I remember the night clearly: I was 12, had just started listening to the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys as 12-year-olds do, and had utterly confused my dad in the process.
“What,” he asked, in the living room after dinner, “do you like about this music?”
I wasn't about to say the lyrics, which fed into my inexperienced fascination with political and cultural subversion. I dithered. “Oh, you know,” I told my dad, lamely. “The loud guitars and crashing cymbals. The energy.”
He paused, thought for a second, and then uttered seven words that changed our relationship forever.
“I've got a record you might like.”
He went to the shelf and slowly slid out what looked like a plain brown album. He dropped the needle. And there I sat for the next half hour with my dad, in 1987, in our living room with its 10-inch Sony TV and brown carpet and upright piano, taking in a primordial sound like nothing I'd heard before.
The songs were defiant, full of yearning and rage. The music thundered with a gale force, rumbling like a train in danger of careening off its tracks. It was a sound that repeatedly refused to die, some songs ending and then starting up again three or four separate times.
The Who's Live at Leeds had entered my life. My dad knew something I didn't, and I vowed to figure out what it was.
In 2016, when the organizers of Coachella announced Desert Trip, a three-day festival with the Who, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Roger Waters, two things happened. It was instantly dubbed “Oldchella” by the music press. Also, I knew I had to go, and that I had to bring my dad.
The night of listening to Live at Leeds was no grand musical reconciliation, mind you. Up until I left home (early, at age 16), I still cautiously closed my bedroom door when I listened to any music that could be construed as a problem: Nomeansno, D.R.I., Christ on Parade, the Subhumans, Dayglo Abortions, Born Against. We were, at the time, a Mormon household. I'd sat through maddening lectures at Mormon boys' camp by high-ranking apostles about the evils of punk and hardcore, confounded at their misunderstanding of this music that had given me so much positive energy and inspiration. I assumed my parents felt it was evil too. When there was a knock at my bedroom door, I'd always lift the needle or pause the tape before opening it.
There was other trouble. My grades dipped. My mom and dad scraped together the money to send me to a Catholic school, where, with a wealthy student population, there were more drugs and booze than ever. I snuck out of the house to go to shows. I stole copies from the local Kinko's to make my zine about how much I hated high school. I had questionable relationships and an even more questionable wardrobe. I felt perfectly normal and productive, and to this day I believe I was doing just fine in those years, but I also know my parents were worried sick over me.
Through it all—the screaming, the ultimatums, the day I packed a duffel bag and sneaked out, the years afterward of being broke and unhealthy, and slowly but dangerously finding my place in the world—my dad and I always had the Who. We could talk for hours about them. It was more than just the music. The Who represented, to me, the knowledge that no matter how distant we got from each other, we still had a connection.
I often joke that if you want me to understand something, you'll have to make it about records. I'm a parent now, so I know firsthand what it's like to love your child unconditionally. But in those trying years, long before I'd ever imagine being a father myself, the best way I understood my dad's unconditional love was this: We'll always have the Who.
A few months before the festival, I called him and asked if he'd be my +1 to Desert Trip. He said yes. We rented a car, booked a trailer in a mobile home park in the Palm Springs desert, and when the big weekend came, we started driving south on the father-son road trip of a lifetime.
“Here's where the road was filled with stopped cars,” my dad says, as we drive along Hwy. 580 near Altamont. “It was like a parking lot. Everybody just left their cars in the road and started walking.”
I guess I've been leaving out the fact that my dad has always been as rabid about music as me. Yes, my dad went to Altamont, the infamous free concert in 1969 headlined by the Rolling Stones. He frequented the Fillmore in high school, seeing the Dead, Janis, the Doors, the Animals and countless others. (He swears he never did drugs; I believe it.) He still has his ticket stubs, posters, handbills—including some that he passed out at school so he could get into shows for free.
He even once saw Elvis Presley, bringing along a slender brunette from his school who'd captured his attention. On the way back, they parked at the vista point north of the Golden Gate Bridge and, with the lights of San Francisco twinkling through the fog and the fervor of “Love Me Tender” still lingering, he kissed her for the first time. When he proposed a year later, she said yes, and that's how he married my mom.
