Like any music fan coming of age in the ‘70s, the Who loomed large--and loud--in my personal rock pantheon. I’d like to say it was because of Pete Townshend’s insightful, often-challenging songs, wed to his band’s aggressive, flamboyant musical prowess.

But that wouldn’t be one hundred percent true.

In fact, part of me was drawn to the Who for the same reason so many crowd the NASCAR circuit and hockey arenas or follow Britney Spears’ career: the ever-looming potential for sudden, spectacular carnage. By the time I was old enough to know there was more to Playboy than just intriguing reading, we’d already been baited by the Who’s mondo-destructo finale in Monterey Pop and an even more spectacular opening on The Smothers Brothers TV show. The latter found Keith Moon reportedly bribing a stage hand to load up his drum kit with levels of special effects explosive so potent that when it detonated at the end of “My Generation” it blew Moonie clean off the rostrum, heat-permed one side of Pete’s hair and allegedly caused another of the show’s guests, Bette Davis, to pass out cold in her dressing room.

I’m not sure it was proto-punk, but this sort of thing sure wasn’t happening with the Mamas and Papas.

There was something strangely gratifying about seeing grown men pummel, smash and immolate instruments kids could only dream of affording. A few years after Townshend had turned to playing cherry finish Gibson SGs for Woodstock, the Tommy tour, Live at Leeds and Who’s Next, I’d scrimped together a couple hundred dollars and bought one of my own. In retrospect, perhaps I was concerned there wouldn’t be any left: A website documents the onstage destruction of over two dozen SG Specials during the era. 

Unfortunately, I’d been too young to witness any of it first-hand. But that would change in 1973, when the band came to play L.A.'s Forum in support of Quadrophenia.

On the day the box office opened, a few of us loaded into the car and headed out well before daybreak to secure the precious tickets we’d waited so long for. Unfortunately, 12,000 other fans had hit upon the same brilliant idea before we did. The Forum held 17,000+, and we guessed that everyone in the long line snaking through the darkened parking lot was going to buy at least two tickets. We did the math and went home.

But this was also an era when ticket brokers didn’t necessarily fly the Jolly Roger over their doors, and a few days later a modest mark-up secured two pair of good loge seats. The show was on Thursday night, November 22, 1973, the tenth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. It was also Thanksgiving; turkey and stuffing for dinner, with the Who for dessert.

And rain. Torrential, driving rain, the kind that can fall in sunny Southern California for days on end during winter storm season. Riding shotgun with the windshield wipers of my friend’s trusty VW bug squeaking out a rhythm to the FM fare of the day, we creaked up traffic-choked Manchester Blvd. at a snails pace, while soaked, scraggly-haired fans scurried past on the sidewalks.

Suddenly a limousine bullied its way around the car behind us, pushing determinedly to squeeze between us and the cars parked on the right. My friend uttered a few choice words in their direction – until the smoked-out back window of the limo slid down and out popped the familiar face of Keith Moon, mugging maniacally as he gave us a frantic wave. Moonie was typically running late for the show, and we were in his way.

We finally gave up on traffic, paid an off-site parking scalper his due, and jogged the last three blocks to the Forum in the midst of a cloudburst. At the corner of Manchester and Prairie, The Forum’s sign beckoned “THE WHO TONIGHT,” while a few hearty Krishna’s in soggy saffron robes offered chunks of free cake to the fans streaming past. Only mixed with the driving rain, the concoction had reverted to batter form, which ran through the fingers of the enlightened as quickly as they could scoop it out of the pans, which were rapidly filling with water. Thanks, but no, thanks.

We took our seats just in time to catch the first song by the opening act, a Southern-fried rock act who looked like they’d already put in a sweaty day’s work in some piney backwoods. They had a weird name – even weirder considering no one in the band was even named Leonard Skinnerd – or, as they spelled it, Lynyrd Skynyrd. But they were surprinsingly good, a Les Paul-wieding juggernaut that largely won over a soaked, impatient L.A. audience that could be notoriously rough on opening acts. Even more remarkable, not a single soul screamed for the show-stopping “Free Bird,” which they obliged us with anyway. Who knew?

The Who came on fashionably late, immediately plowing into a thundering opening salvo of early hits that included “I Can’t Explain,” “Summertime Blues” and the obligatory “My Generation,” ‘60s fodder that seemed quaint enough to be ironic in the bold new world of ‘70s rock. Pete had since traded his trusty, devil-horned SG Specials for a battery of various Les Paul Deluxes, many emblazoned with a large numeral near the tailpiece. I felt a small pang of disappointment; while I’d long ago come to appreciate the Who for far more than their violent stage antics, part of me still wanted to see something get smashed, and the likelihood of Pete desecrating a cherished Les Paul seemed remote.

The band ripped through the Quadrophenia songs with a savagery that belied the album’s complex psychological underpinnings, with Townshend’s power chords bouncing around the four speaker towers that were an early attempt at bringing the then-de rigueur quad sound to a live venue. He windmilled frantically through “The Real Me” and jumped down “The Punk Meets the Godfather” like a maniac, while Daltrey whirled his mike, Moonie blasted away at his kit so hard he was bouncing off his throne half the time and the Ox steadfastly kept it all from slipping the bounds of gravity altogether. It was the most musically sophisticated I’d ever heard the Who perform, yet without sacrificing a milliwatt of their notorious stage energy.

The set concluded with a run of other seminal fare that included “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the obligatory medley from “Tommy” and a hypnotic “Magic Bus,” before concluding with one of their most emblematic, if underrated gems, “Naked Eye.” And then the stage fell silent as the band, drenched in their own sweat, waved wearily and disappeared into the wings. Pete hadn’t smashed a guitar, but given the transcendent balance of the performance, that was OK.

But then something unusual happened. The crowd remained on its feet cheering as the minutes ticked by. The house lights came on. The roadies started clearing the stage. The PA began to play some innocuous singer-songwriter to clear the building. But no one was leaving and the cheering just grew louder. An announcer broke the news: the band wasn’t coming back and would you kindly exit. Now the stomping began, and the screaming took on an even more ominous, insistent edge. It seemed like 20 minutes of this went by while frantic roadies gave each other worried looks. Then the lights went out again -- already halfway out the door, the Who had decided to give the audience what it wanted -- and then some.

Launching into a ragged cover of Marvin Gaye’s R&B chestnut “Baby Don’t You Do It” that echoed the band’s Mod roots, the Who reached another unlikely crescendo of thundering rhythm, punctuated by Pete’s manic, angular riffs. Townshend was getting visibly worked up now, maybe even angry as the song drew to a close. Suddenly he slipped the Les Paul off his shoulder, gripped it near the nut with both hands and gave it his best swinging cut, crunching the solid body into his mike stand and launching the microphone off the stage. Giving it a few more piledriver moves to the floor for good measure, he discarded the axe’s shattered remains and staggered offstage again with his bandmates for good. The audience, seemingly as exhausted as the band, would scream no more.