Des McAnuff on Daltrey & Townshend

Stage vet talks about Kennedy Center honorees

In the 1980s, cousins of a close friend of mine climbed the water tower of a Long Island town under the shroud of darkness to emblazon the name of their favorite rock band in 20-foot fluorescent letters — “The Who.” When they dropped back to the ground, they realized they had somehow, in the ultimate slacker achievement, managed to actually misspell a three-letter word. For the next decade in Huntington Bay loomed the ominous name “The Woh” above puzzled onlookers.

But in their own peculiar way, the cousins captured the absolute energy of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest groups. For the Who managed to embody the essence of what a generation desperately wanted to project. They were the ultimate rebels.

Through Roger Daltrey’s stuttering “Why don’t you all just f-f-fade away” to the instrument-smashing Dionysian frenzies that traditionally ended Who concerts, there was always something about their relentless, unapologetic idealism that seemed more American than English. And their fanbase reflected that, dominated by frustrated American boys. The Who was a vanguard for the causes that brought rock fans together: civil rights, the antiwar movement and a pervasive mistrust of authority, which is as American as the electric guitar. In “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Roger’s spine-wrenching scream cries out against all repressive regimes in an expression of dissent that brought harsh criticism from the intellectual left (formerly the Who’s champions) against songwriter Pete Townshend. But the Who’s rebellion disregarded all membership cards.

In Townshend’s greatest compositional masterpiece, “Tommy,” he created a perfect vehicle for the uber-rock band with his own guitar, Daltrey’s virtuosic voice, the numbing velocity of Keith Moon’s drums and John Entwistle’s eerily melodic bass — but he also found the way of telling the story of rock ‘n’ roll itself. With a pinball machine serving as a metaphor for the electric guitar, Townshend traced the story of his generation from the roots of the Second World War through the turbulent upheaval of the 1960s. As our inhouse critic Chad Sylvain pointed out when we mounted “The Who’s Tommy” on Broadway 25 years after it was written, if Holden Caulfield rejected adulthood as we recognize it in “The Catcher in the Rye,” Tommy, by turning off his senses, rejected life itself.

Tommy is the antihero ground zero, where west meets east, the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll rebel. Through new-wave and grunge and contemporary slacker rock, they won’t die and they won’t grow old. Long live the Who — however you spell it.

Des McAnuff won a 1993 Tony for directing “The Who’s Tommy” and a 2006 Tony for directing “Jersey Boys,” which currently is being performed on Broadway and on tour.

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