Once my sisters and I were born, the new responsibilities we brought didn't kill my dad's love of music. He still played bass in his band at local dances and pizza parlors. He still bought records on a weekly basis. He worked construction from dawn 'til 5pm or 6pm to support his family, so he didn't get out as much, though I do have distinct childhood memories of waiting with him at Ticketron kiosks and BASS outlets to buy concert tickets. He installed new speakers and premium cassette decks in all our cars, and pretended not to love it when my mom would crank the volume up to 10, and sing out the car window at the top of her lungs.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. My dad also went to Altamont.
The actual concert site of Altamont doesn't look like anything from the freeway now, and as we drive past it, I relish my dad's retelling of that day's events. He and a buddy took a Greyhound, he tells me, from Santa Rosa to San Francisco; they transferred to a bus toward Livermore, and then hitchhiked with strangers into the concert. The bands were distant, the sound was bad. He didn't pick up on the festival's bad vibes, let alone witness what came to be the defining moment of Altamont: the stabbing and beating to death of Meredith Hunter, a black 18-year-old fan, by the Hell's Angels.
Instead, after the Rolling Stones finished, he hitchhiked back to Livermore in the back of a pickup truck driven by a likely very drunk and/or high teenager doing 80mph on bumpy dirt backroads, bussed back to San Francisco and then Santa Rosa, and got home at 4:30 in the morning.
Hearing this story now, on the way to Southern California, my mind is blown. I knew he'd gone to Altamont. But hitchhiking? Riding with drunk drivers? Coming home at 4:30am? These are details of the story he'd conveniently left out when I was younger—and, truth be told, secretly doing all of those same things myself.
The rest of the drive toward Oldchella is filled with similar stories. We reminisce about the time in 1989 that our family went to see Paul McCartney at UC Berkeley's Memorial Stadium. We talk about the several times he took my mom to see the Stones, the ticket prices getting higher and higher each time until it was untenable to keep seeing them.
In the 10 years since my mom died, my dad and I have gotten closer. We've gone on other journeys together: a week-long baseball trip of stadiums on the east coast; a trip to the Masters golf tournament in Georgia. We've seen a lot of music together. But being in a car with nothing to see for miles has a way of opening up conversation. It goes beyond talking about music, or telling stories, or confirming memories; you can think more deeply about what all of these things actually mean, and how they affect your life.
For example, somewhere along the endless, unchanging stretch of I-5, he tells me again about seeing the Who, at the Cow Palace in 1967. Their out-of-place appearance on a lineup with the Association and the Everly Brothers was part of a “new generation” showcase sponsored by White Front department stores. They played six songs, destroyed their equipment, and left. My dad was amazed. It would be the only time he'd see the Who—until this weekend, now, almost 50 years later.
Whenever he retells how the Who smashed their instruments that night at the Cow Palace, my dad never fails to mention the role played by bassist John Entwistle. While Roger Daltrey swung his microphone around by its cord; while Pete Townshend obliterated his guitar and thrust it through the speakers of his Vox amplifier; while Keith Moon upended his drums off their riser, throwing them all over the stage—amidst this post-musical anarchy there stood Entwistle, nicknamed “The Ox,” stoic and unmoved, still playing the bass.
“He was like a rock, just this anchor for all the chaos going on around him,” my dad says, still awestruck. “No matter what happened, he stayed with the song. He was the glue.”
My dad has never made the obvious connection here, but growing up, we gave him a lot of tumult to deal with. We threw our teenage drama and emotional upheaval and reckless actions and stupid anger at each other—me, my sisters, my mom, all of us. All it took was a few words from my dad to remind us what was important. Even after my mom was killed in the car crash, when we were all utterly destroyed, when he of all people should have been destroyed the most, he kept us rooted. He was our ox. Our John Entwistle.
