Posted: Oct 23, 2006 9:22 pm
aw, fuck YEAH. i can feel this. life is lived.
Chapter Thirteen: The Who At The Grande
"How much further is it then?"
Roger stood down in the very front of the bus watching Jonesy, the driver, negotiate the rain and Detroit traffic. The question seemed to comfort Rodge. It required no answer. He'd asked the same question at least a thousand times in the last two weeks, it was a constant reminder the trip would never end. The rumble of the diesel bus as it inched through traffic, the slap of the oversized windshield wipers and the hiss of the air brakes were sounds we clung to when we weren't talking.
This was the 1968 headliner tour for the Who. Fifty-one cities in 59 days, launched only a few months after the Herman's Hermits opener. Unlike that last time around, on this tour, I was the designated grown-up. I told the bus driver where to go, I told the band when it was time to. The crew was small. Bob Pridden, roadie. Chris, my 17 year old cousin, roadie's assistant. Me, the band, and the bus driver. That was it. All the gear and luggage slammed underneath. Inside, it was Keith Moon meets Animal House. There were six bunks built out of 2x4s, three on each side of the bus. An early onboard restroom – basically, a porta-john bolted to the back corner of the bus – insured that we all gathered in the front.
The Who had built what felt like a big following in England and were becoming something exciting in Europe, but on their own in the U.S. it was a hard sell. They weren't sexy, not exactly cute, and they didn't match. They were four guys from different planets playing songs that sounded like plane crashes or audio crossword puzzles.
Initially, the idea had been for the Who to gain some exposure with Herman's Hermits, then venture out on their own headlining tour. The Hermits' audiences, though, had been 17 year old girls gushing over that cute Herman and his cute songs. On the road this time around, the Who were attracting older, rougher crowds definitely not into cute. These kids were into raising hell, and word was that the Who was a wild band that busted up equipment, but even that story wasn't common knowledge, more like a rumor.
The first headline tour was grueling. It went on for months. It was also depressing. If the crowd numbered close to a thousand at a show, that was a big deal. The dream had been to take America by storm and make a ton of cash. With the mounting bills for demolished equipment and hotel repairs, though, instead of returning to England as wealthy heroes, the Who were headed back to a mindboggling mountain of debt. This was the big picture; the little one was the endless hours on the bus, apathetic audiences, girls who wanted to know if the band had actually ever met the Beatles.
I sat next to Pete as he wiped the bus window with his sleeve. It was raining. This had to be wrong. Jonesy had stopped in front of a doorway all right, and it did say "Grande," but it was lit with what appeared to be a single one-hundred watt bulb. I ran to the front of the bus.
"You sure this is it, Jonesy?" I asked. "Have you been here before?"
Obviously he had, since he'd dropped the equipment off that afternoon. But things look different in the dark and the wet. And this was real dark. Ghetto dark. Jonesy was checking his mimeographed maps when a cop banged on the door. Roger, standing down the stairs, leaning on the door, swung the handle. The cop stuck his head in the bus. "Boy, are you mother-fuckers late." He was smiling, and seemed to form an instant allegiance with Jonesy. Come to think of it, with their nearly matching uniform caps, they looked like twin brothers in the dark.
Where was everybody? I mean, here we were in the ghetto, in the rain, Keith still wearing the pink satin suit he'd slept in for two days, Roger with his Nehru jacket, hair teased and lacquered to the sky, John looking like a homosexual undertaker, Pete all scruffy and bloodshot. And me, balancing blown nerves and no sleep with Valiums and Black Mollies. "I'll catch the door," said the cop, and dashed for what we guessed was the entrance under the dangling bulb. Pete started to exit the bus, then turned, resigned to a shitty show. "Let's just go play a quick 45 and get the hell out," he said, sounding like DeGaulle announcing to his troops that they were leaving Paris.
The guys trotted toward the front the door, Jonesy locked the bus, and I squeezed in behind the band. Once inside, we couldn't believe what we saw. The place was packed, people jammed so close together it looked like they were stuck to the walls. The smell of pot just about knocked you over. Everybody was friendly, and they knew the band immediately. The guys freaked; they weren't used to being recognized.
As we inched along, I could just see the top of the crowd. Jonesy was flat up against my back, my face was jammed into John's spine. We were bunny-hopping in slow motion across a lobby that, without the cop pushing point, we could never have hoped to penetrate.
The thick layer of smoke hanging over the crowd looked sliceable. The walls were covered with dark, gaudy DayGlo paintings. Hendrix was blaring from the wall speakers, I could hear the bass runs on the soles of my feet. I pulled up my briefcase in front of my stomach and held on with both hands. Being surrounded by people, I could only sense the size of the crowd, could only see a few people at a time. A girl with long, straight hair stuck a joint in my mouth, it stayed there. I stood on my toes to catch a glimpse of the cop's hat, I couldn't see it. A girl handed Pete a note above the crowd. She was as tall as Pete—either that or she was on somebody's shoulders.
I remember thinking that if I dropped my briefcase, I could never get it back. It was getting worse. My chest was in a vise between John's back and Jonesy's chest. The joint was burning my lips, and I tried to spit it out. It eventually fell between my briefcase and John's back. I assumed it was burning away on his coat, and I remember screaming in John's ear that he was on fire. But he didn't notice anything. It crossed my mind that "Fire" might be the wrong thing to scream at that moment.
With all the leather fringe, beads, and scarves, it looked like a masquerade party. It smelled like a hash convention in Tangier. Everybody except the cop was smoking pot. To make things stranger, a set of strobe lights went on, and I could hear Hendrix breathing between the lines of "Are You Experienced?" He must have written it here.
Finally, we wound up in a tiny dressing room. Jonesy shut the door behind me, Pridden, who'd been getting things onstage just right, came bounding in the side door. "Bloody hell!" he yelled. "What a bloody fucking mess!"
"Where's your guitar?" Bob yelled at Pete.
Pete's face fell. "Damn," he said. "It's on the bus."
Jonesy looked at his watch. "It took us 45 minutes to get here from the front door," he said. Bob had a white, re-glued Fender Strat with an electric short. It would have to do.
A tall, red-headed guy came in from the side door, his face colored with clown paint. Scary. "I'm Dave Miller," he said. "I'm the announcer." He walked over to Pete and handed him a joint. "It's a pretty good crowd, " he said, "but then it's like this every Friday."
"Bloody hell," said Pete, taking a big hit and holding it in.
"Could you get us a drink?" asked Keith, sounding like Peter O'Toole addressing the Queen's butler.
"Fuck no," said Dave, laughing. "We don't have alcohol here. I'll announce you, and then you come out."
The band formed a line behind Dave at the stage door. He got the last of the joint from Pete, then stepped out on the stage. "Okay," he said, looking out over the crowd, "let's" – he gave a you're-gonna-love-this grin – "welcome The Who-o-o-o!"
Bob handed Pete the guitar at the doorway, the band scrambled to their spots. My stomach tightened. The stage was about chest high. People rested their elbows on it. No cops, no security. Just wall-to-wall humanity, waiting to rock. A loud crackle came from Pete's guitar as he jammed the lead into the amp socket. Like a machine gun, they kicked off "Substitute."
"Jonesy, look at this!" I shouted. "They're singing with the band. They know the song!" This had never happened in the States. The crowd was pulsing like a well-trained combat unit. Guys were banging their heads and hands on the stage.
The band looked at each other. This was the audience they'd worked their whole lives to find, and halfway into the first song they knew it for sure. The whole building seemed to work with them. The crowd, stoned out of their minds, was watching, approving, everything the band did. It was as if this whole tour had been a long, agonizing foot race to this, the last lap, with no one behind them. The guys got their second wind from the roar of the crowd and went full blast. For the Who, it was the perfect set.
The next day they would sell a zillion records in Detroit, disc jockeys raving. The Who had finally arrived in America; moments before they were ready to leave and never come back.
They never topped that show.