NPR logo Hope I Die Before I Get Old: When Should Death Break Up A Band?

Hope I Die Before I Get Old: When Should Death Break Up A Band?

I know that at least a few of you watched Super Bowl XLIV. I know that, because 106 million people watched yesterday's game, which makes it the most-watched telecast ever. Perhaps you tuned in to see if New Orleans might finally get its due — not just as a team, but as a city. Or maybe you wanted to see those crazy (pro-life, sexist, unadventurous and/or boring) advertisements for which companies paid a gazillion dollars. Lastly, a scant amount of you might have tuned in because The Who was playing the halftime show.

If you did watch Sunday's game, and you stayed put on the couch during halftime, then you would have seen The Who — or at least its two surviving members, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey — play an enervated, bordering-on-delusional medley of its greatest hits. Already performing as caricatures of their former selves ("Tommy" glasses: check; windmill: check, sort of), Townshend and Daltrey further sterilized the performance by playing in the center of a gargantuan replica, either of a Mod symbol or an LP. Nowhere near them were fans, so they really did look like a museum piece from afar, a middle-of-the-night TV ad for some golden-oldies CD collection that comes with toy versions of The Who playing atop a spinning LP. (Put it on your mantel!) The stage was lit up like a carnival ride and bursting with pyrotechnics, and not a single ounce of the fire or brightness was coming from the music. Relics, dusted off and propped up.

As far as I'm concerned, the soul of The Who is long gone. Yes, Townshend wrote most of the songs, but it was the rhythm section — Keith Moon and John Entwistle — who tore into his song's structures, making them gallop and hiccup and veer far and unexpectedly from the original destination. With only two members remaining, The Who is no more.

I suppose there can't be a formula for whether a band should continue after the death of an original member, so perhaps it's just a feeling. Countless bands ventured forth after the untimely deaths of one of their own. From The Rolling Stones to Lynyrd Skynyrd, from The Beach Boys to The B-52's to Metallica. For most bands, losing a lead singer seems to be the one deal-breaker (The Doors, Joy Division, Nirvana), though some bands work up a tribute show that features a variety of singers — such as Queen — which works, and is less crass than a full-time replacement.

I can understand some of these bands from the '60s and '70s not wanting to let a band member's drug overdose and obvious path to self-destruction stand in the way of future creativity and success. As they say, the show must go on. And maybe it was a relief to play with healthier, saner people. But two band members gone? More? Watching The Who play Sunday, I was pretty sure that even it no longer had the answer to its most pointed question: Who are you? And when you don't know that, then maybe it is time to finally let go.

Should bands break up after the loss of a band member? What bands have moved forward gracefully? And who would have been better off calling it quits?