When we finally get to Desert Trip and ride the Ferris wheel for a bird's-eye view of where we'll spend the next three evenings, we realize that the festival grounds are huge. My dad, who's either worked on or led construction crews all of his adult life, can't help but hypothesize about the logistics of putting on something this size. “This is like a city! How long did it take them to set everything up?” he asks. “How many people do you think are working here? How much money do you think this place makes every day?”
I have no clue, honestly. As we make our way to watch Bob Dylan, I'm busy thinking about my dad's old boxes of 45s.
I first found them when I was eight, maybe nine. The two avocado-green boxes were falling apart. The lids had come off their hinges years ago; masking tape from the tool drawer in my dad's construction van held the corners together. But for me, those two boxes contained the whole world. Records by the Beatles, the Vanilla Fudge, the Count Five, the Stones, the Small Faces, Hendrix. I could randomly pull out any 45 and be hit with either a seminal '60s anthem the world knew by heart but I'd not yet heard, or an obscure garage-rock gem that would feed my burgeoning music nerd-dom. I'd sit with those boxes at our living-room record player for hours, and let my imagination run wild.
To a curious young kid, those boxes held creativity, wild abandon, freedom. They also held no records at all by Bob Dylan.
I own dozens of Dylan albums now, but my dad had just one when I was growing up: Hugo Montenegro's Dawn of Dylan, a schlocky orchestral LP of Dylan songs, filed on his shelf between the Doors and the Eagles. I don't know how he wound up with it. “I could never stand his voice,” he'd told me when I was 13, and had asked him why he didn't have any others. Fair enough.
At the festival, we find our seats for Dylan, who's been in the news for the past day as a "voice of a generation" for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ironically, on this road trip, he's not someone my dad and I can really bond over. When I was 16, partly out of concession to my fandom and partly just to tick off the box, he bought tickets for the family to see Bob Dylan in Santa Rosa. I'm pretty sure he hated it. My mom definitely hated it. (Years later, I would even have the chance to talk with Tom Waits about being at this show, and even he hated it. It was a bad era for Dylan.)
But as baffled as I was that evening in 1992—by his drastic rearrangements, and reptilian voice—I was also intrigued. Now, 25 years later in the stands at Desert Trip, that same wonder comes back as Dylan takes the stage and plays song after song, resurrecting vignettes from my life: The time I played “Don't Think Twice, It's Alright” on the guitar in class after breaking up with my first major girlfriend, who'd introduced me to Bob Dylan. How every line of “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” directly correlated to a moment in our relationship. How we both hated “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” and “Highway 61 Revisited.”
How I took time off from Dylan, but discovered Blood on the Tracks at age 22 while living in a garage and playing “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” How I once dated a girl who loved Barry Manilow and only knew “To Make You Feel My Love” because Garth Brooks had covered it. How I used to close the record store I worked at by putting on “Desolation Row” at 4:50pm, every single shift, eventually listening to it hundreds of times. How, the night before moving into the house my wife and I have now lived in for 14 years, I set up the stereo in the empty living room alone and played Time Out of Mind, with “Love Sick” reverberating off the walls and hardwood floors, an eerie welcome to a new home.
The morning of the Nobel Prize announcement, I'd woken up to a storm of denigrating, snarky comments on Twitter, mostly from people younger than me. I know that for my age, I have a higher-than-average attachment to Dylan, but I truly couldn't understand it. Wasn't Dylan, like, unilaterally recognized as a songwriting titan? How could anyone feel resentful about him winning an award?
Ah, but then. I remembered. The same impulse is in me, too, just a slightly different strain. It's always been there, this nagging thing that I've wrestled with for years. I don't know if it has a name, but these are the words I blurt out when it consumes me:
I hate the stupid Baby Boomer generation.
Here is where I clarify that I don't actually hate the Baby Boomer generation.
But anyone who grew up in the shadow of the Boomers knows this feeling. It's simple math: in the '80s, the Baby Boomers took up a lot of space. Their huge, unprecedented population was both the coveted demographic for advertisers, and in charge of doing the advertising. They made the decisions that shaped mainstream culture at large in the Reagan era.
