Behind the Curtain: The Who’s John Entwistle (Not ‘Entwhistle’)

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

John Entwistle of The Who was the most remarkable rock bass player in history. He ranked number one on Rolling Stone’s 2011 Top Ten Bassists Of All Time poll and number seven on Bass Player’s The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time list but even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

In The Who, he not only held down the role of bass player but also operated on multi-tasking levels by acting as a rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist and timekeeper and also provided stellar background harmonies and even the odd lead vocal on such classics as “My Wife” and “Boris the Spider.” He was a band unto himself. A blower of minds as well as the French Horn.

For all his worldly acclaim, however, people were forever spelling his last name incorrectly. Everybody always inserted an extra h so his surname came out as Entwhistle and not Entwistle. As if the Who’s bassist’s last name was spelled the same way as the word describing what happens when you put your lips together and blew. Wrong.

Whenever I read a story about him and saw that the writer had spelled his last name with the additional letter, I immediately put the magazine down, tore out the offending pages, set a match to them and scattered the ashes to the four winds. Anybody stupid enough to spell it this way and not astute enough to find the proper spelling deserved to be flogged and have his fingers broken. I have seen his name spelled improperly in what were considered to be reputable musical publications as well as a myriad of music websites. Unforgivable.

It’s like going to a doctor who can’t spell penicillin or a mechanic who can’t figure out how to open the hood of your car. Or something like that. I mean are you really going to listen to someone tell you about your car and then not be able to check the oil? I don’t think so.

Which is probably why John sneakily and cleverly named his second solo album Whistle Rymes [omitting the h in rhymes] where he took a subtle shot at all the morons who never got his name right. On the other hand, there actually was in h in Pete Townshend’s name, though everybody tended to spell it wrong by omitting that letter in this fashion: Townsend. Very confusing. Maybe illiterate imbeciles stole the h from Pete to give it to John. Robbing Peter to pay Paul or in this case, John.

But what wasn’t confusing or hard to understand was just how unbelievable a bass player John Alec Entwistle truly was. He was astonishing. Unearthly. Words fail me, and that’s a bad place for a writer to be. Like a carpenter without nails or a painter without a brush. So you can imagine how I felt upon first meeting The Ox—his nickname—somewhere around 1974.

Meeting is the wrong word. I ran into him at the Playboy Club in Century City. There was a party being held there for some band. I walked into the room with my brother Mick beside me and immediately turned a laser beam focus on the dazzling and gloriously under-dressed Playboy Bunnies. By today’s standards, their outfits would be considered Victorian and conservative but walking into that room back then and being surrounded by stunningly beautiful women revealing no small amount of cleavage was a 20-something’s fantasy come true.

Mick and I ordered drinks—I didn’t drink because alcohol gave me migraine headaches, but I had to see one of these cocktail hostesses up close and I knew I didn’t have the nerve to go up to one of them and talk to them so I did the next best thing—and when this breathtaking brunette wearing blue Bunny ears, a black bow tie with white collar, white cuffs and a blue uniform came back with the drinks, I became lightheaded. She was wearing a satin rosette name tag and I think her name was Amber or Tiffany—Bunnies never had ordinary names like Jane or Molly—and I reached into my pocket, took out my wallet and tipped her every bill I had. I may have given her ones or fives or tens but it didn’t matter because just seeing her smile and watching her walk away would have been worth twice that.

Still humming from my Bunny encounter, I glanced over at the bar and saw someone standing there and knew immediately who it was. “Mick, that’s John Entwistle at the bar,” I said. We were both monster Who fans and before even thinking about what we were doing, we approached him. I figured if I could meet a Playboy Bunny, I could do anything.

My heart thumping like the pluck of a low E bass string and the drink tilting unsteadily in my right hand—I hadn’t taken a sip but the thought of meeting Entwistle was unnerving—we walked closer. Finally standing next to him at the bar, I stuck out my hand and offered a subdued greeting. “Hi, John. I’m sorry to bother you. My name is Steve and I’m a writer and this is my brother Mick.” Everybody shook hands and I could see immediately that he was really, really drunk. Terribly drunk. His words were slurred but he was more than willing to sit and talk to two strangers. I don’t remember what the conversation was about but I may have mentioned seeing The Who back in 1967 at the Hollywood Bowl.

White Front was a chain of department stores located in Southern California and the western U.S. from 1959 through the mid-1970s. They had a small record department and on one particular afternoon in 1967 when I was there with my friend Skip, we saw that if you bought one of a few select albums, you received a free ticket to attend the White Front Festival of Music, a concert being held at the Hollywood Bowl on November 19th.

