What’s the best concert you ever saw? Tommy Can You Hear Me?

Author John Stover was a music fan in the Boston area.

We all have our desert island list of books and albums.  These are tangible things, things we save and hopefully might pass on to our kids.  (“What’s an album, Dad?”)  But what if you could go back in time and revisit the best concert you’ve ever seen?  What would it be?  Where were you?  How high were you?  Who were you with?  And Jesus, what the hell were you wearing? 

Seeing this question as more than mere cocktail chatter; part of a dangling conversation with a superficial sigh, I put this question to you.  What was the best concert you ever saw?   If it was truly that good, the answer should come right to mind.

For me, seeing The Who perform the rock opera Tommy while it was still on the charts was hands down, the best show I’ve ever seen.   It was a Tuesday night, May 13, 1969.  I was a student at Boston University and the show was right down the street at the Boston Tea Party on Lansdowne Street and man was I stoned.  I had taken some really good acid, just for this show.  Back in the day, we didn’t need “designated drivers.”  Pretty much, we just crashed wherever we landed. 

I had a friend who worked the door and he let us in before the usual crazy mixed crowd of hippies and straights, students and teachers, bikers and Brahmins, burn-outs and professionals.  Back then the Tea Party was all auditorium seating, in other words you sat on the floor, there were no seats.  Since we got in before the crowd we were able to grab one of the two poles in the place.  Sitting with our backs to the column, we got out the drugs and waited for The Who. 

Finally, when the place was packed, and smoke filled the air, out came John Entwistle, Keith Moon, my buddy hit me in the ribs and said, “Keith Moon man.” Then out came Roger Daltry and finally old windmill arms, Pete Townsend.  No sidemen, no studio guys, no backing tracks.  Just four guys playing some ass kicking rock ‘n roll.  

We were all there to see Tommy (He’s a pinball wizard.)   The band opened with I Can’t Explain, went right into Fortune Teller, Substitute and Happy Jack.  Finally the moment we were all waiting for came and the band played, “It’s a Boy (Mrs. Walker, it’s a Boy.)  No introduction, (as if that refrain would need to be introduced,) no banter, no jokes, no idle chatter. 

We all knew the album by heart, every song, every lick, every riff, and every vocal nuance.  In quick succession we heard 1921, Amazing Journey, Sparks and then my favorite the Sonny Boy Williamson song, Eyesight to the Blind.   I could hear, feel and even taste the music.  By now, everyone was on their feet.  The crowd went crazy as Peter played the stage, performing his classic windmill antics.  Entwistle played bass.  Later he would die from a cocaine overdose.  Keith, the crazy man, flung his sticks into the air.  He would be one of the first to die, oddly enough, from an overdose of a drug prescribed to combat alcoholism.   Daltry swung his mic like a bolo, as much to protect himself as to complete the rock star image, suede fringe flying.   My buddy got lost as the bouncers bossed the crowd back in a rage.  The place was pandemonium.   We pumped our fists and we lit our lighters and we took the night.  “Yeah, Tommy, we hear you.”

I couldn’t really tell you how that evening ended.   The band called for order and finally they completed their set.   We were all exhausted.  This was back when a concert was combat and we were all front line soldiers.   I remember them ending with encores of Summertime Blues and My Generation.  By now, we were all f, f, f, fading away.  The band ended the night with the Magic Bus.   “I want it, I want it…”

The crowd, exhausted now, spent, coming down, filed out, veterans of a true Rock ‘n Roll skirmish; a show we would carry with us for the rest of our lives.  We had seen greatness that night, we had heard history.  We had all seen The Who do Tommy, the Rock Opera, in its entirety and I even had a pole to lean against.  No doubt… this was greatest show I ever saw.

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