You remember, probably, how this affected music. Sixties bands had big comebacks as pop stars. The Moody Blues had “Wildest Dreams.” The Grateful Dead had “Touch of Grey.” Starship, the neon-wearing, synthesizer-playing, hairspray-laden '80s incarnation of Jefferson Airplane, had “We Built This City.”
Meanwhile, acts like the Replacements and the Smiths were making some of the most important and interesting rock music in the world, to say nothing of the many boundary-pushing punk and independent-label bands (let alone hip-hop, then blossoming as an art). But with Boomers in charge at radio, working A&R at labels, and—let's be real—fueled by a cocaine self-importance, there was no room for these vibrant new artists in the mainstream. You'd turn on MTV and see Glenn Frey trying to go new wave, or Phil Collins crooning over electronic drums, all while incredible evolutions in modern rock and punk and rap were happening in America, not only unnoticed but completely shut out, relegated to low-watt college radio and fanzines and niche record stores.
Even after Nirvana broke, Boomers clung stridently to “their” music, insisting that Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were The All-Time Most Important Rock Institutions on Earth (see: every Rolling Stone list circa 1992-1999). I know this, because I worked at a record store for 14 years, and some days I felt like I was paid to have the same conversation about the Beatles over and over again all day long.
These days, not only have most of the Boomers aged out of positions of influence in the music industry, but the old channels for influence have been broken up, reclaimed by the internet, and placed in the hands of teens. That's how influence should work: from the bottom up.
For my formative years, though, when Boomers were in power? Influence was top-down. As a result, I can sing you the entirety of “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, and I'm not happy about it.
So the Rolling Stones play. They do their thing. They do it well. There are no surprises.
I can very vividly recall, as a kid, seeing the Rolling Stones' video for “Start Me Up” on our 10-inch Sony television. Watching it now is like a college course in the awkwardness of the then-nascent art form of the music video: it's really cringeworthy. But what I remember most from watching it when I was six is my mom in complete shock, shrieking quasi-hysterically to my dad: “They're so OLD! Look at them! Look at their grey hair!”
My dad was unmoved. “Well,” he replied, “we're old.”
They were 30.
Despite the many great Rolling Stones songs from my dad's 45 boxes, and the entire Their Satanic Majesties Request album rearranging my young brain, the Rolling Stones never gave me a reason to go see them live. With their abhorrently expensive ticket prices, I'd worn it as a badge of pride that I hadn't been suckered to one of their shows. But: if you really love the Stones, and you happen to have thousands of dollars you could light on fire with no fundamental impact on your life, then Mick Jagger will be happy to take your money.
Sometime during opener “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” I hear a guy near us loudly tell his friend, “I can't believe this! These guys are legends!” That's what the Stones are selling these days: brief, vicarious access to their “legend” status.
Meanwhile, I keep thinking that the Rolling Stones couldn't happen in today's world. For that matter, the entire British Invasion—built on the notion that American audiences had little to no access to their own country's blues music and, even if they had, would prefer it played by white people—couldn't happen in today's world. Look at what's happened to the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea in the internet era of outrage over cultural appropriation, and get back to me.
Or better yet: imagine Iggy Azalea 50 years from now, launching into “Fancy” in front of 80,000 people, all of them having forked over a whole paycheck to be in her presence. That's how surreal the Rolling Stones are to me in this moment.
A guitar lick starts the next song and knocks me out of my thoughts. I instantly go a little weak. It's “Tumblin' Dice,” and my dad has played this song dozens of times, and I can't help but feel transported. “Man, I love this song,” I shout to my dad.
He nods, smiling a big, carefree smile. He loves it too.
The next day, we leave our trailer and drive north to Pioneertown. We have no idea what's there, other than a tiny bar in the middle of nowhere called Pappy & Harriet's where Paul McCartney played a surprise show two nights before.
It turns out “in the middle of nowhere” isn't just a phrase. There's nothing for miles. Pioneertown is a old-west ghost town, built for Roy Rogers westerns, with fake wooden storefronts and scattered spitoons. Then, at the end of the dirt street, there's the place where a living Beatle performed for 300 people on a ramshackle stage no taller than a sidewalk curb.
