Hope You Die Before We Get Old

The reunited Who and Sex Pistols cheat death one more time

Oddly, the music itself actually holds up better than expected. Songs like "The Real Me," "Had Enough," "Cut My Hair," "The Punk Meets the Godfather" and "5:15" have been relatively underplayed on FM radio--at least compared to so many other Who songs--and they sound great here. Daltrey, who looks about 20 years younger than his mates, is in particularly fine form, and Townshend is quite moving on the solo acoustic number "Drowned."

The show winds up, as the recording does, with a bombastic version of "Love Reign O'er Me," followed by an encore of "5:15." But it all comes to nothing: The audience is distracted and unenthusiastic. Clapton's simpler set fares much better later in the evening. Here in Britain, Clapton is still God.

Somehow, I had pictured this concert as being more like the films I'd seen of the Rolling Stones' famous free concert in Hyde Park in 1969, which drew an alleged 250,000 people: all verdant grass and picnics and "butterflies are free." But the MasterCard Presents the Masters of Rock Concert is the antithesis of that: It speaks instead of money and advertising and cross-promotion and megahype. It's just no damned fun standing in a frigid field for nine hours watching a bunch of dinosaurs lumber across some far-off TV screens. It's like watching an old-timers' game from the cheap seats in the middle of a snowstorm.

My cousin insists people are here for "the event itself," that they "want to be able to say they were here."

"What's wrong with that?" he asks.
"A lot," I tell him.
Ever feel like you've been cheated? I have, again and again--but more so in the last ten days in Europe than ever before. As I look out at the enclosure at Hyde Park, two football fields long, I am summarily reminded of all the things the Sex Pistols were fighting against in 1976: bloated rock concerts featuring bands like Queen, who (articles keep reminding us) headlined the last such event in Hyde Park in 1976; Led Zeppelin, whose lead members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are seated a few rows down from me; and the Who themselves. In those days, the Pistols and the Buzzcocks stood firmly against the glitz and pretension of what now seem like minor infractions: Page's double-necked guitar, eight-minute-long songs, rock operas, silken trousers and fringed scarves, the occasional use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to flesh out rock operas, backstage parties populated by Sloane Rangers and stick-thin models.

At the time, those things seemed worth destroying, yet many of those things are still here today, and some of them are named Johnny Rotten. But compared to a Who concert held in a quarter-mile-long cattle pen, the Pistols reunion was downright honest. At least, for all its nostalgic aspects, it was fun. And in comparison to the Who's Hyde Park gig, the show in Finsbury Park with its moderate crowd of 25,000 was like freakin' CBGB.

Despite its amusement value--and face it, it was amusing--the whole experience has made it clear that rock 'n' roll wheezes along on its life-support machine. It received a mortal blow in Finland, and now the bell is tolling loud enough to drown out the Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." London is stiff with boredom now; soon, it will be stone cold, immobile, and everyone in this entire city will be turned into pillars of salt.

You can already see the statuary in these giant gardens--Finsbury Park, Hyde Park, Green Park. There's Johnny Rotten, his hair in cement spikes. There's Roger Daltrey, his chin jutting out. And there's Clapton and Dylan, like Methuselah and his father, and there's Peter T. with his arm stopped straight out in mid-windup. One of these people once said, "Don't look back," but it's way too late. Everybody did.

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