We each bought a copy of the Mothers of Invention’s first album, Freak Out!, and attended the show that featured the Who, the Association, Sopwith Camel, Sunshine Company, Everly Brothers, the New Animals and maybe one or two other bands. It was raining on that particular Sunday so Skip and I were able to sit in the very front row. In all honesty, I don’t remember much about the Who’s performance. Their setlist would have included songs from A Quick One and The Who Sell Out and I only wish I could now go back in time, reach out to that 14-year old kid sitting there in the front row on a rainy Sunday afternoon and tell him, “This is the Who, Steve. The greatest rock band of all time. Watch and listen and dig it because seeing the Who in 1967 is something rare and special and you will want to remember this. Oh, yeah, and eight years from now you will sit down with the bass player and talk to him. Believe it or not.”

Of course I didn’t say any of this to an inebriated Entwistle, but I would bring it up when we finally met what would have been about a year later on January 24, 1975. Guitar Player Magazine wanted to do a story with John—back then GP used to include bassists between their covers and it wouldn’t be until 1988 that a separate magazine called Bass Player would be published—and luckily I was chosen to do it. Or to be honest, I probably pitched the idea to editor Jim Crockett and he gave me the thumbs up.

Prior to this story, I had already written seven previous GP covers [in order of publication]—Jeff Beck, Wishbone Ash, Greg Lake, John McLaughlin, Jan Akkerman, Joe Walsh and Dave Mason—and I was as proud of those interviews as anything I had ever or have ever done. I loved doing those stories because writing for Guitar Player in the 1970s made me feel like a king. There was no other guitar-oriented publication around [Guitar World wouldn’t appear on the stands until 1980] and if you were a guitar player you wanted desperately to be in GP and there I was right in the middle of all of it and conducting interviews with some of the heaviest guitarists around.

Because GP was such an important magazine back in the ‘70s, and because I had become such an integral part of the editorial content—I wrote 16 cover stories [not to mention dozens of major features] in a span of about five years, which meant my pieces adorned the cover about every four issues—I felt a daunting responsibility to live up to what was expected of me both from the magazine and from readers. I knew that guitarists out there were reading the magazine because they wanted to know things like what kinds of strings Joe Walsh used and how Greg Lake got his bass sound and I didn’t take that responsibility lightly. My first thought in preparing for and ultimately doing the interview was, “If that reader was sitting in the room with this guitarist, what would he want to know? What questions would he ask?”

That’s exactly the mindset I had when I was standing in the elevator taking me to John Entwistle’s room at the Continental Hyatt House on the Sunset Strip. Though I had done those seven earlier covers I mentioned above, interviewing the Who’s bass player meant more than any of them [save for the Jeff Beck cover, which was my first and nothing can replace the feeling of a first kiss, a first car, a first cuddle or a first cover—right?].

But the moment I knocked on his hotel room door up on the eighth floor and the door opened and I saw him standing there in front of me, every thought I had about orchestrating the perfect interview flew out of my head like a flock of birds on the wind. If I thought I had been nervous around that Bunny, it was nothing compared to being around this bass player. Automatic muscle memory took over and I managed to shake his hand and may have muttered some inanity like, “I love your playing.”

Walking into his room, I saw a bass propped against the chair and the sight of it struck me with a renewed sense of awe, wonder, and no little bit of terror. “This is John f—king Entwistle,” I thought to myself. “Do not screw this up.” We sat down at a table in the living area of his suite and from the moment I asked the first question—“What was the scene like when you first started playing?”—I knew I would be OK. From the outset, John was gracious, good-humored and genial and answered every question with a sense of purpose, clarity and no small amount of humor.

It was obvious that Entwistle dug the moment. Interviews were largely given over to Townshend or Roger Daltrey and because the bass player was considered the quiet one, he rarely participated in them. So given the opportunity to talk about his bass playing and his gear meant a lot to him. Or at least it seemed that way.

I was so freaking overjoyed with the way the interview turned out. Some months later when the November ’75 issue of GP arrived in my mailbox—I was on the magazine’s mailing list and there was nothing so wonderful as receiving an issue and seeing my story on the cover—I picked it up and actually read the story. I never read my stories after they were printed because it always felt uncomfortable and in some strange way I felt as if I was intruding on someone else’s space. I always thought, “The story belongs to the reader now. It is no longer mine.”

I read it and I smiled. I perused the piece and recalled all over again when John had talked about the famous bass solo in “My Generation” and how fans thought Pete was playing it and what it was like playing with Keith Moon [“He must be the hardest drummer in the world to play with mainly because he tries to hit nearly every drum at once”].

I was overwhelmed by John Entwistle’s generosity of spirit and his willingness to sit and confide in a total stranger. I was devastated years later when I heard that the bassist had died.

John passed away on June 27, 2002, when he was found dead from a heart condition induced by taking cocaine and drinking alcohol the night before. I only hope sometime in the intervening years subsequent to our interview and before his horrific death that the great Ox had a chance to read my story.

I would like to think he did, and that it brought him some joy and that maybe he even thought, “That writer was OK. He asked me all the right questions.” I hope that’s what John would have thought.

I really hope so.

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