We talk to a local woman; she tells us that prior to the show, McCartney and his band warmed up inside an empty building across the street marked “Likker Barn,” and that she and some others stood outside, ears to the wall, eavesdropping on rock 'n' roll royalty. Can you imagine?
This turns out to be one of several diversions on our trip, including a) seeing Frank Sinatra's gravesite, b) seeing Elvis Presley's honeymoon house, and c) seeing Tower of Power in concert. We spend the rest of the day driving through Joshua Tree National Forest, with a brief stop beforehand at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons died. (My wife and I fell in love listening to a lot of Gram Parsons, and eventually danced to his desolate, sad song “$1,000 Wedding” at our own $1,000 wedding. It feels nice to pay respects.)
Inside Joshua Tree, I survey the barren, eroded landscape and decide to play a hypnotic album by Stars of the Lid, essentially an indie new age duo. The soft music swells and fades, a strangely fitting soundtrack. My dad is surprised that I would even like such music.
I laugh. I tell him about the odd new age revival currently happening, and how loving noise acts like Yellow Swans and Merzbow led me to push further into the abstract, which led me to Kreng and Sylvain Chauveau and Jóhann Jóhannsson, and then to the music of Caretaker, which, like William Basinski's 'Disintegration Loops,' repeats fragments of old music until they're destroyed, and how, to me, Caretaker, Basinski and Stars of the Lid's cyclical repetition of destruction eerily mimics the centuries of nature's toil which created the rock formations around us in the desert.
“I am always so amazed at how much music you know about,” he says.
I laugh again. I'll say it here, for posterity: It all started with him.
Neil Young and Roger Waters are the two outliers on the festival, for me and my dad, at least. My dad had Harvest and After the Gold Rush when I began diving into his record collection, but they didn't do anything for me. Later, at 16, when grunge bands cited him as a godfather? I hated grunge, and if Neil Young was responsible for any of it, well, I held him in contempt.
It wasn't until years later, at about 21, that I heard Tonight's the Night and I understood Neil Young's thing. The emotional weariness, the ragged playing, the unadorned storytelling and intoxicated sadness—it still affects me.
Neil Young is great. He moves from piano to pump organ to guitar, to slowly building a whole band behind him, and he plays all the songs you'd want him to play. “Old Man” resonates on this trip with my dad, as does hearing “Harvest Moon” while an actual harvest moon rises behind the Polo Grounds' palm trees. But does it convert me into a Neil Young fanatic? No.
I'll get Roger Waters out of the way here, too—aside from one very stoned afternoon at a rich Catholic school kid's house listening to Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd has meant little to me and even less to my dad. I can't overestimate their sonic influence on sound production and engineering at large, but they were never my thing. Onstage, Waters leads a large crew of musicians, the world's greatest Pink Floyd cover band, in a greatest-hits set, and though the surround-sound effects are dazzling, your imagination can probably fill in the rest. If you've just read a billion words so far to get to the epic Pink Floyd section, I apologize.
That leaves McCartney and the Who. They both surprise me more than I could imagine.
When I was 10, I listened to the Beatles in the same way that others read the Bible. I listened and re-listened to their albums until I felt like I understood every musical parable being conveyed. I pored over every lyric like it was scripture, every chord structure like it was a commandment. I learned to play the songs on piano and guitar for others, a missionary spreading the gospel. I dove headlong into books about them, serving as theological sermons about the divine meaning of it all.
And then? After two immersive years, I graduated from Bible school. The Beatles were in my blood, a deeply imbued part of me that I could never extract. And hence, I didn't need to keep listening to them, or obsessing over them; in ways, I simply was them. I was ready for that which was built upon the solid rock of their foundation.
Not everyone graduated, I would learn. I try very hard not to be a snob or to denigrate others' musical preferences, but I really, really do not need to have another conversation about the greatness of the Beatles. Being a superfan of the Beatles is like decorating your apartment exclusively in Star Wars décor, or owning a kitchen full of "I ♥ Chocolate" accessories. The goodness of these things is so self-evident that to celebrate them openly and fanatically feels eerie and suspect: “Air! It's great! Everyone should breathe it!”
