Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The Ox: The Authorized Biography of the Who's John Entwistle'

John Entwistle with his first wife, Alison Wise, in 1967.
John Entwistle with his first wife, Alison Wise, in 1967. (Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

According to John Entwistle biographer Paul Rees, at Woodstock the Who became "the archetypal rock band." Rolling Stones and Beatles partisans may take issue with that, but it would be harder to argue that Entwistle — who at Woodstock, in Rees's description, was "rigid, implacable, ink-black hair against a brilliant white jacket, their still, mooring point" — wasn't the archetypal rock bassist.

Entwistle more than pulled his own musical weight in the Who; the bassist couldn't stand the band's early cover of "Love Me Do" because the Beatles' harmonica was out of tune and of course every cover version had to match that. A multi-instrumentalist, he not only embraced the challenge of writing parts for a horn section on Quadrophenia, he multitracked himself and played them all. On bass...well, there was a reason his nickname was "the Ox." He never slipped up, and rose to virtuoso brilliance when the opportunity presented itself, as it did on the band's breakout single, "My Generation": a bold solo that helped to define the band's sound.

Yet, he never threatened to steal the spotlight from singer Roger Daltrey or guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend, even though Entwistle was the band's only other songwriter of significance, penning Who standards including "Boris the Spider," "My Wife," and "Cousin Kevin." Even if you're a serious rock fan, you may not be aware that Entwistle had a solo career that included seven studio albums released from 1971-2000. None of them made much of an impact, and the subtitle of his own authorized biography refers to him as "the Who's John Entwistle."

In a band defined by its combativeness, Entwistle was a stabilizing force. He didn't take part in the frequent spats between Townshend and Daltrey, but his most significant contribution to the band's interpersonal relations may have been his close friendship with Keith Moon. Onstage, Entwistle took Moon's eccentric drumming style as a challenge; the fact that Moon was so flamboyantly offbeat made the bassist all the more important as the group's musical rock. Offstage, he and Moon were inseparable during the Who's prime years.

"Dad told me once how it was with the Who on the road," Entwistle's son Christopher told Rees. "Him and Keith would go off and cause trouble; Pete would go off and write songs; and Roger would be off shagging somebody. That was basically it."

The author's sources include not only Entwistle's son, but his two wives and, crucially, unpublished drafts and notes the artist himself made in 1990 for a memoir that he never finished. As part of that project, Entwistle wrote his own bio in the third person. "When asked to sum The Who up in one sentence, he said, 'The Who are to the rock industry what French films are to the movie industry: deep and full of messages. But what the f--k are they about?'"

Entwistle grew up in West London, picking up the bass guitar when he realized an early group needed a bassist more than it needed a horn player. He connected with classmates Townshend and Daltrey, finally forming an immortal musical unit when Moon joined the band in 1964. While Entwistle wasn't as rough on his instruments as Townshend or Moon (Rees notes that when Moon infamously detonated his kit on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the bassist "didn't so much as flinch"), he more than kept up with the musical mayhem as well as the backstage hijinks.

Moon died of a drug overdose in 1978, the victim at age 32 of a lifestyle that was manifestly unsustainable. Townshend sobered up after hitting rock bottom in the '80s, and Daltrey was always relatively restrained — when it came to substance abuse, if not when it came to verbal and physical abuse. Entwistle just kept right on partying, though. That was another reason for his nickname: he would take the stage with two plastic bottles filled with a cocktail of SoCo and brandy and never miss a note.

The Ox (buy now) easily rises to the level of definitive: if there are things to be understood about Entwistle's life and art that aren't clear from this book, they may never be clear. He was content to be the quiet one, even if he rankled at being regarded as such and wrote a song about it for the Who's 1981 Face Dances. Moon was the prankster, but, we learn, it was often Entwistle who inspired his shenanigans.

In a long career full of wrecked hotel rooms, there was one occasion when Moon passed out in Entwistle's room after urinating on the wall; Entwistle took Moon's key, went and wrecked his room, and dragged the passed-out drummer back there. Moon, who'd dared himself to drink 19 margaritas, thought "'til the day that he died" he'd wrecked the room himself, the band's then-manager Bill Curbishley told Rees.

The bassist, who built his life around the Who, was by all accounts happiest when he was on the road. When the Who reunited in 1989 after several years off, the band's sound pro Bobby Pridden told Rees, "For John, it was like Christmas all over again after the wilderness years. Before they set off, he made up a tour survival kit and had it sent off to Bill. It had all kinds of things in it — English mustard, HP sauce, tea bags and a doctor's bag. Absolutely, he was happy."

Entwistle ultimately did succumb to his own excesses, dying in a Nevada hotel room in 2002, aged 57. In the book, Christopher Entwistle confirms the general consensus about how the bassist might have regarded the circumstances of his own demise. "Dad partied with some friends, did a line of coke, had sex with someone he knew, an exotic dancer, and never woke up. You know what? It wasn't the worst way to go."

The bassist was cremated, his ashes scattered on the grounds of a beloved Cotswolds estate that had to be sold to meet a tax bill. A few months later, News of the World reported that Entwistle's girlfriend was having a liaison with the vicar who'd conducted the funeral service. According to Christopher, "that was probably the only story to appear in the News of the World that was absolutely, 100 percent true."

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April 15: My Name Is Prince by Randee St. Nicholas (buy now)

April 22: All I Ever Wanted: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine (buy now)

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