CULTURAL BITS: “When I Was A Boy,” by John Entwistle and The Who.


John Entwistle (1944 – 2002) played bass guitar for The Who, but “Thunderfingers” was much more than just one-half of the band’s rhythm section. Entwistle was a multi-instrumentalist who could sing and write his own songs. His contributions to The Who’s overall sound may not seem apparent at first, but guitarist (and musical mastermind) Pete Townshend understood quite well.

John’s bass sound was like a Messiaen organ. Every note, every harmonic in the sky. When he passed away and I did the first few shows without him, with Pino [Palladino] on bass, he was playing without all that stuff … I said, “Wow, I have a job.”

A quick primer.

As for Enwistle’s songwriting, a dry and often black humor was his specialty.

“My Wife” perhaps is best known, with “Boris the Spider” coming next. There’s also “Whiskey Man” from the band’s earlier days. They’re wonderful, and there also are dark horses like “Heaven and Hell,” a non-album track at one time featured in The Who’s live shows; “Success Story” from The Who By Numbers, a wry tale of rock and roll religion; and the science fiction saga of “905,” which is a highlight of Who Are You, the band’s final album with Keith Moon.

One I particularly enjoy is another non-album track, “When I Was A Boy,” which borrows just a bit of inspiration from the verse in Corinthians:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Entwistle’s song begins accordingly.

When I was a baby I hadn’t a care in the world,
But now I’m a man, my troubles fill my head,
When I was five it was good to be alive,
But now I’m a man, I wish that I were dead.

And later:

When I was a boy I had the mind of a boy,
But now I’m a man, ain’t got no mind at all,
When I was in my teens I had my share of dreams,
But now I’m a man, ain’t got no dreams at all.

The chorus arrives at the point.

My how time rushes by
The moment you’re born you start to die
Time waits for no man
And your life’s spent, it’s over before you begin

Or maybe those aren’t the actual words in the last line, even if they’re frequently reported as such. What I hear is this:

“And your lifespan is over before it begins,” or even better, “And your lifespan is over before it began.”

Any way you cut it, it’s a downer of a song calculated to step all over your buzz — and the older I become, the more I can relate to it. At 59, I’ve outlived “The Ox” by 20 months … but it’s all downhill from here.

As comedian Rodney Dangerfield said, “At my age, if I don’t drink, don’t smoke, and eat only certain foods, what can I look forward to? From this point on, if I take excellent care of myself — I’ll get very sick and die.”

Entwistle didn’t wait for old age. He left behind one hell of a legacy, though.

“When I Was a Boy”: Adulthood Stinks