Nevertheless, I have hooked myself back up to the oxygen tank over the years. After seeing him in 1989 with the family, I saw McCartney again in 2014 at Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, an experience I loved perhaps even more. That's because after years of fighting with the world's unending worship of the Beatles and disavowing them in Joe Strummer-esque “phony Beatlemania” fashion, it felt good to make amends in person. To realize that I could still sing along with every single word, and be reminded of why they mattered to me.
Only one thing was missing. There was an important name on all those Beatles records I devoured at age 10, and it wasn't John, Paul, George or Ringo, or even George Martin: it was “Robert J. Meline,” followed by my dad's home address, “2717 Magowan Dr., Santa Rosa"—the house of his dad, a mailman and WWII veteran—written on the record sleeve in his unmistakable blocky handwriting. Watching McCartney play “Lady Madonna” and “Paperback Writer” and tell stories about Clapton and Hendrix and perform the entire finale of Abbey Road, I kept thinking, that night in Golden Gate Park, “I wish my dad were here.”
So here with him in Indio, the wish is finally coming true. McCartney comes out, strums the opening chord of “A Hard Day's Night,” and we're off: “Day Tripper,” “I've Just Seen a Face,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “And I Love Her.” He plays “Birthday” and “We Can Work It Out,” both songs my dad and I have played; he brings out Rihanna for “FourFiveSeconds” and Neil Young for “Why Don't We Do It In the Road?” and “A Day in the Life”; he even throws in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
But something is off. It's not the grand reunion of myself, Paul, and my dad that I'd built up in my mind. McCartney is stiff, telling the same exact stories he'd told the last time I saw him, and playing the same songs. May dad and I sing parts of songs here and there, but it's not... ecstatic. The rest of the people in our section sit down in their seats the whole time, and part of me doesn't blame them.
Ever since I first read the sermon on the mount in the Bible, I've imagined in my mind a specific scene, a specific mountain, and a specific crowd of people. And while McCartney plays, I realize the scene I've always had in mind for the sermon on the mount looks a lot like this concert, with one man in front of 80,000 people in a huge field. John Lennon once quipped that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. What if Jesus had lived to be 74? What if he returned to the mount for the 'Blessed Are The Meek Reunion Tour,' reciting the Beatitudes and other hits, for $399 plus convenience fees per ticket? How weird would that be? Is that what I'm witnessing with Paul McCartney?
Jesus had the right idea, long before “My Generation.” Now there's a guy who died before he got old.
The scream in “Won't Get Fooled Again” is the greatest rock and roll scream of all time.
This is wisdom imparted to me by my dad. This is also not up for debate. Many have tried to match the scream. All have failed. I have listened to upwards of 20,000 albums in my life, scouring along the way for a better scream like an archaeologist searching for the lost ark, and have come up empty-handed.
When I formed my first band, I demanded we cover “Won't Get Fooled Again” for the sole purpose of trying my hand at the scream. The closer I could get to Roger Daltrey's holy eruption, I surmised, the closer I would be to God. There are dusty videotapes in my dad's attic, containing the results. They are disastrous. When I was on tour constantly for the next seven years in other bands—playing bass, just like my dad, in fact playing the same 1972 Fender Jazz Bass that he handed down to me—I would warm up my voice by attempting the scream. To the backstage staff at venues all over America and Europe: I'm sorry.
So as my dad and I find our seats to watch the Who, I'm a little nervous. I want the Who to be great. I want this so I can be reassured that with age and the passing of time, relationships can retain their magic. This is the wholly asinine promise of nostalgia, and I openly admit that I fall for it. I need Daltrey and Pete Townshend to be alright so I'll know that me and my dad will be alright.
But mostly, I want the scream.
I know what you might be thinking. The Who is gonna play “My Generation,” right, and me and my dad will look at each other knowingly during the line “I hope I die before I get old,” silently acknowledging our age. We'll share a poignant understanding that despite our generation's differences we're all still human, all of us gathered here under the palm trees in a huge Polo field.
