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The Who Rock at 52, Plus Some Encouraging Thoughts about Conservatism

Fifty-two years ago next week, Barry Goldwater won the California presidential primary, which would basically clinch him the GOP nomination and give birth to the era of conservative dominance in Republican politics. Four months earlier, in February 1964, another auspicious birth had taken place: A handful of young men in London formed a band called “The Who.”

Between these two births, yet another took place: mine, on May 25, 1964. So it was partly in celebration of my 52nd birthday, last night, that I found myself at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, listening to this band formed 52 years ago. It was, to put it bluntly, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been privileged to attend: Original band members Pete Townshend, 71, and Roger Daltrey, 72, accompanied on drums by Zac Starkey (son of the legendary Ringo Starr), performed with great vigor more than two hours of classic material. About an hour and 45 minutes in, I thought Daltrey seemed to be tiring; he asked people in the front of the audience to stop smoking pot, because he is allergic and he worried that it was affecting his voice. He recovered quickly; and his performance of the concert’s very last song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” was among the most powerful of the evening.

It was heartening to see these senior citizens, even after seven decades of especially hard rock-star living, playing with both talent and high energy before a packed stadium full of people of all ages. In a culture that favors the new, we do well to remember the gifts of the old, and what we can learn from them.

It was a little chastening, too, to think of what has happened to the conservative political movement that also had a breakthrough year in 1964: At the moment, it does not look quite as hale as Messrs. Townshend and Daltrey did on the stage last night.

But an analogy suggests itself, as analogies tend to do to those of us who are getting on in years, and I find the analogy encouraging. In November 1964, the conservative movement was dealt a stinging, humiliating, thumping, across-the-board defeat by a crude, macho boor with centrist political views. The exact same thing, it is all too clear, has happened to conservatives this year, in the GOP primaries. But conservatism quickly became ascendant after 1964 — not because of great TV ads or breakthroughs in campaign technology, but because people felt the need for conservative ideas: most important among them, free markets and free trade. The GOP is, at the moment, in the hands of people who use “globalism” as a scare word. But when an antagonistic attitude toward the world – “America First,” which translates into “America versus the world” as opposed to “America leading the world” — fails to bring prosperity, conservatism will need to come back and pick up the pieces. Whether that conservatism is in the Republican party, or in the Democratic party, or in some party yet unknown, is unknowable but also irrelevant. The ideas will be out there.

And who knows? These ideas might even make a comeback as early as January 2017, when either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be sworn in as president. Remember, Hillary Clinton’s husband was responsible for the NAFTA free-trade deal; and Donald Trump told Chris Matthews back in 1998 that the Clinton 1990s – that would be the Bill Clinton, NAFTA 1990s – were “really much better” than even the Reagan 1980s. Yes, it is probably too much to hope that the anti-“globalism” scare talk is just boob bait for the election. But it is encouraging to know that both of the candidates this year know, or at least knew, better than the stuff they’re saying now.

PS. Speaking of ideas that persist despite being consciously rejected: Notice how much Christian imagery there is in the last few minutes of the Who’s rock opera Tommy (1975) – and in the rest of that film, for that matter. “Listening to You” happens to be my favorite Who song, and the fellas did a great job with it last night. In the film version, Tommy has rejected his parents’ materialistic values (which have gone up in infernal flames), undergoes a baptism in running water, and then ascends a purgatorial mount to, finally, face the sunrise of rebirth. Director Ken Russell often went too far, in my view, in the direction of bad taste, but he did a great job with Tommy.

PPS. And speaking of learning from past generations, the opening band tonight, Slydigs (from Warrington, U.K.), had a sound that was fully modern but very much in the tradition of classic rock. I was impressed and hope to hear more of their work.

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