John Entwistle, 1944-2002

The Who's bassist (and French horn player and all-around wry humorist) was always that histrionic band's least visible member. But his sly musicianship and blithe spirit gave the Who its soul.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published June 28, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

John Entwistle, who died of a heart attack on June 27 at age 57, was by far the least glamorous member of the Who. But what he lacked in glamour he made up in class, a thousand times over. And while so many rock 'n' rollers can't quite get the hang of aging gracefully, for Entwistle it was never a problem.

When the modern-day version of the band took the stage at last year's Concert for New York City, Entwistle looked completely at home in his skin and with his sound. His very stillness was like a starburst of concentration -- Roger Daltrey was bouncier and Pete Townshend more animated, but Entwistle said all he needed to, brilliantly, without moving much but his fingers. As a member of the Who's first incarnation, the High Numbers, he didn't move around a lot in 1964, and he wasn't moving around a lot in 2002. His motto might have been "Not moving around a lot since 1964."

But then, if Entwistle's career was proof of anything, it was that understatement could always win the day. He was all about musicianship, dexterity and tossed-off derring-do. His solos were nubile, bronze-toned ripples of sound that seemed to come whirling out of nowhere (it's always the quiet ones, isn't it?) and echo in your head long after they were over. (That astonishing bass break in "My Generation," which he must have played hundreds if not thousands of times during the course of his career, sounds fresh each time you hear it.)

Entwistle also played several types of brass instruments, most notably the French horn; his tone was rich, burnished, suggestive of palpable shapes and textures, like a gravestone rubbing. His silver band arrangement for "Blue, Red and Grey" (off "The Who by Numbers") is a lovely bit of work: He tames all the brightness out of the horns, bringing them all down to their softest colors. It's a sound redolent of fresh evening air.

Perhaps Entwistle looked wonderful as an older rock star because he never looked all that young to begin with. Richard Barnes' ebullient scrapbook history "The Who: Maximum R&B" shows a picture of him as a very young boy wearing overalls and a checkered shirt, his blond hair combed over like an old man's, a notably pensive look on his face. There's a later snap of him as a serious young mod in trim jacket, drainpipe trousers and winklepickers, staring intently but a little shyly into the camera, perhaps because the sun is in his eyes. He betrays the faintest hint of a smile; he holds a floppy-forelocked terrier in his arms. His clothes may be ultracool, but his demeanor is that of a real person.

Entwistle's sense of humor certainly slipped out in the songs he wrote for the Who, "Boris the Spider" (a dip into the funnier side of paranoia) and "My Wife" (about the absolute necessity of avoiding one revved-up, pissed-off old lady on the warpath). Both songs have somber, edgy undertones, but they don't take themselves too seriously. They're funny only in an off-the-cuff sort of way. In their refusal to shout orders at us, they're totally Entwistle.

In some ways, it seems, the quiet ones leave the biggest void in their wake. Maybe it's because we take them for granted when they're around, and only when things become too quiet do we sit up, look around, and wonder: Hey, where'd they go?

Entwistle slipped away from us just as he was about to embark on yet another reunion tour with the band to whom he'd devoted, on and off, close to two-thirds of his life. Sadly, he reportedly leaves an unfinished novel behind. He also leaves us with a vivid picture, one with its own indelible soundtrack, one that reminds us that the best bits of rock 'n' roll often happen in the darker corners rather than center stage. It's a picture of a man standing very, very still, spinning out the most perfect sound imaginable in all directions.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------