But “My Generation” comes and goes with scant notice, let alone fanfare, tucked within a barrage of the band's early hits, one after another. “I Can't Explain,” “The Seeker,” “The Kids are Alright,” “I Can See for Miles”—holy shit, this band's songs are so good—then songs from Who's Next, like “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Bargain.”
And then something happens. During “The Rock,” from Quadrophenia, scenes from 50 years of global upheaval are projected on the stage's enormous screens. The Paris shooting, the Great Recession, 9-11, Tiannamen Square, the L.A. riots, Nixon's resignation, the Iran hostage crisis, Chernobyl, John Lennon's death, and on and on and on. Much of the footage is from Vietnam. Lots and lots of Vietnam.
I can't ever know what it was like to live through Vietnam. I remember being eight, in 1983, and being pulled up by my mother to stand and applaud when a group of grizzled-looking Vietnam veterans walked in our hometown parade, and being told that they were heroes, and that people dumped buckets of sewage on them when they came home from the war, which was a terrible, stupid war, and for that reason, I should clap for them now. I did not know at such a young age what to make of these mixed messages—“applaud these good people who fought a bad war"—but I understood that Vietnam was a complicated thing.
It hits me, watching this montage, how a complicated thing like Vietnam would be so much different today. In 1968, there weren't cameras in everyone's pocket, and no ability to transmit information instantaneously, no social media. There were three TV channels and about as many magazines with resources enough to send journalists to the front lines. Today, everybody's story is told instantly, but the story during Vietnam was littered with gaps: censorship, spin, classified information, oversights, untold experiences, unspoken tragedies, and whole swaths of war experience ignored.
Rock 'n' roll filled in those gaps. It gave a voice to the disenfranchisement, the unrest, the disillusionment. It spoke not only for my dad—who nervously picked up a newspaper with the local draft lottery results one afternoon and returned home, relieved, when his number was high—but for millions of others who were drafted, or had loved ones who were. It certainly spoke for the hundreds of thousands who were wounded or killed.
Generation Xers and Millennials like to say they got a raw deal, and they're right. Baby Boomers took all the jobs, and then ruined the economy. There is nothing but a dismal future for young people right now.
But rock 'n' roll—or at least the kind of rock 'n' roll that told the untold story of the 1960s—also reminds us that the Boomers were literally sent off to die. For no good reason. For over a decade. Sent to war by their own parents, the “greatest generation.” We have student-loan debt. They had body bags.
That's an oversimplification, I know. But I'm here watching the Who just trying to have a good time with my dad, and next thing I know I'm making peace with my entire disdain and resentment for an imaginary culture war between generations that in reality doesn't exist.
Just as all this love is reigning over me, the band plays the opening notes of the next song, "Love Reign O'er Me," and it's so ridiculously perfect, and the chorus so majestic, that I get tiny goosebumps all over. Later, during "Baba O'Riley," Daltrey sings the words "Let's get together before we get much older," and the sentiment fills me with gratitude for my dad and I deciding to take this four-day road trip together, now, before we get much older.
And of course, the Who ends their set with "Won't Get Fooled Again."
At this point—after heavy realizations about age, the passing of time, political upheaval, generational empathy—the scream is almost an afterthought. But during the long synthesizer break right before the scream, my hands are twitching. I even hold them up to my dad: "I'm worried!" I say, nervously. "What if it sucks?!"
The drum fill starts. The high synthesizer notes ring out. The stage lights pulse as the whole thing builds.
AND THE SCREAM IS AWESOME.
By which I mean that the scream ricochets around the entire field, up to the skies, and in that moment it feels like it covers the entire world. Daltrey is writhing and Townshend is sliding on his knees across the stage and me and my dad are just so, so giddy and bonkers with stupid excitement, and we can't stop grinning like 12-year-olds, a father and his son filled with crazy elation for hours afterwards.
And I can't stop repeating a still, quiet mantra in my head:
The scream is awesome. Rock 'n' roll is transcendent. My dad is here. Everything's gonna be alright.