The Day the Who’s John Entwistle Died
John Entwistle attracted far more attention when he died in a Las Vegas hotel room with a groupie sleeping beside him than the typically stoic bassist ever garnered onstage with the Who. He was just 57.
Doctors determined that Entwistle suffered a heart attack on June 27, 2002 brought on by cocaine usage, and fueled by an undiagnosed condition. The Who were set to launch a large-scale tour the following day.
Nicknamed the Ox for his larger-than-life physical bearing and attitude, but also called 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 Who collected an entry in The Guinness Book of Records for playing the loudest rock concert in history. Entwistle also pioneered the use of feedback in music and smashing his instrument, as Jimi Hendrix followed suit after seeing Entwistle do it.
Entwistle went to school with bandmate Pete Townshend, later developing 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. 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 Who was working on new material and that there was no end in sight.
“I used to be more prolific, but it became a way of life that I didn’t like," Entwistle said in an interview recorded soon before his death. "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. “For once we had a choice of whether to stop or go on," Roger Daltrey would later muse. "We added up the number of people the tour would employ and it added into the thousands.”
See a Clip From the Who's First Show After the Death of John Entwistle
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," Daltrey 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,” Townshend later 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. Welsh sessions ace Pino Palladino took over for Entwistle, remaining for years. The show was dedicated to their former bassist, and Townshend told the crowd, “It is difficult.”
Later, Townshend admitted that he "wanted to die" while looking across the stage and noting his late colleague’s absence. But a relieved Daltrey said that “it didn’t get any more difficult” after that first performance.
Turns out, the Ox left his old group with some of his bullish determination: Reduced to 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, fuck, 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,” Townshend said, 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," Townshend said. "It was a secret until you opened the bottle. In Las Vegas, someone opened the bottle.”
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