Following you, I climb the mountain. I get excitement at your feet.
--from the rock opera "Tommy"
As the bassist of the Who, John Entwistle climbed the highest mountain of rock stardom, stood on the most prominent stages from Woodstock to the Metropolitan Opera House and saw as much excitement in the crowds at his feet as any rock band has ever created.
But if Entwistle's thunderous virtuosity on the bass guitar remains Olympian, the settings in which he now exhibits it are a long way from Woodstock. Last Thursday Entwistle stood on the low stage of the Strand, a dinner and dance club in Redondo Beach, while a sound crew headed by former Who roadie Bobby Pridden puzzled over a balky electrical system that was making a shambles of the John Entwistle Band's pre-show sound check. Singer Henry Small fumed over a succession of blown fuses.
But Entwistle, entirely in keeping with his old Who image as the immobile, unflappable anchor of the world's most tumultuous live band, took it all in stride.
In the Who he was known as "The Ox" and "The Quiet One." While guitarist Pete Townshend, drummer Keith Moon and singer Roger Daltrey carried on a nonstop circus of athletic leaps, arm-windmilling, madcap drum-kit abuse and microphone-cord lariat tosses, Entwistle would stand off to the side and self-containedly play his instrument.
Midway through his first substantive tour since the Who's 1982 retirement, Entwistle, who plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, wasn't about to let anything perturb him: not his lack of a record deal for an already-recorded new album, not the cold he was nursing, not the after-effects of an overnight drive from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Redondo Beach and certainly not a little problem with the circuit breakers.
After the aborted sound check, as Entwistle sat nibbling on shrimp and red snapper and sipping a glass of milk, he spoke with low-key affability about his legendary old band and his scuffling new one.
At 43, Entwistle is tall and lean, but he has the craggy, grizzled, weatherworn look of a boulder that has spent its existence jutting from a stormy promontory.
After 25 years as the stolid man of rock, Entwistle said, he can't see much point in switching to a new, more animated persona.
"The audience has an image of me, and I don't see any need to exude personality. They've already got my personality in mind," he said in a soft, deep voice made even lower by his head cold.
So even though he is now the leader of his own band, Entwistle still stakes out territory away from center stage. He stands there in front of a high stack of amplifiers, holding the Buzzard, a bass of his own design that has a long, red body and a black, beaked head shaped like a vulture's.
The instrument is one of 160 basses and guitars that Entwistle says he owns--down from a peak of 260. One of his basses, a flame-shaped model, recently netted $28,000 at a Sotheby's auction. Entwistle, who lives in a 19th-Century mansion in Gloucestershire, England, said he has pumped the proceeds from the sale of part of his bass collection into building his own recording studio.
"When I was a kid, I couldn't afford to buy a decent bass," Entwistle said. "I went around looking at Fenders in store windows, wishing I could have one. That was sort of my desire in life. When I could afford it, I bought one, and I just kept going."
Entwistle put his instruments to revolutionary use. In the 1960s, he, more than any other rocker, transformed the bass from a mere time-keeping device, a humble musical creature of predictable habits, into a wild, braying mastodon that fed on massive amplifier wattage and fought on more-than-equal terms over the habitat of a song.
Despite his reserved image, Entwistle said he sacrificed several instruments to the early Who's attention-getting stage ritual of smashing their gear at the end of a show. "I smashed five or six on stage. I actually smashed six others in hotel rooms because I couldn't get them to play the way I wanted to," Entwistle said.
He also says he was not entirely an innocent bystander in Keith Moon's legendary demolitions of hotel rooms. "I shared rooms with Keith. It was our room that was trashed. I'd let him take the blame for it," Entwistle said. He recalled occasions when he and Moon, who died 10 years ago from an overdose of prescribed sedatives, would be calmly entertaining girls in their hotel room when, "suddenly Keith would go berserk and trash the room. I'd watch the girls' expressions as they ran out of the room screaming."
Portraying life's horrific little surprises with sardonic black humor became Entwistle's forte as a songwriter. His early signature tune was "Boris the Spider," an account of an eerie-but-funny encounter with an ill-fated arachnid. (Entwistle still wears a large, elaborate spider pendant around his neck, the original of which he says was a gift from Keith Moon.)