-there wouldn’t be any metal or grunge, and probably no punk, either.
The puzzle of the Who was very much about how to fit together four eccentric stylists: “I think if you listen to my bass parts on their own, they sound unbelievably disjointed,” Entwistle said, “but when you play them with the other instruments on the track, they fit. That’s what comes from playing with Keith.” In the greatest ’60s rock band-in my opinion-each member played an indispensable role, none of which made very much sense on its own. John Entwistle made have been the man standing stockstill amidst the maelstrom his bandmates created but that’s precisely because he stood at the center of it all.
(All quotes from my book, Before I Get Old: The Story of the Who, except for the story about metal and farts, which I’ve been waiting to write for 20 years.)
(what’s playing in my office)
1. “The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen (Sony)
2. The Modern Recordings, 1950-1951, B.B. King (Ace UK)
3. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)
4. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)
5. Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, Nappy Roots (Atlantic)
6. Sweet Talk and Good Lies, Heather Myles (Rounder)
7. Masquerade, Wyclef Jean (Columbia)
8. Living in a New World, Willie King and the Liberators (Rooster Blues)
9. Revolucion: The Chicano’s Spirit, a selection of Chicano grooves from the early 70s (Follow Me, Fr.)
10. By the Hand of the Father, Alejandro Escovedo (Texas Music Group)
11. The Shed Session, Bhundu Boys (Sadza, Ger.)-Two discs of early ’80s Zimbabwean guitar band music that rocks harder and easier than any of the “world music” that became of it.
12. Happy Town, Tim Krekel
13. The Houserocker! Jimmy Cavallo with Ron Spencer and Jumpstart (Blue Wave)
14. Live, Natalie McMaster (Vanguard)
15. “Cry Cry Cry,” Robbie Fulks, “”Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” Rodney Crowell, “Ring of Fire,” Billy Burnette from Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash (Dualton)-Honorable mention: “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.
Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists: