15 Years Ago: The Who’s John Entwistle Dies
John Entwistle’s death attracted as much attention as he always had onstage with the Who. On June 27, 2002, at age 57, he died in a Las Vegas hotel room with a groupie sleeping beside him. He’d suffered a heart attack brought on by cocaine usage, and fueled by a undiagnosed condition. The Who had been set to launch a large-scale tour the following day.
Nicknamed the Ox for his larger-than-life physical bearing and attitude, and nicknamed Thunderfingers for the noise he delivered through his bass amps, Entwistle was perhaps a heavier influence on rock music than many people realized. He’d pioneered the use of powerful amplification, using 200 watts of power when most bands used 50.
The move helped cement the success of the Marshall company, and led to the Who achieving an entry in The Guinness Book of Records for playing the loudest rock concert in history. Entwistle had also pioneered the use of feedback in music and smashing his instrument, with Jimi Hendrix following suit after seeing Entwistle do it.
Entwistle, who’d gone to school with bandmate Pete Townshend, developed a playing technique that allowed him to get the best out of his colleagues. Neither Townshend nor drummer Keith Moon (who died in 1978) were standard performers on their instruments, and so Entwistle adopted a style that saw him delivering more lead material than traditional bass performances.
Rumors abounded that his lifestyle had left him with financial problems, and that the Who’s semi-regular reunions since splitting in 1983 were a way for the band to help prop up their bass player's bank account. But by the time the 2002 tour was being prepared, Entwistle reported that the band was working on new material and that there was no end in sight. In an interview recorded soon before his death, he said, “I used to be more prolific, but it became a way of life that I didn’t like. I didn’t want, on my days off, to shut myself in the studio writing.” Still, he admitted, scoring writing credits “means you earn a lot more money.”
His sudden death forced the rest of the band into a quandary. Singer Roger Daltrey later said, “For once we had a choice of whether to stop or go on. We added up the number of people the tour would employ and it added into the thousands.” He had an additional reason for wanting to continue. “I felt we should go on to show people our age that we are in the drop zone," he said. "What do you do when your mates die? You can’t stop living. You’ve got to go on.”
But he deferred the final decision to Townshend, whose choice to continue might have been based on the way he was dealing with the tragedy. “I couldn’t afford to feel anything – I could see how feeling things was affecting Roger,” he said. “He was shaking. He couldn’t even hold a cup of tea. I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep myself composed,’ and the way I did that was I cut myself off from my feelings.”
After a handful of cancellations, the Who returned to action on July 1, 2002, at the Hollywood Bowl with Welsh session bassist Pino Palladino, who remained in the fold until last year. The show was dedicated to Entwistle, and Townshend told the crowd, “It is difficult.” Later, he admitted that, on looking across the stage and noting his late colleague’s absence, “I wanted to die.” But Daltrey noted that, after the first show, “it didn’t get any more difficult.”
See a Clip From the Who's First Show After the Death of John Entwistle
But the Ox had left the band with some of his bullish determination – left as officially a duo, Townshend and Daltrey took stock of their famously fractious relationship, decided their friendship was more important than anything else and went back to work. (In 2004, Daltrey joked that his first reaction to Entwistle's death was “Oh, f---, I’m left with the miserable one.")
Townshend wrote the 2004 song “Old Red Wine” about Entwistle, inspired by the bassist’s penchant for expensive bottles, no matter how bad they tasted. “Sometimes they were terrible – he’d be drinking mud half the time,” said the guitarist, adding that the overall image matched his vision of Entwistle, complete with heart disorder. “When he died, he was this wonderful, mature, elegant casing, but he was a bit muddy inside. It was a secret until you opened the bottle. In Las Vegas, someone opened the bottle.”
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