A decimated band's decision to tour despite the tragic death of its bassist, John Entwistle, left many fans wondering...

From a distance, there’s not a huge difference between a stretch limo and a hearse. So you might’ve forgiven your mind for playing a trick on you if the line of luxury vehicles backed up outside the Hollywood Bowl on July 1 looked more like a funeral procession than preconcert gridlock. The limousines weren’t just headed for the first night of the Who’s summer concert tour; they were converging on the opening of a sort of itinerant wake.

Rock’s greatest bassist, John Entwistle, 57, had been found dead of apparent heart failure in his Las Vegas hotel room — at the Hard Rock, of all places — on June 27. He left survivors Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey in an unprecedented quandary, since never before had a key player in such a celebrated band died figuratively, much less literally, on the eve of a major tour. To gracefully bow out of their three-month, 23-city commitment, or not f-f-f-fade away? Many fans were delighted, and a fair number deeply disturbed, when news got out the next day that barring two postponed dates, the show would go on, with session stalwart Pino Palladino on bass. Manager Bill Curbishley even announced that Townshend and Daltrey ”view the tour as ‘a tribute to John.”’

Townshend was quick to issue a correction on his website. ”For my part I am not attempting to deliberately establish any sense of memorial or tribute to John,” the guitarist wrote. ”Unlike others I entirely respect…I don’t feel I know for certain that John would have wanted us to go on. I simply believe we have a duty to go on, to ourselves, ticket buyers, staff, promoters, big and little people…. I also want to help guide Roger and the rest of the band at this time, all of whom have been shaken by John’s death.” Soldiering on was for the stagehands’ dependent families; it was for promoter Clear Channel; it was for John; it was for JBL speakers (whose infomercial, taped at rehearsals and featuring Entwistle, opens the show); it was for the spirit of rock & roll, locked in mortal combat with the reaper; it was for a couple of middle-aged blokes who were far from the first to react to an old friend’s death by wanting to do something with their hands besides pick up a bottle.

Not everyone thought these were good enough reasons. At a Who film festival at L.A.’s American Cinematheque the day before the Bowl show, fan Michael Hartman said he’d seen every tour since ’69 but wouldn’t catch this one. ”It’s not giving enough reverence to the history of the band. Would U2 go on if Adam [Clayton] died?” he asked. There were reminders that Townshend had expressed regrets about not breaking up the Who after drummer Keith Moon’s similarly tragic death in 1978, and again about not having stopped the tour after the Cincinnati fan deaths of ’79. Would he be expressing similar misgivings in a few years?

Naturally, there was the question of what Entwistle — the obsessive road hog known as The Ox — would have wanted. But then, this was the guy who wrote ”Endless Vacation,” a song that hectors the Who about spending too much time off the road. ”I know he would have wanted them to go on,” says Jeff Stein, director of the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright. ”He would have been the last one standing in the Who. And often was.”